Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

By now, most China watchers have probably seen this piece by David Shambaugh cogently arguing that “the endgame of communist rule in China has begun.” If you want to see an equally cogent argument lead to a very different conclusion, you can see Arthur Kroeber’s piece from December about how Xi Jinping and his governing style are here to stay.

Both make for interesting reading, as do the countless other pundits who’ve made similar arguments on both sides of the CCP endurance question over the years. If they hadn’t wrapped all their interesting points together into a grand thesis predicting the future of the Communist Party, they would have been quite insightful. However, they did make rather firm conclusions, and that’s rather pointless. That’s because…

We really have no idea what’s going on in China right now

In November 2011, The Telegraph ran an exclusive report on a self-immolation that had happened in Tiananmen Square three weeks earlier. The paper only learned of it when they received a photo from a British tourist who’d been there and was surprised he hadn’t yet seen anything about it in the news. Despite the hundreds of people who’d been present snapping their own photos, no record of the incident could be found anywhere in Chinese media, Weibo, or anywhere else. It happened in perhaps the most trafficked and photographed place in China, it was during the heyday of Weibo, and it was walking distance from where hundreds of foreign correspondents were stationed. And yet, we just narrowly missed never hearing about it at all. It makes you wonder how many important things we are missing completely in China.

Hundreds of the best foreign correspondents in the world are stationed in China (the lion’s share based in Beijing, with most of the rest in Shanghai), but unfortunately they have no hope of collectively reporting more than a very small fraction of the important things happening in the country every day. They’re a few hundred covering 1.35 billion people living across 3.7 million square miles. There are of course Chinese journalists and netizens finding things out, but self-censorship and multiple levels of government censorship stop a lot of that from ever reaching the outside world’s comprehension. And a lot of the trends that could influence the CCP’s survival are simply unknowable.

How stable is the financial system? How significant are the hundreds of thousands of annual “mass incidents?” What exactly is going on behind closed doors at Zhongnanhai? How much is corruption affecting the military’s capability and loyalties? Is there any threat of some public grievance gaining collective appeal among different social groups? What questions are we not even thinking to ask? The Communist Party is in a better position than anyone to know these things, but even it’s probably clueless on a lot of these big questions. Things get garbled through five levels of government bureaucracy while hundreds of thousands of personal interests obscure things for their own purposes before they have any hope of being digested accurately. Despite the enormous strides in reporting and communication, we’re still very much in the dark. Which is why…

We have even less hope of possibly knowing what will happen in the future

After Bo Xilai’s sensational purge in 2012, many China-watchers (myself included) presumed that the incoming Politburo Standing Committee would take a turn toward the more liberal wing of the CCP. Then Ling Jihua’s son got in a Ferrari accident and New York Times exposed Wen Jiabao’s family wealth, making a mockery of any predictions on the PBSC’s composition. Totally unforeseen events (that we still don’t fully understand) changed everything, which should itself have been foreseeable.

That was just one small arena of Chinese politics. Imagine the present day stable of China pundits being transported back to 1986 and trying to predict what would happen over the next five years (then repeat that exercise with 1976, 1966, 1956 and 1946). Let’s even help them out a bit and presume they have access to all the information the CCP did. Does anyone honestly believe any of them could have predicted anything resembling what actually unfolded? If not, why should we think they’re any more capable today?

Political winds can shift on a dime in China, influenced by completely unforeseeable variables. The Tiananmen movement, for instance, was the result of dozens of different incidents and trends that came together in a perfect storm. Alter any one of those variables slightly, and things could have turned out very differently. You can conscientiously gather every bit of information available, every apparent trend and make a conclusion about where China is headed. Then something will almost certainly happen tomorrow that rips your thesis to shreds.

Perhaps either Shambaugh’s or Kroeber’s prediction will ultimately be proven “correct,” but that doesn’t mean it was a good prediction. If someone is tasked with predicting a coin toss, they could analyze the wind, the person tossing, the texture of the ground, and all sorts of other random variables. But whatever system of analysis they come up with will be utterly lacking. Perhaps someday a computer system will be able to meaningfully sort these variables, but it’s beyond any human’s capabilities. So even if the coin is tossed and their prediction is correct, that doesn’t make them a proficient coin toss analyst. Crass as the analogy may be, CCP soothsaying is similarly an exercise in futility that’s made fools of many “experts.”

But prediction sells. It’s harder to get media outlets to give you op-ed space or air time if you just say “things are complicated and we don’t really know what’s going to happen.” Making a bold prediction gets noticed and it has little downside (especially if you hedge, as Shambaugh did, without giving a deadline on it). Gordon Chang, perhaps the most extreme example, has set several firm deadlines on his CCP collapse theory that have turned out utterly wrong. And yet, he still enjoys “China expert” status along with regular columns and TV appearances.

Whether the Communist Party will survive or collapse in the short-term is THE question in China, so it’s not surprising that we see pieces arguing both sides. There’s nothing wrong with exploring the possibilities, and it’s certainly worth tracking events and trends that could influence this question. But when I see someone pulling an arbitrary set of indicators together to make a grand conclusion, I take it with an enormous grain of salt. You should too.

ChinasMillennialsC1Over the past two years on this blog, I’ve occasionally alluded to a big project that’s perpetually been “a few months” from completion. Well today I’m happy to announce that the project is finally finished! As a few discerning readers have already guessed, it’s a book. It’s called China’s Millennials: The Want Generation and it’s set to be published by Rowman & Littlefield on June 1st.

The book has roots back in 2007 when I began three years of working with college students in Nanjing. That was an exciting period for China, especially for its youth. The economy was still growing by double-digits each year and the upcoming Beijing Olympics signified to many Chinese that their country had reclaimed its place as a world power. Then immediately after the Olympics finished, the global financial crisis hit, sucker-punching “the West” and its supposedly superior political system. China, on the other hand, appeared to steam ahead unscathed.

In 2009 leading up to the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square suppression, a common refrain appeared in foreign media about Chinese youth of today. Unlike their idealistic predecessors, who were willing to lay down their lives for democracy, this generation was largely content with authoritarian capitalism. They’d been subdued by a combination of torrid economic growth, materialism and the government’s reemphasis on Chinese nationalism.

There was certainly a lot of truth to this narrative. As the West was struggling, there seemed a sense of inevitability that China’s return to the world’s power center was just around the corner. People were living better and better lives and the country’s rulers were triumphantly leading the nation through rough waters. The confidence young Chinese had in their country had probably never been higher.

But then cracks started surfacing. In 2010, Weibo took off and began shining light on many of China’s deeply serious problems. Meanwhile, demographics and the economy were taking a turn for the worse. There was (and remains) a growing gender imbalance, an aging population, increasingly visible environmental degradation, a slowing economy and a shrinking job market for college graduates. The gravity of these and many other problems in the eyes of China’s leadership has perhaps best been illustrated by the severe (and worsening) crackdown on dissent that Xi Jinping launched after coming to power.

Still, when the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen movement rolled around in 2014, the narrative about the politically content, materialistic and nationalistic youth was dusted off once again. But this time I wasn’t so sure. Like most things in China, there is indeed truth to that simple storyline, but the full picture is infinitely more complex. What I’ve tried to do with this book is explore some of that complexity.

Over the span of three years I traveled around China talking to a diverse set of Chinese youth born in the late 1980s and early 1990s (aka millennials) trying to understand where they’re coming from and what they’re worried about. In the book I profile youth navigating China’s education system, the workforce, contentious social issues and those who are pushing back against the status quo in various ways.

In Shenzhen I spent time speaking with factory workers and a young reporter who went undercover in Foxconn during the height of the 2010 suicide controversy. In Shandong I met a group of rural Henan youth who fell prey to an education scam that upended their already difficult lives. In Nanjing I spoke with young Christian converts about why they felt compelled to turn to religion. In Beijing, I interviewed the founder of a popular nationalistic website about his role in a nationwide uproar. In Guangzhou I spoke with environmentalists trying to contend with heavy-handed authorities. I tell the stories of young social activists, journalists, civil servants, migrant workers, jobless graduates, frustrated farmers and tech entrepreneurs (to name a few). I tried to give voice to a wide range of subjects including both urban and rural youth (the latter tend to get far less coverage than their urban counterparts).

In talking with all these young Chinese and a raft of scholars and other experts for this book, a picture started to emerge that wasn’t nearly as simple as youth being bought off by materialism and distracted by nationalism. While there were indeed many signals of contentment, political apathy and material pragmatism, there were as many stories of struggle, disillusionment, insecurity, political doubt and dissatisfaction with the way things are. Many youth appear to be pushing back—whether consciously or subconsciously—against the status quo while China’s leaders scramble to keep them in line, and increasingly, scramble to adapt when youth refuse to conform.

Pontificating about millennials has become a cottage industry in the US, with a cascade of books and columns dissecting and predicting this group’s supposed habits. I consciously tried to avoid writing a book like that. I keep the pontificating holstered and make no predictions. I just wanted to capture this moment in time and try to paint an (admittedly partial) picture of what Chinese youth are up against, and do so though their own stories. I weave these stories in with data, academic studies and commentary from sociologists, political scientists, journalists and other experts. The idea was to present compelling personal stories of young Chinese alongside their greater context at this point in history.

Anyways, I hope you’ll understand why this blog has been on life support for the better part of two years now. But hopefully it will be worth the wait. I also want to take this opportunity to thank all of you long time followers for reading and sharing this blog since I started it in 2010. The interest and feedback I’ve gotten here was a major driving force in convincing me that this book was worth writing. So thank you! I hope if you’ve enjoyed what you’ve seen here, you’ll check out the book.

(See more at the publisher or at Amazon)

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
Tags: ,

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.