Posts Tagged ‘Xi Jinping’

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.

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Behind the Great Oz’s Curtain

Posted: September 11, 2012 in Politics
Tags: ,

Over the past few days we’ve been given a few key illustrations as to how much the Communist Party intends to reform – and seen approximately what decade they think they’re living in.

China’s president-in-waiting Xi Jinping has been MIA since September 1st. In typical Communist Party fashion, the government is pretending like nothing is amiss.  Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said, “We have told everybody everything” – which of course means they’ve told nobody anything.

The Chinese government also recently asked that a Taiwan/Tibet Independence symbol be taken down…in Oregon. The Chinese consulate in San Francisco asked the Corvallis local government to force a Taiwanese-American to take down the mural he’d painted. It would have otherwise been shrugged off by the handful of people that happened to drive past it. Instead, the Chinese government has made yet another cringe-worthy soft power fail.

Both cases show the CCP’s go-to response for unpalatable events: Suppression. It’s hardly changed throughout its 63 year tenure.

It’s wholly delusional about the time it lives in now though – a time where a hefty hunk of the world’s population holds in their pockets the ability to take photos and video and then spread them and whatever other information they wish for the world to see. After a steady stream of unsuccessful attempts at covering up damaging events over the past few years, the CCP still hasn’t learned that sometimes transparency is in its own interest.

Take Xi Jinping’s mysterious absence. 10 years ago if anyone in the public happened to notice, they’d hardly have the capability to inform others. Suppression made sense. But today we all know something is up. And by trying to keep the lid on it completely, the government is egging on absurd rumors that are much worse than whatever it is they’re trying to hide. (Could whatever actually happened really be any worse than rumors of a double assassination attempt by Bo Xilai loyalists?)

In trying to hide things that are already partially or completely public knowledge, the party is highlighting its own insecurity and weakness, which is never good for authoritarian rulers.

10 years ago if I tried to spread pictures of a forced abortion or take part in a village uprising over illegal land grabs, I’d be disappeared and my family scared into silence. 99 times out of 100 nobody would ever be the wiser. The officials responsible and the greater system that enabled their actions would be left unscathed.

But in today’s world, the government – after trying vainly to cover them up – had to capitulate completely in cases like those of Feng Jianmei and Wukan. If I’m an activist in today’s China, I’m a lot less frightened to speak out against government injustices than I would have been even three years ago. If I protest and am hauled off, I know there’s a good chance somebody will catch it on video or can alert the weibosphere, ensuring my safety. The government’s attempts to hide these things used to be terrifying. Now they’re just pathetic.

For nearly the entirety of the CCP’s rule, it’s projected the image of an all-powerful monolith that’s not to be fucked with. Refusing to acknowledge that top leaders are encumbered by personal lives or bodily functions like the rest of us is part of this image. This probably explains the instinctive suppression of what could be no more than a back injury.

But today’s China is showing (much to the chagrin of the CCP) many of the features of a transparent democratic society where leaders must bend to the public will – even if it’s not in their own interest. They could jump on the inevitable wave of democratization, but officials who’ve enjoyed an elevated status in society for decades are loathe to do so. So we still see this instant inclination toward suppression.

I’m reminded of the scene in Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and her pals are confronted by the enormous “great and powerful Oz.” But they eventually discover that it’s just a weak man pulling levers as he pathetically implores the gang to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

When you peak behind the CCP curtain, it’s full of scared and vulnerable people, wondering what badly-needed moves toward transparency will mean for them and the way they’ve lived their lives.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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