Keeping the Masses in Line

Think back. A year ago people were generally upbeat about China’s leadership change. There was a general feeling that soon-to-be-appointed Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping would be an improvement over the stiff, colorless Hu Jintao. People were optimistic that Xi would move away from the blatant control, censorship and repression of free expression that had characterized much of the Hu era. Realistic China watchers did not expect radical political reform from Xi, but there was hope that a new round of economic reforms was on the horizon. And that Xi would at least breathe some fresh air and openness into China’s opaque, sclerotic political system.

What a difference several months can make. As we approach the one year mark of Xi’s ascension as CCP General Secretary, China is lurching in the direction of more, not less, repression. The latest in the downward slide: Since mid-August several hundred people have been detained nationwide for spreading rumors online, a rather vague crime in a country where media outlets are supervised and censored by Party propaganda officials and the ruling Party determines what constitutes a “rumor”.

While there is much that is exciting about the relatively open debates and discussions that take place online in China, it is also true that the Chinese internet has more than its share of malicious rumors, outright lies, slanderous attacks that rely on fabrications to discredit business or personal rivals, confidence scams and fraudulent schemes. It is also true that the government crackdown has swept up some thoroughly disreputable characters whose online behavior could land them in hot water even in a country that respects the rule of law. These are the threads on which the government crackdown hangs. But for many caught in the net, their only crime has been to say something that offended somebody in an official position somewhere.

The most recent attacks are being directed against prominent social media celebrities whose criticisms of the government can reach millions of followers. A person whose post is retweeted 500 times or opened by 5000 viewers can be arrested if authorities decide the content is a “rumor”. Charles Xue, a Chinese born naturalized American citizen, billionaire investor, and prominent social critic in China, was arrested three weeks ago for allegedly consorting with prostitutes. Over several years Xue has microblogged thousands of posts – some critical of the Party and government – to his millions of followers. Since being arrested, he has been vilified in the Party-controlled media and, more recently, a handcuffed Xue was led in front of a tv camera where he confessed his “crimes” in a nationally televised interview that recalls the staged “self-criticisms” and “confessions” of the Mao era. So much for due process.

The attack against online celebrities and discussion indicates the determination of General Secretary Xi and his colleagues to regain the “commanding heights” when it comes to the formation, channeling, and supervision of public opinion. For several years the internet has been the one forum in China where the Party’s “truth” could be discussed and contested. Never free of censorship or obstructions, the internet has nonetheless given citizens a forum to express views not vetted and sanitized by Party propaganda goons. And this is exactly what China’s leaders will not tolerate.

The goal of the assault on internet expression is not to repress all dissent or disagreement; rather it is to reinforce Party-defined limits on allowable public discourse. As usual, in this process Chinese citizens are the children. The adults – China’s leaders – are giving the children a sand box filled with toys to play in. Good children stay in the sandbox and play only with the toys they have been given. As for children who stray out of the sandbox or want to play with other toys… Well, disobedient youngsters like this can expect a strapping – both to keep them in line and to set an example for the other children in the sandbox.

Xi’s campaign to rectify the Communist Party works on much the same principle. Rank and file cadres are told to clean up their acts or risk disappearing into the Party’s disciplinary black hole, the shuanggui. Fear of punishment is the primary motivator. Beyond ideological claptrap from the Party’s worn out playbook, it is unclear what Xi has to offer in the way of positive inspiration for cadres who are expected to be responsive to the public and make sacrifices for the country’s growth.

The hope a year ago was that China’s new leaders would have the courage to treat their increasingly sophisticated and savvy citizens, whether Party members or private, as adults, as partners in facing the country’s daunting problems. This has turned out not to be the case. Xi and his colleagues, like their predecessors, continue to see Chinese citizens as “the masses”, an inchoate, unruly lump of humanity that needs to be molded into a shape defined by the Party. The Party itself is composed mostly of infantry whose job is to do what their commanders in the Politburo tell them. Important decisions will be made by the princelings and other elite insiders who run the country.

All of this is most unfortunate for China. The country faces a range of formidable challenges from a devastated environment to a rapidly aging population that, taken together, could derail the success of the last 35 years. More than ever China needs the creative energy of its own citizenry to address these problems. Instead of welcoming this energy, China’s leaders are afraid of it and doing all they can to keep it in a box of their own making. This does not bode well for the next ten years.

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