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.

The long-running debate as to whether China will dethrone the U.S. as the world’s top superpower or buckle like Japan or the Soviet Union is heating up again. Slowing growth and a slew of ominous data has people talking about just how serious this crunch will turn out. You can check out two great discussions about this at ChinaFile and New York Times (or to simplify, just read the opposing viewpoints of Michael Pettis and Justin Lin).

Whether there will be a crash and what that says about China’s economic model is certainly very significant, but I think when looking at the big picture of China’s future, it’s hardly THE most significant issue. I don’t fear a Chinese hard landing nearly as much as I fear the hard long slog unfolding much more quietly.

Right now China is barrelling down the economic rapids trying to avoid crashing, but there’s already a hole in the bottom of the raft. Even if it avoids a crash, there are much worse things in store. And China doesn’t have just one big hole in its raft, it has (at least) four.

1.  The Aging Population
In 2010, about 13 percent of China’s population was over 60-years-old. Or in other words, there were five working age people for every retiree, and even that’s already causing problems. With China’s enormous “floating population” of migrant workers, about half of all elderly live by themselves or with just an elderly spouse. This leaves many migrants the choice of essentially straddling their hometown and work-destination in order to care for ailing parents, or paying to put them up in the city. Both options can cause huge financial strains, which is made worse by the fact that the one-child policy has left plenty of couples to solely support four parents. But as tough as it is now, we ain’t seen nothing yet:

population aging chart

That 5-to-1 ratio of workers-to-retirees will fall to 3-to-1 just by 2020 and continue to get worse from there until the over 60 crowd goes above and beyond a third of China’s population. Some may point out that this is very similar to what Japan and several other countries are going through, but there’s one very important thing to keep in mind:

 japan china gdp2

Thanks to the one child policy wreaking havoc on demographics, China is facing a first world problem while it still only has third world resources to cope with it. Japan may be able to afford it, but in all likelihood, China won’t. The facilities and the trained personnel to care for these elderly just aren’t there, and putting them there will be incredibly difficult with the meager means China has at its disposal. It will put unmanageable strains on families, pensions and China’s healthcare system…not to mention the economic dividends China’s large population of workers have been supplying over the past two decades.

2.  The Pollution
I don’t even know where to begin on China’s pollution problems. For starters, an estimated 750,000 Chinese die prematurely each year from air pollution-related respiratory diseases. Hundreds of “cancer villages” dot the countryside. And the country’s carbon emissions, which are already the highest in the world, aren’t expected to peak for at least another two decades.

But the most frightening implication of China’s pollution is what it’s doing to the food and water supply. Wall Street Journal reported last week that “anywhere between 8% and 20% of China’s arable land, some 25 to 60 million acres, may now be contaminated with heavy metals. A loss of even 5% could be disastrous, taking China below the ‘red line’ of 296 million acres of arable land that are currently needed, according to the government, to feed the country’s 1.35 billion people.”

Many farmers that used to produce healthy food are now growing food they know can’t be sold just so they can qualify for compensation from the government or polluting factories. Or worse, they’re growing food they know isn’t safe to sell, but they’re sellling it anyways. On top of this, desertification resulting from global warming and deforestation is claiming arable land the size of Rhode Island every year.

After decades of growth policies that used the “grow GDP first and clean up later” principle, China is realizing that it all may be too expensive to clean up. A researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has estimated that if you factor in environmental costs, China’s real annual GDP growth would be nearly halved. However, no matter how much money is thrown at the problem, there are some resources that may never be recovered…which leads to the next big problem.

3.  The Water Shortage
Demand for water in China is skyrocketing, while at the same time supply is dwindling and being contaminated.  The Tibetan glaciers, which supply the water for all three of China’s major rivers – The Yangtze, Mekong and Yellow – are disappearing by as much as 7% per year. About half of the rivers that existed in China in 1990 have already dried up, and of those rivers and lakes that remain, about 75% are severely polluted. 28% are so polluted that their water can’t even be used for agriculture.

The water shortage will also have severe effects on industry. As much as 17 percent of China’s water is now used by the coal industry and other power stations. And as you can see, China’s coal use has been shooting upward for the past decade with no promise of slowing any time soon.

 coal chart
Chart via U.S. Energy Information Administration

Over the next two decades, this water crisis is poised to come to a head with demand far outstripping supply by nearly 200 billion cubic meters. What this will mean for China’s economy and the everyday lives of its citizens is scary to think about, to put it mildly.

 waterrisk
Chart via Business Insider and China Water Risk

4. The Gender Imbalance
The one-child policy, a patriarchal culture and sex selective abortions and have come together in what will eventually create a population of surplus men that rivals the overall populations of many large countries. According to a Chinese population researcher from Xi’an Jiaotong University, the number of these “bare branches” aged 20 to 49 in China will reach 20 million by 2015 and continue to grow to around 44 million by 2040. At current birthrates, eventually one in five Chinese men will be hopelessly single. These numbers are unprecedented in human history, and experts are expecting very little good to come from it.

Times and places in history with large male surpluses – from the American Wild West to mid-19th century Northern China – have been marked by lawlessness and exploitation of women. Rises in violent crime rates have been attributed to the imbalance that already exists in contemporary China. And since those left without wives tend to be the very poorest men – who are increasingly finding themselves clustered in “bachelor villages” – other grievances could easily consolidate them into a violent force. This is exactly what scholars Valerie Hudson and Andrea Den Boer have argued preceded historical Chinese conflicts like the Nien Rebellion, the Black Flag Army, the Boxers and the Eight Trigrams Rebellion.

Furthermore, if the Chinese government gets worried about the social upheaval bare branches could cause, they may try to channel that angst into the Chinese army. In that case, it could result in ultra-nationalism and a foreign policy that’s “swaggering, belligerent, provocative,” as Hudson and Den Boer put it.

        *                                               *                                            *

I try to be an optimist. I have confidence that new technologies and targeted policies can mitigate some of these problems before they become catastrophic. But the fact that these four things are happening in concert is downright terrifying and presents the probable scenario that they’ll exacerbate one-another. The worsening health effects from pollution could make it more expensive to care for the elderly. The water shortage and soil degradation could cause food and utility prices to rise, making it harder to eke out a living and keep the bare branches content. You get the idea.

So by all means keep an eye on the present economic hurdle. It will certainly have enormous implications on the quality of life in China and the extent to which the country is able to address other issues. But don’t forget that even if China gets over this hurdle, there are much bigger ones on the road ahead. Keep a very close eye on these hurdles, because they won’t become apparent in any abrupt crash. But they have the potential to be much more crippling to the country’s sustained growth.

I assume that most readers of this blog also follow ChinaGeeks and its founder Charlie Custer, but in case there are any of you who don’t, you need to watch the documentary he just released online about the tens of thousands of children that get kidnapped and trafficked in China each year:

[Link if the embed doesn't work]

The film follows three families, each of which lost their children to very different kinds of traffickers. Many might be familiar with the situation of the first family depicted, whose male toddler was stolen and presumably sold to a new family. But the second and third families in the film, who lost an adolescent girl and boy respectively, will send a chill down your spine. In all likelihood, the girl was sold into a life of forced begging or prostitution and the boy into slave labor. At best the authorities in these stories are lazy and incompetent. At worst they actively protect and profit from the trafficking rings.

The film’s title “Living with Dead Hearts” – which was coined by the mother of the adolescent girl – perfectly captures what the families go through. Having no idea what became of their children, and lacking even the closure that learning of their death might provide, the families have no choice but to spend every waking moment and every penny they have on the search for their child – a search that will almost certainly yield nothing but financial and emotional ruin.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of people in China will never be able to see this film, which is part of what makes this tragedy so pervasive. But this is also why it’s so important for the rest of the world to see it. It isn’t easy to watch and there’s no happy ending. The dark reality of the issue doesn’t warrant a happy ending. But I hope everyone will force themselves to watch and share it with others.

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.

Over the past two weeks, it’s been discovered that two separate foreign pedophiles – a Brit in Beijing and an American in Nanjing – were working in Chinese schools with children. I’ve been waiting to comment on this story to see how it panned out and whether it would blow up in the Chinese press.

Surprisingly, it hasn’t. Weibo was only returning a few hundred results for “Neil Robinson” (the British pedophile). A few Chinese

Wesley Lowe and Neil Robinson

Wesley Lowe and Neil Robinson

outlets reported it – mostly using Xinhua copy – and TV reports appeared to stay very brief, sticking just to the facts and forgoing much commentary.

Compare that to about a year ago when a British man appeared on video to be sexually assaulting a woman in Beijing and, in a separate incident, a Russian cellist had the audacity to put his feet up on the seat in front of him on the train. These two incidents caused a media/Weibo uproar and were the talk of China for a few weeks. Many believe they even precipitated a 100-day crackdown on illegal foreigners in Beijing that followed soon after.

So why did these two events call people to arms and create a xenophobic shitstorm, yet people don’t seem especially bothered now by two cases of verifiable foreign sexual predators infiltrating Chinese schools?

I wondered the same thing back in October when there was another cluster of bad laowai that, on the surface, seemed to be much worse than those that had preceded the 100-day crackdown. There was a drunk Russian who rampaged through Beijing, an American who allegedly raped a 16-year-old Chinese girl in Shenzhen, and a Frenchman who attacked random people in Guilin. Again, very little uproar compared to the British rapist and Russian cellist. Why?

I’m not big on conspiracy theories, but as Apple can now tell you, highly-coordinated media/internet campaigns aimed at riling up anger at a foreign target can, and most certainly do, happen in China.

Anyone in the media can tell you that how much play a certain story receives depends on a lot of factors, many of which are totally random (who happens to see and retweet it, what else is happening in the news, what angle the story is initialy covered from, etc.). So it is possible that, for whatever reason, these pedophiles and the bad laowai cluster in October simply failed to reach that critical mass needed to get wide coverage – a critical mass that the British rapist/Russian cellist somehow managed to attain.

But consider what was going on in the news just prior to when the British rapist video went viral in early May last year. The fallout over Chen Guangcheng’s escape was still going on, and that had come right on the heels of Bo Xilai’s sensational purging – both events that shook the Communist Party hard. There was a lot of talk about how these incidents might disrupt the upcoming power handover. It was a period where a bit of outwardly-directed nationalism would be very convenient.

When the British rapist video came out, it was heavily promoted on major video sharing sites. Then when the Russian cellist video was released, the two events were held up together across many different outlets with an “arrogant laowai” angle. Beijing Morning Post even seemed to believe the Russian cellist warranted front page coverage.

Maybe media were directed to sensationalize these things, or more likely, they were simply allowed to pounce on a topic guaranteed to generate good ratings. I’ve written before on how we probably have censorship to thank for media xenophobia not being as bad as it could be in China. To make a contrast, South Korea last year gave us the much derided “exposé” entitled “The Shocking Reality About Relationships With Foreigners.” Then back in 2007, when a single foreign pedophile was discovered to have taught in Korea, there was a media uproar and soon after the country tightened its visa policy.

In China we now have not one, but TWO foreign pedophiles. That constitutes an epidemic in any country’s media, but the fact that the Chinese press has shown so much restraint and not played the foreign menace card in this case suggests to me that it wasn’t necessarily their choice. Xenophobia is useful for the government in small periodic doses, but it definitely has its negative consequences and can easily get out of hand. At this point in time, there doesn’t seem much to be gained from such an uproar.

In many ways though, I’m disappointed these pedophile stories haven’t received more attention.  Foreign sex offenders coming to teach in China are actually a significant problem. And that problem is just the tip of the iceberg of a much greater social epidemic the whole of China faces.

I actually personally knew the Nanjing pedophile involved in the current case when I taught with him a few years ago (I wrote about him here in 2011). When a co-worker discovered he was a sex offender and informed the coordinator of the school, she did nothing for over a week. Only when the co-worker threatened to call the police did she reluctantly fire the man.

The co-worker still ended up tipping off police, who it now appears did absolutely nothing (this was in late 2009 and the pedophile has apparently still been in China the past 3 years).

It may be a bit hasty though to totally blame these authority figures for their reluctance to take action. The concept of pedophilia is largely unknown and willfully ignored in Chinese education, and this has tragic consequences. But the kids I worry about most aren’t the ones in private international schools. They’re the ones in rural Chinese public schools.

Every few years a huge scandal surfaces involving a Chinese teacher sexually abusing his students. In 2005, a teacher raped 26 fourth and fifth graders. In 2009, a Hunan teacher raped 11 students aged 9 to 14. Then just last year, a government official who also taught at a vocational college was arrested after he raped as many as 100 girls – some as young as 11.  You rarely hear about pedophiles in China until they’ve racked up a lot of victims, and that’s pretty telling.

China has the same social stigma attached to sexual abuse that many countries do, which prevents victims and their parents from coming forward. On top of that, China has almost no sexual abuse education for kids or parents, so the concept and frequency of pedophilia isn’t very well understood by the public. It’s totally feasible that even when it’s reported to some kind of school administrator or authority figure, they’re genuinely unsure of what to do. On top of that, in rural areas, many parents leave their kids behind with grandparents while they go out for migrant work, making it even harder to deal with sexual abuse incidents.

But there are also some much more sinister dynamics in play.

The last thing you want to do if you’re a Chinese parent is risk upsetting people who have power over your child’s education. That alone keeps many from pressing the issue. If you do go to the school administration their first inclination is to put a lid on the incident (this is usually what’s found to have happened in the aftermath of these scandals). They’ll pressure you to stay quiet and say they’ll move your child to another teacher or transfer the teacher to another school. Then some hush money seals the deal.

If you’re in a rural area and you go straight to the police, ultimately they’re accountable to the town Party secretary, who may be on cozy terms with the school administration. The last thing he wants is a disruption to “social harmony” or negative attention brought to his town. You’ll probably get the same carrots and sticks there: hush money and pressure to stay quiet, coupled with the implication that your case really has no legal standing anyways. Only if you figure out that other kids have been abused by the same person and you band together with their parents are you likely to ever make the case see the light of day.

These foreign pedophiles probably should have been pounced on harder by the media; not from an angle emphasizing their foreignness, but emphasizing the child abuse epidemic and the conditions that attract creeps like these to China. There are some now calling for mandatory background checks on foreign teachers in China. That’s probably a good start, but that’s just scratching the surface of all that needs to be changed.

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.”