Many of us who have been able to visit China, for example (as in my case) to lecture at Chinese universities, have been struck by the openness of debate. It seems that almost anything can be discussed. From this it might seem that the repression of opinions is mild or near to non-existent.
It also seems that Chinese people are often pretty free to express almost any opinions they wish, including critical ones of the government and regime. Some are able to write against the Communist Party in the international press.
However, at the same time there are cases of harsh repression of even activity that is in no way seriously subversive. For example, in early 2015 there was a burst of clamp-down on feminist activists in Beijing and other cities. Many were arrested in different parts of the country while planning awareness campaigns about sexual harassment in public transport. That is not an anti-regime issue. The official All-China Women’s Federation is campaigning on the same matter. In another case, In the early morning of the 29th of April 2015, in the eastern city of Suzhou, ahead of a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the execution of Lin Zhao, a young Christian woman and critic of Maoism who was executed in prison in 1968 and who rests in a cemetery in the city, a huge police force busted homes and guesthouses and detained dozens of people who had gathered in the city for a mourning at her graveside.
So what’s going on. Why are seriously subversive opinions (sometimes) tolerated and non-subversive actions (sometimes) clamped down upon?
There are two answers:
- As in all dictatorships, there is much arbitrariness. What “should be” stopped is sometimes left alone. Of course, it is in the nature of arbitrariness that those who are left alone today may be crushed tomorrow.
- But there is also a logic. The regime has little to fear from isolated expressions of opinion and actions. There are about 500 “mass incidents” a day throughout the territory – protests, strikes etc. – which are no more than easily manageable annoyances. However, what the regime does fear is anything that takes the form of organised action, even of loose networks. The reason the feminists and the mourners were detained and stopped was not that their causes were dangerous but that they were forming networks of co-ordinated action.
From the outlook of the Chinese regime, opinions are less dangerous that action, and collective action always dangerous, even for non-dangerous causes.