Is it a police state?

The best post I ever wrote (and I realize that’s not saying very much) is this one. Its simple point is that underneath a veneer of happiness, prosperity and optimism there can lurk a much darker and more dangerous side. People can be content and appreciate their government while being oblivious — willfully or not — to what it is going on beneath the surface.

There have been a rash of articles in recent months of a severe crackdown in China on civil rights lawyers, professors, journalists and activists. A story from yesterday drove this home:

As the year came to a close, at least seven prominent Chinese human rights lawyers rang in the New Year from a jail cell. Under President Xi Jinping, 2014 was one of the worst years in recent memory for China’s embattled civil society. Bookending the year were the cases of two prominent legal advocates: in January, Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years imprisonment for his moderate criticism of government policy and leading the “New Citizens’ Movement,” a group advocating for political reforms in China. Outspoken free speech lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who turns 50 tomorrow, has spent the past six months in detention as authorities continue to build a case against him.

But that’s just for starters. A few days earlier a reporter for the German magazine Die Zeit wrote a harrowing article on how her Chinese assistant was arrested after they returned from Hong Kong where they were covering the Occupy Central demonstrations. Not every article is “must read,” but this one is. I can already hear apologists saying the assistant brought it on herself because she posted images from the scene on social media, and she wore a yellow ribbon showing her solidarity with the demonstrators. In other words, she should have realized China is a police state and not pushed the envelope.

What is a police state? To me, it is any nation whose security apparatus can arrest and hold anyone with no accountability. A police state has no rule of law to speak of. It uses terror, however subtle, to keep the public in line and stifle dissent. As we all know, only four months ago a moderate professor in Xinjiang was sentenced to life in prison for advocating equal rights for the region’s minorities. This is an act of terror, a warning that advocates for change, however peaceful, are putting their lives at risk.

it is not just a war on dissent, but on any form of self-expression that the government sees as harmful. Even children’s libraries are being shut down for encouraging “subversion.”

The libraries are among the victims of a sweeping orthodoxy laid down by President Xi Jinping, who continues to consolidate his power. While crackdowns on budding expression here come and go, the new variant is spreading its net more widely, ensnaring even prominent moderate voices.

In recent weeks and months, scholars have seen their books banned after they voiced sympathy for pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong; artists with independent ideas have been silenced; lawyers representing political prisoners have been locked up; and human rights campaigners and civil society activists have been detained by the hundreds.

The Chinese government has to be credited for doing good, for improving many of its citizens’ lives, for overseeing the lifting of hundreds of millions from poverty. If elections were held today and the CCP ran against another party (though there is no other party), the CCP would win. Why then is there such a tenacious campaign to silence any perceived threat to the state, even to the point of locking up lawyers whose only “crime” was representing dissidents? We’ve gone over this before and the answer is the same: the government’s primary objective is to stay in power, and in their minds having a “harmonious” society with no one speaking out is key to maintaining their grip. I’ve been blogging about that since the early days of this site 12 years ago. But now under Xi the problem is worsening, the net is being cast wider and the punishments are more severe.

Most Chinese citizens can live with this limitation on their freedom of self expression. They have more personal freedoms and are free to make money, and they have no reason to cross the red line and question their government. Personal freedoms, yes. Political freedoms, not so much. I have had three friends woken up in the middle of the night, a black hood placed over their heads and taken by the PSB to shabby hotel rooms where they were held for days in one case and months in another. The security apparatus is always watching and no one who is perceived as rocking the boat is safe. What is this if not a police state?

Critics who are perceived as threatening the monolithic portrait of China that its rulers try so hard (and so successfully) to cultivate are an existential threat. And it is getting worse under Xi. I remember so clearly how some 12 years ago the Chinese blogosphere expressed great hopes that newly sworn-in Hu Jintao was going to be a reformer who would usher in an age of greater transparency and openness. There was such a promising beginning when, in the spring of 2003, the government came clean about its cover-up of the SARS epidemic and even held a televised press conference to answer reporters’ questions, including foreign correspondents. Hu went on, of course, to strengthen repression and censorship.

I realize this post, my first in months, is a bit all over the place, but I want to address one related topic, and that is the question of whether Chinese people have been brainwashed by their government. This is a tricky topic because the answer is not black and white; maybe the answer is yes and no.

I know many educated, urbane young Chinese people (young being under 40) who are highly critical of their government. Most if not all say that while they respect the strength of the government in its ability to get things done, they have serious issues with the CCP. They hate its censorship of the Internet and its hysterical pursuit of “harmony.” They hate its propaganda. And yet, these same people all have one thing in common: when asked about certain topics they go into automatic pilot and recite a script that is remarkably similar. When asked about Taiwan, they say it must be returned to China, like a baby returning to its mother’s arms. On Tibet, everything is the fault of the Dalai Lama and his clique that tries to undo all the great things the government has done for the Tibetan people (roads, schools, the end of serfdom).

In her wonderful book The People’s Republic of Amnesia, journalist Louisa Lim notes how thoroughly the government has wiped out nearly all memories of the TSM. Every reference to it is silenced. The Tiananmen Mothers are persecuted. Several Chinese I spoke with in my old office said the only thing they know about it is that angry demonstrators killed innocent soldiers. Ignorance is Strength. This is what I call brainwashing — wiping the slate clean and restricting what the people can know. Anyone who reads this book will have no doubt that the Chinese people have been brainwashed on the subject.

However disappointing the leadership of Hu Jintao was, under Xi it is only getting worse. I could post hundreds of links to stories of his regime’s cracking down on dissenting voices. His government is doing all it can to silence these voices and keep its people brainwashed, at least politically. I said the answer to whether the Chinese are brainwashed is “yes and no.” On most issues, they are not; those I know are free thinking, successful, open-minded people. But most of them know when to shut up and to avoid discussing certain uncomfortable topics. And nearly all have certain scripts, tapes they turn on when asked about sensitive topics like the three T’s. (Japan is another topic where the tape gets turned on.)

China doesn’t look like a police state. Bustling and prospering, with plenty of artists free to express themselves, and with greater and greater personal freedoms, it looks quite open. But ask Liu Xiaobo whether China is a police state. Ask Ilham Tohti, languishing in prison for the rest of his life, whether it’s a police state. Ask some of those hundreds of activists and civil rights lawyers. There is much more to China than meets the eye. It’s a glorious, wonderful country, my favorite place on earth after the US because its people and its culture are so magnificent. But when you pull the curtain back there is a lot of bad stuff happening, too, and if you only see the good you are not seeing China in its entirety.

The Discussion: 26 Comments

Great post. Times are certainly different now

January 18, 2015 @ 12:21 pm | Comment

Chinese – for the most part – desire, respect and emulate “strongmen”. They now have what they want. Let’s see how they deal with it for the next decade plus.

January 18, 2015 @ 1:46 pm | Comment

I’m curious as to when the author thinks China ever did NOT have a police state. It has always ever been thus, since 1949 at least.

January 18, 2015 @ 2:56 pm | Comment

I never said there was a time when China wasn’t a police state – only that it is getting worse under Xi. Obviously under Mao and even Deng it was the epitome of a police state. There was some flickers of hope when Hu took office, which quickly went black.

January 19, 2015 @ 3:44 am | Comment

A slight typo here: However disappointing the leadership of Hu *Jinato* was, under Xi it is only getting worse.

January 19, 2015 @ 8:36 am | Comment

Fixed, thanks.

January 19, 2015 @ 9:31 am | Comment

I’ve heard the tape recordings too. I’m not sure how much people believe in them though. It seems that someone can recite the script but have internal doubts about it.

things are getting worse though.

January 20, 2015 @ 12:41 pm | Comment

[…] Is it a police state? Peking Duck – Is it a police state? China doesn’t look like a police state. Bustling and prospering, with plenty of artists free […]

January 20, 2015 @ 10:23 pm | Pingback

Great post Richard. It’s a sad truth, but there is relatively little scope to criticise the Party in public. Which is a problem if it’s policies are bad.

January 21, 2015 @ 6:05 am | Comment

China a police state? always, since 1949, during the Cultural Revolution where children turn in their parents, where those who question the gov’t get sent to hard labor for years/decades, forced abortions under the One Child Policy and after TSM…

what concerns me is now HK and Macau are SARs, these two cities are effectively becoming police states. what worried me further is how China is spying on persons of chinese descent outside of China…

people in the Occupy Movement is being arrested…pro-democracy newspapers getting fire-bombed and police openly beat up protesters got caught on TV..

Those who are chinese descent born overseas are considered Chinese citizens by China. PRC China ignores your citizenship UNLESS you specify in some document you gave up your PRC Chinese citizenship.

It is not uncommon for PRC agents outside of mainland China to whack you unconscious and transport you into China, then arrest you as you awoke on trumped up charges (“stealing state secrets”, “inciting rumors”)

Be Advised

January 21, 2015 @ 3:15 pm | Comment


You nailed a very important point. As below:

Those who are chinese descent born overseas are considered Chinese citizens by China. PRC China ignores your citizenship UNLESS you specify in some document you gave up your PRC Chinese citizenship.

Not so sure about your following kidnapping claims however.

This particularly applies to Chinese with overseas passports who work for Western business enterprises.

God, I could cite a long list of Australian Chinese working on the Mainland.

Lots of subtle and not so subtle pressure applied.

Good post.

January 21, 2015 @ 4:29 pm | Comment

May I add another point.
(Shit, I’m feeling humble this afternoon.)

Tomorrow night China – after three straight wins on the trot – plays Australia – football – in Brisbane in what used to be called Lang Park. (Fond memories of throwing beer cans at the opposition when a teenager.)

Will the Chinese Embassy be spending big bucks on the quiet buying and distributing tickets, flags and t-shirts, transport thrown in.

You bet.

All in the name of building a sense of the greater Ham civilisation outside the Mainland.

It happened big time during the Sydney Olympic Games.

This is the other side of the harassment you first mentioned.

Soft power for the Han diaspora

January 21, 2015 @ 4:49 pm | Comment

“it looks quite open.”

I was in Cuba a few days ago, and it too looked “quite open” – I think the idea that dictatorial states are all doom-and-gloom is a misunderstanding that gets in the way of seeing countries like China, Cuba etc. as they actually are.

January 22, 2015 @ 12:07 am | Comment

But most of them know when to shut up and to avoid discussing certain uncomfortable topics. And nearly all have certain scripts, tapes they turn on when asked about sensitive topics like the three T’s. (Japan is another topic where the tape gets turned on.)

That reminds me of the way you discussed Edward Snowden in 2013, Richard. We all have scripts we turn to when challenged – me too -, but we usually won’t be as familiar with the scripts that make us tick, as with those of others. That’s how propaganda works in a wider sense – in every country.

So much about what people worldwide, in my view, have in common. The difference: yes, China is a police state. But while we are discussing the challenges Chinese people face, and the question if they will ever get rid of their totalitarian system, we may ourselves be heading into the wrong direction.

The Economist had a pretty far-sighted article about that nearly four years ago. The same is true not only for America, but for much of the West, including Germany.

Let us not forget Liu Xiaobo. But let us not forget Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning either. They all need our support – for the sake of our civil liberties.

January 22, 2015 @ 12:25 pm | Comment

To some extent I agree that we all have scripts. The difference is that many Chinese people I know have nearly identical scripts for identical issues (Falun Gong, the looting of the Summer Palace, Japan, Tibet, etc.). That’s something I’ve never seen anywhere else but China, at least not so dramatically, and I’ve lived around the world.

January 22, 2015 @ 1:01 pm | Comment

forgot to add recent Reuters article about PRC Chinese intelligence hiring retired HK Pigs for surveillence and other operations (including firebombing their business and residence) to those in HK that doesn’t have the PRC Chinese ‘scripts’

PRC back in 2005 or so, attempted kidnapping some PRC CCP party official in Vancouver, got caught and spent 7-8 years (~2013)before Canada gave this official back to China…

Numerous cases of HK people who doesn’t have the ‘scripts’ found themselves arrested in China on trumped up charges (and in prison) after an evening in HK… These cases are discussed in local HK online forums…

January 22, 2015 @ 7:31 pm | Comment

Great work. I particularly liked the portion where you talked about the many canned responses you get on Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang etc.

February 2, 2015 @ 1:21 pm | Comment

I’m no China or CCP apologist, and a long time reader, but you need to real and be more even minded.

You state: “What is a police state? To me, it is any nation whose security apparatus can arrest and hold anyone with no accountability.”

By this initial definition, you could certainly include my beloved US of A, as well as a number of its supposedly civilized human rights advocate allies. If there is any question or doubt that you are/maybe a terrorist or have terrorist ties (ie. being Muslim and being in the wrong place, like a mosque praying on a Friday is enough), you can be locked away for months, not knowing what the charges are, until you are brought before a judge.

In other words, what’s happening in China is scary and not cool, but let’s not forget that post 9/11 that many countries in the West are doing similar things – often with the approval of its voting populace.

Take it from the US-born and bred guy who just happens to be Muslim (and sometimes proud US passport holder)… who has a sibling working at DHS that deals with this stuff like all the time.

February 4, 2015 @ 10:54 am | Comment

What a great post, Richard. A fine return to form.

I would never argue that the US does not have a lot of major structural injustice built into its bones. What is so disturbing in China right now is that the range for any kind of free expression has narrowed, that the government is basically cutting off intellectual discourse and the ability for Chinese citizens to do basic intellectual research, or even to do business efficiently, what with Google and VPNs being increasingly strangled on the mainland. I have to conclude that Xi and the leadership is extremely worried about China’s economic stability to the extent where they would rather run the risks of stifling intellectual discourse that encourages innovation than to permit anything that would promote organizing or provide fuel for intellectual dissent. We’ll see how well that works, I guess.

February 6, 2015 @ 5:08 pm | Comment

Thanks for the excellent comma, Lisa.

James, the US got ugly after 911 but you still can’t arrest masses of lawyers and activists here, still can’t give out lengthy prison sentences for speaking your mind, a secret security apparatus still doesn’t come in the middle of the night to arrest innocent people and hide them in cheap hotels for months. You can find anecdotal evidence of a wrong arrest or of police brutality, but it in no way compares to the daily repression, arbitrary arrests and persecution of activists and those who defend them that we see in China.

February 7, 2015 @ 9:03 am | Comment

Richard, true – in the US you may not have the daily repression, arbitrary arrests etc in the US but we are not moving in the right direction. The US didn’t just “get” ugly after 9/11. It has remained ugly and is getting even worse.

You and many people can and have been detained for MONTHS without charge or representation for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time or having spoken to the wrong people (even in passing). You can be put on the no fly list without your knowledge, especially if you have the wrong last name, and its super hard to get off it. Government agencies regularly infiltrate various communities (that often comply with laws and regulations and report suspicious activities) and try to entrap people (often innocent). Our government agencies have incredible powers when “national security” is used as a reason. The stories I have heard from my sister are pretty creepy. Like I said, she works at DHS (and has for a long time) and deals with a lot of these cases.

At least in China you know what you sort of know what you are getting into, whereas in the US a lot of folks are still delusional.

Note – this is not a pro-China argument or anything like that. I’m just trying to bring to attention that many of our freedoms have and are being eroded in the US and that our right to free speech and expression is attacked every day. If not by the government, then media and society.

February 11, 2015 @ 2:41 pm | Comment

The comparison of repression and censorship in the US with that in China is absurd. How many people are on no-fly lists, and are you aware that after tangling with the bureaucracy you can get your name removed (though admittedly it is a nightmare)? I don’t compare that with being wakened in the middle of the night, a hood put over your head and being held for months in a shabby hotel room. I don’t compare it with hundreds and hundreds of activists and lawyers being rounded up and often sentenced to many years in prison. We still have rule of law and openness, at least more than China, to say the least. Lots of bad things happen here, and I believe the racist attitudes of many people toward people with dark skin is a tragedy. But it’s out in the open, I can post about police brutality all I want, it’s front-page news, the media gives the recent police brutality cases 24-hour coverage. None of the lawyers were or will be arrested. I can post about how much my government sucks — and I have, many times — and my blog won’t be shut down and I won’t disappear into the night.

But I knew we would soon get into the argument, “America does it too!” It won’t fly. Let’s leave it at that, thanks.

February 12, 2015 @ 12:06 am | Comment

Case in point. If Richard were a Chinese citizen and the CCP/a CCP official took exception to his critical posts of the Chinese governmnent, he could go to jail.

Whereas, despite his sometimes critical posts of the US government (past or present), he can’t be thrown in jail just because his views are an annoyance to the White House/US administration.

February 19, 2015 @ 8:06 am | Comment

baked by richard? half-baked is more like it…

March 12, 2015 @ 5:50 am | Comment

China is definety not a state of police as they don’t do they job.
I was a victim of stabbing without any reason. I was hurt so serious that I almost lost my life while the plice afterward just simply claimed that the crime was mentlly ill. The crime was then send to mental hospital for free care while i have to pay for all the hospital bills by myself!! All the bills are more than my annual income. And after the big operation on my stamach, I am still not able to work as I can’t eat regular and can’t walk much.

Crime benifited from the crime he made. That’s how the police do!

March 15, 2015 @ 8:10 pm | Comment

Here is the link to what happened to me

March 15, 2015 @ 8:14 pm | Comment

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