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.
The Chinese leaders boast that they are delivering for the benefit of the people. This is their main claim to fame. Recently, the foreign minister Wang Yi, clashed with a Canadian journalist who asked about human rights. His line of questioning was “irresponsible” said Wang, and went on: “Do you know that China has lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty?”
Has it? Is the Chinese government delivering the way it boasts?
On poverty, we don’t know. There are no precise official poverty statistics. Numbers such as the 600 million are based on rough estimates of how many people live on an income below a very low threshold, such as the equivalent of 1 or 2 dollars a day. When the economy grows, the numbers below that threshold go down, but when the threshold is an income that does not provide for anything near a minimally decent life, this is not an informative statistic.
On poverty in China, we can say three things with certainty:
- In the growth period, the extent of poverty has been reduced, probably a great deal. Compared to the Maoist period, there are many fewer people in poverty.
- Even so, the 600 million boast being false, China is still a country of massive and oppressive poverty.
- All the reduction in poverty in the growth period, has come as a direct result of economic growth, with none of it resulting from redistribution thanks to social protections. On the contrary, since economic inequality has increased massively, there has been an increase in the extent of relative poverty.
Chinese governance has in fact not delivered anywhere near what the leaders claim. Even their basic boast of having delivered economic growth is false. It is without doubt true that there has been strong growth in the last two or three decades, but
- Not as strong as has been boasted; the official statistics are bogus and have exaggerated the pace of growth.
- No more than standard for the region; careful comparisons of the best growth periods in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China show all to be about equal but with growth in China slightly behind the three other countries.
The same foreign minister Wang Yi has called “the Chinese story the greatest success story of our time” (at the World Economic Forum in 2014). False boasting again. In the Maoist period, the Chinese story was the greatest horror story of our time. In the post-Mao period, the Chinese story has been no more than a standard East Asian story.
If you follow the doings of the Chinese security services in the interest of “stability maintenance”, you will discover a disturbing regularity: people get beaten up. Physical beatings are a regular method of retribution. At home, on the streets, in confinement, in prison, women and men alike, are beaten up. Sometimes severely, causing serious injury, ultimately death. The use of beatings is not the work of a few “bad apples” but systemic.
Security officials are often civilians, often with unknown authority. They may be police officials in civilian dress or hired thugs without formal police authority. These are the prolific beaters who rough up “troublemakers” with different degrees of severity.
The Chinese state is the most sophisticated dictatorship ever, so smooth in its operation that it often does not even look dictatorial to many Chinese. It is so smooth that it is possible for many outside observers to pretend that the regime is only mildly authoritarian with some unfortunate blemishes. But it is still a dictatorship, and like all dictatorships an ugly form of rule. Beneath the surface of sophisticated control, this like other dictatorships depends on brute violence and on instilling fear into the souls of its people. If you oppose the dictatorship, you are in danger not only of being thrown into jail but also of suffering physical damage. If you think of opposing the dictatorship, you need to recon with the risk that you will be beaten up.
The dawn of the Internet age was thought to make the continuation of hard dictatorship in China impossible. People would get access to new sources of information, and they would have new ways of communicating, staying in touch with each other, forming networks and the like.
But it has not worked out like that. Chinese people do have access to the internet and to social media, and are avid users, but the Internet has NOT become a force of political opening up. Rather, it has been turned into a new instrument of political control.
One elementary explanation is that the Chinese Internet is available but not good. It is for the most part excruciatingly slow and it is hard going to use it. It is probably kept slow deliberately.
But more basically, the explanation is that the Chinese experience has demonstrated something entirely unexpected: it IS possible to put the Internet under political control from above. It is NOT an uncontrollable instrument.
This is done in China in three ways:
- The Great Firewall is designed to deny access to the Internet to certain forms of information. This is done by keywords that either shut out messages with certain words or alert guardians to such messages so that they can delete them.
- The state has an army of at least 2 million “Internet opinion analysts” who keep track of the information that is posted on the Internet and whose job it is to delete unwanted postings. The number of 2 million is obviously an estimate, but is for example more than the number of soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army. This works remarkably well. The Chinese Internet is by and large free from unwanted information, and what does slip through the net is by and large prevented from spreading broadly.
- The state also has an army of freelancers, perhaps overlapping with the army of “analysts”, whose job it is to put postings on the Internet and social media under the guise of being private citizens. These freelancers are paid by the piece of posting, generally about 50 cents a go. It has been estimated that about 500 million posts a year are of this kind. These posts do not necessarily praise the leaders and the state, the operation is not that primitive, but have the purpose of diverting attention from “bad” to “good” news. Much of what looks like exchange between citizens is in fact dialogue orchestrated from above.
The Chinese state is confounding expectations. It was thought that the new middle class would demand freedom, but has instead been turned into a pillar of support for the state. It was thought that the Internet would become a source of power from below, but it has instead been turned into a new instrument of control from above. There has never been a more effective and adaptive dictatorship than the Chinese one.
The denial of free and open Internet exchange in China is costly. Is for example shuts Chinese scientists and entrepreneurs off from the international market of information. This is one reason the Chinese economy is lagging in innovation. But that does not matter: the state’s priority is control at whatever price is necessary.
The rising middle class in China has been a source of both hope and fear. The hope has been that a capitalist middle class would demand middle class rights and pull the regime towards liberalisation. The fear has been that it would make itself a competing site of power and challenge the dominance of the Party. But none of this has happened.
First, there is not much of a middle class in the socialist market economy. The working population is made up of three roughly equal size groups; the peasantry, migrant and irregular workers, and ‘modern’ sector workers. The middle class is no more than a small minority in the third group. The large sub-groups here are working class people and state and Party workers.
Second, this little middle class has edged up to and been co-opted into the Party’s system of control. There are now Party committees and branches of the official trade unions in most private enterprises, and these enterprises are themselves organised in the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce.
Third, what has emerged as a competing site of power is a network of oligarchic fiefdoms engaged in organised crime against the state from within the state, hardly middle class behaviour. The threat to the Party does not come from the ‘ordinary’ capitalists it has created, but from a small élite of super-rich carpetbaggers who have thrived on entrenched corruption in the state dominated economy. These are not contributors to the economy but parasites on it, and now increasingly busy moving themselves out of China and taking their money with them.
In a recent book – China’s Future? – David Shambaugh is deeply pessimistic about the prospects for the People’s Republic. He thinks China is in stagnation for inability to modernise and that the regime is making things worse by moving towards harder authoritarianism. That makes it more typical of Leninist dictatorships, and the experience of Leninist dictatorships is that they don’t last because they don’t adapt in time.
One should listen carefully to Shambaugh, who is one of the most experienced and measured China watchers around. Still, a somewhat different case can be made (as Shambaugh agrees, wherefore he makes no prediction).
First, it can be argued that the regime is adapting, although not in the way “we” would like. By turning towards harder authoritarianism, it is tightening controls. It knows it can put less trust in purchasing legitimacy by spreading economic rewards, and is therefore relying more on control. It is probably true that the price for that adaptation will be economic stagnation in “the middle income trap”. But the leaders now in power are probably reconciled to that inevitability and are concentrating on how to survive in a less favourable economic climate.
Second, it can be argued that the PRC is a new kind of Leninist dictatorship, radically different from previous ones. There are many common traits of course, but Xi’s China is not like Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. In brief, it can be argued that Xi and Co have perfected the art of dictatorship sufficiently for the regime to survive adversity.
If Shambaugh is the pessimist, is the alternative view optimistic? Regrettably not. The two scenarios here are that the PRC breaks down or that it survives by control. In the first case, China falls into an abyss of chaos, as so often in its history. In the second case, it survives by grace of harder dictatorship. In both cases, the Chinese people are looking into an unhappy future.
That’s the question I propose to answer in my book The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century (now out in Hong Kong, released in the US and Europe in August/September). Here, briefly, is part of the answer:
- The People’s Republic is a party-state, not just a one-party state but a party-state. There are two overpowering bureaucracies, side by side and intertwined, a party bureaucracy and a state bureaucracy. That double helix makes for an awesome force of dictatorship.
- This regime has one supreme determination that stands above all else: to perpetuate itself. In that interest, it exercises totalitarian control over society. Strange as it may seem in a population of nearly 1.4 billion, the party sees everything, hears everything and knows everything,
- As a result, this is a country in which, if you are of independent mind and sometimes express criticism of the regime, and even more if you engage in activism, you cannot sleep at ease at night. You have reason to fear that someone will knock on your door, break it down, evict you from your home, have you fired from your job, throw you in jail, beat you up, force you into exile, disappear you, and that family and friends will be threatened and harassed.
These are the basic and elementary truths about the People’s Republic of China.