Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

In the lead up to the Tiananmen crackdown’s anniversary, there have been a lot of articles looking back on the event – some with new interesting angles, some just dusting off stories from five years ago. But in reading this stuff, I’ve noticed that some things tend to get overlooked or remembered in a skewed way.

I think oversimplified media coverage of the protests at the beginning plays a major role. Images of Tank Man and Democracy banners in the heart of Red China offered a narrative too appealing to complicate with the finer details. This list (which is admittedly also pretty simplified) is a reminder of some of those details that we tend to neglect about Tiananmen and its legacy.

1. The whole event was much messier than it looks in hindsight
In popular memory, the Tiananmen movement was a brave stand by Democracy-hungry youth against the tyrannical Communist Party; but the reality was a bit more complex. Since the late-70s, the Party had been touting Reform and Opening up, so as the 80s progressed, political discourse became more open and “safe.” But the “reform” being touted was vague. It was akin to an American politician running on a platform of “change.” “Yeah, great,” most people thought. Just about everyone can agree to that. But once you start dissecting exactly what “change” or “reform” means and how far it should go, opinions start to diverge pretty radically.

By the time 1989 rolled around, just about every social group in China wanted some sort of “change.” Some thought the reforms had gone too fast, others not fast enough. There was a widespread feeling that, in one way or another, many government leaders had dropped the ball and were corrupt to the point that they were holding China back. But there was really no coherent set of demands among protestors about how to address this; in fact many of their demands were contradictory.

Names now synonymous with the movement like Chai Ling and Wu’er Kaixi probably didn’t mean much to the average protestor. In a sea of people, their influence stretched about as far as the sounds from their bullhorns could reach. These “student leaders” went through their own power struggles and quickly factionalized. Whatever control they had over the movement was confined to very small pockets. There were too many divergent demands for anyone to exert any meaningful leadership.

As the Beijing spring went on, the Tiananmen protests became a major social event that was seen by the public as a patriotic continuation of the May 4th Movement. People from every point on the social ladder and political spectrum – most of whom weren’t otherwise politically active – joined in with the herd. Even uber-nationalist and Confucius Peace Prize founder Kong Qingdong jumped in on the festivities, if that tells you anything. People tend to think the movement was for “Democracy,” but that’s a gross oversimplification. There wasn’t even a clear definition of what “Democracy” meant. Is it direct national elections, or is it just greater transparency within the CCP?

Few actually wanted to overthrow the CCP and replace it completely. After all, the protests started with an outpouring of support for a fallen Communist leader, and many of the protestors were Communist Party members themselves. But ultimately, there wasn’t really any agreed upon message or motive for the movement – just that it was patriotic.

2. The movement was a blessing for the CCP
With everything the Communist Party does to erase Tiananmen from history, it seems odd to think that it was actually the movement’s greatest beneficiary. The divergent demands emerging in the late 80s left the Party increasingly challenged by the public with shrinking room to operate. When hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets for seven weeks without any coherent set of demands, it was the perfect excuse to clamp down and re-assert absolute control. It was especially convenient for the hardliner faction of the CCP and the likes of Li Peng. They were able to pin blame for the “chaos” on liberal opponents who’d taken a soft-line on student demonstrations. Extreme measures – like purging the very highest ranked Party official, Zhao Ziyang – can only be taken in extreme circumstances. Tiananmen provided exactly this. The Politburo was cleared of those pushing for aggressive political reform, and agitators among the public were silenced. The now conservative-controlled CCP enjoyed two decades of the greatest prosperity it had ever experienced.

3. Tiananmen had some very nationalistic roots
It’s become popular to compare young Chinese of today unfavorably to the Tiananmen youth. The latter erected the Goddess of Democracy to stare down Mao, while the former throws eggs at the Japanese Embassy. But blind xenophobia/nationalism and fierce criticism of the government aren’t at all mutually exclusive, and in fact, can be directly related. This has been the case in political uprisings from the Boxer Rebellion to the May 4th movement. In fact, xenophobic protests were one of the undercurrents that led straight to Tiananmen Square.

In December of 1988, two African students at Nanjing’s Hehai University wanted to bring Chinese girls into a school dance, but were rebuked by campus security. The exact facts are disputed, but some sort of large brawl between groups of Africans and Chinese broke out. False rumors spread that Chinese women had been raped or kidnapped and a Chinese man killed. In response, hundreds gathered outside the foreign student dorm clamoring for blood, but they were dispersed by police.

This was just the latest in a series of race-fueled conflicts at universities over the preceding decade, and it incensed Chinese students. They were kept under strict control, while foreign classmates had all sorts of special privileges. Now, these Africans were apparently getting away with murder and being protected by traitorous officials. It was an infuriating highlight of China’s weakness.

The story wasn’t true, but the issues it represented struck a nerve for the students who felt corruption and disrespect all around them. They wanted to stand up and defend their country’s dignity, but once again they were thwarted by bought-off officials and an unjust legal system. It was just as their ancestors had felt before May 4th, 1919.

Thousands hit the streets with chants like “Down with the black devils.” But slogans like “protect human rights” and calls for political and legal reform soon slipped in. News spread to Beijing and Shanghai, where local students piled on the “anti-African protests.” Then with the death of Hu Yaobang four months later, the volume of these calls was cranked up at Tiananmen Square. (link)

So when you see Chinese youth of today written off politically because of their “nationalist” tendencies, it’s worth asking how much nationalism really hedges against challenges to the CCP.

4. There are side-effects from the state-induced Tiananmen “amnesia”
The Tiananmen Square Massacre raises very unwelcome questions about the Communist Party’s legitimacy, so it’s no surprise that it’s tried (pretty successfully) to airbrush it from public memory. We now frequently see reports highlighting the ignorance or ambivalence of young Chinese toward the events, and it gives a pretty sad commentary on how the rebellious idealism of youth has ebbed. But that’s an old story. What’s becoming an increasingly interesting story is the other implication of that “amnesia.”

When the CCP decided to put down the protests, it could have done so with riot gear or rubber bullets. It instead opted for machine guns with live ammunition. The bloodbath that ensued was a message that this sort of dissent wouldn’t be tolerated again. For the following two decades, that message was received loud and clear. But what happens when the next generation is shielded from it?

It’s an exaggeration to say that young people today don’t know anything about 1989, but most are indeed pretty sketchy on the details. I’ve even talked to a few students who didn’t know why it happened, but assumed the protestors must have had it coming if the government saw fit to kill them. They don’t fully grasp how the CCP was willing to send in soldiers to indiscriminately massacre hundreds, perhaps thousands, when it felt its legitimacy was threatened. And most of those protestors didn’t even oppose the CCP; they simply challenged it to reform.

These days, it’s becoming apparent that the next generation of youth isn’t as scared of speaking out (so long as they avoid directly attacking the CCP’s legitimacy). We’ve seen a steady stream of environmental street protests, a large demonstration against censorship, and recently, a dozen college students uploaded pictures of themselves supporting jailed civil rights attorney Pu Zhiqiang. In all these cases, teenagers and 20-somethings have been front and center.

This is still a relatively small segment of Chinese youth, but it’s one that’s obviously growing. None of these things were happening a decade ago. There are of course more social factors in play here than 6/4 amnesia, but as the memory of Tiananmen drifts further away, so does the instinctive fear it was meant to instill.

On one of the first mornings after I’d just moved to China in 2007, I was awoken at 6am to People’s Liberation Army marching songs being belted out by university freshmen. When I walked outside, I was taken aback by the droves of students decked out in camouflage intently walking in lock stop – that is, before they saw me and broke out into giggles. Ever since then, I’ve been more intrigued by Junxun than just about anything else I’ve seen during my stay in China.

Junxun refers to the military training all Chinese university freshmen must go through when starting college. What’s intrigued me is how in many ways it seems to be a microcosm of how Chinese youth today both embrace and subconsciously resist the carrots and sticks that the Communist Party uses to keep their support.

Two years ago I did a feature for Foreign Policy on Junxun. After returning to Tsinghua again this year to take some pictures of the new “cadets,” I thought it’d be worth making a little video based more-or-less on that feature. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but I think if you get a feel for what goes on during Junxun, it makes it a bit easier to understand the wider relationship between the Communist Party and the “Post-90s Generation.”




Link (if the embed doesn’t work)

Will Zhou Stay or Will He Go?

Posted: September 1, 2013 in Politics
Tags: ,

For the last several days I’ve been keeping an eye on rumors that China’s former security czar Zhou Yongkang might be in the crosshairs of the anti-corruption authorities. If Zhou were charged, it Zhou Yongkangwould be BIG. Until last year, he was on the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) – China’s most powerful body – where current and former leaders have been safe for the past four decades.

Unreliable overseas Chinese rumor mills like Boxun have been reporting that Zhou’s downfall is imminent for more than a year-and-a-half, so I don’t tend to give much weight to these rumors. But now there’s good reason to suspect he really is in danger. He seems to be getting painted into a corner, as his allies are being placed under investigation for corruption one-by-one. It’s just been reported that Jiang Jiemin, head of the State Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) and previous chairman of the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), is on the chopping block. This is a very high official and a very close ally of Zhou’s. Before him several other officials from CNPC – China’s biggest oil producer – were placed under investigation.

I remain skeptical that Zhou himself will be taken down. The government is just beginning to breathe a sigh of relief now that the whole Bo Xilai affair is over. Taking down Zhou would be unprecedented and would risk stirring up the pot again. However, it would make sense in a lot of ways.

Xi Jinping has claimed he intends to go after both the “flies” and the “tigers” in his corruption crackdown. Contrary to what state media would have you believe with cases like Liu Zhijun and Bo Xilai, I would argue that a tiger has yet to fall. Bo Xilai was close, but he was a mere member of the 25-person Politburo. Its members have proven expendable for the past 15 years.

Taking down a former PBSC member though would be a strong signal that indeed nobody is above the law (that signal wouldn’t reflect reality, but that’s irrelevant). Xi and his campaign would be given serious legitimacy.

But more important, I think, is that taking down Zhou could actually have some practical effects. U.S. Embassy cables released by Wikileaks in 2010 appeared to confirm what many had long suspected: that some of China’s highest level leaders have extreme vested interests in certain monopoly industries. Li Peng’s family reportedly controls electricity, Wen Jiabao’s family the precious stones trade and Zhou Yongkang China’s oil monopoly (he used to head CNPC).

Xi Jinping has made it pretty clear that he has little intention of launching serious political reforms. In lieu of that, he appears to be pushing some fairly serious economic reforms. But even that’s fraught with landmines.

Serious economic reform requires breaking up, or at least dramatically overhauling these state-owned monopoly juggernauts that are controlled by some very powerful vested interests.  Going after any of these industries is politically risky, but now that Xi has more-or-less consolidated his power, Zhou and his oil cronies offer a good first target.

In March, after People’s Daily ran an attack piece on Apple called “Smash Apple’s Incomparable Arrogance” Caijing asked Chinese consumers in an online survey which arrogant company they’d like to smash. China’s big three oil companies were all voted among the top.

The big oil companies have been very slow to invest in cleaner technologies because they haven’t really had to. In practice, they’ve had more power than the Environmental Ministry that’s theoretically supposed to regulate them. This no doubt comes in part from the industry’s powerful patrons.

Many see the oil companies as largely responsible for the horrible air pollution in cities like Beijing. Indeed, more of Beijing’s local PM2.5 pollutants come from vehicle emissions than any other source. Then on the other side, you have people who despise the inefficient and highly-corrupt oil monopolies for making gas prices higher than they need to be.

Going after one of China’s top oil companies and its patrons sends a message that business as usual for vested interests won’t be tolerated like it has been in the past; and that if reform comes a knockin’, these vested interests better not stand in the way. That message might already be working. As all these CNPC executives started being placed under investigation, Sinopec, one of China’s other big three oil companies, announced it would be upgrading its fuel standards three months ahead of schedule.

Then there’s Zhou Yongkang himself. South China Morning Post said taking down Zhou “could send even bigger political shockwaves through Beijing than the trial of Bo Xilai,” but I don’t think so. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more hated leader than Zhou – the man who was at the heart of China’s violent and frequently law-breaking “stability maintenance” apparatus. Bo Xilai was a high-profile populist leader who had a lot of detractors, but also a lot of fans. Zhou Yongkang on the other hand quietly and ruthlessly ran China’s security apparatus with an iron fist. If someone in China knows enough about Zhou to have an opinion about him, that opinion is almost certainly negative.

Zhou probably doesn’t have many supporters within the government either. Allegedly, because he supported Bo Xilai and had overseen the security apparatus so recklessly (and incompetently. See Chen Guangcheng), Zhou was forced to informally give up most of his powers months before he formally retired. If this is true, it’s unlikely he has many high-level friends left that would stick their neck out to protect him. The writing has been on the wall for some time now that Zhou could be a political pariah. It’s doubtful that Xi would face too much resistance in taking him down.

Again though, as many good reasons as there are for targeting Zhou, I’m still pretty skeptical that it will actually happen. The Communist Party is very risk-averse and Xi could still accomplish a lot just by dismembering Zhou through his allies rather than beheading the man himself.

If it does happen though, don’t get your hopes up for any other high leaders to follow. Nobody else at the top is nearly as vulnerable as Zhou. And if Xi starts picking off multiple officials who were thought to be above reproach, it’ll spook a lot of powerful people. Xi could then become the one with a target on his head, and not necessarily a figurative one.

Balance vs. “Balance”

Posted: June 15, 2013 in Politics
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After a few months of slumber, venture capitalist Eric X. Li has predictably popped his head up once again to deliver his one-hit wonder on the superiority of the Chinese political model and the inevitable demise of Western-style democracy. This time it was at a TED Talk.

Li’s premise, which has previously been printed by the likes of New York Times, Huffington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Financial Times and Foreign Affairs, is that China’s system is meritocratic, efficient and totally legitimate since surveys show most Chinese are optimistic about the future. Meanwhile, extensive individual rights will be America’s undoing. The Chinese model is destined for prosperity and Western democracy is destined for failure.

I’m not going to bother listing the numerous holes in Li’s arguments. That’s already been done here, here, here and here. I want to talk about why pundits like him (and people on the opposite extreme) get so much media attention – attention that some people mistake as proof of credibility.

Respected media outlets (like those listed above) laudably try to be balanced. Unfortunately, this balance can sometimes come in lazy or sensational forms. If an outlet has published a series of pieces by China bears, printing a piece by someone like Eric Li brings instant “balance.” Print his work and nobody can accuse you of being pro-American propaganda or having an anti-China slant.

Balance could come in nuanced form from several balanced individuals of varying shades of gray, but that’s not nearly as titillating as getting “balance” from pitting black against white. Readers don’t respond to nuance in the same way they respond to conflict.

This is where the Gordon Chang-grade doomsayers come in. Chang has arguments equally questionable to Li’s coming from the other side; ie – The CCP has little if any redeeming qualities and it will DEFINITELY collapse  by 2011, the end of 2012, sometime in 2013. Chang has a media presence just as large as Li’s and for the same reasons.  Their extreme opposing views create “balance” while drawing far more attention than more modest and nuanced commentators can. Getting a re-tweet out of mockery or disbelief counts just as much to advertisers as a re-tweet out of respect.

But there’s an even more fundamental reason these types of commentators thrive. Eric Li isn’t sought after because of his qualifications (he has none) or the depth of his reasoning. He’s sought after for the simplicity of his argument and the concrete conclusion it leads to.

Ask any respected China scholar or journalist whether they think the Communist Party will collapse; or ask whether they think China will rule the world in 30 years or implode from internal issues. They should all give pretty much the same answer: who knows?

The more you learn about China the more you realize what you don’t know and can’t possibly know. Most people probably have an opinion, but making any kind of firm prediction on these things is a fool’s game and extremely arrogant. Just trying to paint an accurate picture of the overall situation at any given moment is pretty much impossible, let alone painting a picture of the future.

But taking a modest and cautious stance doesn’t cut it for most people.

The average person reading a New York Times op-ed or attending a TED Talk is probably highly-educated. They probably know that China is becoming very important and want to know something about it, but they probably don’t have the time or care enough to immerse themselves in the finer points of China’s banking environment or its stability maintenance apparatus. That’s no shame on them. Nobody has time to become an expert in everything.

But this is why pundits like Eric Li and Gordon Chang get so much attention. They offer simplicity and certainty on a very complex issue with arguments that sound just intelligent enough to seem plausible.  On an issue where people aren’t experts, their brains gravitate toward simplicity and clear-cut answers, not toward complex nuance and humility.

And this is why they’re also dangerous. I’ve met my fair share of businessmen in China short-term who’ve echoed both men’s arguments. Either, “Chinese leaders are a menace to the world and they will be overthrown any day now.” Or, “The Chinese will be our masters in the very near future, so we’d better jump on the authoritarian capitalism bandwagon NOW.”

I don’t dismiss many of the over-arching points these people make. American-style democracy definitely has a host of problems that could lead to its undoing if they go unreformed. And the CCP certainly has many dangers that will be ignored at its (and the world’s) peril. But these particular pundits aren’t capable of making these arguments in a sound way. And their work certainly isn’t commensurate with the attention it’s been given. They don’t acknowledge what they don’t know and they brush over enormous complexities that would make their crystal clear pictures quite a bit murkier.

Perhaps these people offset each other and bring a form of “balance,” but I think somebody who just reads Eric Li and Gordon Chang is worse off than if they hadn’t read anything at all.

I don’t fault newspapers for printing them. They certainly do spark discussions, which is what op-eds are supposed to do. But at this point, they’ve both been printed so much that they’ve spiraled past that critical mass and become qualified as experts BECAUSE they’ve been printed so much. So don’t confuse that attention for value – especially the kind of value one would assume is a prerequisite for a TED Talk.

This week China’s chief media regulator issued a statement  outlining new regulations for media organizations. They basically boil down to the following:

  • News organizations may not cite foreign media without permission.
  • News organizations must file with authorities when setting up an official Weibo account and assign a person to insure that only kosher topics gets tweeted.
  • Journalists should offer proper guidance of public opinion under the principle of focusing on positive propaganda.
  • People without journalist permits are barred from interviewing or reporting under the name of a news organization.
  • Online news sites should not publish any reports from a news source, freelance writer or NGO before the facts are verified.

Nothing too earth-shaking here, and these directives are hardly enforceable. However, they do present a clear message: The Party’s grip on the media will not be loosening one bit. If anything, it will tighten.

For years now there’s been speculation over whether Xi Jinping (and the rest of the new government) will maintain the status quo, be reformist or even head in the opposite direction and roll back reforms. This is an oversimplified debate. These things will happen and are already happening.

These new media directives are one of many recent examples of an overriding principle that’s hardly changed since 1979: Nearly everything is eligible for reform and a Communist Party retreat, except for the “Three Ps” – Propaganda, Personnel and the People’s Liberation Army.

Over the past few months I’ve spoken with a number of experts in fields ranging from gay rights to the environment who are very excited about the new leadership, and with good cause. Everywhere you look in China there seems to be the beginnings of actual reforms, or at least hints that the rigid status quo is going to change for the better.

Measures have been put in place to make leaders less pompous and overindulgent. After 24 years, public discussion has been re-opened on Hu Yaobang. Behemoth state monopolies are being put in check. Homosexuality is moving away from being officially taboo. It appears the model of “GDP growth ahead of all else” is being dismantled. China is improving its environmental transparency. A raft of long-overdue economic reforms are kicking off. The list goes on and on.

It’s still too early to say for sure, but this could very well be a new spring for civil society and long stigmatized groups.

But before we break out the champagne, let’s consider a few other recent signals from our bold new reformers. Last year Xi Jinping ordered more “thought control” in universities. Several times over the past year, Xi has commanded the PLA to remain “absolutely loyal” to the Communist Party above all else. There was the infamous Southern Weekly Incident illustrating an increasingly overbearing propaganda department. In the past year, two foreign correspondents have faced de facto expulsions for the first time since 1998, while new foreign journalists are waiting over a year to get their visas in some cases. And last, but certainly not least, China’s internet censorship apparatus is becoming ever-more sophisticated at weeding out “harmful” content.

So what’s the deal? Are these new leaders reformers or not? Obviously, it’s complicated, but you can make a pretty good prediction on the likelihood of a given reform just by establishing whether it threatens the Party’s absolute control over who educates the public, who holds any kind of political power, and which way the guns would face in the event of an uprising (AKA – Propaganda, Personnel, People’s Liberation Army).

Since the 1990s, China’s communist mandarins have religiously studied the downfall of the Soviet Union. The conclusions they’ve reached are that democratizing, opening the press and losing control over the military opened floodgates that resulted in the regime’s collapse. Xi Jinping gave a private speech to this effect to Party leaders in Guangdong last December on what was supposed to be his nod to Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour.”

Some have contrasted Xi’s private instructions to remember the Soviet Union with his efforts to align himself with Deng Xiaoping’s reformist legacy, but the two are hardly contradictory. Although he was unquestionably a real reformer that forever changed China for the better, Deng was also a firm believer in upholding absolute Party control over the Three Ps.

Xi, like Deng, recognizes that the Three Ps are non-negotiable in order to keep continued Party rule, and by extension (in their minds), a stable environment for other reforms to happen.

In some ways it may seem like the new government is more amenable to opening up the press. Xi has vowed to go after both “the tigers and the flies” (top leaders and low officials who are corrupt) and hinted that this involves more freedom for the press and the online public. But there will always be a cage over the press. If that cage gets bigger (and there’s been no meaningful indication that it actually will), it will be carefully designed to let reporters roam only in areas that serve the Party’s self-preserving interests. These new directives suggest that that the vetting process for those even allowed to roam in that cage is getting stricter.

So this is what we’ll need to get used to. Virtually everything outside the Three Ps is eligible for reform, and that’s good news. There’s still a lot of room for making China a better place within those confines. But the Three Ps will absolutely remain under complete Party control, barring some massive national movement that presents a crisis even greater than Tiananmen.

So far it seems that opening up and reforming in the allowable areas means locking down the three non-negotiables even more tightly so as to ensure the approved reforms don’t bring any unpredictability. So feel free to get your hopes up in many arenas. Just also recognize what’s not likely to ever happen.

Unquestionable Truths

Posted: April 4, 2013 in Politics

Last week a Tibetan in Gansu self-immolated, bringing the total number of those who’ve done the same since 2009 as a protest of the Chinese government to 114.

As the toll consistently climbs higher, the government just as consistently increases its security presence, locks down certain areas and institutes a raft of Orwellian regulations. The thinking seems to go that more repression will somehow end protests against repression.

It’s natural to stand back from afar and think how ridiculous and self-defeating the government is being. But this is thinking very big, when it’s perhaps more useful to think small.

About a year-and-a-half ago I was speaking with an acquaintance that has a mid-level position in the Communist Party propaganda apparatus (not high, but he has been on speaking terms with Politburo members). At that time there had been a string of Tibetan self-immolations. Naturally, the Party blamed the Dalai Lama, and by extension, his Western anti-China backers. In this routine narrative, the Tibetan people are uniformly happy unless misled by these forces who want nothing but to see China collapse.

I asked my acquaintance if anyone in the Party leadership actually believes this narrative – that there’s really this vast underground conspiracy that’s single-handedly causing all the Tibetan unrest.

He replied, “They believe it because it’s 100% true.”

At the time his response shocked me, but it was incredibly enlightening. This man is very intelligent. I have no qualms about saying he’s much more intelligent than myself. He’s often spoken about the need for transparency and reforms in the Party and harshly criticized nationalists. But on this issue, from the bottom of his heart he bought the Party line.

This, I believe, is because joining the Party in a context where you’ll actually wield power within the government or any of the bodies under its direct control is much like joining a religion. When joining, the key is to be incredibly humble and praise the Party to almost a farcical level (See this music video on joining the Party, which, according to some Party member friends of mine, isn’t much of an exaggeration on what you have to say when applying).

Once you’re a member though, there are many things up for debate; like how much democracy there should be, or how much media freedom. But like religion, there are certain areas where suspending your disbelief is crucial; not only to be accepted within the group, but also to justify membership to yourself. Questioning these fundamental “truths” amounts to blasphemy.

Here are some of these truths for the Communist Party:

  • Taiwan, Tibet and every other disputed territory must be an inalienable part of China. Anyone who believes differently simply can’t understand the indisputable evidence in China’s favor, or they have ulterior motives.
  • While it may not be absolutely perfect, the Communist Party is the only group capable of leading China’s social development and defending its national honor. Any system that doesn’t involve its overriding authority would lead to chaos and humiliation.
  • Minority regions like Xinjiang and Tibet have truly benefited from and been civilized by the Party. Therefore, any opposition to the Party within these regions is the result of a conspiracy of agitators with ulterior motives (usually backed by “hostile outside forces”).

It’s much like people in the West who, in spite of extensive education and otherwise impeccable reasoning capability, can believe dinosaurs and humans co-existed at the dawn of time 6,000 years ago. Believing otherwise would knock down the core pillars of the doctrine they’ve based their lives on. Being part of this group, by definition, requires them to suspend their disbelief on many issues.

There are of course people within the Communist Party’s ranks that have their doubts about the “unquestionable truths,” but they keep those doubts securely locked away in the back of their minds. Letting these doubts venture outside would subject them to severe censure from their peers, or worse.

But unwaveringly believing these things isn’t just a matter of self-preservation within the Party. More importantly, it’s a matter of being able to sleep at night.

Like the heavenly rewards and social circles that religion offers, being a Party member with authority provides many famous benefits. Even those who aren’t corrupt can count on a very comfortable life. But being able to enjoy those benefits (or the promise of them) requires belief in the fundamental truths.

Very few people within the Party will think, “Well, what I’m doing with my authority is evil and wrong, but by going along with the crowd, I’ll get a boatload of money and women!”

No. More likely it’s, “What I’m doing with my authority is absolutely correct and righteous. And because of that, I’m entitled to this boatload of money and women.”

Few people are fundamentally evil and totally embrace the fact that they’re evil. It’s all a matter of rationalizing. Believing in those three fundamental truths is critical for powerful Party members in being able to rationalize their place in life.

So imagine a group of leaders sitting around a table deciding what to do about the Tibet self-immolation issue. The instinct is to double down on security and “stability maintenance.” If anyone disagrees, they’ll find themselves very isolated. But more likely, nobody will disagree. Admitting that the repression is wrong and that it’s government policy leading to the immolations rather than hostile outside forces could be a slippery slope toward all three of those fundamental truths crumbling.  And that would make it a lot harder for the people around that table to rationalize the power and very comfortable lives they’re leading.

Upton Sinclair said it best. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”

If you’re a reader of this blog, hopefully you already have an eye on the still unfolding events surrounding Southern Weekend. As I write this, the paper’s staff is reportedly still in negotiations with propaganda officials over what will happen next. Meanwhile, droves of students, celebrities and other media outlets have expressed their support for the paper online while a demonstration involving hundreds has taken hold outside its Guangzhou offices.

Zhongnanhai blog has done a good post saying that China watchers and correspondents have a tendency to over-interpret events like this. The author predicts it will be “a great story for a while until it fizzles out and becomes nothing more than an infrequently-viewed Wikipedia page.”

For the most part, I agree. But there are some aspects I think are pretty significant in the long term. So let’s iron out what this incident is and what it’s not.

What It’s Not
1) A bold stand by Southern Weekend against government censorship
The heart of this issue is that Guangdong’s propaganda head Tuo Zhen allegedly doctored Southern Weekend’s New Year’s editorial and sent it to press without the paper’s editors being informed. This is a highly irregular slap in the face to the paper. It’s one thing to tell editors they can’t print something. It’s very different though to put (highly embarrassing and inaccurate) words in their mouths that they only learn about when they pick up the paper. Southern Weekend is standing up against this disrespect and circumvention of the status quo. It’s not rejecting the idea of government censorship.

2) The first domino toward a mass free speech movement or a Tiananmen-like showdown.
The Telegraph ran a piece saying this “is arguably the most open and widespread display of dissent since the Tiananmen Square protests almost a quarter of a century ago.”

Maybe that’s technically true, but it oversells the significance of where we’re at now. When Wukan residents expelled their local government in late 2011, it was considered a huge deal and people (including myself) were wondering if it was a preview of things to come – either of further uprisings or a model for peaceful government accommodation.

It was neither.

There’s about a 90% chance the Southern Weekend standoff will fizzle out one way or another with a mild one-off solution. Protestors have been tacitly allowed to demonstrate so far, suggesting the government still isn’t entirely sure what to do. Guangdong’s new party secretary Hu Chunhua, as of now, is the favorite to replace Xi Jinping as China’s president in 2022. If he gets blood on his hands or gives an obvious victory to free speech agitators, his hopes could get dashed pretty quickly. It’s very unlikely there will be a violent crackdown or an agreement to ease media controls, but more likely some minor private concession (or effective threat) to the paper that only applies to present circumstances.

Simply firing Tuo Zhen would placate Southern Weekend and end the situation, but the government’s propaganda directives have suggested this isn’t going to happen. It would set an undesirable precedent (though not a disastrous one– as some have suggested. I think it still remains a last resort if the paper refuses to back down or protests strengthen). If and when this event fizzles out with some kind of uninspiring resolution, everyone will go home unsatisfied – but not furious. Then we’ll move on to other issues.

However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be significant takeaways.

What It Is
1) A surprising signal that many of China’s youth are primed to push for change
A few months ago when I was at the massive anti-Japan protests, I looked around and wondered if I’d ever see the day when Chinese would make similar emotional cries in public for something not on the government’s agenda. Seeing how firmly that angst was focused on Japan, I thought it would be at least several years. If you’d told me on that day that within four months, a sizeable crowd would gather to call for press freedom in China, I’d have said no way.

Southern Weekend staff may not be pushing for an outright end to censorship, but their supporters certainly seem to be. You can bet

Via Tea Leaf Nation: "One woman looked fear in the eye, and said, 'cheese'"

Via Tea Leaf Nation: “One woman looked fear in the eye, and said, ‘cheese'”

that more than a few parents across the country have been warning their kids to stay the hell away from any hint of subversive activity. Getting involved with something deemed “anti-government” can blot a permanent record and ruin career prospects. Yet, students across the country are voicing support to Southern Weekend online WITH THEIR FACES SHOWN. And even more unbelievably, hundreds showed up to protest IN PERSON against media censorship – one of the most unshakeable government priorities.

This is much different than your routine “mass incidents” over things like land grabs and pollution. These people in Guangzhou have no immediate stake in protesting censorship. They have very little to gain personally and a lot to lose. That indeed takes cojones that have rarely been seen since 1989. These protestors may be a very small, unrepresentative sample of China’s youth, but it’s a sample I didn’t realize existed yet.

But perhaps I should have realized it. When I got to China five years ago and spoke with young educated people about media censorship, some would say they opposed it, but more would voice support. They’d say things like “If the truth were revealed, China would collapse” or “Poor people must support the leaders if we’re to keep developing. They wouldn’t if the media could criticize the leaders.”

These days I hear fewer and fewer people say things like that. Thanks to Weibo, people are realizing that much of the things swept up in the censorship system aren’t just abstract embarrassments. They’re concrete things like poisonous food, pollution, land grabs, railway accidents and flood deaths – things that have a real impact on public safety and well-being; things that could be avoided if publicized.

2) Another sign of “de-facto democratization”
Weibo also probably means a more democratic resolution to the standoff then there would have been a few years ago. In 2003, Southern Metropolis Daily (also from the Southern Media Group), embarrassed Guangdong officials with reports on detention camps and SARS. This ended in a clampdown that saw two editors slapped with lengthy prison sentences on trumped up charges.

This is the traditional way of dealing with such brazen newspapers. But this has become prohibitively risky (perhaps for the first time with the unfolding events). It’s not impossible that a Southern Weekend reporter will end up in jail, but with as many sympathetic eyes as there are on the story, it’s not a realistic possibility. And the fact that the propaganda department is deigning to negotiate with the paper is a sign that it no longer feels able to just unilaterally bring down the hammer.

If the hammer does come down eventually and the paper is shut down or editors are fired, then the government will find itself at an all time credibility low and will meet strong public backlash. I don’t at all rule out this possibility. As stupid and self-defeating as that would be, the government has time and again stubbornly clung to repressive tactics that are 20 years out of date. Doing so here wouldn’t bring the masses to the streets, but it would bring them one step closer to ultimately dropping faith in the system entirely.

So no, this event in all likelihood won’t be a watershed for those hoping to see quick political reform. But it does represent a shift, however slight it may be, in the public’s consciousness and what it’s willing to tolerate. Even if the government is unwilling to engage in meaningful political reform, it’s already being pushed on an irreversible course of de-facto reform.

Yesterday I read about a recently leaked government directive from 2011 concisely titled “Suggestions for doing a good job of resisting foreign use of religion to infiltrate institutes of higher education and to prevent campus evangelism.”

Washington Post did a great piece on the directive and the context, but I’d recommend also reading the full document. Basically, the government is concerned about Christian missionaries evangelizing on Chinese college campuses.

“Foreign hostile forces have put even greater emphasis on using religion to infiltrate China to carry out their political plot to westernize and divide China,” the document says. “Under the guise of donating funds for education, academic exchanges, studying and teaching in China, extracurricular activities, training, student aid, etc., they ‘market’ their political ideas and values, roping students into becoming religious believers.”

In a nutshell, the second part of that statement is fairly accurate, and the first part is fairly scary. A few months ago I did a piece on foreign evangelists who use English teaching as a means to enter China and proselytize. While researching, I spoke with nearly three dozen people including missionaries, their co-workers and students. I’d also previously encountered these kinds of evangelists personally while teaching.

As the document suggests, there are indeed thousands of these people in China; many of whom conduct activities that would raise legal issues even in Western democracies. I heard stories of teachers requiring students to attend Bible studies in order to pass their class. Many used Christian teaching materials and held English classes based on Biblical themes. I even heard about a teacher requiring his students to put on a play about the seven deadly sins that featured Jesus lugging a crucifix.

But a few things jumped out at me from this document. The first was how the government still fundamentally misunderstands what motivates Christian missionaries. To some degree, this is understandable. Chinese officials tend to be pragmatic worldly people with little exposure to religion. The idea that someone would spend so much time and resources changing others’ beliefs for no tangible reason makes no sense. That these missionaries feel duty-bound to a supernatural deity and believe they’re literally saving their converts just doesn’t register. Clearly, there must be some devious political agenda beneath that pious surface.

There are indeed those like Bob Fu who have explicit regime-change goals, but they seem to be a small minority. Most seem to consciously avoid even mentioning politics. They may expend disproportionate effort on students with political ambitions, but this is more in hopes of getting religious policy relaxed, not overthrowing the entire system.

The second thing that jumped out was how the government still so fundamentally misunderstands youth that might be inclined to convert. The document gives prescriptions for dealing with them, saying:

“Adhere to using the theory of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics to arm students’ minds. Extensively launch activities for the study, teaching, publicizing and popularization of core socialist values. Strengthen propaganda for and education in Marxist views on religion, the Party’s principles and policies for education work, and the relevant laws and regulations of the state.”

If you’re a standard human, you probably barely made it through that paragraph without falling asleep. And that’s just a small taste of the years of Marxist and political education Chinese students are required to take. The thing is, many of the young Christian converts I spoke to specifically cited the emphasis on empty Marxist dogma as something that pushed them to explore religion. So using Marxism to combat evangelism is like using a Ben Stein lecture to convince a kid he should go to school instead of play video games.

But for all the document got wrong about motivations, it did seem to have a firm grasp on the methods missionaries tend to use and where universities go wrong.

It tells schools to offer intriguing activities for students and provide mental health services. It says advisors should hold “extensive heart-to-heart talks” with students, help “guide their emotions” and “dispel confusion.” By doing these things, they won’t be so inclined to “cozy up” to foreign missionaries (who tend to be much better at offering emotional and academic support than the schools).

It then goes on to suggest strategically planning recreational and academic events during religious holidays. Indeed, Christmas and Easter are high season for conversion. Christmas is a perfect opportunity to talk Jesus. And in one case I found, a foreign teacher invited students over to watch an “Easter movie” that turned out to be The Passion of Christ.

It warns of academic exchanges organized by Christian groups. Some of these are set up to get Chinese students overseas for conversion, then returned to spread the gospel at home. Meanwhile, foreign missionary students are the exchanges that come to Chinese schools.

After previously thinking central government leaders were simply clueless about these things, I was surprised to see how much they seem to be aware of. But one thing that struck me while researching this story was that, in spite of China’s inhospitable stance on religion, these things tend to be tolerated even more here than they would be in the West at the local level. And the document seems to tacitly acknowledge that.

It says, “If serious problems arise because responsibilities were not performed or work is not properly done, you shall seriously investigate and look into the matters and call to account the responsible members and relevant leaders.”

The whole document repeatedly admonishes administrators to get off their butts and actively fight off foreign missionaries. The language was very similar to the routine pleas for corrupt officials to get clean. This, I think, is because this issue, like corruption, has a rather large gulf between central government goals and local cadre interests. And it may actually involve corruption.

The way many of these missionary teachers work is through larger organizations or churches based overseas. Working with donations, they take salaries from the schools that are a fraction of what independent teachers would be paid. In addition, they’ll sometimes donate teaching materials, student scholarships and outright cash aid to schools. Two sources I spoke with reported that one organization they know of even sponsors trips to the US for high university and local education officials. The organization wouldn’t confirm or deny this.

Then miraculously, when students or other teachers complain about proselytism to lower administrators, there doesn’t tend to be much action. Whatever vague national threats these “infiltrators” present are subservient to more tangible local interests.

Going beyond just the issue of evangelism though, the document also basically proved something I’ve started to realize in recent months, but have had a hard time fully accepting. It’s that the idea of “the US-led Western countries” conspiring to use things like religion to “infiltrate” China so they can “westernize and divide it” isn’t just jingoistic propaganda used for political ends. This is something that A LOT of people in China’s government seem to actually believe.

This document was issued by the United Front Department (a branch of the powerful Central Committee) and given only to senior officials. They were then to communicate it orally to their subordinates in order to hedge against the document being leaked. In other words, this wasn’t propaganda intended for the masses. It was an internal Party memo. That the same jingoistic language you’d see in Global Times was used here shows that the Party actually believes its conspiratorial fear-mongering, and that’s kind of scary.

On November 8th, Chinese President Hu Jintao will step down from his posts atop the Communist Party and Chinese government after exactly 10 years in power.

If one word could sum up Hu’s presidency, it would be stability. In policy and in character Hu has remained ever-wary of deviating from a steady, low-key approach to leadership. He lacks the cultish devotion enjoyed by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and the charisma of his predecessor Jiang Zemin. Hu’s approach has seen a near quadrupling of per-capita income in China, but little in the way of political reform.

“Without stability, nothing could be done, and even the achievements already made could be lost.” –Speech on the CCP’s 90th anniversary, July, 2011

Earlier this year, Hu’s comparatively liberal faction of the Communist Party seemingly won a victory with the fall of left-wing icon Bo Xilai. Hu has tended to keep Mao Zedong’s legacy and the more socialist tendencies of the Party at arm’s length. But he still pays homage to the ideology that the communist government was founded on.

“We never take Marxism as an empty, rigid, and stereotyped dogma.” –Speech on the CCP’s 90th anniversary, July, 2011

However, “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” – perhaps more accurately known as authoritarian capitalism – has seen major side-effects come along with economic growth. Foremost among them is official corruption. Under a system that bars deep scrutiny of leaders through media or free speech, Hu has repeatedly pleaded with party members to keep themselves clean.

“Leading cadres at all levels should always maintain a spirit of moral character and be aware of the temptations of power, money and beautiful women.” April, 2010 in keynote speech wrapping up campaign aimed at educating officials.

Reigning in the excesses of economic development was the theme of Hu’s signature “Harmonious Society” socio-economic doctrine, which aimed to make Chinese society more balanced and just. However, wealth inequality has soared under Hu to its highest levels in PRC history.

“Without a common ideological aspiration or high moral standard, a harmonious society will be a mansion built on sand.” -Speech to high-level party members June, 2005

Another worry of the Hu administration has been that foreign culture and ideology may be usurping the domestic agenda. On several occasions he’s called for China to promote its own values and push for greater soft power at home and abroad through “cultural reform.” Earlier this year he wrote a strongly-worded essay on the issue, which was critically received by many foreign observers.

“Hostile international powers are strengthening their efforts to westernize and divide us. We must be aware of the seriousness and complexity of the struggles and take powerful measures to prevent and deal with them.”– January, 2012 – in the Communist Party’s magazine, Seeking the Truth

When speaking to foreign audiences though, Hu is always careful to downplay the threat of China’s rise and stresses that the nation is only interested in “peaceful development.”

“China’s development will neither obstruct nor threaten anyone but will only be conducive to world peace, stability and prosperity.” – November, 2005 to Vietnamese National Assembly

As the commander-in-chief of the world’s largest military, Hu has increased China’s defense budget by double-digits nearly every year he’s been in charge. Some have speculated that this is simply to keep the guardians of China’s authoritarian rule happy. Others have worried this may be part of a greater effort to exert military influence in Asia and enforce claims over long-disputed territories.

“[The navy should] accelerate its transformation and modernization in a sturdy way, and make extended preparations for military combat in order to make greater contributions to safeguard national security and world peace” –December, 2011 in speech to  Central Military Commission

For the entirety of PRC history, the most significant territorial conflict for China has been Taiwan. When the pro-mainland KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou became president of the island, Hu redirected cross-straits relations from a course of tense provocation to one of engagement. Much to the consternation of hawks within the Communist Party and army, Hu opened more economic and people-to-people exchanges with Taiwan. The move tacitly took a military-enforced re-unification off the table for the foreseeable future.

“I sincerely hope that our two parties (KMT and CCP) can work together to continue to promote the peaceful and steady development of cross-strait relations, and make efforts for the bright future of the Chinese nation,” –Congratulatory remarks to Ma Ying-jeou on his election as chairman of the Kuomintang , July, 2005.

Beyond his professional life, little is known about Hu as a person. His image is meticulously crafted as a tireless servant of the people who devotes his life to conducting field inspections, speaking with peasants and meeting with foreign diplomats. A leaked US embassy cable from 2009 opened a window into the choreographed world of Hu by recounting how a seemingly spontaneous chat with a rural farmer was actually planned days in advance – with the farmer being told not to shave so as to appear more rustic. Under a heavily controlled media, going off-script is rare and details about leaders’ personal lives are scant. A journalist was once even fired for revealing that Hu is diabetic.

“We must adhere to the principle of party spirit in journalism, holding firmly to correct guidance of public opinion” –June, 2008 in speech dealing with news media

However, in 2011, one on-camera encounter was received a bit differently than planned. A recipient of subsidized housing told Hu that she paid only 77 yuan each month for her two bedroom home in Beijing – a city where rapid inflation sees even the humblest of homes now fetching thousands of yuan in rent. Hu replied by saying:

 “77 yuan each month – are you able to cope with the rent?”

Skeptical audiences mocked the obviously-scripted conversation, asking where they too could find such unbelievably cheap housing.

Perhaps the closest Hu ever came to making an actual gaffe though was in 2010 when a Japanese elementary school student asked why Hu wanted to become chairman. His answer raised eyebrows with those familiar with China’s power structure:

“Let me tell you. I have never wanted to become chairman. All the people of China chose me to be the chairman, so I could not afford to let them down.”

I’ve hastily thrown together the below video from the protests at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing today. Pictures and account are in my last post. In the video you see when it got a bit violent after some people started throwing rocks, and when I briefly talked with one of the rock throwers. Also has a bit where the crowd unexpectedly starts chanting “Fuck the USA.” Several of the other signs and chants are subtitled.

Today saw huge demonstrations in front of Japan’s Embassy in Beijing to protest Japanese claims over the Diaoyu Islands. Two years ago when tensions last flared over this issue, I checked out the Japanese embassy in Beijing, where there were no more than about 50 people. This time, turnout was exponentially bigger and more serious.

I got to the embassy at about 1:00 this afternoon. The roads around it were all closed off to traffic with a few hundred riot police, regular police, public security volunteers and lord knows how many plain clothes officers. I estimate there were at least 2,000 people while I was there, although it’s unclear how many actively came to protest and how many were just curious onlookers.

In the middle of the street there was a partition with police directing people to parade around it in long circles. People had huge Chinese flags and banners saying things like “Fuck little Japan.” What I was most surprised by were the number of Chairman Mao posters floating around. I asked a few people about this and the consensus was “Mao would never let Japan get away with this.”

As the crowds paraded around, they sang patriotic songs, chanted “Little Japan, fuck your mother,” “Chairman Mao 10,000 years,” “China 10,000 years” and most significantly “Communist Party 10,000 years.” (“10,000 years” basically means “Long live…”)

This mass outpouring obviously had official sanction. The police’s presence was to direct the protests rather than try to hamper them in any way.

Later things started to get a bit more intense. While the crowds circled around they were allowed to stop briefly in front of the Japanese embassy itself. It was guarded by hundreds of riot police with helmets and shields. At first protestors threw water bottles and eggs at the embassy, which police made no attempt to stop. But gradually rocks and (I assume Japanese) cell phones started to be thrown. Many of them hit the Chinese police, who were covering themselves with shields.

One man brought a bucket full of rocks, which police came and confiscated somewhat violently. After a man chucked a rock, an officer wrestled him away and said, “Enough, they’re Chinese.” He then let him go. I caught up with the man and asked him what had happened. He said, “I just wanted to fuck Japan.”

Finally I went to interview a man on the side of the road holding a sign. As I was speaking with him a police officer grabbed my shoulder and turned me around. “What are you doing,” he asked forcefully in English.

I said I was just talking with people and taking pictures. He pulled me toward a small police post on the side of the road and demanded my passport. He looked at the visa page, handed it back and then seemed to get distracted with something else. I slowly but steadily walked away.

It was very strange. It seemed like coverage was being encouraged. I didn’t notice any of the other foreigners who were taking video/pictures being hassled. I’m not sure why I was singled out.

That was about the time I headed home.  If you didn’t understand what the people were chanting, the whole atmosphere of the protests seemed very festive. People chanted things, others laughed. Families with little kids were out, young people, old people. It kind of felt like a 4th of July parade…until things began to be thrown at the embassy.

This whole uproar is a godsend for the Communist Party. I never imagined I’d see people marching down the street with pictures of Mao Zedong chanting “Long live Mao, Long live the Communist Party.” It was a bit surreal. (Though several people were chastising the government for sitting by too idly)

It’s interesting to speculate on how much of this was deliberately egged on by the CCP. The whole thing erupted when the Japanese government bought some of the islands from a private owner. The move was intended to put the islands under national control so Japanese activists could be prevented from planting flags on the island and stirring up tensions. But it seems that was a huge miscalculation by Japan on the eve of China’s 18th Party Congress.

The Chinese media could have lauded the move as an attempt to ease tensions and work toward a peaceful solution, but it went hard in the opposite direction, portraying it as an illegitimate slap in China’s face. It’s no wonder so many are riled up.

It is important to note that when you see Mao posters being paraded, it’s probably a pretty poor representation of Chinese people. And it’s hard to say how many people present at the protest were active nationalists, how many came because they thought it’d be cool or interesting, and how many just happened to walk by and stuck around.

But there was a lot of intensity. Whenever someone started a chant, most joined in. This is clearly the most serious clash between China and Japan in a long time, and it could be far from over. A few days from now will be September 18th, the anniversary of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria. Unless there’s a police clampdown, the protests are likely to continue through at least that day.

With Xi Jinping back and all this intense anger directed toward Japan, I predict China’s leadership transfer can now go off without a hitch.

[Update: Below is a video I threw together of the protests with subtitles. See the rock chucker and hear a "Fuck the USA" chant]

 Pictures

“Angry eggs, free to take (everyone take 2)”

Notice the egg stains on the embassy

[If you want to use any of these pictures for anything, please either leave the watermark on or contact me to send you the original]

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.

 

First they gave us anti-corruption lapel pins and statues. Then they gave us ethics classes. Now the CCP is throwing out another bone to pacify public impatience with corruption while craftily avoiding anything that might check its absolute power…or actually do anything to curb corruption.

In this case, China is starting a new five-year plan to tackle corruption, Bloomberg reports.

It isn’t immediately clear what this new plan will include, but it sounds awfully familiar to an earlier pronouncement (via Austin Ramsey) entitled “China to Rein in Corruption within 5 Years,” which said:

An official from China’s top discipline watchdog reiterated in Beijing that the country will effectively curb corruption cases within 5 years as effective legal and structural measures become more perfect.

China’s heavier clampdown on corrupt officials during the past several years, including the execution of deputy legislative speaker Cheng Kejie, is preventing officials from thinking of corruption.

That was from January 2001. In case you haven’t noticed, more than a handful of officials have thought about corruption since that five year deadline expired.

So why does corruption persist in spite of all these measures? In my affinity for dumbing things down to very crude analogies, this is China’s anti-corruption apparatus:

 

“We admit that the whole thing doesn’t quite fly and there are still problems to address,” the government says. “But we’re initiating some bold new reforms over the next five years to effectively curb these problems once and for all”:

Trying to stop corruption but refusing to allow for the rule of law through truly independent police, courts AND real public oversight through a free media is like trying to build a functional airplane but refusing to entertain the concept of lift.

Bloomberg quoted Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore saying, “In the past ten years, the more they fight corruption, the more plans and agencies they set up, the worse the corruption gets.”

By now this should be patently obvious. Anti-corruption initiatives usually consist of two things: parading harsh punishments of the few that are caught and touting greater oversight through some new anti-corruption authority. But the basic systematic framework is still in place, so these agencies just get in on the corruption themselves. The problem now involves more people and more money.

So this looks like the latest in a long long line of nearly identical initiatives meant to appease the public and quell calls for real reform.

He Guoqiang, head of the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and #8 man on the Politburo said, “The work of constructing a system of punishing and preventing corruption has shown to be effective.”

The day that ranking officials up to and including himself can be criticized, investigated and indicted by the public is the day we can believe him.

With the conclusion of the Beidaihe leadership retreat, it’s safe to assume that the shadowy horse-trading is over and the next Politburo has been decided. We’re now just waiting to hear the date of the 18th Party Congress – at which time the CCP will be so kind as to inform us who they’ve decided will run China for the next five years.

But who will reign at the top in the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) and determine the course of the world’s biggest nation?

You tell me.

This is a contest to see which of my dear readers can correctly predict the 9 (or 7, or 11?) leaders that will make up the new PBSC. The winner will receive a $20 Amazon gift card, but more importantly, they’ll forever be immortalized here as Sino-Political Dork Guru!

Rules

1. Write out the names of who you think will make up the PBSC and rank them. For instance, the current order is:

  1. Hu Jintao
  2. Wu Bangguo
  3. Wen Jiabao
  4. Jia Qinglin
  5. Li Changchun
  6. Xi Jinping
  7. Li Keqiang
  8. He Guoqiang
  9. Zhou Yongkang

To win, you need only guess the correct makeup, not the correct order. The ranking will just be used as a tie-breaker (or to show how incredibly brilliant you are). However, you must get the number of people right. So if you guess 7 correctly and there ends up being 9 people on the PBSC, tough luck.

2. Put down your guess and your name and send it to sinostand@gmail.com with the subject line “Politburo Projection” by September 1st .

3. Obviously, winners will be announced whenever we find out – which could be anytime from September to November. If you win I’ll contact you about what info you’d like published here (ie – name, blog, organization, twitter name, etc.).

4. If there are multiple winners, I’ll post whoever’s right, but the ranking will break a tie for the gift card. If there are multiple correct rankings, only the first submission I received will get the gift card (which will be sent electronically).

5. Only one guess per person. Yes, you could hypothetically submit several guesses under different emails and names, but this is for fun, so don’t be an asshole.

Will the first woman ever make the cut? Will Bo Xilai make the comeback of the century? Do some digging and make your guess. Nobody but me will ever know you tried unless you’re right, so take a shot and perhaps build your China credentials.

For the past few days I’ve been following the latest installment of “China territorial lunacy.” This is where someone goes to disputed rocks barely sticking above the ocean surface (that global warming will undoubtedly soon submerge), at which point opposing country’s authorities throw gas on the fire by ramming a boat or arresting people. Nationalists in both countries proceed to scream for boycotts/military intervention/nuclear annihilation of the other side.

In this particular case, Chinese activists went to plant flags on Diaoyu Island rocks and Japan opted to create martyrs by arresting them.

I don’t have an opinion on ownership of the Diaoyu Islands, nor do I care to form one. But I always take interest in the consistently childish and baffling reactions by the concerned governments and nationalistic citizens.

This also happened in 2010 when Japan arrested a Chinese ship captain who ventured into Diaoyu territory. As it was unfolding, I got on my renren (Chinese Facebook) account and noticed one of my old students had posted a picture of people burning a home-made Japanese flag.

I left a comment on it saying, “Still so much stupidity in the world.”

He responded saying, “Not stupidity. Attitude.”

I’d originally just glanced at the picture and assumed it was something he’d found online, but after he said that, I noticed that he and a few more of my old students were actually in the picture.

I pushed further: “An attitude of ignorance?”

“No. We’re showing them our attitude,” he replied. “About the fisherman and for what they did to us in Nanjing. You’d feel the same way if Japan attacked your country [the US].”

I mulled how to explain all the things that were twisted about that statement, but at that point in my China life I had the sense to realize it was pointless. So instead, over a long series of posts, I basically said this:

Let’s say you’re 100% right on the fisherman issue. Diaoyu 100% belongs to China and it’s the Japanese who are 100% out of line. Let’s ponder what you’ve just accomplished in burning that flag (or for that matter, screaming obscenities, waving hateful banners or throwing things at embassies).

In your mind, do you imagine people in Japan see that and think, “Golly gee wilikers! The Chinese sure are serious about those islands belonging to them… even though we’ve been led to believe our whole lives that they belong to us. Now that they’ve burned the symbol of our nation, let’s capitulate!”

Outside Japanese embassy in Beijing, September, 2010

Imagine seeing them burn the Chinese flag. Of course you wouldn’t think that and neither do they. Seeing their flag in flames only makes them angrier, strengthens their resolve and drives them to take more extreme measures to get their way. No one likes to feel defeated. And if there were any Japanese who didn’t care about the issue before, they’ve now been given reason to care and support leaders who oppose your cause.

Now let’s think about the rest of the world. TV cameras don’t tend to focus on the 99.99% that just stay home and don’t do anything antagonistic. They focus on you flag-burning, banner-waving nationalists because it’s an exciting image. So you’ve just become prominent representatives of China.

Like me, most people outside the two concerned countries couldn’t care less about the Diaoyu Islands. But after they see you hatefully burning a national symbol, those who are indifferent or unknowledgeable about the issue now sympathize with Japan and get the impression that China is a bunch of ignorant crazies. To those who know better, you’ve at least made yourself look incredibly stupid.

So why don’t you try something that requires a bit more intelligence than painting a red circle and setting it on fire? For instance, you could write a calm and well-reasoned commentary, then submit it to outlets where it will be read by Japanese. Then the pressure would be off your own leaders and they too could take a calmer, more peaceful approach.

But no. You took the lazy mindless route and call yourself a patriot for it. Patriots think things through and do things that actually SERVE their country’s interests. People who blindly do things that HARM the interests they claim to fight for are called idiots.

It’s been reported that Beijing is applying for United Nations UNESCO World Heritage status for 22 sites around the city. Among them is Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, where the man’s preserved body is displayed for the reverent and morbidly curious to gawk at. This continues a communist tradition started by Stalin when he had Lenin’s body put out permanently for Soviets to fawn over. It enshrines atheistic one-party systems with a godlike father figure that lends a kind of everlasting divine legitimacy.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit two of the four monuments like this in existence: Those of Mao Zedong in Beijing and Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang. Since photography of any kind is barred at both, I thought I’d try to re-create the experience of each and then let you decide which is more deserving of UNESCO status.

Mao

Situated in the middle of Tiananmen Square, Mao’s Mausoleum has been called a rip-off of the Lincoln Memorial. It’s surrounded by picture-snapping tourists from all over the country at any given time. They line up in their t-shirts, mini-skirts, skull caps or whatever they happen to be wearing at the time.

*Yawn*

When you first enter the building there’s a statue of Mao sitting. Many people buy flowers to put at the foot of this statue and some rural tourists even bow down to it.

Next the line splits in two directions to walk around either side of the viewing room. Mao’s body lies draped in the Communist Party flag in a glass coffin surrounded by a few PLA guards. Outside of them are another set of glass walls that tourists stay behind – keeping you a good 30 feet away from the man himself. Between the distance, the dozens of people crammed in around you, and the speed with which guards shuffle you through, you can’t quite decide if that waxy little face sticking out is real or a Madame Tussauds recreation.

Just as quickly as you came in, you sift out, disappointed with the ratio of time spent in line to the time you were allowed comprehend that that guy killed tens of millions of people.

Kim

From the outside, Kim’s marble palace mausoleum (which actually was Kim’s mansion while he was alive) makes Mao’s look like a peasant’s hut. When you go inside, it’s even more impressive. But you’re not getting in looking like some punk kid or loose capitalist floozy. No sir, you best look like a respectable gentleman:

It’s not too often you decide a tie with a polo is your best dress option.

Ties, pants and shoes are required for the gents; something elegant and not too leggy for the gals. If you’re Korean, you dress like this:

You enter the building and go on a seemingly endless maze of moving sidewalks; passing Koreans on their way out. In my case this included a group of army guys who looked about 14. Finally, you get to a room with Kim’s statue. Unlike with Mao’s statue, bowing is obligatory and it’s accompanied by appropriately solemn music.

Next you proceed to the mourning room, which tops any Disney haunted house or Universal Studios experience in terms of over the top drama. If you’re foreign, you’re given a headset to listen to and directed to some statues depicting North Koreans weeping as they heard Kim had died.

“Look at them,” a voice reminiscent of Vincent Price comes on to say, stretching out every syllable for chilling effect. “Inconsolable with the loss of the Great Leader that was sent to us from heaven. The whole world mourned when Kim Il Sung died in 1994.”

You’re directed to an area where little glass shards have been embedded into the floor. “How piercing hot their tears must have been that they burned here into the ground forever,” Vincent Price continues. “The people wouldn’t let him go. So our dear Kim Jong Il built this hall of mourning so that the people could always cling to the bosom of their Great Leader.”

If you’re fortunate enough to speak Korean, there’s a woman who will give that narration live. She makes South Korean soap opera stars look subdued in their weepy melodrama by comparison.

Finally, you enter the body viewing room. You walk through a doorway of about 20 turbo air jets to blow away any gunk on you that might soil the Great Leader’s resting chamber. His glass coffin sits in the middle of the room with nothing but a velvet rope between it and you.

Four at a time approach the head of the coffin and bow down in unison. You walk around and do the same at the other three sides. You’re almost close enough to touch the glass and you can easily make out Kim’s facial features. It almost sinks in that you’re looking at a man regarded as God to 23 million people.

When you walk out you’re treated to a museum of portraits with Kim and a who’s who of world leaders including Muammar Gaddaffi, Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat. In the middle sits the train car that Kim jetted around in during his reign.

As you head back out, you see the scores of Koreans dressed in their Sunday best. They’re waiting to complete their pilgrimage to meeting the Great Leader who merely killed people by the single digit millions.

This was a year ago. If you go now, you have the chance to see not one, but TWO pickled Communist dictators for the price of one.

Now you tell me…who should really be applying for UNESCO World Heritage status?

This fall, the Chinese Communist Party will hold its 18th Party Congress and select a new generation of leaders who will face some of the greatest challenges seen yet in the PRC’s 63 years. Inflation is growing, wealth inequality is widening, the population is aging, the environment is degrading, the new-generation of internet-savvy youth is becoming more cynical, and the threat of a major economic crisis hangs over everything – threatening to unravel the “Beijing Consensus” of economic growth in exchange for authoritarianism. Hu Jintao has led for the past decade with a “stability at all costs” attitude – which in many ways has allowed these problems to fester. The question now is whether these problems will be addressed with greater authoritarianism or greater democracy.

The most important group to focus on in the leadership turnover is the nine-man Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) – which is part of the greater 25-man Politburo. These nine men (and they’ve always been men) have the lion’s share of control in how China is governed. This post will break down who the contenders are for the PBSC and how they may proceed in shaping China.

(Patrick Covanec has done a great primer on the mechanics of exactly how the turnover process will work – which I highly recommend)

For the past year there’s been a lot of talk about Wang Yang’s “Guangdong Model” vs. Bo Xilai’s “Chongqing Model.” The Guangdong model uses democratic reform and greater freedoms to address the CCP’s growing legitimacy crisis, while the “Chongqing Model” uses a strong-authoritarian hand to crackdown on corruption and organized crime while instituting egalitarian measures like low-income housing assistance. Obviously, Bo Xilai no longer has a prayer’s chance in administrative detention of ascending  to the PBSC, but his ideology isn’t necessarily as dead as he is. No other leader is likely to replicate his red song gatherings and throwback to the Cultural Revolution, but his focus on authoritarian-directed crime-busting and redistribution of wealth still has a wide audience. So these two models still represent plausible directions the party could go.

To get a sense of what China’s ideological spectrum is like, let’s look at the ideologies of perhaps China’s most prominent left-winger vs. its most prominent right-winger – both now considered radicals:

I give Liu Xiaobo a +1 and Mao a -1 to represent China’s political extremes. So an absolute moderate would be 0. I’ve attempted to put the contenders for the PBSC on this chart to indicate their rough ideological leanings. Yes, this is a gross oversimplification and very imperfect. Some leaders are very economically liberal while at the same time politically conservative, which makes it hard to place them on this one-dimensional scale. It is very unscientific but thus is the nature of Chinese politics. Chinese leaders are notoriously secretive and it’s usually a mystery how much individual responsibility they have for a given policy. But I’ve tried to give them incremental ticks to the left or right based on past actions and statements, as well as supposed political allies. I think this gives a general idea of where these people fall politically, but a big disclaimer: Some of these scores (especially a few of the wild cards) are fairly arbitrary and tenuously based on just a few factors. So take it with every appropriate grain of salt.

Of course, anyone who has any kind of chance at reaching the highest echelons of power today will be nowhere near the extremes of either Mao or Liu Xiaobo. The top contenders still mostly hover around either the Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao factions.

Jiang’s group favors breakneck economic growth that focuses on China’s coastal provinces. This involves a great deal of reforms in the market, but not in politics. Essentially, it keeps the rich getting richer with the hope that some of that will trickle west and down the economic ladder. Hu’s group favors a more restrained economic growth model that focuses on inner regions and social ills like income inequality and corruption. However, it also emphasizes social stability and, as we’ve seen under Hu, that means little political liberalization or new freedoms. There is however an offshoot of this faction that’s gaining more influence. This group favors democratic reform in addition to economic liberalization. We might call this the Wen Jiabao/Wang Yang group. Over the past 10 years we’ve seen the bulge of influence slowly shift from the left to right, where it now hovers over Hu’s group with Jiang and his cronies steadily losing ground. So let’s look at those thought to be the top players for the next generation of leaders and get a sense of where that bulge is headed.

The Shoo-ins

Barring some insane unexpected incident, these two will remain on the PBSC and be promoted to President and Premier.

Xi Jinping

Xi will end up in the top post because he falls nearly in the middle of the ideological spectrum and has offended the fewest number of party elders. In Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai he oversaw steady economic growth while managing to steer clear of any scandal or any incident that would put him in a negative light. But he certainly never did anything spectacular or reformist.

However, while Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were purposely avoiding Chongqing and Bo Xilai, Xi was visiting the city and praising Bo (although this was during the pinnacle of Bo’s popularity and the visit was probably a mere political miscalculation). I put Xi’s score slightly to the left, mostly because of calls for “thought control” in universities earlier this year – suggesting he intends to keep the “stability” mentality. He could be a closet reformer simply biding his time, but by most predictions, he’ll straddle the middle of the see-saw and try to balance opposing factions.

  • Political Score: -.05
  • Odds of promotion: All but certain

Li Keqiang

Li is thought to be a very close protégé to Hu Jintao, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s likely to take the same “stable” path. In fact, Hu himself might be more reformist were he to hold power during a period where he couldn’t just coast on the economy.

Li went to college right after Reform & Opening Up at Peking University – perhaps the greatest forum for liberal thought in China at the time – where he reportedly ran around with some zealous pro-democracy advocates and diligently studied English. If he was influenced by this period, he’s been rather subdued about it in his official capacity. He’s never called for political reform outright (as his predecessor Wen Jiabao often has) but has on numerous occasions called for financial reform – which he’ll be in charge of as Premier. I give him a fairly liberal score for his background and lack of anything to suggest he’s a hardliner.

  • Political Score: +0.30
  • Odds of Promotion: All but certain

The Favorites

These contenders are pretty safe bets. There’s a good chance you’ll see all of them promoted to the PBSC.

Wang Qishan

Wang is known by foreign counterparts as being a charming straight-talker. In 2003 he was called in as Beijing’s mayor to clean up the SARS mess that his predecessor had tried to conceal.  Like Li Keqiang, he has a background in economics and has even written in foreign newspapers like New York Times calling for free trade and market liberalization. In the late 90s, he was credited for an economic restructuring in Guangdong that may have averted a major financial crisis. Wall Street Journal quoted a long time foreign associate of Wang’s as saying, “[In those cases], he was doing something unorthodox, bold, or difficult — something that had a lot of potential personal downside. And in each case, he did it well.” For his bold moves to the right, I give him a fairly liberal score.

  • Political Score: +0.30
  • Odds of Promotion: Excellent. A party elder with no blemishes and a record of bold and successful initiatives, there’s little reason to suspect he won’t be promoted. He’s a likely candidate for Chairman of the National People’s Congress – the number 2 spot on the PBSC.

Zhang Dejiang

Like the previous two men, Zhang has an economics education, with one very notable difference: It was in North Korea. He is essentially everything that Wang Qishan is not. As head of Guangdong he suppressed news of the SARS outbreak and led numerous attacks on the southern media group, which saw a few top editors imprisoned. He managed to dodge culpability for a number of other debacles in Guangdong and did manage to oversee (what the party would call) stable growth. This is likely why he got called in to take over Chongqing when Bo Xilai was sacked. Zhang is the classic communist leader: Quiet, firm and secretive, but he gets things done, no matter who he has to step on.

  • Political Score: -0.40
  • Odds at Promotion: Very good. He’ll likely be the left-wing’s compromise for Wang Qishan. He’s a party elder very experienced in stability maintenance on the provincial level and thought to be an ally of Jiang Zemin (who still exerts influence – both directly and through his cronies).

Li Yuanchao

Another economist and graduate of Peking University – where he studied from 1988-1991 amidst the democracy protests. He later shielded some members of the Communist Party Youth League that had shown sympathy to the protestors. As head of Jiangsu he instituted some seemingly democratic reforms that made leaders more accountable to the people. But as BBC notes, “He still seems to believe in the supremacy of the party and its right to rule China. At a speech given at Harvard University a few years ago he said the party’s ability to ‘pool resources’ had helped the country deal with the financial crisis.”

  • Political Score: +0.20
  • Odds at Promotion: Very Good. Like Li Keqiang, Li Yuanchao is rumored to be an ally of Hu Jintao, but not too offensive to the conservative faction. He currently heads the Communist Party’s Organization Department. This is the same position He Guoqiang held before becoming Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection – the number 8 slot on the PBSC.  

Liu Yunshan

Former Xinhua reporter, Liu is now a Politburo member and director of the Propaganda Department. This position, almost by definition, means he has few liberal tendencies. He’s been at the helm over internet crackdowns, has called for there to be greater control over the web, and overseen a gamut of obnoxious measures neutering entertainment shows. Don’t look to Liu for much reform.

  • Political score: -0.30
  • Odds at Promotion: Excellent. It’s expected he’ll take over Li Changchun’s number 5 spot on the PBSC as the main director of propaganda and ideology. It’s a natural move.

The Wild Cards

This is where things get interesting. Who the remaining PBSC spots will go to is anyone’s guess. These are the people thought to be in the running.

Liu Yandong

Liu is playing the game well by keeping her cards very close to her chest. She could be the first woman to ever join the ranks of the PBSC and she presumably knows joining this boy’s club takes some tactical cunning. As such, we don’t know much about her. She allegedly has close ties to both Hu Jintao AND Jiang Zemin – a political anomaly that suggests she’s moderate and well positioned for promotion. Other than that, she reportedly gets on well with foreign contacts, has given token support for many mild reforms (ie – education), wants a greater role for NGOs, and is very economically competent.

  • Political Score: +0.10
  • Odds at promotion: Pretty good, given her connections. And promoting her would be great PR for a government that’s increasingly trying to stop sex-selective abortions and pretend women have an equal shot at success in China. When Liu Yang blasted off to become the first Chinese woman in space, Liu Yandong was there to read Hu Jintao’s remarks. It was perhaps a not-so-subtle hint that there will be another big “first” for Chinese women this year.

Meng Jianzhu

If Meng were to be promoted to the PBSC, it would almost certainly be to the number 9 spot atop China’s state security and police apparatus. He’s currently minister of public security which, again, by definition doesn’t allow for much liberal thinking. Not too much is known about his political philosophies, except that he loves stability and has little tolerance for drug addicts. The good news though is that it would be very hard to top Zhou Yongkang in taking a hardline. In fact, it’s rumored Zhou endorsed Bo Xilai as his successor rather than Meng, suggesting Meng is softer than either. Indeed, he recently launched a “three inquiries, three assessments” campaign that aims to put a human face on the police force and transform its image from that of a tool of corruption to a guardian of the people.

  • Political score: -0.20
  • Odds at promotion: Pretty good. Meng Jianzhu may prove to be the greatest beneficiary of Bo Xilai’s fall. He’s one of the few contenders for the PBSC that’s not currently on the 25-man Politburo, so a promotion would entail a leap frog, but he holds the same position Zhou Yongkang did before his promotion. Completely unsubstantiated reports have even suggested Zhou has already (involuntarily) handed most of his power over to Meng.

Zhang Gaoli

Another economist and Jiang Zemin loyalist. He’s credited for much of the development of Shenzhen and Guangdong in the late 90s. He was then moved to Tianjin in 2007 to clean up after a series of corruption scandals. His philosophy is pretty much in line with Jiang Zemin’s: Economy ahead of anything else.

  • Political score: -0.15
  • Odds at promotion: Meh. There’s hasn’t been much buzz to suggest he’s destined for higher office. He might sneak his way into the PBSC if the conservatives ultimately win out in the horse-trading.  

Yu Zhengsheng

Yu took over control of Shanghai in 2007 succeeding Xi Jinping. He’s reportedly on ok terms with both the Jiang and Hu factions, but looks to be more on Jiang’s side of the fence. He also has strong ties with Deng Xiaoping’s family, which is likely what saved his political career when his brother (who was the director of the Beijing National Security Bureau) defected to the United States in 1985. He has advocated developing the legal system and enforcing the rule of law which, if true, would seemingly put him more in the liberal camp. Not so sure though.

  • Political Score: +0.05
  • Odds at promotion: Fair. Some analysts have given Yu pretty good odds since he holds the same Shanghai party secretary position Xi Jinping and Jiang Zemin did before rising to the PBSC. But his brother’s defection to the US is a red mark. It may not have stopped him from making the top 25, but the issue will almost certainly be noticed by the masses if he’s in the top 9. That could be a problem. He would make a good compromise candidate though, so I’d give him better odds than Zhang Gaoli.

Hu Chunhua

In 2008 Hu went to Henan to became China’s youngest governor and now is the head of Inner Mongolia. His policies there have painted him as a proponent of more official accountability and wealth equality over rapid GDP growth. He has taken a hardline on unrest though in the province and in Tibet (where he was previously a lower level official). A definite Hu protégé, he’s even been nicknamed “Little Hu” because of their similar backgrounds and ideologies.

  • Political Score: +0.20
  • Odds at Promotion (to PBSC): Not good…yet. He’s not yet even in the 25-man Politburo but he almost certainly will be this year. At just 49-years old it’s unlikely he’ll leapfrog into the top 9 but, barring some unfortunate political incident, he probably will in 2017. There’ve even been whispers that he’s being groomed to become China’s president after Xi Jinping retires in 2022. He’s definitely someone to keep an eye on.

Ling Jihua

You probably first heard this name from the completely unsubstantiated rumors that it was his son who died in a Bejing Ferrari crash earlier this year. He’s currently secretary of the Central Secretariat of the Communist Party and thought to be a close aide to Hu Jintao and proponent of his policies.

  • Political Score: 0.00
  • Odds at Promotion: Bad. He’s not in the Politburo and really doesn’t have much to his name except some reports that he has impressed the Central Committee – the roughly 350-person body that makes the Politburo selection. He might get promoted to the Politburo, but I’m not really sure why his name is being tossed around to join the PBSC.

Wang Yang

Sinophiles are undoubtedly familiar with this name. He’s the Guangzhou party secretary/Politburo member that peacefully quelled the Wukan uprising. He’s an outspoken proponent of democratic reform, free speech and liberalization of the media. Those hopeful for a major reformer to join the PBSC have their fingers crossed for Wang Yang.

  • Political Score: +0.50
  • Odds at Promotion: Not great. When Bo Xilai fell, most seemed to think it cleared the path for Wang’s assent to the PBSC. But the more I think about it, the more I doubt they were ever competitors for a single position. In fact, I think Wang may have been hurt by Bo’s fall. The two are completely at odds ideologically, so perhaps they both could have entered the PBSC as a compromise. But for just one of them to make it would require the opposing faction to bite a major bullet. Besides that, Wang might just be too liberal and unpredictable for the time being. His calls for democratic reform and a freer press threaten to unwind many of the officials who themselves may be guilty of Bo-like transgressions. So I give Wang a long-shot at this point. The good news for his fans though is that he’s young enough to still be eligible for the PBSC in five years if he doesn’t make it this time.

How do they stack up?

To give some perspective, here’s where I’d put the current PBSC:

  • Hu Jintao: 0.00
  • Wu Bangguo: -0.10
  • Wen Jiabao: +0.50
  • Jia Qinglin: -0.30
  • Li Changchun: -0.25
  • Xi Jinping: -0.05
  • Li Keqiang: +0.30
  • He Guoqiang: -0.10
  • Zhou Yongkang: -0.60

And two others worth noting:

  • Jiang Zemin: -0.30
  • Bo Xilai: -0.50

So let’s put the current PBSC on the chart next to the contenders for the next PBSC:

You’ll notice the current PBSC is tipped to the conservatives with Hu balancing out the middle. With the next PBSC however, it looks like the balance might tip ever so slightly toward the liberals.

What does it all mean?

This is NOT scientific by any means, so it may not mean much. Also, this is based on the assumption that the next PBSC will have 9 members and be ordered in the same way the current one is. It’s very possible that it won’t be. There have been some intriguing rumors that the standing committee will either be whittled down to 7 members (restoring the pre-2002 level) or be expanded to 11. If cut down to 7, many are assuming the two spots to be demoted off the standing committee would be the propaganda chief and the state security czar.

If this happened, it would shake up this whole analysis and probably be a net gain for the liberals – as Meng Jianzhu and Liu Yunshan (both conservatives) might find themselves promoted, but without PBSC seats. Expanding the committee to 11 could also be good for liberals since the wild cards overall seem to lean more toward that camp. This is probably why Hu Jintao is rumored to be pushing for a re-sizing.

Projection

In one way or another, the liberals look poised to take greater influence, but remember, that’s “liberal” by Chinese standards. Nobody (not even Wang Yang) is going to want to do anything too quickly. In fact, Xi Jinping and the whole Politburo will probably play it safe for the first year with the “stability first” status quo while they consolidate their power.

After that, we’ll probably see the reforms that effectively halted before the Olympics slowly pick up again, liberalizing intra-party democracy, speech and press freedoms. This may happen concurrently with left-wing initiatives attempting to redistribute wealth. However, many of China’s problems are becoming worse and more visible at a speed that will likely outpace any reforms the new leadership is able to agree on. And the current leadership looks to be just running out the clock on their reign by clamping down hard on discontent, which will only fan it further in the long-term.

Then there are a lot of other wild-cards that make any prediction largely meaningless. Chief among them is the economy. That can easily falter or some other unexpected event could happen (remember, no one saw Tiananmen coming a mile away). So even if the new leaders do start to liberalize and restore CCP legitimacy, time probably isn’t on their side.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: A full revolution is VERY unlikely and it would almost certainly be contained if it started. BUT, it is entirely possible that some catalyst (disaster, major revelation, serious economic blow, etc.) could create a Tiananmen-like shock that forces accelerated reform. That may in fact be the only thing capable of jump-starting the serious measures needed to address China’s growing problems. I’m becoming less and less convinced that either the current or future PBSC will reform enough in time to prevent such a catalyst.

Notes

Danovic, J. (n.d.). China politburo 2012 leadership change: Everything you need to know. Policymic

Mauldin, J. Looking to 2012: China’s next generation of leaders. InvestorsInsight.com.

Miller, A. The 18th central committee politburo: A quixotic, foolhardy, rashly speculative, but nonetheless ruthlessly reasoned projection. China Leadership Moniter,

Last week this horrific photo went viral in China showing a dead baby beside its mother after it was forcibly aborted in its 7th month. This was because the family failed to pay a 40,000 yuan ($6,280) second child fine. To be honest, I didn’t initially take much of an interest in the story. It seemed to be a tragically common case that simply had vivid pictures attached to it.

Then BBC asked me to discuss the story on-air along with some other guests including Chai Ling – Tiananmen Square protest leader turned crusader against the one-child policy. She basically ignored the host’s questions, opting instead to give a detailed description of the incident’s brutality and go on a rant about how evil China’s government and the one-child policy are. That seems to be the prevailing reaction to this whole thing, but I think this misses the greater significance – which is what ultimately got me interested in this story.

As awful as this incident was, the overall situation has been getting better. China has been gradually relaxing the one-child policy for years by chipping away at the number of people subject to it. In 2007, one official estimated that less than 40% of China’s people are currently bound by it.

The central government could cease using population quotas as a basis for promotion of local officials – which would definitely reduce incidents of forced abortion. Other than that though, the gradual relaxation of the one-child policy over many years (as we’re seeing now) is probably the best anyone can hope for. Ending it outright all at once could cause a baby boom with demographic consequences down the road just as bad as those that resulted from the policy in the first place.

So for most intents and purposes, the forced abortion problem is probably better than it was 10 or 20 years ago and improving slowly but surely. The takeaway from this latest incident though is that, as far as public opinion is concerned, none of that matters.

For most Chinese, the one-child policy’s unpopularity comes simply from the fact that they can’t have as many kids as they’d like. Social side-effects like forced abortions have been largely non-issues because the censorship apparatus doesn’t allow them to be issues. For Chinese, unless you personally know of someone who experienced brutality in the name of population control, you probably don’t appreciate the seriousness and ubiquity of the problem. That is, until last week.

The nauseating images of the dead baby spread like wildfire – drawing over a million comments on Weibo. In almost the snap of a finger, masses of people (numbering at least in the seven digits) were slapped across the face with an issue the government has pretty successfully kept under the rug for decades. Thanks to the growing prevalence of cameras and microblog users, the brutal side-effects of the one-child policy have almost instantly entered public consciousness and debate.

Over the past two years or so a string of equally captivating images have gone viral sparking awareness and debate most unwelcome by the government; ranging from a petitioner crushed under a truck (possibly murdered) to the attempted cover up of the Wenzhou train crash. The government is losing control of public discourse and any sense of credibility. Decades of secrecy and censorship is coming back to bite it hard. Before people can even digest and get over one shocking image, another one pops up that confronts them with some new horrible issue. So even if things are actually getting better, they appear to be quickly getting much worse.

Nobody can say whether something like this forced abortion photo will ever push the nation past a tipping point, but what is certain is that these images are forcing leaders to take unprecedented measures – like actually enforcing laws that aren’t in their own self-interest. You might say a kind of de-facto democratic reform is unfolding.

This week two former chiefs of China’s soccer association were sentenced to ten-and-a-half years in prison for taking bribes. This is being marked as the cap to a two-year crackdown on corrupt club officials, referees and players that’s seen 56 people put in jail – all part of an effort to improve the soccer prospects of a country with 1.3 billion people that can’t manage to throw together a team better than North Korea’s. Even if you don’t care about soccer, this is a story worth paying attention to.

I’m hardly the first to note the similarities between the problems Chinese soccer faces and those of China’s government. In a nutshell, the organization of people indulging in the bribery and corruption is the same one charged with policing and disciplining itself. It seems just about everyone can see the inherent problem with this arrangement – except those on the inside.

Much like the government does when faced with endemic official corruption, Chinese soccer is tackling the problem with a one-off crackdown and parading the stiff prison sentences that the prosecuted receive. This is essentially like deploying a Kleenex to battle pneumonia and then showing off the huge snot-wad it removes. It temporarily takes care of the most obvious symptom and looks impressive, but there’s a lot more snot inside that didn’t make itself so obvious. And since the systematic problem hasn’t been addressed, the body will remain a perpetual snot, cough and phlegm-producing machine.

In both the government and soccer league there’s obviously a fair amount of self-delusion from those who genuinely do want to clean things up but think they can do so without giving up any power. “If only we can find the right recipe of role-models, stern warnings, harsh punishments, guilt-tripping, gimmicks and (non-independent toothless) anti-corruption commissions, then we won’t need truly independent watchdogs keeping us in check and slowing down our grand vision,” they imagine.

Now we’ll get to watch what happens in the aftermath of this soccer crackdown and perhaps make some wider conclusions about where China’s authoritarian system as a whole is headed. Some bold democratic reforms have been proposed for the league, so we’ll see if there’s enough support to actually get any enacted and enforced. Either way, if this relatively small corner of Chinese governance can’t be cleaned up, what chance does the greater national system have? If rampant corruption seeps back into the league and the country remains awful at soccer, then it’s probably safe to conclude that the long-term prospects of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” in its current form are equally grim.

Two weeks ago I had one of those occasional periods where I just didn’t want to be in China anymore. The nationalistic outcry against foreigners online stemming from the rapist, the rude cellist and the Beijing crackdown was palpable. Then CCTV’s Yang Rui added a “dose of poison” to it all with some insensitive comments, followed by a number of Chinese netizens telling Charlie Custer to shut up and get out of their country for his criticism of Yang. I half expected to meet a lynch mob with torches and pitchforks sniffing out foreigners when I walked out my Beijing door.

But then I did the best thing I could have done: I turned off my computer and actually walked outside. For the last two weeks I’ve barely looked at a computer screen, and it’s made a big difference.

I traveled to Sichuan and Shandong, meeting nothing but kindness and curiosity from locals. Nobody seemed the least bit influenced by the supposed anti-foreign atmosphere. (This blogger illustrates a similar experience with nice pictures).

On one bus ride I did encounter a middle-aged Chinese man who, as soon as I told him I was American, proceeded to rattle off every Chinese grievance with the United States from the past 60 years. Touching on everything from the Belgrade embassy bombing to interference in Libya, he said things like “America tries to rule the world. It’s really evil!” After several minutes, he got louder and inadvertently started replacing “America” with “you all” in his rant. When the rest of the bus started laughing at him though, he became self-aware, laughed along, grabbed my hand, and said, “…But you and I are just normal people. It has nothing to do with us. We’re friends.”

I’ve had dozens of similar conversations in China. Some expats get annoyed by them, but I find them quite endearing. Fiercely opinionated nationalists eagerly shotgun blast me with their political beliefs because I’m their first relevant audience. In the end though, they almost always delineate the difference between me and my government.

After that bus ride, I tried to think of the times I’ve actually met real life incarnations of the xenophobic vitriol I see on Weibo. There have probably been around ten instances where my foreignness entered the equation AFTER a dispute had already begun with a Chinese person. But I could only come up with two incidents where I encountered completely unprovoked hostility simply because I was foreign…and they were pretty mild. Not too bad for five years in China.

Several days ago I returned back home to Beijing– the epicenter of the recent xenophobia – and made the rounds with my father all over town. I still didn’t notice so much as a dirty look from locals, let alone open hostility.

Of course, this is anecdotal and I am a white foreigner – pretty different from being black or Asian. I have heard some secondhand chatter of expats in the capitol being accosted verbally or physically, but I’ve still never felt the need to keep my head down and avoid the outdoors for fear of being spit on – that is, after I lowered my intake of Chinese microblogs and media coverage of them.

This has illustrated that, for better or worse, Weibo is a pretty shotty gauge of Chinese public opinion. Roughly 250 million Chinese are microbloggers, which means over a billion are not. And that gets whittled down much further when you consider how few have an interest in politics (Yang Rui, a prolific political commentator, has only 800,000 followers), and many fewer still have enough passion to post comments or their own original content  (there were 1,600 comments on Yang’s infamous post). And then you have to consider what motivates those comments. Tea Leaf Nation recently did a great piece on how xenophobic Weibo tweets often perpetuate themselves in an echo chamber where dissenters flee, the foreign “punching bag” is mute and commenters engage in one-upsmanship to get noticed.

To be sure, diatribic Weibo commenters are an important demographic to pay attention to – no matter how relatively few their numbers are. They’re presumably the most likely people to take their grievances to the streets and push for change (whereas public opinion polls of voters are a better way to predict the political future of democracies).

But anecdotal evidence suggests that even that minority of nationalists screaming online is far more benign than their commentary would suggest. In 2008, an intensely nationalistic (and pretty scary) video was released as retaliation for a number of grievances with the West at the time. The New Yorker reporter Evan Osnos arranged an interview with the maker of the video expecting to meet a bully. Instead, he met a gracious young man who even offered to pay Osnos’ cab fare.

I personally knew a girl around the same time who railed against the “French bastards” online because of disruptions to the Paris torch relay. Several months later though, she had a French boyfriend. For xenophobic nationalists in China, I often get the feeling there’s some double-think stemming from conflicting ideas they’ve been brought up with.

Plural “foreigners” can be hated and scapegoated when they remain as disconnected abstract bogeymen.  But when Chinese nationalist meets singular foreigner face-to-face, the reality that this is a flesh and blood person kicks in and basic human decency takes over. After being exposed to several real foreigners, some will abandon the bogeyman outlook altogether, and some will just keeping flipping the switch between abstract enemy and individual foreign friend.

Like with any country, China has plenty of unmitigated racists. But at least for me, they’ve never amounted to anything more than a very rare nuisance in my day-to-day life. So if you’re not in China, don’t get the impression from recent events that the country is a cesspool of xenophobia and hatred. And if you are in China, try not to let the recent coverage of online opinion skew the way you see things. The status quo for Chinese opinion about foreigners has been and will be for a long time more or less the same: Somewhat ignorant, but good-natured and curious.

The 100-day crackdown on illegal foreigners in Beijing is now well underway and it seems the police aren’t messing around this time. Some have suggested this is a knee-jerk reaction to the alleged attempted rape of a Chinese girl by a British man. But both things may be part of a bigger trend we’re likely to see continue for the rest of the year.

Another story has made waves recently on the Chinese internet about a Russian cellist who put his legs up on a Chinese woman’s train seat and cursed her when she complained about it (He later apologized). Unlike the rape incident, this is not a crime; nor is it newsworthy. But that didn’t stop Beijing Morning Post from splashing the whole story on their front page this morning:

Then there was CCTV anchor Yang Rui, who made this tragically hilarious statement on Weibo. Here’s a blurb:

The Ministry of Public Security is getting rid of foreign trash right now, arresting foreign scum and protecting innocent Chinese girls from them. […]Foreigners who can’t find a job in their home country come to China and get involved in illegal business activities such as human trafficking and espionage; they also like to distribute lies which discredit China to persuade locals to move abroad. A lot of them look for Chinese women to live with as a disguise to further their espionage efforts.

Then finally, People’s Daily reported today that Baidu and mop.com have launched a campaign with Sina Weibo, “calling on internet users to expose bad behavior by foreigners in China.”

[Update: Kaiser Kuo, Baidu's director of international communications, said this:  "The People’s Daily story is erroneous. Baidu has launched no such campaign. It was something done originally on Baidu PostBar but not under official auspices and we have now removed it."]

A lot of people do bad things and break the law in China, regardless of their nationality. But this campaign intends to put the magnifying glass squarely over bad behavior – whether or not it’s anything remarkable – so long as the perpetrator is foreign. It implicitly calls on Chinese to look at foreigners with a suspicious eye while holstering a smart phone.

Recently I discussed how the Communist Party uses the “Century of Humiliation” as the cornerstone of its legitimacy. Foreigners invaded and defiled China for a hundred years until the CCP rescued the country from them – so the story goes. The government stays in the people’s good graces by constantly reminding them of this period and implying that the country still isn’t safe from the foreign menace.

I also predicted in that post that, as the increasingly complicated power transition draws near, “we can probably expect to see even more international events covered in China from an angle that harkens back to the humiliating century. And we might even see an uptick in coverage of scarcely-newsworthy events that portray foreigners in China as exploiters or aggressors.”

Trying to consolidate political support by taking a hard-line on foreigners in the country is hardly unique to China. It works the same almost everywhere. Foreigners make a perfect “them” to unite “us” against. They can be scapegoated and harassed without political liability because they’re too few, too vulnerable and, well, too foreign to defend themselves. In China, this tactic is a matter of survival for the authoritarian government.

These recent cases shining the spotlight on bad foreigners aren’t necessarily direct examples of this tactic though. After all, it was common citizens who first disseminated the British pervert and the Russian cellist stories. But both cases raise the “did the chicken or the egg come first” dilemma. Why did netizens frame the stories as a “bad foreigner attacking good Chinese” in the first place?

The subsequent actions by players like Beijing Morning Post and Yang Rui showed that they have every intention of making sure this cycle continues. They perpetuate the implicit anti-foreign angle, thereby assuring future incidents will continue to be framed as “peaceful Chinese vs. arrogant imperialistic foreigners.” That’s pretty good for creating very shallow Chinese unity and government support, but pretty awful for humanity.

I still remember very clearly sitting in a contemporary issues class during my senior year of high school in early 2003. To spark a discussion, the teacher asked who supported the imminent US invasion of Iraq. All 25 of the students raised their hands except two – myself, and a German exchange student.

The others listed plenty of reasons for their support: Saddam was a mad man, he was building weapons of mass destruction, he’d killed his own people and he may have had a hand in 9/11. I wouldn’t have been so bothered if I’d felt those were the real motives for nearly the entire class wanting war. But the flimsy and uninformed way many of them made their arguments suggested those reasons were just convenient excuses they were all too happy to latch on to. Quite simply, we had a badass military and it feels good to watch your country flex its muscles – especially when you have almost no chance of being personally affected by the collateral damage.

A few weeks ago I felt déjà vu from that day when I was speaking to a class of 20 Chinese grad students in Beijing. We got on the topic of the South China Sea and I expressed concern that a military conflict would break out there someday soon. One girl replied by saying, “I would welcome that.”

Other students chimed in, agreeing that they’d like to see China attack Vietnam or the Philippines. Some wanted to solidify territorial claims; others just wanted to “teach them a lesson” without specifying what exactly that lesson would be. If there were any dissenters in the class, they didn’t speak up.

Over the past few days tension has been rising between China and the Philippines over a disputed island. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has expressed its readiness for battle, and a slew of editorials have said things like “peace will be a miracle if [Filipino] provocation lasts.”

This is nothing new. Brinksmanship over Chinese territorial claims happens pretty regularly. But after speaking with that class and looking at other current events, this time feels especially dangerous. Let’s pretend for a moment that we’re the Chinese government and weigh the pros and cons of going to war with the Philippines – ordered from least to most compelling.

Cons

  • Loss of Chinese soldiers.
  • International condemnation – would seriously undermine China’s claim of a “Peaceful Rise.”
  • This would push China’s other neighbors (Vietnam, Japan, India, Korea) further into the arms of the US and encourage them to increase their defense capability.
  • Possibility of a direct US military intervention.

Pros

  • China would control the disputed island and surrounding waters.
  • It would send a message to other neighbors that China is serious about enforcing its territorial claims.
  • It would end the impression that China will back down from potential conflict with the US. This would be useful internationally – especially with regards to Taiwan – but even more so domestically, to show the people that the government has the backbone to confront the US.
  • It would greatly please the hawks in the military – a base which is absolutely essential for the CCP, as they’re the only real guarantors of continued authoritarian rule.
  • As with most any war, it would consolidate nationalistic support from the people firmly behind the party, which would be a godsend amidst turbulent domestic issues (ie – economic turndown, rough leadership transition).

China probably won’t act militarily in this particular situation, but if I’m in charge of the country right now, that pros list is looking more attractive by the day. As wild as this year has already been with the Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng incidents, it’s possible that we ain’t seen nothing yet. If any more destabilizing events take place in the lead-up to the power handover, it may become very tempting to finally step over the line from saber-rattling to actual military action in the South China Sea – a line many Chinese have been pressuring the government to cross for years.

SEE UPDATES BELOW

The past few weeks have been especially embarrassing for the “rule-of-law” touting Communist Party as a blind activist (not actually charged with any crime) escaped house arrest. Well now Global Times has released a new narrative on what’s happened in Chen Guangcheng’s village over the past few years that puts the situation in a very different light.

In an op-ed entitled “Chen trump for US in human rights game,” Sima Pingbang, a “blogger and grass-roots intellectual” claims that he actually visited Chen successfully last December. This is a pretty bold claim since we were previously under the impression that no journalist had successfully broken through Chen’s guards to see him. It’s also quite strange that we haven’t heard anything of this visit until now – at a time when finding some actual wrong-doing by Chen would be very convenient for the party – which brings us to the even bolder claims of the article:

According to other villagers, Chen’s imprisonment a few years ago had nothing to do with his work. It was actually a pretty common local conflict.  They told me that Chen built a deep well using funds he received from a British source. But that well sucked out water from other wells in the village, which meant Chen effectively controlled the village’s water.

They claimed that Chen charged high fees for the water and caused discontent from villagers, some of them then openly voiced their unhappiness and that angered Chen. So he asked his family members to attack the village committee and blocked public roads in order to vent his anger.

So rather than being a feeble human rights defender, the piece says Chen is a water-hoarding, price-gouging, vengeful rabble-rouser.  For some reason, a British source funded a blind man’s water monopoly on a random village in Shandong.

[Update 1: Another article today from The Daily Beast mentions that there was in fact a British-funded well. It says, "After his environmental fight against the paper mill (in the late 1990s), Chen contacted Western media, diplomats, and NGOs in an effort to help improve villagers’ access to clean water. When the British Embassy agreed to bankroll a new 180-meter-deep well, Chen was proud of what his little hamlet of Dongshigu had achieved."] 

Sima Pingbang, the author of the GT piece, is a somewhat famous left-wing Maoist who last year penned an essay entitled “Support American People’s Great Wall Street Revolution,” which said events in the US will herald a global revolution that will bury capitalism. It inspired some short-lived protests in support of the movement in China.

On scouring over Sima Pingbang’s Weibo tweets from the month of December, I found nothing about a visit to Chen Guangcheng’s village. When contacted about how the claims were verified for print in Global Times, op-ed section reporter Gao Lei explained that Sima Pingbang did indeed visit Dongshigu in December with two others named Liu Yang 刘仰 and Yi Qing 一清 from a “blogger association.” Gao said that the group was approved by local authorities for the visit because they said they were “not there to cause any trouble, but looking for a peaceful solution.”  They then related this all to Gao Lei with some others from the association over dinner sometime after their return.

It seems that the “blogger association” (which Gao didn’t name) these men belong to is April Media 四月传媒 at m4.cn – formerly Anti-CNN.com – a nationalistic site that’s railed against Western media distortions of China since 2008.  It has an English sister site called the 4th Media. All three men have written op-eds on Chen Guangcheng in the past three days (here, here and here). Yi Qing backs up the trip to Dongshigu, but Liu Yang just talks about how Chen is a sympathetic figure who’s been exploited by the West. It’s not quite in line with the conniving water baron Sima Pingbang’s article portrays.

Gao Lei also said that these men have written about their trip before, but I wasn’t able to find anything about it dated before the past few days – which is odd if they did in fact go last December.

So it seems Sima Pingbang either A) Really found a story that the entire foreign press has somehow missed, B) went to Dongshigu, actually talked with villagers and Chen Guangcheng, but was lied to – perhaps by the thugs guarding Chen – and swallowed it all wholesale, or C) made things up.  Since Chen Guangcheng is gone now anyways and these new revelations, if true, would neutralize the government’s supposed wrongdoing, surely Dongshigu authorities will want these things independently verified by journalists – like those from CNN –  who might try to visit the town.

[Update 2: Yaxue Cao from Seeing Red in China, who first broke the news on Chen Kegui's altercation with thugs, has informed me that Sima did go to Dongshigu with Liu and Yi, as well as Politburo member Li Yuanchao, to convince Chen to reach some kind of compromise - which he refused. This site shows that Li was in Linyi at the time, though it naturally doesn't mention anything about Chen. The presence of a Politburo member would be nothing short of incredible and would explain the others not writing about the trip earlier.

Yaxue also adeptly pointed out that, while there was indeed a British-funded well, the idea of Chen siphoning the water away from the rest of the village is stupid because of (among other things) the principle of communicating vessels.]

[Update 3: He Peirong, Chen's rescuer, has told me that Li Yuanchao never met Chen. So if Li did have any involvement with Chen, it wasn't direct.]

A few days ago I looked at the two options the Party’s PR apparatus had in responding to the Chen Guangcheng situation:

  1. Show restraint. Acknowledge, but downplay the story as best it can until it blows over. Perhaps even allow a few commentaries that aren’t hyper-critical of the event to show that the leadership isn’t so insecure.
  2. Actively retaliate with the full extent of police and media power.

It’s now become pretty apparent that they learned nothing from The Liu Xiaobo Nobel PR debacle and have decided to go all in on option 2.

Many of Chen’s extended family and rescuers are still unaccounted for, have been interrogated, beaten, or been placed under soft detention. And several journalists have been blocked from reporting.

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Weimin whipped out the one-size fits all response to international disputes saying, “The US move is an interference in China’s internal affairs.”

The Chinese media is now on the offensive as well, using pretty much every official cliche you can imagine for responding to dissent and foreign involvement in China.  Here’s a few rough translations from recent Chinese media commentaries:

Beijing Daily:

Chen Guangcheng has become a tool and a pawn of the U.S. politicians to discredit China.

Chen doesn’t represent the interests of the majority of people, just the interests of his boss: The Western Anti-China forces.

Chen has been made famous and labeled as a “hero” and a “freedom fighter” by the US and western media – An anti-society, anti-establishment figure.

Paraphrase [kind of an awkward translation]: Chen and the people supporting him are very naïve to think they can use this event to interfere with and blackmail China. It won’t get any response from the 1.3 billion Chinese people, who are mature enough to realize it’s a conspiracy.

Just think if other countries’ embassies became highly interested in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, giving support to the people to revolt and reinvent the image of America. How would the US respond?

Ambassador Locke, since taking office, has used his duties to strain relations between China and the US instead of being devoted to the development of Sino-US relations. He rode economy class on his plane ride, he carried his bags himself, and used coupons to buy coffee – all as a show. Then he monitored Beijing air quality and published readings at the embassy, creating debate in Beijing city administration. Now he dares to bring Chen – a Chinese citizen – into the US embassy. These things are not in line with Locke’s role as an ambassador, but are meant to stir up contradictions in the whirlpool and it’s very obvious what motive is behind his behavior. [Loosely paraphrased from Chinese parable]: This farce directed by the US embassy gives a lesson to Chinese citizens: The US has ill intentions toward China.

Beijing News:

Diplomats from foreign governments stationed in other countries have the obligation to comply with the laws and respect the culture of the host country. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations does not give ambassadors the right to intervene in domestic issues and doesn’t give them “extraterritoriality” to flagrantly interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.

Since World War II, marks of colonial rule like “extraterritoriality” and “consular jurisdiction” have been thrown in the trash bin of history.

When exploring the new power between China and the United States, one cannot simply use the Cold War mentality to look at how to deal with the differences between the two countries.

Beijing Youth Daily:

Chen Guangcheng left the US embassy in China on May 2nd, Ambassador Locke sent him to the hospital in person, pushing the wheelchair under the foreign media’s spotlight. He went beyond his duties as an American ambassador. Under normal circumstances it’s understandable that American officials give help to ordinary Chinese citizens, but Locke used American values to judge Chinese society and forced China to accept American values. His actions were a “show” and “performance” to attract attention, which is typical Western politician behavior. It’s impulsive and hypocritical. It’s not only offensive to Chinese, but the American media also criticizes such behavior.

In recent years, human rights has been relegated to a very secondary position in Sino-US relations. The era in which the US finds fault with China’s human rights should belong to the past. We are willing to make concessions to the relationship with sincerity and goodwill to maintain the overall situation of Sino-US relations. Any behavior that damages the overall situation of Sino-US relations has no future.

Beijing Times

The US is already stretched too wide and too thin in other countries, but it still shows too much concern about Chinese domestic issues. Under the flag of humanitarianism it interferes with other countries’ issues showing its intention of being the master of the world. This kind of behavior totally betrays international law and the principle of non-interference. But if other countries interfere with American internal affairs then the US will retaliate. This kind of logic is pure hegemonic logic.

The countries who have such logic always deliberately look for some tools to flaunt their own rights and the mistakes of others. In this case Chen Guangcheng is their new tool. When he was at the US embassy, he couldn’t find justice but only found himself being used by the US, which left him only frustration and disappointment. Any country during the period of transition and reform will face a lot of conflicts and contradictions. But during the past 30 years after Reform & Opening Up, China has not passed on its problems or contradictions to other countries, but rather it solved a lot of problems on its own and achieved great accomplishments and progress. But some individuals and countries with ulterior motives intend to exaggerate Chinese domestic contradictions in an attempt to discredit China. But this one of the contradictions that Chinese can solve on its own as it did in previous years without the need of others to intervene.

If you want to get an idea of how well a city’s economy is doing in China, one quick way is to look for how much one-child policy propaganda there is. China’s public welfare system is lacking and, for the poor, children are usually the most reliable social security insurance (and male children are investments with greater potential returns). This is why poor villages like Chen Guangcheng’s often must resort to brutal methods like forced abortions and sterilizations in order to meet their family planning quotas.

Recently I went biking through Shandong – where Chen Guangcheng fought these practices. When going from cities to villages, there’s a pretty obvious inverse correlation between the income of local people and the number of signs urging them to only have one child (and not to abort if that one child is female). These signs range from the spray-painted and depressing to the fancy and poetic. Some are so absurd I figured they must all just be made up on the spot by desperate local officials (ie – “Plant more trees, have less children and you’ll become rich”).

Well it turns out many of these slogans come directly from the National Population and Family Planning Commission – a State Council agency. In 2007 the commission worried that many local slogans were “cold and tough, lacking humane care and people-oriented thinking” and may “lead to ambiguity.” Then there were some slogans which “have content that isn’t wrong, but are too blunt and indifferent. They not only fail to warn and educate, but also can easily lead to resentment of the masses, leading to conflicts and disputes.”

Getting them right is important because “even with today’s highly developed mass media, slogans still inspire, guide and unite the people on the principles and policies of population and family planning.”

So the commission took the liberty of putting together this list of 190 recommended slogans.

Many go beyond just birth control. They touch on issues indirectly related to the one child policy; like discouraging aborting girls, encouraging care for the elderly (implying that you won’t need a bunch of kids to take care of you when you get old) and discouraging anything that might cause birth defects (which would prompt you to have more kids).

Here are some choice translations:

16. Do everything possible to solve the population problem, focus on building a harmonious society.

30. Mother Earth is too tired. She can’t bear too many children.

34. Control the population, protect the environment and cherish the planet.

40. Advocate the scientific premarital examination and the prevention of birth defects.

55. In nature there are mountains and water. In human society there men and women – balanced and harmonious.

61. Maintain a balanced sex ratio at birth and build a socialist harmonious society.

66. It is strictly prohibited to drown, abandon or abuse baby girls. According to the law protect the rights and interests of women and children.

72. Migrant workers, do not forget family planning and health services are always with you.

78. Respecting, caring for and helping the elderly are virtues of the Chinese nation.

80. Children are the flowers of the motherland. The elderly are the wealth of society.

96. Bare fewer children and run faster toward a moderately well-off life. Build a harmonious new countryside.

104. Break the thousands of years of old feudal customs. Set up new marriage and reproduction culture.

124. Girls and boys are the hope of the nation.

146. Family planning services send sincere emotions. Law-based administration warms hearts.

155. Family is a boat, love is the sail, and reproductive health is the harbor of your happiness.

157. Contraception, informed choices, and reproductive health warm you and me.

173. Family is a boat, love is the sail. A healthy husband and wife will reach the other shore.

181. Citizens have the right to reproduction, but also the obligation to practice family planning according to law.

184. No inter-family marriage. Premarital check is essential.

I should add that the more poetic slogans aren’t even done justice through the English translation, but you get the idea.

Now, five years later, it seems these suggestions have indeed found their way down to the villages. Here’s some of what I saw on my trip:

Give fewer and better births, be happy the whole life.

Ban non-medical sex determinations and sex-selective abortions.

Delivering girls is just as good as delivering boys. Girls are descendants too.

When going out for migrant work, don't forget your birth control.

Men should also participate in the family planning. Both husband and wife build a harmonious society.

One town even thought it prudent to add English translation themselves:

Strictly control the population growth. Accelerate the social economic development.

Yesterday it was reported Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest in Linyi. Now, the blind self-taught lawyer who defended villagers forced to undergo abortions and sterilizations is at “the 100% safe location” in Beijing – presumably the US embassy, but we still don’t really know. He’s also released a 15-minute video where he details the beatings and deplorable treatment he and his family have received while they were detained by upwards of 80 guards. His family remains in Linyi under their watch.

This comes at a terrible time for the Chinese government. The Communist Party has been trying desperately to parade Bo Xilai’s arrest as evidence that China is under the rule of law. People’s Daily recently mentioned “the law” 23 times in a single editorial. There’s perhaps nobody that makes a mockery of this more than Chen Guangcheng.

Chen spent four years in prison on trumped up charges of “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic.” In the 18 months since his release he’s been under house arrest despite never being charged with any additional crimes. His family – including his 6-year old daughter – has also been detained.

Over the past few years Chen has become a folk-hero among activists in China, perhaps only second to Ai Weiwei in fame. The Shawshank-like escape of the blind dissident through dozens of state thugs is a metaphor that won’t be lost on his supporters

What happens next will be very interesting. The most comparable event in recent memory is when Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in late 2010. Then and now there’s really no positive way the government can spin it. And the Party now basically has the same choices it did then:

  1. Show restraint. Acknowledge, but downplay the story as best it can until it blows over. Perhaps even allow a few commentaries that aren’t hyper-critical of the event to show that the leadership isn’t so insecure.
  2. Actively retaliate with the full extent of police and media power.

You’ll notice there isn’t a third option of officially ignoring the event and trying to block out any mention of it. We’ll probably see that for several days, but the internet has made it an impossible long-term strategy for a story as sensational as this.

In Liu Xiaobo’s case the second option was taken. Liu’s wife and several activists were detained, people were stopped from leaving the country, and we got a daily barrage of inflammatory editorials portraying the prize as a farce concocted by the West to keep China down.

The episode was a PR disaster. The official response only reinforced everything that the award was criticizing. Had the Chinese government taken the first option, it still would have been embarrassing, but some semblance of dignity and face would have been saved. Now we get to see if anything was learned from the Nobel affair.

If the same strategy is used now, it’ll face some big challenges. In this case, the government has no foreigners to blame. As belligerent as it seemed to outsiders, the official response to the Nobel Prize whipped up some nationalistic points for the government. It’s unlikely any such points can be won here. The US could be criticized for “interfering in China’s internal affairs” by sheltering Chen, but that invites some very risky juxtapositions between the two governments.

That leads to the most important difference with the Liu Xiaobo case: Liu was tried for a law he did actually break – a horribly unjust and poorly-defined law, yes, but still a law that’s on the books. What can the government say in Chen’s case? There’s no legal justification to point to. Chen served his time and is legally a free man.

For the past 18 months the central government has been largely able to keep its hands clean of Chen by leaving local Linyi officials to do the dirty work. But now he’s found his way to the central government’s backyard and has already begun to tell the world his story.

National leaders have some important decisions to make in how they respond to Chen, his rescuers, and his family. So far it seems they’re maintaining the status quo by tacitly approving of local authorities’ suppression. Chen’s family has already been retaliated against and his rescuer has reportedly been detained in Nanjing. The Communist Party can either live up to the rule of law it’s been trumpeting and ensure the  freedom of these people, or it can make a hypocritical spectacle of itself at a time when official credibility is already hanging by a thread.

 

Sometime last year Bo Guagua, Bo Xilai’s son, reportedly pulled up in a red Ferrari to meet Jon Huntsman’s daughter at the US ambassador’s residence in Beijing. The car was a symbol of the wealth gap in China and the all-too-common privileges afforded to China’s young political princelings. Some have even suggested it was one of the contributing factors to Bo Xilai’s ultimate downfall.

But did it actually happen?

On April 24th The Harvard Crimson printed a statement by Bo Guagua addressing many of the rumors floating around about him. One of the points said:

I have never driven a Ferrari. I have also not been to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing since 1998 (when I obtained a previous U.S. Visa), nor have I ever been to the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in China. Even my student Visas were issued by the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, which is closer to my home of five years.

This echoes the denial his father made at a press conference last month shortly before he was sacked.

Yesterday I contacted Jon Huntsman’s press office asking about the Ferrari incident and was simply told, “Unfortunately the Governor is not commenting on this story.”

I next contacted the US Embassy in Beijing. Richard Buangan, the embassy’s press secretary, told me by phone that he couldn’t confirm anything.

It was never previously confirmed which of Huntsman’s three adult daughters Bo Guagua supposedly met, but today New York Times reported that they had contacted one of the girls. The article stated:

[Abby Huntsman Livingston] said her sister Mary Anne did share a ride with the younger Mr. Bo after dinner one night but did not notice the make of the car. Ms. Livingston added that she and a friend of Mr. Bo’s were also at the dinner that evening. “He was a very nice person,” she wrote. “I can’t confirm that a Ferrari was involved because I didn’t see it.” She did back up one thing Mr. Bo said: contrary to published accounts, he did not pick up her sister at the ambassador’s residence. “Not sure where the story originated from to be honest, nor does my family,” she wrote.

I tried contacting all three Huntsman sisters myself via their Facebook and Twitter pages, but there was no reply.

The Ferrari story was first exposed in an article by Jeremy Page in Wall Street Journal last November with no names or titles of sources given, citing only “several people familiar with [the episode].”

Anonymous sources are a fact of life with government/embassy officials who aren’t officially authorized to comment. But I emailed Jeremy Page to see if he could give some clarity about the sources he based his report on. I asked  how many sources there were, who they’re affiliated with and if he approached them independently of one-another. Page sent a reply, not answering my questions but directing me to a Dow Jones (WSJ’s parent company) PR rep in New York. She said, “We don’t publicly discuss sources but we’re confident what we reported is true.”

Jeremy Page is a very reputable reporter (whom I and several other journalists have recently said deserves a Pulitzer for his Bo coverage). There’s little reason to doubt that reliable sources did indeed give him the Ferrari information, but who are they? Why do their accounts conflict so greatly with those of the parties directly involved? The issue has serious implications, not only for the Bo family, but also in how the ruling elite and their offspring are viewed in China.

Unfortunately I have more questions to offer at this point than answers, and until one of Page’s sources decides to speak up, it will probably stay that way.

During the “Century of Humiliation” from 1839 to 1945 China was taken to its knees by foreign imperialists. The country was carved up, exploited, looted, raped and dethroned as the world’s greatest superpower. Only in 1949 when the communists triumphed over the Kuomintang in the civil war did China become whole again and begin the road back to its former greatness.

This is the Communist Party’s narrative of history. It’s the message that’s taught in textbooks and reinforced in the media, museums and movies every day throughout China. The elephant in the room that this narrative ignores of course is what happened for the first 30 years of communist China. And it also ignores the damage done by wholly domestic forces during the Century of Humiliation. The below charts show the relative death tolls inflicted on China by domestic and foreign forces over the past two centuries.

The first breaks down the major deadly events.

Getting an accurate count on these events is notoriously difficult*; especially when looking back to the 19th century. But even when we look at the range of estimates the picture is pretty obvious. The next chart shows when we combine these events into a simple Chinese vs. foreign-caused death comparison.

Here’s what it looks like when you just compare deaths caused by the Communist Party’s policies to the events of the Century of Humiliation (This graph doesn’t include the Communist Revolution).

In just 27 years the Communist Party managed to kill significantly more Chinese than all the foreign aggressors did in the previous 106 years combined.

Now in many ways these graphs miss the point. Killings were only one of the grievances over the Century of Humiliation. The damage done to the Chinese psyche was caused more by foreigners stealing territory, imposing unequal treaties, looting cultural relics, exploiting Chinese people, and of course, the heinousness of Japan’s war crimes. But making other considerations goes both ways. During the party’s first 30 years it took the personal property and land of millions, destroyed countless historical relics, denounced and humiliated people for the crime of being intellectual, and enabled violence often every bit as vile as what the Japanese committed. But these death tolls simply provide one objective measurement of the damage caused to China, and they have some important implications.

The nationalism derived from the Century of Humiliation legitimizes the party’s rule and unites the people against a common enemy. China’s education system emphasizes the greatness of China’s 5,000 year civilization and in many ways promotes the idea that Chinese are exceptional people by nature. Take this question from a college entrance exam:

25) Since reform and opening up, China has successfully embarked on improving national conditions and adapted to the road of peaceful development. Adhering to the path of peaceful development is in line with China’s historical and cultural traditions. This is because______

  • A. The Chinese nation is a peace-loving nation
  • B. Peace and development is the trend of the times
  • C. In foreign exchange the Chinese people have always stressed “loving neighbors” and “finding common interests among diversity “
  • D. Chinese culture is a culture of peace. Longing for peace has always been a spiritual characteristic of the Chinese people [A,C, & D are "correct"]

China was the greatest nation in the world and only lost its footing because of incompetent leadership and war-warmongering foreigners who don’t share China’s peaceful values. The party kicked out the imperialists for good (according to its version of history) and still takes an aggressive stance on any whiff of foreign insult or interference with China. Therefore, the Communist Party is “The inevitable choice in China’s social development.

However, to acknowledge that much of what derailed the country in the first place was home-grown violence would take a lot of wind from that idea’s sails. So would the implication that the rescuer (the CCP) did far greater damage to the country than those it needed rescuing from.

These numbers also matter for low-level foreign relations. Chinese businessmen have been known to invoke the Century of Humiliation as leverage with Western counterparts in getting a better deal. You’ll sometimes even hear common street vendors use historical grievances to justify overcharging foreigners. There remains a strong sense that China is still poor because foreigners set China’s progress back a century. So when there’s a chance to balance the scales a little bit, some try to seize their due compensation.

In the coming months as the party begins its difficult power transition (which just became even more complicated) and tries to grab whatever legitimacy it can, we can probably expect to see even more international events covered in China from an angle that harkens back to the humiliating century. And we might even see an uptick in coverage of scarcely-newsworthy events that portray foreigners in China as exploiters or aggressors. It would be a travesty to deny the damage that foreign powers did to China in the past two centuries, but when talking about setting back China’s development, these numbers suggest that foreigners’ role was slim next to certain other “parties.”

*The main sources for these charts are listed on necrometetrics.com here and here and were compared to a few other independent estimates to get a reasonable range. Some of the “various internal uprisings” have very scant data with only a single (likely unreliable) number though and should be taken accordingly. 
 

The party chief of one of China’s largest metropolises and member of the all-powerful 24-man Politburo went for a meeting in Beijing. Little did he know, he wasn’t to return home. He was sacked from his positions and awaits certain imprisonment. This is widely regarded as the result of factional party infighting ahead of a coming leadership shuffle and has been dubbed a “big bomb” for Chinese politics by one analyst.

But wait. This isn’t 2012 and we’re not talking about Bo Xilai. It’s 2006 and I’m describing former Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu, Jiang Zemin’s old “Shanghai Clique” brethren. He found himself on the wrong side of a politically-motivated corruption investigation launched by Hu Jintao’s Beijing clan while posturing for the following year’s 17th National Congress (China’s mid-term leadership shuffle). At the time, foreign media sank their teeth into the sensational political drama.

But wait. If we rewind further to 1995 we find that Beijing mayor and Politburo member Chen Xitong was taken down for corruption and embezzlement. He was in the Beijing faction and a rival of then paramount leader Jiang Zemin. Oh, and the scandal unraveled following the mysterious death of one of Chen’s close associates.

Are we noticing a pattern here?

Bo Xilai’s unfolding scandal is very similar to these past instances, but of course it’s different in one critical way: A lot of Chinese people know about it.

Yesterday morning it was the talk of the Beijing subway and a Chinese friend told me politics has replaced celebrity gossip around her office water cooler. This has forced the government to face the public with the scandal to a degree never before seen.

On April 10th, China’s official Xinhua news agency released a short, but explosive statement announcing that Bo had been officially stripped of his titles and his wife was suspected in the British businessman’s murder.

The embarrassing thing for Xinhua (and ergo the government) was that Reuters had broken this news hours earlier. And microbloggers on Weibo reported it (in one form or another) hours before that. In fact, the whole Bo saga unfolded on Weibo as the state media released only occasional terse statements.

When the Chen Liangyu scandal hit the light of day in 2006, there were about 130 million Chinese internet users and precisely zero of them were microbloggers. Today, over 500 million Chinese are online and half of them microblog. Imagine what those numbers will look like at the next leadership shuffle in 2017.

One can’t deny the sensational theatrics of late night foreign embassy runs, a dead (possibly ex-spy) foreigner, and a flamboyant neo-socialist. At its core though, Bo’s case is hardly unprecedented. But if we look back at the cases of Chen Xitong, Chen Liangyu and now Bo Xilai, we see that each incident has shaken the central party apparatus successively harder.

The party has been thrown off balance, but at the end of the year it will in all likelihood still be standing with its new leadership. But when China’s shadowy power politics inevitably spill out again into the increasingly connected and decreasingly trusting public, can things possibly remain as stable?

The unremarkable case of Bo Xilai: Part I

We’ve now learned via Xinhua and Global Times that Bo Xilai has been officially stripped of his government positions and his family is being investigated for the murder of former British business associate Neil Heywood. What’s important to remember here is that a litany of crimes, possibly including murder, committed by one of China’s 25 most powerful leaders isn’t what’s remarkable about this story. What’s remarkable is simply that the government is acknowledging it. But why?

Step back for a moment and consider some of the events that led to where Bo is today:

  • In February suspicions were raised over a death which had occurred three months earlier. This dead person happened to be a foreigner, ensuring that people outside the controllable domestic media and police would take an unyielding interest.
  • Wang Lijun, Bo’s Chongqing police chief, apparently ran into trouble while investigating Neil Heywood’s death and/or activities by Bo’s wife, yet he persisted.
  • Wang Lijun was fired by Bo and fled to the American consulate in Chengdu drawing international attention to the affair.
  • Uncensored information was allowed to run wild on microblogs, making much of China aware of the Bo saga.
  • Bo fell on the opposite side of the political spectrum from some of the top leaders in the Communist Party (ie. Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao).

The Titanic didn’t sink simply because it swiped an iceberg. Any colossal disaster is the result of multiple, mutually-aggravating factors that come together in a perfect storm. Subtract any one of these factors and it’s highly possible Bo would be sitting in one of the most powerful positions in the world one year from now. He was very unlucky.

It would be very naive though to think that Bo’s crimes are anything extraordinary in a system where the same people who wield complete political control also control the police, courts and media theoretically responsible for indicting them. Consider that Bo’s replacement as Chongqing party secretary, Zhang Dejiang, almost certainly had a hand in concealing from the world the breakout of a dangerous, highly-infectious disease, which caused incalculable deaths and illnesses. Several other high-level leaders were sacked. Zhang wasn’t.

Jia Qinglin presided over Fujian Province during the Yuanhua case – one of the biggest corruption scandals in China’s history. He was widely expected to be taken down with several other high officials who were jailed or executed. Instead, he became the 4th most powerful man in China. Then there’s Jiang Zemin, who’s had several close ties convicted in major corruption scandals – including the mastermind of the Yuanhua case. And these are all just the most powerful and publicly visible leaders. Imagine how easy it would be for lower leaders to imprison (ergo discredit) or kill off potential aggravators.

The Chinese media is already hailing the Bo case as evidence China is under the rule of law. The Xinhua piece that broke the latest news was titled “Police reinvestigate death of Neil Heywood according to law” It and the Global Times piece contained phrases like, “Police authorities paid high attention to the case, and are reinvestigating the case according to law with an attitude to seek truth from facts” and “[A senior official said] the incident would neither disrupt the Party’s 18th National Congress in fall nor the country’s long-term political and social development.”

When the state media uses statements like these so gratuitously, it’s a flimsy way of compensating for the fact that the opposite is probably true. You can be sure that at every turn in the Bo case, legal considerations were made only in the context of their political implications.

We don’t know how guilty any of the other leaders mentioned above are, and we may never know. The media and individuals aren’t allowed to touch them with a ten foot pole, despite the fact that the law clearly says they are.

In China, political winners and losers are decided by unpredictable backroom tactical cunning rather than the ballot box. In the internet age though, anyone with a bone to pick or rival to eliminate can leak damning information easily and anonymously. Cases like Bo’s will inevitably become more common and destabilizing in the future without political reform.

Over the past week I’ve been biking through the Shandong countryside. As is always the case on these trips, the biggest challenge was finding a place to sleep. A hotel has to have special approval to accept foreigners – which most have in major urban centers. But once you get to smaller cities, few, if any are allowed to house someone without a Chinese ID.

Many think that this is to “save face” by preventing foreigners from staying in dingy dives or from going to underdeveloped areas altogether. That may be a secondary concern, but this trip made pretty clear what the primary objective is: surveillance. And it also became clear that it’s becoming more intense.

Hotels are required to have a computerized system that scans IDs. Legally, everyone staying there – foreign and Chinese alike – must be registered. In the past I just tried to avoid cities of around 100,000 or more people. The smaller towns didn’t bother with the system and hotel owners usually had never seen a foreigner, much-less realized they weren’t allowed to rent rooms to them. This was the case just six months ago when I took a similar trip through Shandong. Things seem to have changed since then.

One night I went to a little mom and pop guesthouse on the side of the road and, to my surprise, they had the system in place. The owners told me that they’d recently been obligated by police to install and pay for the system, which costs over 7,000 yuan ($1,100). To put that in perspective, I paid 20 yuan ($3.17) for the room that night. Thankfully, the owners preferred to take the money rather than follow the rule and turn me away. Not every hotel was so lax though.

I pulled into one town shivering in the rain with the temperature hovering around freezing as the sun went down. I got turned away from the first place being told I’d have to go 12 miles further up the road to find the nearest certified foreigner hotel. I tried another place around the corner and was given a room. I settled in, relieved that I’d once again skirted the rule. Later that night though, three police officers knocked on my door.

The hotel owner had called them, unsure of what she was supposed to do. Fortunately, they understood my situation and said I could stay, provided I register with them. They spent the next 20 minutes taking down every imaginable piece of information about me – my home address, my school, what airport I’d entered China though – and finally they took my picture. The police were very nice and admitted that they thought it was all a silly hassle, but it was what they were required to do from above.

This rule is nothing new, but enforcement to this degree seems to be. In all but one of my six nights on the road, I stayed in the kinds of towns I’d never seen the computerized registration system in before. And every time, no matter how small the town or hotel was, the system was in place. This is very anecdotal and it’s possible I’ve just been lucky in the past, but I got the distinct impression from talking to hotel owners that hotel surveillance has increased for both foreigners and Chinese since my last bike trip in October.

Last summer Beijing instituted a somewhat similar rule that requires any business providing Wi-Fi internet to buy a $3,100 system to register users’ identities. Expanding the reach of government surveillance, often at the cost of small business owners, certainly seems to be the trend of the times.

I’ll soon be making some video content for this site, so to test my capability I’ve subtitled my favorite music video of all time for you. In it, a young man sings about how he summoned the inspiration to write his essay for applying to the Communist Party. After seeing this guy perform on CCTV recently, I confirmed that this is NOT a parody. It no doubt reflects the reality of how young students come to join the party. Enjoy.

 

If you want to learn this for KTV (as I’m sure you do) here are the Chinese lyrics. It’s called “入党申请书” (Application to join the party) by Jiang Tao 江涛,

The lessons of history

Posted: March 29, 2012 in Politics
Tags: ,

Wen Jiabao gave a press conference a few weeks ago where he said that without reforms in China, “such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again.” Most have assumed that this was a swipe at Bo Xilai and the left-wing of the Communist Party, which indeed may be the case. Bo led a number of red rallies in Chongqing that had a distinct whiff of Cultural Revolution. But Bo was no fool. His red revival was more of a power play tugging at people’s nostalgia than anything else. Wen’s words may have had a broader and more significant target than just Bo.

The official account of the Cultural Revolution that’s taught in Chinese textbooks is that unseemly figures like the Gang of Four manipulated Mao and the entire country into complacency with the campaign’s excesses. In reality, it was directly overseen by a paranoid Mao as a means to keep control.

Hermann Goering, designated successor to Hitler, once explicated the political tactic that would go on to describe the Cultural Revolution perfectly:

Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

Hitler had the Jews, McCarthy had communists, and Mao had “counter-revolutionaries.” But after suffering badly through the Cultural Revolution, is China really susceptible to making a similar mistake? In a word, yes.

Since 1989, the only real sources of legitimacy for China’s authoritarian government have been economic growth and nationalism. If the economy slows or abruptly halts, then the void will have to be filled somehow. That could be done through political reforms that give direct accountability to the people, or some kind of scapegoat could be used to consolidate angst in a direction away from the government. I suspect Wen Jiabao’s calls for the former are in hopes of avoiding the latter.

But political reform isn’t the only issue. The generation born after the Cultural Revolution is reaching the age of influence. Since Chinese students aren’t taught the mechanics of how authoritarian leaders like Mao hold power, they aren’t equipped to guard against it. And while it was Mao that initiated the Cultural Revolution campaign, it was actually common people on the ground who were responsible for its greatest horrors. Like the Salem Witch Trials before it, many were happy to use the witch hunt as a pretext for settling personal scores or engaging in downright sadism. Here’s one telling account from that period:

In early September 1966, the gang of Red Guards mercilessly beat an old man accused of once having been a landlord. That same day, fearing more torture, the old man killed himself. But the guards weren’t finished. They gave the corpse to his three sons, demanding that the boys parade it around the village. Then they told the boys to chop the body into three pieces and place them in pigpens. If any of them had refused, they all would have been dubbed ‘evil spawn of the feudal class’ and destined for persecution.[1]

Chinese students are taught in gory detail about the atrocities the Japanese carried out in Nanjing, but history books stop short of showing that Chinese (like any other nationality) are capable of inflicting these horrors on one another. We all like to think that we could never do such despicable things, so it’s painful when we learn that fellow countrymen just like us became monsters. It tacitly shows that if circumstances were different, we might not be the people we think we are.

Because political reform has stagnated, many of the same circumstances that preceded historical tragedies are in full force in today’s China: Jingoism, political dogma and blind obedience that are hammered into students from birth, rampant conspiracy theories promoted by the government, shielding of information that comes from the outside world, and strict censorship of the media and individuals who might highlight these things critically.

There’s been recent talk of re-evaluating the Cultural Revolution and even the Tiananmen crackdown. For China’s sake, hopefully it will come to fruition. A full account of history isn’t just critical for the sake of truth, but to teach awareness of those who might try to repeat age-old violent power plays. History’s most important lessons though aren’t the horrid policies that leaders enacted, but how otherwise good people were led into becoming instruments of evil.


[1] Pomfret, John. Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2007

Dumb statements on Tibet

Posted: March 28, 2012 in Politics
Tags: ,

Over the last few days I’ve seen a few dumb things said about Tibet from both sides of the issue, so I want to address each of them:

Tibet was a living hell under the Dalai Lama, so Tibetans should be grateful to the Communist Party. Life is better than it was before…so lay-off. –As seen in Global Times.

Of course, this statement is subjective and plenty of Tibetans would disagree with it. However, it should be acknowledged that the current and former Dalai Lamas were no saints. And the situation in Tibet prior to the PRC takeover was awful by many non-official accounts.

So let’s indulge the Chinese state media and take this idea to its logical conclusion in the way that Xinhua did a few days ago: The Dalai Lama is Hitler. Let’s say he is that bad and life for Tibetans under him would be like Europe under the Nazis. If that’s the analogy we’re going to use, then the Chinese government in Tibet is Stalin (we won’t say that in the ideological sense, although with the police presence, restrictions on religion, speech, assembly and contact with the outside world, one could certainly make that argument).

Stalin could truthfully say that he saved the Russians from Hitler. And when comparing 1953 Russia to 1943 Russia, Stalin probably does look better by comparison. So we’ll concede that things are better than they might have been. But does that justify the fact being thrown back in the face of whoever complains that things should be better? Stalin thought so, and apparently so do Xinhua and Global times.

It’s time for the US to send China a message on its human rights situation in Tibet. –As seen in New York Times by US Senator Dianne Feinstein

This week Senator Dianne Feinstein ran a letter to the editor in NYT that said:

I believe that the United States must send a clear message against this continued repression and violence [in Tibet]. We can start by passing a Senate resolution I recently introduced with Senator Joseph I. Lieberman that calls on China to suspend religious control regulations, reassess its religious and security policies, and resume dialogue with Tibetan Buddhist leaders. […]It’s time the United States insisted that China end these oppressive policies.

I’m having a hard time imagining in what universe Feinstein thinks this will have a positive effect. Does she believe a Chinese leader will see this and say, “Wow. I made these policies on Tibet because from my angle they seemed like the best thing to do. But now, this non-binding resolution drafted by senators from our rival country has shown us (and the whole world) how despicable we’ve been. Janis, hold my calls. We’ve got some freedom to dish out.”

I didn’t need to visit Feinstein’s webpage to realize she’s up for re-election this year. Resolutions like this play well for domestic politics, but they won’t bring Tibet one step closer to any kind of positive change. It just plays nicely into the Chinese official line that the US-led western anti-China conspiracy is meddling in Tibet to destabilize the country. It gives state media nationalistic fodder to reinforce the Chinese public’s defensiveness over Tibet.

These kinds of high level calls have their time and place and it’s in meetings with Chinese leaders behind closed doors. Public indictments make the Chinese government lose face and give it no choice but to double-down so as to avoid the image that it’s capitulating to Western demands. Just try to ask Chen Guangcheng what foreign admonishments have done for him.

No matter which side of the Tibet issue you’re on, if you’re going to say or do something in the name of the Tibetan people, have the sense to learn if it will actually bring them any benefit. It’s good to report the truth, it’s good to have principles, and it’s good to combine these in a way that can bring a positive outcome. Global Times, Xinhua and Dianne Feinstein have all failed to do this.

With the recent Bo Xilai saga, fault lines in the façade of Communist Party unity are emerging in a very public way. After the split between the Zhao Ziyang reformist camp and Li Peng’s hardliners in 1989 emboldened Tiananmen protestors, the Party now rightfully worries about the public sensing any weakness in the top leadership.

Even if the events around Bo hadn’t unfolded, the party would still be very much on edge. Later this year it will pass the torch to a new group of authoritarian leaders; and it’ll do so amid simmering social tension and unprecedented channels of mass communication. To protect itself, the party has recently taken measures demanding loyalty and respect for its relevance.

In January, President-in-waiting Xi Jinping called for more “thought control” over university students. This week, China ordered all lawyers to make a pledge of loyalty to the Communist Party. And yesterday, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily ran a commentary opposing “indiscipline” in the army saying, “To resolutely do what the Party asks, and not to do what the Party asks not to do, is the most straightforward measure to oppose indiscipline.”

Army personnel, lawyers and students are real threats to the party. Student intellectuals were behind the Tiananmen Square uprising. Lawyers tend to have an affinity for the written law rather than the whims of leaders – which undermines authoritarian rule. And the military, well, they have guns.

The last group is especially worrisome.

The past few days have seen rumors of a Beijing coup circulating online. While these rumors are unfounded, the idea of a military coup is hardly far-fetched. Worry of this scenario within government ranks became apparent even before the rumors with a series of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily articles calling for “opposition to the ‘erroneous views’ of military nationalization, military de-politicization, and non-party affiliation of the Army, and putting ideological and political construction first.”

The PLA, by law, is bound to protect the Communist Party first – not the country. Calling for the army to be loyal to the nation rather than a single political party was one of the things that landed Liu Xiaobo in jail.

When Deng Xiaoping started to hand power over to Jiang Zemin in the early 90’s, he reportedly had some sage advice for his successor: “Spend four out of five working days with the top [military] brass.”

For a party which then had neither socialist nor democratic-based legitimacy, the loyalty of the military was the only guarantor of continued rule. Jiang listened and did manage to stay in the good graces of the military throughout his tenure by consistently increasing military spending and taking a hard-line on Taiwan. When Hu Jintao came to power he continued the military buildup, but took a softer stance on the island. The Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou was elected president in 2008, allowing Hu to engage Taiwan culturally and economically – which tacitly took a military takeover off the table for the foreseeable future. This wasn’t good news for PLA hawks anxious to use their toys.

Last year, the PLA gave a subtle indictment of Hu by launching an unannounced test of the new J-20 stealth fighter during a visit by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Xi Jinping will take control this year lacking even the degree of support from the military that Hu has. He’ll likely have to spend at least the first year consolidating power and PLA loyalty – assuming the leadership transition goes smoothly to begin with. But if the factional fractures become too deep, military hawks could decide to settle the matter themselves.

Whether the party’s rather pathetic demands for loyalty during this contentious period will be enough to maintain unchallenged authority remains to be seen. But whether they’re students, lawyers or soldiers, people aren’t getting any dumber. What they are getting is better connected and less patient with the political status quo. As one of the PLA Daily commentaries aptly points out, “Historical experience shows that, when the Party and the country are facing big issues, hostile forces at home and abroad always stir up trouble, noises in the society also increase, and the people’s thinking becomes more active.”

Translation: People are starting to think beyond what they’re told – and that’s bad news for the party.

Bo Xilai today stepped down from his job as Chongqing Party Secretary and was promptly replaced by Zhang Dejiang. This choice of a successor is an intriguing one for a number of reasons. Most notably, because Zhang’s got plenty of his own political baggage.

First and most obviously, Zhang studied economics at Kim Il-Sung University in North Korea. We’re not sure yet exactly why Bo fell from favor, but if it was for being too socialist in his policies, the Party is sure sending an interesting message here. Bo’s egalitarian-centered Chongqing Model may not be as dead in the water as Bo himself is.

Zhang Dejiang’s main claim to fame though is his involvement in suppressing news of the SARS outbreak as Guangdong secretary in 2002. In the end, he escaped official blame and firing – unlike many other high Guangdong officials. This was likely because he was too high of a figure to be allowed to fall off the horse; and the fact that he was an ally of then-President Jiang Zemin probably didn’t hurt either.

Then in 2003, the Guangdong newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily (SMD) reported the story of a man who was arrested for not having his ID card and then beaten to death in custody. The story was huge – so huge that Beijing abolished the detention law under which the man had been arrested. Guangdong leadership wasn’t pleased though. Police lost out on the revenue they gained through these kinds of detentions and many local officials were disgraced.

The Guangdong government under Zhang Dejiang started pressuring the paper through indirect warnings and pressing advertisers to come up with evidence of corruption against the paper. Then in late 2003, SMD further embarrassed Guangzhou leaders by reporting that a new case of SARS had resurfaced – before the government acknowledged it. Zhang subsequently approved a full-on corruption probe of the paper. Eventually, two of the paper’s editors were given 6 and 8 year prison sentences on trumped up charges – effectively neutering SMD’s muckraking.

During the rest of Zhang’s tenure in Guangdong, a few other notable things happened under his watch:

In July and August 2005, two major coal mine disasters killed 139 people in the province. It was later found that they were owned by government officials who didn’t follow required safety protocol. Dozens of officials were punished, including four high level provincial leaders.

Also in July 2005, residents of the Guangdong village Taishi assembled to protest a corrupt land grab. Hundreds of police were dispatched and opened fire, killing several people and injuring dozens more. The incident was one of several similar ones to hit Guangdong that year.

Then, to cap off an already hallmark year, a state-owned smelter dumped loads of poisonous cadmium in the Beijiang River.

While it’s not clear how much blame Zhang deserves for these things, by early 2006, many were calling for his ouster. In February that year he allegedly accepted responsibility for Guangdong’s problems and made an offer to the Politburo to resign – which it declined. He ended up stepping down as Guangdong secretary in 2007, but he remained on the Politburo where he’s been Vice-Premier since 2008. Before his series of Guangzhou debacles, he may have been a contender for the Politburo Standing Committee at the 17th National People’s Congress.

According to a 2007 Asia Times piece:

Guangdong officials and general public have mixed feelings about Zhang’s five-year [Guangzhou] rule. The southern province is continuing its high-speed economic growth of the past five years, a period when it is said Zhang protected corrupt Guangdong officials, fearing that harsh crackdowns on corruption could hurt the economy. He reportedly promised Beijing that Guangdong would “clean its own house”, begging that the central government not intervene by sending its own anti-graft busters to the province, while at the same time warning his officials to behave themselves.

Interestingly, Zhang was succeeded in Guangdong by Wang Yang, who’s seen as a reformer because of his support for more freedom in speech and media. Wang’s Guangdong Model is the rival of Bo Xilai’s now heavily-bruised Chongqing Model – which maintains a strong authoritarian hand to institute egalitarian measures and corruption crackdowns.

From the limited available information, it seems that Zhang Dejiang, like Bo, embraces the authoritarian hand and has no desire to liberalize speech or press freedom. And past actions also seem to suggest that, unlike Bo, he uses the authoritarian hand to protect corruption rather than fight it.

If Beijing was looking for a safe clean replacement for scandal-tainted Bo, it sure made an interesting choice. But, for all Zhang’s drawbacks, he led steady economic growth and didn’t draw too much attention to himself. This has indeed traditionally been the way to rise through the party ranks. As BBC reported, he may end up on the Politburo Standing Committee after all.

I recently came across two great websites for anyone interested in the scope of internet censorship in China. The first, called greatfire.org, tracks what searches and sites are being blocked behind China’s “Great Firewall.” The second, called Blocked on Weibo, is run by a graduate student who systematically tests terms on Weibo (China’s Twitter-like microblog) to see what stops a tweet from going through.

The banned Weibo list includes many expected political and sexual terms, along with several surprises like “The Exorcist.” Much of the list was compiled last December so yesterday I logged on to see what’s still blocked. I tried posting terms one at a time and, to my surprise, most are now allowed. To be more efficient, I started combining them into phrases like “Warlord Li Peng[1] and dissident Wu Bangguo[2] blow flute political prisoner sex party.”

It passed.

To the bemusement, I’m sure, of my five Weibo followers, I got progressively more twisted until a post was finally stopped (“Tokyo hot Liu Xiaobo incest at Tiananmen with exhibitionist Xi Jinping” was the one that did it).

Since I’ve already complied with Weibo’s real name registration requirement, I deleted the posts after they passed (mostly out of embarrassment). But if I’d left them up it’s possible they would have been manually deleted by a human censor eventually. Still, I couldn’t believe what was being let through. Jason Q. Ng, the curator of the Blocked on Weibo site, told me that indeed most of the blocked terms from December were unblocked by late-January.

Over the past few weeks some interesting unblockings have been noted in the Great Firewall. When the Wang Lijun saga was unfolding, discussion was sporadically blocked and unblocked online. Then a few weeks later, the Baidu Baike (similar to Wikipedia) entry was opened for Zhao Ziyang, the Tiananmen-sympathizing party secretary that died under house arrest.

Internet censorship in China is hardly controlled by some central figure at a Beijing supercomputer. It’s much more complicated and elastic. There are sensitive terms like “Falun Gong” that you’ll probably never see unblocked, but surprise blockings/unblockings like what my childish trials found can happen for a number of reasons. Here’s a few:

Factional infighting

This is most likely what explains the Wang Lijun and Zhao Ziyang openings. In the run-up to the leadership transition later this year, factions within the party are still jockeying for power. Free discussion of these figures might give a slight boost to the liberal wing by embarrassing conservatives. The back-and-forth on Wang Lijun suggests the different factions may have been trying to outmuscle one another for control over censorship.

Social stability

Whenever sensitive events (ie. Wukan) are unfolding, relevant terms are blocked in order to maintain social stability (AKA – the party’s hold on power). Sometimes it goes the other way though. Pornography is usually so banned that people are paid for snitching on online pornographers. But for a period in 2010, many porn sites mysteriously became accessible.  After a spate of school yard stabbings carried out by frustrated older men, it was theorized that porn could be a kind of emergency release valve.

Censorship for hire

After the Sanlu milk scandal broke out in 2008, Baidu, China’s largest search engine, was accused of accepting 3 million yuan ($474,000) from Sanlu early on to bury damning reports about the company. Baidu denied the charge, but a leaked US embassy cable suggests the practice of corporate payment for censorship is widespread in China.

[Update 3/13] Here’s a new report on the many companies who arrange censorship for a fee.

Good ole’ guanxi

Again, the important thing to remember is that there’s no central decision maker with his finger on a censoring button. It’s thousands of people across scores of government agencies, private search engines, microblogs, web forums, news sites, etc. Even if an entire institution isn’t censoring  a certain term, one of the many cogs in the machine can – for pay or as a personal favor.

A Chinese academic affiliated with the propaganda department once told me about when he found his colleague was being unfairly ostracized on Weibo. He just picked up the phone and called some of his friends at Sina. Problem erased.

And these are just the things we know about. The government and private companies who engage in censorship aren’t about to advertise their rationale to the public. Three months ago, apparently Weibo wouldn’t let you type a single term from the phrase “Muslim Yujie[3] and plug-in Zhou Yongkang[4] protest adultery and cannibalism at the liaison office.” Now, as I confirmed, you can type the phrase in its entirety. We’ll probably never really know why.


[1] Li Peng was the Politburo leader that ordered the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square

[2] Wu Bangguo is currently number 2 on the Politburo Standing Committee, behind Hu Jintao

[3] Yu Jie is an author very critical of the Chinese government. He’s been beaten, arrested and now resides in the US

[4] Zhou Yongkang is currently number 9 on the Politburo Standing Committee

China’s upstanding freaks

Posted: February 22, 2012 in Politics
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Recently I heard about some work problems an acquaintance of mine has been having. We’ll call her Mae. A few years ago Mae took the Chinese national civil service exam to get an “Iron Rice Bowl” job. When the exam was given last year, over a million people sat in to compete for just 18,000 openings. Mae beat the odds on her test and qualified for one of these positions…and quickly learned why so many strive for the seemingly ho-hum jobs.

She was assigned to be a customs official for importers. As one might guess, opportunities for corruption are plentiful. But therein lays the problem for Mae. She doesn’t want to be corrupt.

Right now she’s near the bottom of the totem pole. If she deems an import illegal and the importer gives her flak, she can just pass it off to her superiors – who can just overturn her and take the bribe themselves. But now she’s about due for promotion. The new job would force her to either put her foot down and stop illegal imports, or become an active participant in the corruption.

If she did her job honestly and stopped all the smuggling she found, there would be complications. People below her might lose their bribes and try to sabotage her career. At the same time, her higher bosses would expect her to accommodate importers they have seedy arrangements with. If she became a road block for the wrong people, it could be hazardous to her job…or even her physical safety. But at the very least, she would be hated by all her co-workers.

That’s not to say it would be a free ride if she did take the bribes though. A man who used to have her current job once went a little too far. His first year on the job he bought a car. The second year he bought a house. The third year he was in jail.

Since it currently takes the average worker about 30 years’ worth of income to buy a house in Beijing, the entry-level recent college grad’s transgressions were pretty obvious and traceable. So the takeaway for the other workers at the customs branch was to show discretion in how they spend their bribes.

Mae has pretty much decided to just sit tight in her current job and lament that she doesn’t have much of a future in customs. She’s not really afraid of getting caught taking the bribes she’d inevitably have to take. She just doesn’t want to go down the dark dirty path that getting promoted would entail.

Granted, this is just one little government branch in a huge country, but there are three wider implications this suggests. None of them are very surprising.

Firstly, corruption by those with official power isn’t just a nuisance some immoral fiends partake in. It’s the rule rather than the exception.

Secondly, harsh punishments don’t seem to stop corruption as much as they do encourage people to be quieter and more subtle about it. As long as corruption doesn’t go so far that it infuriates the commoners or embarrasses the government, it seems to be largely tolerated…and even expected.

Finally, even the smallest podunk agencies are susceptible to these Serpico re-enactments. Many of the corrupt cogs in China’s bureaucracy aren’t cunning selfish scoundrels. They’re just unconfident people that can’t stand up to peer pressure.  The system has given them the choice of quietly taking a pile of cash or facing the contempt and wrath of the people they have to work with every day.

Recently Yu Zhiping, former vice-mayor of Meishan City in Sichuan, was given a 13-year prison sentence for graft. He said the first time he was offered a bribe he accepted it in order to prevent the pleading businessman offering it to him from losing face. Yu said, “An official will be sneered at as a freak if he refuses to take money.”

That quote itself has invited sneers, but it seems pretty dead on.

Today I saw this campaign ad, which ran during the Superbowl, for Michigan Republican Senate-hopeful Peter Hoekstra. In the ad, an Asian [presumably Chinese] woman says:

“Thank you Michigan senator Debbie Spend-it-now. Debbie spends so much American money, you borrow more and more from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you Debbie Spend-it-now.”

And if that weren’t enough, the website for debbiespenditnow.com is full of stereotypical Chinese imagery interlaced with statistics about how the red menace is eating our lunch thanks to the Democrats.

It doesn’t upset me so much that the campaign could afford a Superbowl commercial, yet couldn’t be bothered to find an actual Chinese person to act in it – instead opting to use an American-accented woman offensively feigning Chinglish. What bothers me is that the old foreign menace political tactic is still being used as much as it was 50, 100, and 500 years ago… and it’s still working.

This election season is already shaping up to be the most xenophobic ever (and given the 2010 election, that would be quite a feat). In a special election last summer Nevada congressman hopeful Mark Amodei ran an ad with the PLA marching on Washington and hoisting the Chinese flag atop the capitol building – suggesting a scenario that could not conceivably happen. Sure, plenty of people decried it; just as they are now for this new Hoekstra ad. But in the end, Amodei won in a 58-to-36% landslide.

Throughout history, when a hopeful leader has nothing real to put on the table, caricaturizing and exaggerating a foreign rival to whip up nationalistic support has been a go-to short cut to power and influence. None of the great progress in technology and education has changed that. So we still see plenty of modern democratic leaders using the same playbook as some of history’s greatest monsters.

Every time I see this tactic employed in the US toward China, I think of routine statements by Chinese leaders like Hu Jintao – who said last month, “We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China.”

For leaders that are supposedly so ideologically different, they can look pretty similar sometimes.

[UPDATE 1: Apparently Peter Hoekstra's Facebook page started deleting negative comments on a thread with this video today until the link was finally taken down completely. When I said he and Chinese leaders look pretty similar, I didn't realize it was this identical.]

[UPDATE 2: Pete "Spend-it-not" Hoekstra spent $75,000 for the Superbowl slot this ad ran in. This out of an at least $1 million campaign fund]

[UPDATE 3: A February 5th  press release on this ad from Hoekstra's campaign website (highlights added by me):

"Holland, Mich. - Hoekstra for Senate today launched a new television ad and website that calls attention to Debbie 'Spend-It-Now' Stabenow's dismal record on spending, the national debt and jobs, which has increased our reliance on foreign countries, including China.  The ad and DebbieSpendItNow.com contrast Stabenow's big-spending policies with Pete Hoekstra's penny pinching agenda.

'Debbie Spend-It-Now has increased our national debt, cracked the foundation of our economy, and bolstered our reliance on foreign countries like China,' said Hoekstra.  'The growing dependence on China, which Stabenow's policies have fostered, weakens our economy and jeopardizes our national security.  We can't afford it any longer and it's time to hold Debbie Spend-It-Now accountable for her reckless agenda.  My views on the economy and jobs could not be more different.  I will be a penny pincher in Washington, working to not just pass a budget, but balance the budget so we can break free from our reliance on China and other countries.'

The $150,000 ad buy begins on Sunday, February 5, and will run for two weeks. To view the ad, please click here."]

One of the great misconceptions from people who’ve never been to China is that Chinese long for western-style freedoms. More often than not, when I talk with Chinese friends about the enormous problems facing China and the desperate need for political reform, I get a similar response:

“Most Chinese people don’t care about things like freedom of speech. They just want stability and food in their stomach. Things have gotten so much better in the past 20 years, so these chaotic freedoms would be a stupid risk.”

To them, “freedoms” are totally abstract and irrelevant to their lives. I counter by saying, “You’ve never been totally screwed with absolutely no recourse.”

Imagine your town’s party secretary said your home would be demolished to make way for a public water park. You have the option of accepting cash worth far less than the market value of your home or taking a worse apartment several miles out in the boonies.

After demolition, it’s announced that the water park plan will be scrapped and expensive luxury apartments will be built instead. You and the residents cry foul and seek help from local courts and media only to find they’re under the thumb of the same person who took your home.

So some people try contacting Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV, where they’d seen corruption exposés before. Days later, Phoenix TV’s service is cut from the whole city. You consider going to the provincial capital or Beijing to petition. You seek advice from friends in other cities but they retell stories of people getting fired, harassed, detained or even killed for trying to do this. You decide giving up is probably the smartest choice.

For all the attention we foreigners call to instances like this, relatively few Chinese actually experience them. Most go on normally with steadily growing incomes, so it’s understandable that they don’t want a political shake up. I recently talked about this with my girlfriend’s father – an admitted laobaixing (commoner) – who agreed that freedoms and political reforms are luxuries too risky to trifle with.

This wouldn’t be surprising except that a few years ago he and his neighbors went through the exact situation I just described.

I asked how he of all people could still be averse to political reform. He replied that he had indeed been screwed, but if the kinds of freedoms I was talking about were allowed, the Communist Party would collapse and there would be chaos. If things ever do get really terrible, THEN the government can make reforms. But for now, it’d be a pointless risk.

This attitude is pretty common among laobaixing and, it seems, the government too. I’d compare it to saying global warming isn’t worth addressing until there’s some sort of major environmental catastrophe. It’s already hurting a small minority, but most are living the best quality lives anyone ever has. So why slow down this rocket ship before its engine blows? That’s exactly what’s happening right now in China economically and politically. Let’s look at some ways how:

The Stability Bicycle

 

Scenario 1: Local party cadre takes bribes, levies illegal taxes and uses his power to favor businessmen he has guanxi with. Everyone below him knows this but he doesn’t care. He’s elected from above and has control over the town’s police, courts and media. He knows that less than 3% of corrupt officials go to jail, because even if his superiors catch wind of his transgressions, they’d just assume not dirty their hands unless they’re backed against a wall. Indicting him could be an indictment on themselves and the system that feeds them.

Other government workers see this cadre getting rich and it makes them envious. The local factory inspector decides he too will take bribes. Now those who aren’t getting rich are losing face and opportunities to attract good wives. So everyone starts seeking out and abusing any kind of authority so they don’t get left behind. Those at the very bottom bear the heaviest burden of all this corruption and become increasingly resentful. Eventually, even honest business owners have to cut serious corners just to stay afloat. This leads to…

Scenario 2: Local factory poisons a river. Local party secretary (who has perhaps been bribed by the factory) prevents local media from reporting it in order to keep his job and city stability. Stability is indeed maintained and, operating on the precedent of impunity, the factory continues to pollute the river. Commoners are getting sick and some are dying. Perhaps they connect the dots and take to the streets. Perhaps they don’t.

True story

Very plausible ending to the story: The national government lets some egregious cases get reported, but they bury most small scale incidents like this (if they even find out) in order maintain public confidence and stability. People therefore see very few examples that might help them connect the dots in their own local situations.

This happens repeatedly up and down the river and many others for several years to the point that the water is now unsafe to even touch; much less drink. China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has acknowledged this is already the case with HALF China’s lakes and rivers. Similar circumstances unfold with medicine, food, infrastructure safety, air pollution, and deforestation. Try as they might to stop it with their “iron fist,” the central government’s internal policing is about as effective as fighting a cornfield mouse infestation with a baseball bat.

Cases like Sanlu that are patently obvious to the whole country get wide attention, but most situations fester slowly out of the public view until they’re well beyond the point of no return. Eventually these things compound and millions get screwed, thirsty, hungry or poisoned. As people often do when they’re screwed, thirsty, hungry or poisoned, they revolt and the government’s attempt to keep social stability has backfired tremendously.

Scenario 3: In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the national government wanted to ensure social stability by keeping high investment and GDP growth, so it pushed down interest rates and engineered a lending boom that expanded the country’s money supply by two-thirds. Keeping money in the bank became pointless for the rich since interest rates are below inflation rates. Many people (especially those who’ve come into their money illegally) stash their money by buying multiple apartments. Thus there is huge demand for high-value real estate.

So we return to local party secretary who needs some quick money; maybe for himself, but maybe just to achieve the kind of raw economic growth demanded of him by national leaders who see 8% annual growth – no matter what – as the key to keeping stability. So he does this the easiest way he knows how: tearing down old cheap apartments and selling the land to developers to build luxury apartments nobody will ever actually live in.

Very plausible ending to the story: local party bosses across the country do the same thing until there are more luxury apartments than people can possibly buy. Prices crash and people who’ve already bought these homes lose their massive investments. Developers who haven’t yet sold their new buildings default on their loans en masse. This has a domino effect which causes much of the other $2.7 trillion in recent loans to go bad.

Rumors spread on the internet that banks are running out of money. Official channels deny this but people have long since stopped believing the stability-maintaining cheery propaganda. So commoners swarm to withdraw their savings and start hording goods. This causes even greater inflation and regular Chinese suffer worse than at any point during the 2008 financial crisis. The government’s attempt to keep social stability has backfired tremendously.

Scenario 4: In order to keep social stability and firm support, the government bases its education system on making students obedient. It teaches them to accept the material without challenging it. This material often includes subjective nonsense, so students are trained to think in a way to find the safe answer rather than the true or innovative answer. This begins with politics and history classes but spills over into other subjects. Students are afraid to express ideas beyond the status quo and teachers are afraid to teach them.

Meanwhile, international collaborative platforms like Twitter are blocked or heavily censored (in order to preserve social stability), so Chinese researchers are kept in a virtual cocoon. Manufacturing wages are starting to rise, so China’s economy needs to move up the value chain like Japan’s, Taiwan’s and Korea’s did before it. But because of the education deficit and lack of intellectual freedom, China isn’t equipped to do this.

Very plausible ending to this story: As this decade nears an end, demographic shifts put huge pressure on the young working generation as they must support aging parents. China’s best and brightest see the writing on the wall so they go overseas to get educated – where they mostly stay after graduation.

China’s “Indigenous Innovation” initiative relied more on protectionism and siphoning last year’s IP from foreign companies than it did on creating the right conditions to innovate at home. Under the standard policy of throwing money at a problem, several of the most brilliant Chinese minds manage impressive accomplishments in spite of the anti-intellectual atmosphere, but those exceptions are indeed exceptions. For the most part, Chinese companies stay perpetually one step behind their foreign competitors.

Scores graduate from universities to find their education was useless. Manufacturing positions are now fewer because of rising wages and technological improvement; and bosses don’t want factory workers with degrees anyways.

Like unemployed youth in the Middle-East did in 2011, young Chinese take to the streets. The government tried to avoid another Tiananmen by making sure universities didn’t become independent hotbeds for radical thinking. But their attempts to maintain social stability have backfired tremendously.

Conclusion

These scenarios aren’t just possible, they’re already happening. Many I speak to say these endings won’t happen because the central government will step in and prevent the worst. But in spite of what many Chinese and most foreigners seem to think, China has one of the weakest central governments in the world. It must oversee tens of thousands of local fiefdoms, so even when the top leaders try to do the right thing, their orders get diluted, reinterpreted or ignored through multiple levels of corrupted bureaucracy.

Like most groups throughout history though, the party is reluctant to give up any of its absolute power. It clings to the notion that it can use its power to launch internal crackdowns and scare corrupt officials straight. But this approach has been failing for decades. For every situation it rectifies, dozens more pop up.

Only by outsourcing its supervisory role to commoners and media empowered by a rule of law enforced from the top can China’s model become sustainable.  China is the frog in heating water and time is running out. Hopefully the laobaixing will realize stability at all costs is usually the most potent recipe for chaos.

Recently Vice-President Xi Jinping called for more thought control over university students and lecturers. “University Communist Party organs must adopt firmer and stronger measures to maintain harmony and stability in universities,” he said. This is presumably to ensure his transition to president later this year goes smoothly.

However, this is unlikely to have much of an impact and could actually backfire to some degree. Universities are already packed full of political education. To get an idea of what students are already contending with, here’s a question from last year’s grad school entrance exam:

23) In September 1954, the First National People’s Congress held its inaugural meeting in Beijing, marking the establishment of the people’s congress system. This is China’s fundamental political system where people are the masters. This system is_____

  • A. The Chinese Communist Party’s great creation of combining Marxism and China’s reality
  • B. The Chinese Communist Party’s achievement of leading Chinese people through a long struggle
  • C. A reflection of the common interests and aspirations of the people of all nationalities in China
  • D. The inevitable choice in the social development of modern China
[All answers are correct]
(Click here to see more translated questions from this exam)
Students usually must take “philosophy” classes that extoll the merits of Marxism, Leninism and Maoism while only mentioning other ideologies to highlight their inferiority. And students are regularly required to attend meetings with timely political aims. One such meeting I remember from my time teaching was after the 2008 snow storm when all the students were gathered to watch a video glorifying the PLA’s rescue efforts and top leaders’ management of them.
These political initiatives in universities seem to be tolerated by students, but rarely embraced. In fact, they’re often viewed quite cynically and mocked. Over the past few months I’ve interviewed dozens of college students specifically about these things for pieces on political testing and military training. A few bought into the dogma wholesale, but overall students seemed to be aware to some extent that the political education is subjective at best…complete nonsense at worst.

I should note though that only a handful were overtly opposed to the political education. While many said they hated it personally, they said it was necessary to keep unity in ideology among others – which ensures harmony.

But I’m not sure what Xi Jinping has in mind to increase “thought control” further. If this means more political seminars, he’ll only be increasing awareness of the party’s insecurity and blatant propagandizing while giving students more to snicker about.

And perhaps more seriously, it could mean another step backwards in the attempt to get Chinese students to be more creative. When I asked Dr. E. Thomas Dowd, president of the American Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology, about political questions like the one above, he said, “People are constrained to think only in certain ways. So I guess by definition you can’t have much creativity under those conditions. In fact, in Hitler’s Germany a lot of thinkers of all kinds fled the country. Not just because they were Jews or communists or other unwanted groups; it was because they couldn’t exercise their creativity in that sort of state where only certain things were acceptable.”

A Marxism professor who teaches political subjects at a test-prep academy in Beijing told me straight up, “They’re not testing the ability to recognize fact. They’re testing the ability to recognize the correct opinion. The goal is to make the students achieve the same opinion and choose according to what they learned instead of their own mind.”

To a large extent, I’ve found Chinese students to be incredibly creative when put in the right situation. But when students are taught that opinions are fact, then they aren’t thinking in a way to find truth. They’re thinking in a way to find the answer they think  the higher-ups want to hear. The ideas may be there but the confidence to act on them isn’t.

So Xi Jinping’s idea to increase political indoctrination in schools seems to be self-defeating all around. But maybe these political seminars aren’t what he has in mind. “Young teachers have many interactions with students and cast significant [political and moral] influence on them,” he said. “They also play a very important role in the spread of ideas.”

So maybe his aim is to better monitor teachers and remove the ones that put forward unsavory ideas. If that’s the case, I think it’s time to stop and have some serious self-reflection on the path he’s setting the country on.

At the risk of sounding alarmist, China is in trouble. China watchers from all kinds of backgrounds would probably agree with this statement to some extent. It’s “trouble” in the abstract sense, since we don’t know exactly how it will play out. But it’s hard to look at political, social, economic and environmental trends without getting the feeling that a perfect storm of sorts is brewing. I’ve put together this infographic to try and bring together some ominous signals from several different fields. What it all means, I can’t say for sure, but it’s apparent that in the very near future China will meet challenges unprecedented in the history of mankind. For the sake of China, and realistically, the rest of the world, let’s hope the 5th generation of leaders knows what they’re doing.

Feel free to use this image, please just link back to this site.

Upon news of Kim Jong-Il’s death today, Chinese netizens on Weibo had reactions pretty similar to those from the West. There was a lot of mocking, some concern about what this will mean politically and a lot of celebratory remarks. Many have also started asking “who’s next?” amid the stream of high-profile 2011 deaths. There are notable differences though at opposite extremes.

One weibo user said, “Kim Jong-Il, an old friend of the Chinese people, has died.” Another lamented that yet another “Anti-Western hero” has fallen.

On the other side some are making sarcastic references to China’s government. A netizen named S_uper Dian tainment said, “Kim Jong Il done for? who’s next? Chavez, Ahmadinejad? [In accordance with relevant laws, regulations and policies, some names were not shown.]“

In the past I’ve often asked Chinese their views on North Korea out of curiosity. True to today’s form, opinions of China’s little comrade to the east are all over the place. Historical issues, stereotypes, modern propaganda and reality jockey for influence in shaping Chinese opinion of most foreign countries; and North Korea is certainly no exception.

In school, most students will learn about North Korea when they study the Korean War, or as it’s called in China: “The War to Resist American Aggression and Aid Korea.” The official account is that the “People’s Volunteer Army” was sent to defend China and aid the helpless Koreans. It ended with a glorious victory against the militarily superior American forces.

After that, it’s a bit awkward. The modern juxtaposition of North and South Korea makes this victory look a bit hollow, so the war is generally where the official education on North Korea ends. But the country also offers a nice contrast to China in some respects. Reform & Opening Up and Chinese leadership look especially impressive by comparison. So there’s mixed signals.

Just about everyone I’ve talked to in China realizes North Korea is very poor. But not many have said much about deplorable human rights or a Stalinist government. I showed a documentary on the country to a friend once who was pretty taken aback by it. These kinds of things don’t tend to get much coverage in China – no matter where they happen.

The most common reply I get though when I ask Chinese friends about North Korea is, “It’s like China was 30 years ago.” That seems fairly accurate, but sometimes it’s not necessarily meant as a negative statement. Chinese fed up with the pressures of capitalism and growing inequalities are increasingly looking back to the Mao-era nostalgically. This is especially true with those who weren’t yet old enough to appreciate the hardships of the time. In people’s tendency to romanticize the past, Mao’s time seems relatively simple and egalitarian.

North Korea offers a modern day incarnation of that period. The bulk of foreign tourists to North Korea are Chinese, largely for this reason. When I was in Pyongyang this past summer I chatted with a Chinese man in the karaoke room of our hotel who had his own export business. It was his third trip and you could tell by the way he talked he was loving every minute of it. With no phone or internet he enjoyed the chance to throw himself back into real socialism for a few days without the pesky distractions of materialist China.

But that’s a fairly extreme view. In my overall experience, most Chinese have some vague negative notions of North Korea, but have never really been provoked or cared to learn much more. All in all, probably not any more misinformed than most Americans – just maybe from a slightly different direction. And who’s to say who’s right? If there’s one thing I learned from going to North Korea, it’s how little anyone really knows about it – including those who have been there.

Here’s a few other posts from Weibo I found interesting. (I can’t speak to the authenticity of the quotes supposedly made by Kim) :

Obama is truly a great president. Few others have accomplished so much. In his term: Osama Bin Laden, Gaddafi, and now Kim Jong-Il.

The Chinese people’s old friend Kim said: “The nation’s greatness does not lie in its vast territory, or long history, while the leader guides the nation’s greatness.  Only when there is a great leader and great party leading the country will the nation be brilliant and let individual honor shine.” If other old friends hear this, they will clap until their hands go red!

When the Chinese people’s old friend Gaddafi was in a hopeless situation and his fears became reality, the few remaining old friends of the Chinese people, Kim Jong Il , Mugabe, Chavez, Castro, and Lukashin had an emergency telephone meeting and reached a consensus: They decided to cancel the “old friend of China”  title of honor. They agreed that the title is too damn dangerous.

In the Korean primary school textbook Grandfather Kim’s Work is Most Tense, Kim said to the pioneers, “Chinese people are still grateful. Now, the Korean people also assume the responsibility to defend the safety of Chinese people. We must defeat the U.S. imperialist running dogs in Taiwan to a complete return of the Chinese people in Taiwan. Do you have confidence?” The young pioneers all confidently replied, “We have the idea and have confidence!”

Chinese people’s dream: 1. School is free 2. You can get a job without guanxi (connections) 3. Doctors don’t sell drugs 4. Food is not poisonous 5. No lies in news reports 6. Professors are not idiots 7. Officials don’ t take bribes 8. Chengguan don’t beat people 9. People who take off pants can’t get popular 10. People who brag can’t get famous  11. Houses are not demolished by force 12. People are not afraid of power 13. The environment is not polluted 14. Officials don’t have privilege. If you agree, please tweet “Kim Jong Il died” “Anti-soccer corruption””anti-radiation clothes” 

 

 

 

Bo and Wang new BFFs?

Posted: December 17, 2011 in Politics
Tags: ,

Recently during a routine exchange between Guangdong and Chongqing officials, Wang Yang and Bo Xilai, the party heads of the respective regions, started lavishing over-the-top praise on each other. Bo went on about how Wang “laid the foundations” for the present conditions of Chongqing while Wang talked about a special Chongqing tree he keeps – which reminds him of the municipality and the progress it’s making. This seemed especially odd given that the two men are obvious rivals for the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and have made subtle public jabs at one another in recent months.

Russell Leigh Moses from Wall Street Journal ran a piece explaining the love fest as a prompt from Beijing to quell any public impression of an inner-party rivalry. He speculated that the two men recited their scripts reluctantly, since they still see themselves very much as competitors.

I’m guessing it was something Beijing wanted, but I’ll venture to say perhaps it wasn’t done reluctantly by either side. For months foreign media has been speculating on this rivalry and what direction the PSC (and ergo China) might go. Bo Xilai has become fairly famous through his red campaigns and awareness is growing of his and Wang’s competing models – especially among intellectuals.  This awareness has perhaps become great enough that putting either one on the PSC  would create expectations the greater party doesn’t want to commit to. With Bo, people might expect tough egalitarian measures, or with Wang, greater freedoms. Putting either on now would be a strong a signal of intent to head in one direction or the other.

If that’s the case, it’s either both or neither for the PSC. And putting both on is risky. Having such a public disparity of ideology sitting in the top nine could suggest a break in the unified front the party tries to convey at all times. Radically divergent views between hardliners led by Li Peng and progressives by Zhao Ziyang in 1989 gave protesters a whiff of weakness that they seized upon. That’s hardly a time bomb the party wants to risk planting during this sensitive era.

So perhaps that’s what’s behind the new affections. Bo and Wang are trying to hold hands and show they can work together without stirring up the pot. They’d rather both make the cut than neither of them.

But both men have fallen from their pinnacles. Bo peaked this past summer amid the 90th anniversary of the CCP where he thrived in the greater attempt to reinforce party legitimacy. Since then he’s slid to wild card status after many compared him with Maoism and wondered if the Chongqing model could work on a nationwide scale. So Wang took the spotlight; but with the events that have unfolded in Wukan this week under his watch, it’s hard to imagine he has much of a shot left.

So it looks increasingly likely that neither man will be tapped for promotion. But who knows what could happen in the months ahead.

Usually when a sensitive event happens in China, the government takes the scalpel approach to censoring it. Certain key words are blocked from search engines and social media; and if images or comments alluding to the event are posted, they’re manually deleted. This is a minor annoyance, but usually just something to scoff at and forget about.

However, the situation unfolding in Wukan has prompted the government to holster the scalpel and whip out the hatchet. Entire social media accounts of those reposting information about the events are being systematically deleted. You can imagine how you would feel if you lost your Facebook or Twitter account and years of accumulated contacts.

It illustrates the graveness of the situation compared to other “sensitive” issues like the Wenzhou train accident or the Nobel Peace Prize. While those were embarrassing for the government, they didn’t represent an immediate existential threat.

For all the hoopla that came out about being unable to cover up the Wenzhou accident, the government seems to be locking down information about Wukan pretty successfully. And the Chinese media hasn’t featured so much as a Global Times editorial blaming foreigners for hyping the event. The only Chinese friend I’ve spoken to who has any idea what’s going on is a political science professor who studies this kind of thing.

I asked a Chinese computer programmer friend last night about it. He had no idea and, in pretty typical fashion, dismissed it saying, “There are many things the government doesn’t let us know about.” He wasn’t too bothered by the fact that rebels had taken over an entire Chinese city for the first time in PRC history.

It’s hard to understate the significance of this. It’s not the beginning of a system-wide collapse but it’s probably a sneak peak of things to come. And however it ends, it will set a precedent. As China’s economy slows and housing prices drop, local governments who are already on the way to bankruptcy will become more desperate. Land grabs will be more aggressive, and so will the resistance to them.

People in Wukan are wisely trying to keep a wedge between the national government and local leaders while avoiding too much contact with foreigners that could be used against them later. Adrienne Mong from NBC reported speaking with a villager who said, “We don’t want American media to get involved. We have our great leaders, like Wen Jiabao, Hu Jintao.”

This is a common tactic in these situations. People who’ve been evicted often plaster pictures of Hu or Wen over the homes about to be demolished, hoping that will save them. But you have to imagine those leaders are scrambling for a way to make this whole thing go away without seeming cruel or weak. While people at the local level don’t recognize this as a national problem, they don’t necessarily need to in order for it to spell disaster for the Communist Party.

Outside of the big cities, China is essentially a patchwork of fiefdoms run by local bureaucrats. In Wukan the same head had been in power for decades. If this uprising ends with anything but a massacre or mass imprisoning of the villagers, people in some of the thousands of other fiefdoms across the country could be emboldened Arab Spring-style if and when the economy goes sour – assuming their own circumstances don’t independently lead them to the same actions anyways. And how many fiefdoms can fall before the authoritarian bureaucracy has to reform or die?

So I can’t say I blame the party for clamping down on news about this so harshly. Throughout Chinese history, rebellions have often started this way in the countryside.  But if things get too desperate the government still has even greater measures up its sleeves – like temporarily shutting down entire social networking platforms or mobile phone service.

And they should do whatever they can to keep the bureaucratic system in place with a strong state hand at the helm of each village. As we all know, without it these uneducated peasants would erupt into chaos. See this tweet from McClatchy’s Tom Lasseter, who’s clinging to dear life amidst the anarchy of the police-less, government-less Wukan:

“It’s striking that in the vacuum of security/government, life in Wukan is pretty orderly. Worries about food [have] not led to looting, etc.”

I’m reminded of 2004 when newly-elected Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili got fed up with police corruption, so he up and fired roughly 80-90% of the cops in the country. Then, even without a police force for three months, things got better. Turned out it was the police causing most of the trouble to begin with.

Tom Lasseter also interviewed a 27-year-old man in Wukan who said, “We are a civilized people. Even without a government we are capable of behaving in a civilized manner.”

In my last post I looked at the factors in today’s China that could be ingredients for a Tiananmen-like rebellion.  If that happened, it could go a million different directions in the aftermath depending on what catalyst brought it about. So rather than make a pointless prediction of what exactly would happen, today I want to look at some general things that might come into play in a post-uprising China.

Scenario 1 – The party successfully puts down the rebellion.

The party is much more paranoid than it was in 1989 and now spends more money on “internal security” than on national defense. One has to imagine they have very sophisticated contingencies in place to respond to any number of uprising scenarios. But if a serious challenge happened and the party survived, it would indeed be a wakeup call in the same way Tiananmen was. It would probably be followed by a brief clampdown followed by accelerated reform.

Scenario 2 – The party is overthrown.

Ok, so what happens next? Liu Xiaobo and his pals are busted out of prison to draft a constitution and a representative democracy is established? Not likely.

Americans are especially susceptible to thinking this could happen because their own country was founded in this manner and it turned out pretty well (eventually). But few appreciate how truly exceptional that was in world history.

More often leaders hijack popular sentiment to seize their own power (see: Lenin, Mao, Castro, Pinochet, Pot – to name a few). Even when democracies are established in theory following an overthrow of the former system, it doesn’t tend to work out quite like you’d hope. Afghanistan’s “democracy” is nearly 10 years old now. How’s that working out? Well, besides the constant violence, one woman is jail for being raped and can only get out of her 12 year sentence by undoing the “adultery” and marrying her rapist. So there’s that.

It’s yet to be seen if the other freshly “democratic” Middle-Eastern states will fare any better. But it’s important to remember this isn’t the first time they’ve had popular uprisings. Somehow a tyrant (or group of tyrants) usually ends up back in power. The big Asian democracies of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are all successful, but they developed as American protectorates – and still had long messy (often violent) transitions to functional democracy.

So where does that leave the exponentially larger and more diverse China?

One of the reasons Tiananmen failed was because there was no clear aim. Everyone was pissed off for different reasons. The students wanted faster reforms while the peasants felt they’d been left behind by overly-rapid reforms. No decisive leaders ever emerged. Not a lot’s changed in terms of those interests except that now there’s an ultra-nationalist wing who thinks the government is too weak on foreign affairs. So if someone were to ascend to power they’d have to focus on the grievances that are shared by the most people across different demographics.

Throughout Chinese history, most revolutions have looked somewhat similar. After a dynasty has been in power for a long time, wealth inequality gets worse and worse. People become frustrated by the privileged class flaunting their wealth and the leaders building frivolous projects on the backs of the peasantry. An uprising is started by leaders who promise to take land and wealth from the rich and redistribute it among the poor. This majority tyranny is enough to propel the leaders to power whereupon they fulfill their promise and reward the peasants. Then over time the leaders are corrupted. They give way to even more corrupt later generations. Land and wealth slowly aggregates back into the hands of a few and the cycle starts over again.

Wealth inequality and corruption are grievances shared by most people across the board in China today. If the Communist Party were overthrown, things could actually get a lot more communist. The Chinese rich seem to already have this worry, as many are now flocking to get foreign passports.

Then there’s the issue of the People’s Liberation Army. It’s hard to imagine that those with all the weapons won’t try to find a place for themselves in the new order. Besides, no one is going to lose support by pledging a hardline on territorial issues and “The West” like the PLA tends to do. Like most militaries, they’d prefer to use their toys outside a simulation setting.

A PLA general discussing how China would respond if America interfered with an invasion of Taiwan once said, “We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xian. Of course, the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.”

Delightful. And we all know how well military governments tend to work out anyways (See: Libya, Myanmar).

Again, it would be pointless to speculate on the specifics of the aftermath of a theoretical a revolution. There are too many wild cards. But given today’s (and most of history’s) situation anyone who would ascend to power would likely have to appeal to nationalism and disgust over the wealth divide. The country could split apart into separate states, but I doubt it. Chinese are pretty sensitive about territorial integrity. Keeping China together would most likely be included as part of the nationalist platform of any viable leader.

As I’ve written before, I don’t buy that the entire country would erupt into chaos under most scenarios.  The fundamental business apparatus is in place and I suspect most people would opt to keep going to work rather than taking to the streets to hurl bricks. However, any new political system would have profound long-term effects. And try as I might, I’m struggling to imagine a plausible scenario where an overthrow of the current system has a happy ending.

A western-style democracy would be very unlikely to spontaneously emerge and it could cause more problems than it fixes anyways. I buy the official line that China’s couldn’t handle an abrupt transition to nationwide elections. There are too many avenues for tyranny and deception. The democracies that evolve from existing systems over time tend to be much more successful than the ones that come suddenly from revolution. Slow (but consistent and visible) reform in giving the people a meaningful voice under a rule of law is the best route.  Hopefully the current Chinese leadership does what’s in everybody’s interest and addresses the substance of what could lead to rebellion.

Hint: that probably doesn’t include the iron fist being upgraded to a stronger metal.

Click here to see another perspective on this issue.

When haphazard attempts to start a Jasmine Revolution failed comically in Beijing early this year, discussion over whether or not China is ripe for revolution was popular. The conclusion by most was that it’s not. But it seems that in just a few short months the situation has changed somewhat. While an uprising doesn’t look to be imminent, there seems to be many similarities between circumstances unfolding today and those that preceded the Tiananmen Square rebellion of 1989. So I want to look at some key parallels between then and now:

Corruption

Then: There was always corruption in the PRC, but Reform & Opening Up made it much easier and much more visible. In the 80’s, many price controls were lifted, but not all. The shortages of some goods allowed people with the right connections to buy at the artificially low prices and sell at market rates for huge windfalls. So naturally, the already-powerful became even more powerful. The inequality of opportunity and obvious abuse of power were two things immediately visible to those affected and were direct causes the Tiananmen protests.[1]

Now: You can click here to see a visual approximation of China’s Gini Coefficient wealth inequality over time (0 means perfect equality, 1.0 means one person has all the wealth).  In 1989 it was hovering around 0.36. It took a dip that year but has since soared to over 0.47 – well past the 0.40 danger level. China’s crony one-party capitalism and massive economic growth since Tiananmen have only increased the amount of capital involved with corruption and allowed the powerful to get exponentially wealthier.  This is perhaps best felt when local officials make illegal, undercompensated land grabs to raise capital for their city (and often take kickbacks from developers). A recent survey found the number of disputes over these land grabs is at an all-time high. Favoritism, graft and inequality of opportunity are in some ways better than the Tiananmen era, but in many ways much worse.

The Media

Then: The Chinese media of the 1980’s covered issues that had never been touched in the PRC previously; even dabbling in corruption cases. Single essays or TV programs could stir up fiery political discussion on college campuses. A documentary called River Elegy played on CCTV in 1988, which subtly criticized Chinese culture and sparked nationwide debate. When the protests themselves started, the press covered them extensively and even portrayed the student protestors sympathetically. These factors shined a light on many issues intellectuals were concerned about and brought together like-minded activists.

Now: Though the official press was reigned in after 1989 – where it’s more or less stayed ever since – new avenues of disseminating information have sprung up. Mobile phones, blogs and microblogs have put reporting in the hands of those directly affected – shining a light on things never before seen by most common people. Shrewd online political commentary on these issues by bloggers like Han Han may be playing a role similar to programs like River Elegy in the 80’s.

Education Failure

Then: After the Cultural Revolution, universities re-opened and were a sure ticket to a better life. However, with further reform and opening of the markets in the mid-to-late 80’s, many college students graduated to find their education gave them no real advantage in the new business landscape. In 1988, the system that assigned college graduates jobs was also amended to where private companies could reject those top students assigned to them in favor of those who had connections inside the company.[1]

Now: Educational prospects improved after Tiananmen, but now the situation is coming to resemble 1989 again. An overabundance of college graduates has left one-fourth of them unemployed without any better prospects than those who didn’t go to college. Many have also criticized the university system as useless, largely focusing on theory and failing to give students useful practical guidance. With labor wages rising China needs to move up the value chain in order to keep its people employed. Some think the innovation and collaboration needed to achieve this won’t be possible under the current intellectually repressive atmosphere.

Inflation

Then: Inflation was at an astounding 18.5% in 1988 because of panic withdrawling and buying on rumors of what relaxing price controls would mean. [2]

Now: Inflation is sitting at about 5.5%, down from a high of 6.5% in July. Not nearly as bad as pre-Tiananmen, but food is getting less affordable and housing is off the charts. With a roughly 32 million surplus of marrying age men, great pressure is being put on those who need to buy a house (and often a car) to compete for potential wives. And the poorest of the poor are having to cut food from their diet in order to stay on top of their finances.

Competing Party factions

Then: In the lead up to Tiananmen there was an obvious rift in the party between progressives like Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang and hardliners like Li Peng. This rift was absolutely apparent in the days leading up to the crackdown. The protestors saw this split and sniffed weakness; which emboldened them further.

Now: After Tiananmen the party learned to present a united front in public and keep disputes between factions – or even the existence of factions – behind closed doors. That era seems to have ended now though with Bo Xilai’s left wing and Wang Yang’s right wing both making very public criticisms of each other’s models. The bulk of the Chinese public has yet to express an interest  (or knowledge) in this feud, but that could change as factions push harder for influence and citizens begin to take sides.

Banking System Cracks

Then: In the late 80’s Chinese banks flooded the market with loans. As could be expected, a great deal of them went bad and an estimated 1/3 of factories were unprofitable.[1] The government brought this to an abrupt halt in 1988 by cutting the cash flow – a kind of austerity measure many didn’t take too kindly to.

Now: Take that same situation and multiply the figures involved to equal more than seven times China’s entire 1989 GDP. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, China pumped $586 billion into the economy as a stimulus. This is part of an overall $2.7 trillion Chinese banks have extended in loans over 2009 and 2010. Up to now that stimulus has looked pretty good in economic recovery terms, as it always does…until the loans start going bad.

The Street recently had a piece that said, “Economic-related news coming from China is a page-turning thriller. Ponzi schemes, zombies, off-balance-sheet reporting, subprime and mafia-style lending; rising inflation, declining asset values, slowing growth — it’s all there. Add in government meddling in market mechanisms and official denials and China sounds like it has the makings of a perfect economic storm.”

Wenzhou has recently had dozens of bosses flee bad debts – something that’s being read as a preview of larger things to come. Tsinghua economist Patrick Chovanec has said he’s not sure if China can make it through next year’s power transition before a major banking crisis hits.

Key differences between Tiananmen era and now

Nationalism and affluence

Since Tiananmen the government has pretty successfully educated nationalism into the youth and trained them to regard any talk of democracy or human rights as a western ploy to make China implode. The relatively well-off youth of today also seem far more interested in video games and pop stars than politics anyways. And the population as a whole is undeniably better off than they were in 1989 (though some studies suggest they’re not any happier). Most have a lot more to lose than they did at that time.

A paranoid and highly technological government

The technological improvements may work to the Party’s advantage more than any would-be revolutionaries. The government has the capability to monitor and immediately clamp down on dissent – a capability that improves by the day. If they were truly threatened by a spontaneous movement, they could temporarily shut down cellphone service, microblogs like Weibo, or even the entire internet – as they did in Xinjiang in 2009. And as the Beijing attempt at a Jasmine Revolution earlier this year demonstrated, the government will come down hard on any threat – real or imagined. And they’re very careful not to allow any large gatherings that they can’t fully control; as the turnout for Hu Yaobang’s funeral in 1989 was the final spark for the Tiananmen Protests.

Conclusion

Given the vast similarities between now and 1989, another go at a revolution seems possible. If history is any indicator, an iron fist can’t succeed by itself if grievances are too great and you have the right catalyst to bring the disenfranchised together quickly.

Probably the only leader popular enough to create this Hu Yaobang-like catalyst in death would be Wen Jiabao. But again, if that happened the party would be overly cautious; and it probably wouldn’t be enough anyways. It would have to be something big that directly affected a huge number of people.

A large scale disaster that could be linked to corruption or official incompetence might do it. The Wenzhou train crash earlier this year and Shanghai fire last year made a lot of people angry and concerned for their safety. They weren’t big enough to spark an uprising, but they were two of many small aggravators that are slowly ebbing away people’s patience with corruption and government cover-ups. If something like a nuclear meltdown, a mass public health incident or a large dam collapse happened, that just might break the camel’s back. In 1975, the Banqiao Dam in Henan collapsed killing 171,000 people. And if you think that’s something relegated to the incompetence of the Mao-era, an average of 68 dams still collapse every year in China, according to one official.

But an even more likely scenario would be a poorly timed financial crisis; one like the aforementioned banking crisis that many are predicating. Life is already getting rough for the post-80’s/post-90’s kids who grew up spoiled taking economic security for granted. The job market is shrinking, their time/money intensive education is often useless and the gender imbalance is leaving many men hopelessly single. To make matters worse, the 2010 ratio of five workers for every elderly person will drop to 3-to-1 by 2020 in what Time Magazine has called “China’s Demographic Time Bomb.” For many only children that means completely supporting two parents financially and physically amid some of the least affordable housing prices in the world.

If a housing bubble burst robs these people of the investments they’ve become slaves to, they might all-of-a-sudden take a very keen interest in politics. And if there’s a banking crisis, it would likely cause a run on banks and panic buying similar to what caused the massive inflation of 1988. Fitch has estimated there’s a 60% chance of such a crisis by mid-2013. If it comes any earlier than that, it would be right during the leadership transition when the party is at its most vulnerable.

I’ll give my standard disclaimer for any internet police or fenqing that might be reading: An uprising isn’t something I’m hoping for. It’s not even something I’d venture to predict. Predications of a CCP collapse have a way of making you look like a fool (See: Gordon Chang).  And even if an uprising did happen, it doesn’t mean the party wouldn’t survive it. But there are many cracks beginning to show – financial, political and social; figurative and literal. The Beijing Consensus of authoritarian led economic growth has delayed the Party’s need to address their legitimacy shortfall for a solid 22 years, but one way or another that growth eventually has to slow and the legitimacy issue has to be addressed. If I were in charge I’d focus a bit less on the iron fist and a bit more on the root problems distressing and disenfranchising those without financial and political influence.

Non-linked sources

[1] Silenced Scream: a Visual History of the 1989 Tiananmen Protests. Donna Rouviere Anderson, Forrest Anderson. p. 1

[2] Dingxin Zhao. ‘’The Power of Tiananmen: State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement’’. Chicago: University of Chiacgo Press, 2001. ISBN 0-226-982600-2. pp.127.

A few days ago I talked with a Communist Party acquaintance who has a fairly high position in the propaganda organ  (by “fairly high” I’ll just say he’s on speaking terms with several Politburo members). We got to talking about the upcoming power turnover and I asked whether he thinks the government will shift to the left with the likes of Bo Xilai’s neo-socialists or to the right with the Wang Yang progressive crowd. “Neither,” he replied. “It will go in a third direction. Domestically it will go to the right and in foreign policy to the left.”

This basically means further reform in freedoms at home while taking a more hawkish approach abroad. This seems like a very plausible scenario. He also said he worries that some current players vying for greater power could be catastrophic for China, were they to be put  in charge.

While speaking with him I realized that when you hear about the Communist Party through only certain mediums, it’s easy to form the idea that they’re a unified monolith; when actually nothing could be further from the truth. He’s a very rational guy who pretty well represents an unsung wing of the Party – a wing that didn’t necessarily get into politics to abuse their power and line their own pockets. He has most of the same concerns I do about China’s future. He worries about nationalists hijacking the government and letting the current situation deteriorate further. Some would criticize him, saying that since he’s part of the system, he’s complicit in the bad that it does.  But he seems to sincerely believe the Party’s power can be channeled for good; that people like him can steer it in the right direction from the inside.  He and I don’t agree on a lot of the methods to get this done, but his heart is in the right place. However, sometimes forces from the outside make it harder for people like him.

This week there was a great piece in New York Times called “Why China won’t listen.” The piece cited a congressional ammendment to express support for Chen Guangcheng, who’s under house arrest in Linyi, saying:

“Beijing does not indiscriminately reject all such ‘interference'; China and the United States conduct a dialogue on human rights through diplomatic channels. But Chinese leaders believe such dialogue belongs behind closed doors. The Chinese are saying to Americans, if you grant me face, I can be reasonable; if solving the problem will help me, I’ll consider it. But don’t expect me to make concessions under pressure.”

This is a dead-on assessment. Much of the foreign criticism toward China’s human rights is counter-productive. It backs Chinese leaders into a corner and forces them to take a hawkish anti-foreign attitude and even double-down on the practices being criticized. It drowns out the voices of reason who are trying to lead the country’s development in a positive direction. This, perhaps, is partly why there may be opposite directions for domestic and foreign policy with the new leadership.

This isn’t to say foreigners should stop criticizing China. Far from it. However, things like congressional censures, which do more for US politicians’ campaigns than China’s human rights, are the opposite of constructive. A lot of the other criticisms over Chen Guangcheng were perfectly legitimate, but still counter-productive.

It’s important to realize that substantive change in China can never be inflicted from the outside. The government and people alike would reject it on principle. The foreign media plays an important role in covering issues that Chinese media are either too scared to report or are directly barred from reporting. Dissemination of information is good. Calmly arguing how current policy is bad for Chinese people is good. But making fruitless public admonishments of the government is pointless and usually harmful. Every time a protester in San Francisco holds up a “Free Tibet!” sign they’re pushing the rational people in China further into the arms of the hawks. Things like petitions to free Chen Guangcheng and human rights groups blasting the government – their hearts are in the right place but their actions often result in the opposite of what they’re fighting for.

Rational people within the Party need to have some room to maneuver and get their voices heard over the shouting of the hardliners. They’re the only ones that have any hope of reforming the Party constructively. And while it might be satisfying to see the corrupt bureaucrats and iron fists get their come-upins in a full-on rebellion, steady reform within the confines of the current system would be much safer and better for everyone.

The Party isn’t some Darth Vader-run empire of evil. As much as I, and many others focus on the absurd and horrible things some quarters of it carry out, there are a lot of good people in the Party trying to get good things done. Reporting, objective analysis and pressure from foreign governments behind closed doors are the only things foreigners can really do to help those people improve China’s situation.

China Daily recently reported  on new compulsory ethics classes for government officials. It said, “The ethics campaign, which will be ‘of great significance’ in lifting public confidence in the government and in civil servants as well as in consolidating the Party’s governance position, will be carried out from 2011 to 2015″

Lift public confidence in government? Maybe. Consolidate the Party’s governance position? Uh, I guess…if somehow that isn’t already 100% done. Do anything to actually improve officials’ ethics? *crickets chirping*

Any economist will tell you that the only thing that changes behavior on a wide scale is incentives. I’ve written about these absurd campaigns before and how they always neglect the only two things that actually deincentivize corruption: An untied press and an independent judiciary.

So I always wonder who these campaigns are really for. Are they just a show to pacify a public increasingly aware and intolerant of corruption? Or does the Party genuinely believe that officials can be trained to act ethically without actual public oversight?

I often think the latter is possible. Though absolute power has proven to corrupt absolutely time and time again, people always think they can be the ones to break the pattern. Hell, if you put me completely in charge I bet I’d create a utopia given my benevolence and 100% correct beliefs. So maybe the higher-ups see the Party as a flawed entity which can consciously overcome its shortcomings and become the benevolent force Mao (supposedly) envisioned.

But that same China Daily piece had another quote that shed further light: “Laws overlap ethics, but the law cannot fully cover all ethical issues, such as extra marital affairs, which tend to lead officials into corruption.”

While I’m sure there are exceptions, the idea that affairs “tend to lead officials into corruption” seems completely backwards. That’s not what the Party wants people to think though. They love showing how many mistresses fallen corrupt officials had; or how frivolously they lived. It shows that their corruption is a personal level moral issue; not a nationwide systematic one.

Lai Changxing, who was responsible for the “biggest economic crime in the history of the People’s Republic of China” in a black market import racket, used to keep an extravagant mansion/brothel where he’d entertain government officials with wild sex parties. After they all fell off the horse, the mansion was turned into a museum open to the public to showcase Lai’s and the officials’ depravity. (It was later shut down after guests swarmed in and marveled at how awesome being a corrupt official is).

So this new ethics plan seems to target the alleged route of corruption in the Party’s narrative: immoral lifestyles. That’s the narrative they’ve been pushing so now they have to show they’re doing something about it.  And they’ve given themselves five years to implement it – probably about as long as they can plausibly draw it out.

But the real question is if, and for how long these campaigns can actually placate the masses’ impatience with corrpution. Stay tuned…

This week Vladamir Putin was announced the winner of the *ahem* prestigious Confucius Peace Prize. Many have already been quick to point out the irony of “The Butcher of Chechnya” getting a peace prize. I think, however, this is a very apt metaphor for the greater political discourse in China.

The Chinese committee who awarded this is obviously pretty nationalistic, as the entire premise of the Confucius Prize is a rebuke to the Nobel Peace Prize awarding to Liu Xiaobo. And to many Chinese nationalists, awarding Putin a peace prize makes perfect sense. He had the courage to stand up to renegade separatist territories like Chechnya and Georgia to ensure Russia’s territorial integrity and peaceful unity. The subtext here is pretty obvious.

During the class discussion question “What would you do if you were president of China?” I would always inevitably have 2-3 students say something like “send the military into Taiwan” (and sometimes into Japan). Chinese nationalists would love to see their leaders have the brass to reclaim the island and other disputed territories.

But this is obviously not something the Chinese government wants. They’re smart enough to realize that vastly superior military might doesn’t necessarily translate into a swift conquest (See USA vs. Iraq/Vietnam). So as much as the government likes to selectively use nationalism to prop themselves up, they don’t want it getting out of hand to the point that they’re forced into a war they’re not ready for; or even suffer large scale business disruption. So they tone down this kind of sentiment as often as they inflame it to ensure it’s at the appropriate level.

The Confucius Prize wasn’t endorsed by the government. In fact, the organizers defied a direct order not to continue it. Guessing why the government tried to shut it down would be pure speculation (The Peking Duck has some good analysis). And who knows if they knew the winner would be Putin ahead of time (although they definitely knew he was nominated). But if you look at it from the Chinese perspective, Putin does make the Chinese government look fairly weak by comparison. It’s hard to imagine they’re happy about this.