When the scalpel gives way to the hatchet

Posted: December 16, 2011 in Politics

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.”

  1. Lorin Yochim says:

    A good piece, SS, but I am a little confused starting with “And they should do whatever they can to keep the bureaucratic system in place…” I see the irony in the sentences after, but did you mean “they will do” rather than “they should do”? Perhaps my sense of irony has gone to bed before me.

  2. kingtubby1 says:

    A great read and I like your fiefdom characterisation.

    I think this relates to the question: does the central government have the capacity and will to reign in vested provincial and country interests.

    And I can almost guess what JR will say re: above. I agree, they would just close down whole digital networks.

    If this thing spreads, can you also imagine the number of senior officials fleeing with public funds.

    Wukan is the most important event in years for the reasons you noted, and more. ie. there is nothing chaotic all about this protest. They have covered every base, including keeping the West a bay.

  3. […] Scalpel gives Way to Hatchet, Sinostand, Dec 16, 2011 » Blocked List, Things You Don’t Know, Dec 14, […]

  4. justrecently says:

    And I can almost guess what JR will say re: above.

    Pshaw – I was determined to restrain myself, originally, so as to remain unpredictable. But I have to clarify the stance you said I’m taking, KT. I’m thinking of the CCP more as a brotherhood, even if on different levels. Words of wisdom and lofty ideals come from your mouth only once you have made it to the center as a cadre, basically by the same means your little brothers keep using on their lower levels. (Which is another reason why those at the center are so considerate about their local comrades.)

  5. Lorin Yochim says:

    @Tubby, your question RE gov’t capacity and will is a really tough one. It’s hard to imagine that it doesn’t, and it’s equally hard to accept the kind of blowback from lower level cadres that @SS speculates on. I don’t know if looking for ulterior motives is always the answer, though some kind of social closure based on pseudo-kinship/brotherhood relations as described by @JR sounds plausible to me. Still, despite their local power, are these lower level brothers really so indispensable? Aren’t there other brothers that could take their place? It seems to me that we should look to the ideology of developmentalism as part of the explanation. It seems that the technocracy is deeply committed to the kind of property use transfers of the kind that triggered this protest as the engine of the economy at present. Isn’t that what is at risk if the gov’t sides with the villagers in this case?

  6. Is there no news about this in the Chinese press, CCTV or Internet? Aside from a clampdown by the police/military, how else could it end? I am surprised the government hasn’t rolled in by now.

  7. kingtubby1 says:

    Not a guess. The Game Plan as I noted with my links….which folk don’t read.

    Divide, conquer and make leadership examples, most of whom are young people who chant the 1949 CCP manifesto.

    However, this one will go into a future history books.

    Over to you, Eric.

  8. justrecently says:

    Foreign editions of China media do report, such as Sina (Taiwan). So do the Hong Kong media, of course. It’s simply a matter of where censorship applies, and where it doesn’t.

  9. FOARP says:

    “He wasn’t too bothered by the fact that rebels had taken over an entire Chinese city for the first time in PRC history.”

    The first <b.known example in recent PRC history, perhaps, but isolated KMT bands fought an on-again off-again guerilla war even after the retreat to Taiwans, towns fell out of central government control during the Cultural Revolution, and (for all we know) the government may have lost control of some places during the various Tibetan uprisings.

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