Behind the Great Oz’s Curtain

Posted: September 11, 2012 in Politics
Tags: ,

Over the past few days we’ve been given a few key illustrations as to how much the Communist Party intends to reform – and seen approximately what decade they think they’re living in.

China’s president-in-waiting Xi Jinping has been MIA since September 1st. In typical Communist Party fashion, the government is pretending like nothing is amiss.  Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said, “We have told everybody everything” – which of course means they’ve told nobody anything.

The Chinese government also recently asked that a Taiwan/Tibet Independence symbol be taken down…in Oregon. The Chinese consulate in San Francisco asked the Corvallis local government to force a Taiwanese-American to take down the mural he’d painted. It would have otherwise been shrugged off by the handful of people that happened to drive past it. Instead, the Chinese government has made yet another cringe-worthy soft power fail.

Both cases show the CCP’s go-to response for unpalatable events: Suppression. It’s hardly changed throughout its 63 year tenure.

It’s wholly delusional about the time it lives in now though – a time where a hefty hunk of the world’s population holds in their pockets the ability to take photos and video and then spread them and whatever other information they wish for the world to see. After a steady stream of unsuccessful attempts at covering up damaging events over the past few years, the CCP still hasn’t learned that sometimes transparency is in its own interest.

Take Xi Jinping’s mysterious absence. 10 years ago if anyone in the public happened to notice, they’d hardly have the capability to inform others. Suppression made sense. But today we all know something is up. And by trying to keep the lid on it completely, the government is egging on absurd rumors that are much worse than whatever it is they’re trying to hide. (Could whatever actually happened really be any worse than rumors of a double assassination attempt by Bo Xilai loyalists?)

In trying to hide things that are already partially or completely public knowledge, the party is highlighting its own insecurity and weakness, which is never good for authoritarian rulers.

10 years ago if I tried to spread pictures of a forced abortion or take part in a village uprising over illegal land grabs, I’d be disappeared and my family scared into silence. 99 times out of 100 nobody would ever be the wiser. The officials responsible and the greater system that enabled their actions would be left unscathed.

But in today’s world, the government – after trying vainly to cover them up – had to capitulate completely in cases like those of Feng Jianmei and Wukan. If I’m an activist in today’s China, I’m a lot less frightened to speak out against government injustices than I would have been even three years ago. If I protest and am hauled off, I know there’s a good chance somebody will catch it on video or can alert the weibosphere, ensuring my safety. The government’s attempts to hide these things used to be terrifying. Now they’re just pathetic.

For nearly the entirety of the CCP’s rule, it’s projected the image of an all-powerful monolith that’s not to be fucked with. Refusing to acknowledge that top leaders are encumbered by personal lives or bodily functions like the rest of us is part of this image. This probably explains the instinctive suppression of what could be no more than a back injury.

But today’s China is showing (much to the chagrin of the CCP) many of the features of a transparent democratic society where leaders must bend to the public will – even if it’s not in their own interest. They could jump on the inevitable wave of democratization, but officials who’ve enjoyed an elevated status in society for decades are loathe to do so. So we still see this instant inclination toward suppression.

I’m reminded of the scene in Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and her pals are confronted by the enormous “great and powerful Oz.” But they eventually discover that it’s just a weak man pulling levers as he pathetically implores the gang to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

When you peak behind the CCP curtain, it’s full of scared and vulnerable people, wondering what badly-needed moves toward transparency will mean for them and the way they’ve lived their lives.

 

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Comments
  1. FOARP says:

    “10 years ago if I tried to spread pictures of a forced abortion or take part in a village uprising over illegal land grabs, I’d be disappeared and my family scared into silence. “

    Hmmm . . . I think this may be putting things a little strongly. Ten years ago was right before SARS got started, which saw a tidal wave of rumours, often distributed through the internet, some supported by photos. The labour demonstrations in Guangdong (I forget the name of the village, but they were the ones that that Guardian reporter got sacked over) were seven years ago, and news of them spread through the internet as well. To name a very juicy scandal that was still making the rounds and being openly disucssed back in early 2003 when I first arrived in China, Jiang’s affair with Song Zuying was all over the internet such as it was.

    It would be true to say you’d be at risk of these things in 2002, but then you’re at risk of them now as well. I don’t think that much has changed except that others can propagate them at greater speed. Back in ’02 someone would put the information in a blog post and it would be linked to on various fora, nowadays you put the info or a link to it on Weibo, Twitter, or Facebook and it spreads much faster, not least because there are many, many more people on the internet spending more and more time there.

    Censorship is actually a lot tighter than it was in ’02, and the internet is taken much more seriously.In some ways, actually, you’re more at risk as the originator of information now than you were then, simply because it is more likely to come tot he attention of the authorities.

    “today’s China is showing (much to the chagrin of the CCP) many of the features of a transparent democratic society where leaders must bend to the public will – even if it’s not in their own interest. They could jump on the inevitable wave of democratization, but officials who’ve enjoyed an elevated status in society for decades are loathe to do so.”

    I don’t know. China seems to me to only show “the features of a transparent democratic society” to the extent that people complain about unpleasant news and the authorities may choose to respond to them, but this is something you see in many dictatorships. In the USSR plenty of people were aware of Brezhnev’s senility, and the illnesses of Andropov and Chernenko, but these were kept silent. Yeltsin’s rise was on a wave of ublic sentiment against corruption and in favour of Russia for the Russians.

    As a test of how things have changed, would you really say that the same decision-making process which gave China the Three Gorges Dam couldn’t be repeated now? I would not go this far. In fact the urge to ban discussion and blunder ahead regardless seems to be alive and well in today’s CCP.

  2. foarp says:

    Oh, and Godfree, if you want to make a comment, please don’t YET AGAIN quote the Pew poll as directly showing support for the government from the population as a whole, instead of showing that the majority of a section of the urban population approve of the direction the country is going in.

    • foarp says:

      Because, Godfree, the poll only surveyed a sample representative of a fraction of the urban population, and didn’t ask whether they were satisfied with the system of government they lived under, but only asked if they were happy with the direction the country was going in. Pew concede these limitations in their report, and explain that they are forced on them by government restrictions that prevent them from asking questions about actual satisfaction with the CCP and the PRC’s system of governance, and which restrict them to only sampling amongst a section of the urban population.

  3. foarp says:

    Arghh, where did my first comment go?

    OK – to recap:

    1) I think actually the situation in 2002 was not better for people spreading information on the internet. SARS, Song Zuying, the Guangdong labour protests, were all things I learned about via info on blogs back in early ’03 when I first arrived in Mainland China. Censorship was much less strict back then. It’s true you could be dissappeared or otherwise punished back then, but the same is true now.

    2) China is actually much the same as other dictatorships when it comes to leaders responding to the populace. The populace can get information from Weibo and these things spread more quickly, but people in the USSR and other dictatorships were able to find out similar things, and leaders were faced with the same range of choices.

  4. Shanghaier says:

    “Take Xi Jinping’s mysterious absence. 10 years ago if anyone in the public happened to notice, they’d hardly have the capability to inform others. Suppression made sense. But today we all know something is up.”

    So, what if Xi Jinping strained a muscle or whatever, and he shows up in a few days?

    • foarp says:

      Then it’s “Panic Over”. But it seems unlikely that that could be the explanation at this time, doesn’t it?

  5. kingtubby1 says:

    Xi will have to prove he is up to the job when he reappears, otherwise suspicions will remain. Obviously, swimming the Yangtze is out of the question.

    Arm-wrestling the Japanese PM

    A heavy duty and reported performance in the officially designated zhongnanhai pink room

    An onsite inspection of the next earthquake

  6. kingtubby1 says:

    Seriously Eric. Your grasp of social change and your Wizard of Oz metaphor are just not up to the job. There are two types of Party individuals behind the curtain. Opportunists without imagination, and opportunists with imagination and a game plan whenever the CCP top-town gig starts to crumble.

    Hiding behind your op piece is the assumption that the Party and its human instruments of governance somehow act on/a process of subjectification a blank slate population. This is a blog commonplace, since just about all western blog lords wish to distinguish between a so-called relatively innocent population of victims and that dark malevolent entity, the Party. An hypocrisy which should be acknowledged, but I can see that happening anytime in the near future, due to the rules of PC.

    This is a false distinction of the first order. Somehow politics and government can be separated away from history, culture and society. Lets be exact. The nature of Mainland politics and government – at whatever level, small village, country to province – are a summary of past and immediate history, social mores, ethics etc. The so-called victims don’t get a free pass. They are every bit a culpable as their so-called oppressors. Ways of thinking and doing reflect a greater shared culture and language heritage.

    Just as China today consists of connected winners and unconnected losers, the China of tomorrow won’t be so different. Forget western aspirations about democratic process and think about the Soviet experience and adjacent developments in the Caucuses.

    Opportunists with imagination will positions themselves without reference to the wishes of Beijing, build and strengthen their own networks, and importantly they will take total control of finances and (so-called) local law enforcement. Opportunists without imagination will be pushed aside, suborned and if pesky, whacked. Ukraine is also food for thought here.

    Bo Xilai is the precursor of the type of politics I’m envisioning. He was just a bit premature and presented an overly large target while the cookie cutter model of leadership was still hanging on.

  7. Godfree says:

    Next time you go for a blood test, insist that the nurse draw ALL your blood.

    It’s ridiculous to think that the lab can get any useful information from just a few milliliters of it.

    Even if the lab is acknowledged as the best on earth and have been analyzing samples for decades, make their sampling methodology public, take samples around the world, and nobody has ever questioned the integrity and accuracy of their results.

    I wouldn’t trust them either.

  8. kingtubby1 says:

    Crikey, Godfree. As Nancy said, “Just say no before your next comment”.

    Not another yankee doctorate from a minor institution. You can catch my thoughts on PD about such self-promotion. Wanker.

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