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.

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.”

Today around noon I saw Twitter light up over a report that CCTV would live broadcast the execution of a Burmese drug smuggler and three members of his gang convicted of killing 13 Chinese on the Mekong River.

At first glance I assumed the uproar was because CCTV would devote so much attention to the execution of foreign criminals; attention like Timothy McVeigh and Ted Bundy received when crowds gathered outside their prisons and cameras were rolling to capture the signal that they were dead.

That angle made sense. China devoted no such attention to the executions of its own serial killers like Yang Xinhai and Zhang Yongmin. It seemed to be yet another Opium War allusion to give the impression: “Vigilant CCP shows no mercy to foreign aggressors who attack China’s sovereignty and humiliate its people (especially through the drug trade).”

I soon realized though that that wasn’t what the uproar was about. People thought that “live broadcasting the execution” meant CCTV would literally bring cameras into the chamber and air the lethal injections.

For those familiar with the version of China gossiped about by grannies in Florida getting their hair done, that might seem conceivable. But for those familiar with the actual China, that proposition should sound completely absurd.

Contrary to popular belief, The People’s Republic of China has rarely put their executions out on display (vigilante Cultural Revolution killings aside). Sure, it frequently paraded condemned criminals around town and had execution rallies in stadiums right up through the 1990s. There was even a TV show until last year that interviewed death row inmates, sometimes just minutes before execution. But when it’s time to do the deed itself, criminals have almost always been taken to a secluded location away from public eyes.

In 2004, Boxun did a report on the death penalty in China featuring interviews with law enforcement who’d been involved with executions (Boxun is by no means reliable, but in this case there were very gruesome photos that seem to back up the interviews).

One man who’d been involved in “half a dozen” executions up until 1995 using the traditional bullet to the head method said, “There are no spectators at the scene of the execution.  We maintain three rings of security.  Outsiders are kept far away, such that they cannot even hear the gunshot sounds.  On our way back, nobody says anything because we are overwhelmed by the feeling that life can be so cheap.”

As satisfying as it may be for some to see a foreign aggressor get what’s coming to him, why would authorities regress below something considered too socially risky even by 1995 standards? Chinese censors routinely cut fictional violence from movies and TV – even to the point of disallowing the use of a knife to threaten someone – lest any fragile minds be influenced and disrupt social harmony. So why on Earth would the most viewed channel on the most viewed medium in China show a real person being killed live for millions of children to see?

It wouldn’t. Period.

All this uproar began with a piece in South China Morning Post titled “CCTV ‘to broadcast live execution of Mekong River massacre drug smugglers.’” John Kennedy, who wrote the piece, later said on Twitter: “CCTV said, unambiguously and in plain Chinese, it’s going to live broadcast the execution. I’m not going to put words in its mouth. If it turns out CCTV is deliberately misleading the public to boost viewership (and in a way or two I hope it is), that’s a story in itself.”

Indeed.

In the end, just about everything leading up to the executions was shown – from prepping the prisoners to transporting them – but cameras stopped short of entering the chamber. Doing so would have been socially risky, and therefore impossible; not to mention gratuitously vile on a level that even the Ministry of Public Security wouldn’t stoop to.

Were the bits that were shown morbid, exploitative and inhumane? Sure. Was it all shamelessly done as a political statement with unsettling xenophobic undertones? Absolutely. Was it warranted in order to deter such brutal criminal acts in the future? I’m sure a lot of people will make that argument. And I’m sure you’ll be reading elsewhere about all these things in the coming days, but all I can say is nobody took the enormous leap of showing the execution – something a lot of people who should have known better seemed to think was a real possibility.

[Correction: This previously referred to the Boxun report as being from 1994. It was actually from 2004.]

The Gaokao Highway to Hell

Posted: February 3, 2013 in Education
Tags: ,

China’s Gaokao college entrance exam, which heavily tests rote memorization and decides the fate of China’s youth, is objectively awful. Students know this, teachers know this, the government knows this, my aunt Agatha knows this. Recently though I’ve gained a new appreciation for just how horrific it is.

For the past week I’ve been in my girlfriend’s Shandong hometown staying with her aunt, uncle and 17-year-old cousin Emily.

Emily is a puny 90 pounds with the horrible eyesight common among Chinese youth.  If given the chance, she’ll talk to you for hours about soap operas and schoolyard gossip.

Two-and-a-half years ago she and her family came to visit us in Nanjing. It was a kind of celebration for passing the end of middle school test and getting into the town’s best high school. Since that trip, Emily’s life has been hell.

This summer she’ll take the Gaokao. So each day she goes to school from 7:30 AM to 10:00 PM with a two hour lunch. She gets Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings off…usually.

Every night at 10:15, her mom waits anxiously at the front door. When Emily arrives on her electric bike, she leans on the horn in annoyance. Her mom bolts out the door to open the courtyard gate. No matter how fast she makes it out, Emily is irritated. She’s running on fumes already and vents at the routine setback of having to wait ten seconds to get in the house.

When she gets in the front door, her mom hustles her over to a warm footbath she’s prepared. Any precious second that’s wasted is a second Emily will lose from study or sleep. But once she sits down to her footbath, she has a few minutes to unwind. It’s the one window where I can talk to her. The topic, of course, is how miserable her day was.

After we chat for about five minutes, her mom hands her a textbook and I take my cue to head off to bed. This is just the beginning of Emily’s night.

The time that she goes to bed varies. On a rare good night, it’ll be a little after midnight. I once woke up to use the bathroom at 2:30 and found her passed out on a book. “I’m just taking a little rest,” she looked up and uttered pathetically, as if she needed to justify the catnap to me.

If she managed to get all her homework done, her mom will rouse her at 6:30 AM – at which point they’ll bargain over whether Emily can have a few more minutes of sleep. Emily never wins this negotiation. Once she’s up, she’ll do a little morning studying, make quick work of her breakfast and be out the door (This is what I’m told anyways. I’ve never actually been awake to see it myself).

Normally, the entire family treats me like a prince. They’ll bend over backwards to make sure I don’t lift a finger while I’m there. Meals are placed before me and trips are made across town to get any little thing they think I might want, no matter how strongly I object (I like to think this is just because I’m a guest, but realistically, I know my foreignness plays a role). All this princely treatment ends abruptly though when it conflicts with the schedule of the Queen.

After subtracting the commute, Emily has an hour-and-a-half at home for lunch. I’ve been told ever so politely (but in no uncertain terms) that I’m to be out of the house during this period. Emily doesn’t have time to be distracted by me. She’ll scarf down lunch in a matter of minutes and then go straight to bed for some precious afternoon Zs…unless of course she still has unfinished homework.

After several more hours of drilling and practice tests, she’ll come home and repeat. As I head to bed I tell her, “Don’t work too hard.” I’m the only one doling out such advice.

My girlfriend has persuaded Emily’s parents that the brain needs time to relax, and now they’re relatively easy on her. During her free Saturday afternoon, she’s allowed to watch soap operas and talk with me for a little while before being directed back to her study desk. Many of her classmates though have their faces stuffed in their books at every waking moment or have an outside tutor arranged during this time.

Teachers and parents are perfectly aware of how much stress this puts on the kids. They try to occasionally organize activities to relieve the pressure and allow some semblance of socializing. But these occasions are too little and too contrived. Recently they had a class dinner to celebrate the New Year, but it was more like being let out of the dungeon to have a nice dinner with the other captives. Yes, the students were happy to have it, but there wasn’t exactly a festive atmosphere. Everyone spent the evening complaining to one another.

Two years ago during the Spring Festival, after Emily’s first semester of high school, she was already feeling the heat. One night while everyone else was visiting a neighbor, she broke down and started sobbing on my shoulder. “There’s so much pressure,” she said. “Everyone wants so much from me. I don’t know if I can pass. If I don’t they’ll be so disappointed in me.”

Considering how high the suicide rate is for Emily’s demographic, I was glad to be the foreigner disconnected from her world that allowed her to uncork what she’d been bottling up.

When I think back to my high school life – the parties, proms, sports, pointless time-killing shenanigans – it kills me that Emily won’t have any of it. She’ll just have memories of soul-crushing routine.

But the lost memories, the stress, the bodily harm – it might be worth it if there were something worthwhile at the end of the tunnel; something truly enriching that sprouted from all that time and sacrifice.

Yesterday, while studying, Emily asked me when you should say “It’s my pleasure” and when you should simply say “My pleasure” in English conversation. It seemed like a pretty pointless question. There may be a very subtle situational difference, depending on who you ask, but in what scenario could that very narrow distinction possibly matter? Sure enough though, there was a “correct” answer to the multiple choice question.

I flipped through the textbook and found pages full of similar hair-splitting drivel that would in no way actually improve someone’s ability to communicate in English. I asked Emily what exactly they teach her in school all day. “We write many passages,” she said. “And then they tell us how we should write it better [for the essay portion of the Gaokao].”

“You know, it’s not like Mo Yan,” she continued. “He tells very interesting stories, but we can’t write anything like that. If I write what I want, I’ll fail.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was neither.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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