China and other stuff

Needless to say, I haven’t been blogging about China (or anything else). I’ve said before that social media has made many blogs superfluous, and the old method of using blogs to share links and commentary has been usurped by Facebook. There are still some wonderful blogs out there, like this one, that has staff and resources I can’t compete with.

But I’m not sure I am totally done with blogging about China, and perhaps US politics. I have lots of ideas for new material but have to resurrect the momentum to actually turn them into posts. I am hoping to do that now with a brief post about China.

The past couple of years, since Xi Jinping took office, I have watched China drift further and further toward a new level of authoritarianism. I have been horrified at the seemingly endless parade of stories about human rights activists, lawyers and professors being arrested on trumped up charges. Some simply disappear, others, like the aforementioned professor, are not so lucky and get sent to prison for life on charges of “separatism” or disturbing public order or other bullshit.

When I moved back to China in 2007 I was thoroughly enraptured with what seemed a new age of personal (not political) freedom and even hints of reform. I still am enraptured about that — obviously there has been a lot of change for the good over the past three decades and when I returned this was personified as the people of Beijing were caught up in the euphoria of the coming 2008 Olympic Games. But I tried not to be naive, and never forgot the injustices and paranoia of the CCP.

My distrust of the CCP, and my loathing of much of it, has reached new pinnacles recently. Step by step, Xi’s government has been dimming the lights on political debate, activism, NGOs — just about every force for good I can think of, all in the name of national unity and state security. I saw an article on this topic yesterday that neatly sums up the catastrophe of Xi’s war on any form of dissent.

Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continue to tighten the screws on a high-tech system of mass surveillance and thought reform aimed at eliminating any critical voices and views. If state controls are like a ‘giant cage’ in China, the bars are closing in under the CCP’s new strongman.

In 2015, the Party locked up not only tens of thousands of ‘corrupt’ officials, but also harassed, detained and imprisoned thousands of ordinary citizens in the name of ‘ideological security’. More than 200 lawyers were detained in May after high profile lawyer and activist Pu Zhiqiang was indicted on trumped-up charges of ‘inciting ethnic hatred’ as well as ‘picking quarrels and stirring up trouble’.

The campaign to eradicate ‘Western values’ continues unabated in Chinese universities. Numerous academics have been punished or pushed out for holding dissenting views.

The piece goes on to review an array of new laws and social programs that make mass surveillance easier and help give the Party near total control of society, all in the name of national security. When Hu JIntao came to power I and many others hoped for greater reforms, a loosening of censorship and greater accountability by the government. For the first few weeks, as the government took responsibility for covering up the SARS crisis, there were signs of promise. That quickly faded as censorship worsened and the Internet became even more restricted. But Xi’s ascent demonstrates that there is still much further the Party can go when it comes to controlling its citizens’ lives.

For me, the bloom is off the rose when it comes to China. I still love the country and its people, and I still feel at home in Beijing. But I no longer yearn every day to get back, and I have cut down on my travels to China (I used to go twice every year; now I haven’t been back for 14 months, a record). Several of my friends have left China, where the polluted air was damaging their children’s lungs. Frustration over an increasingly censored Internet and the strengthened “great firewall” has risen to a new level. Each day, it seems China is becoming less inviting.

The article concludes by questioning whether the Party’s ultra-paranoid war against it own people could lay the groundwork for the ultimate collapse of the CCP. (I strongly doubt that.)

Xi Jinping has praised the CCP’s desire to control everything from ecology and resources to culture and thought as ‘total national security’. But this might ultimately prove incompatible — if not detrimental — to the agenda for ‘comprehensively deepening reform’ outlined at the Party’s Third Plenum in 2013.

If the end is really nigh for the CCP — as China expert David Shambaugh and others insist — the cracks will emerge from within. An increasingly intrusive and insecure elite stratum fears its own people more than it does any outside influences.

The end is not nigh for the CCP. Who could replace them? How can you undo the security apparatus that controls so much of society? Why would the people stand up to the government when so many are doing so well? (And I know many are not doing so well, but they have no political power.) The only scenario I can envision that might bring the government down would be an economic or environmental catastrophe so devastating that people have nothing to lose by standing up to the government and openly revolting. I see no hope for that occurring, at least not now, when the economy still manages to chug along and blind nationalism, fueled energetically by the state, flourishes. For now I see more of the same as the CCP’s tentacles only grow and tighten.

This is partly why I don’t blog anymore: Nearly all the news out of China is bad, and I see little purpose adding my voice to the choir, especially with my living halfway around the globe. When I was there I could fill this blog with personal anecdotes and stories
of travels across China. Now I feel distant and wonder whether I have anything to contribute that really matters. I don’t want to be a dragon-slayer, only citing stories about China that are bad. There is still so much good there, and the government, for all its faults, has in many ways made people’s lives better. So until I can figure out what exactly I have to offer to the discussion about China my blogging will be sporadic at best. Let me just conclude by saying it’s heartbreaking for me to watch China move backwards when it comes to anything seen by the state as dissent. The insecurity and pathological paranoia of the state grows worse, even when you think it couldn’t get any worse. A very sad story to which I can see no end.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 9 Comments

Thanks for posting, and I could not agree more about the general direction of politics and culture in China today. I have nothing left to say except “bah humbug!”
Still, there has never been anything in my experience that even began to approach this wonderful blog at its peak. I remember when this blog and its comments section were not just daily but indeed hourly reading, and am immensely thankful for the perspective on China that it provided to me, which has shaped my outlook to this day.

December 26, 2015 @ 5:39 am | Comment

This posting encapsulates perfectly how I have been feeling about China as well. It’s depressing to see things go backwards and see conservative authoritarian ideology on the ascent. The adamantine and myopic nationalism held by so many of the population just makes one all the more despondent.

December 26, 2015 @ 7:16 am | Comment

Thanks for the comment, Kevin. Those were the golden years when I had four co-bloggers and huge site traffic, when an open thread would generate 300 comments. Sadly that wasn’t sustainable and probably peaked in 2005 (where did those ten years go?). You were always one of my favorite commenters, so thanks for your contribution.

December 26, 2015 @ 7:22 am | Comment

Amen, Kevin and Richard. Those were some good times!

Nothing much to say about the state of China right now. I read that article a few days ago and it is a sobering read. I worry quite a bit about the future in China. Specifically for my friends, generally for the country. I don’t see how you solve the complex and huge issues China is facing by suppressing public discourse.

December 26, 2015 @ 8:31 am | Comment

Yes, from where you are you see the same truth I see from here in central Taiwan. What’s left out of all these discussions, however, is how all of this defeats creative innovation, experimentation, and experimentation. No matter what seems to be happening in China today it will inevitably fall behind because of this. All it has is numbers and power. History shows us again and again, this is not enough.

Another important point. Our problem, as Americans, has very little to do with China. Our problem is that many of the same trends we see there are happening in our own country which has itself increasingly become an oligarchy run by a parasitic elite whose ideology justifies its dominant role. The revolution won’t happen in China. It has to happen in America first. To the extent that we can recapture our democracy and freedom and increasingly innovate and re-invent everything we do, then the difference between a bottom-up creatively vibrant society one one stultified by authoritarian top-down nonsense will become increasingly evident, even to those in China.

The strange paradox is that it is the conservatives in America today, the Republicans, who are taking us in the direction of the Chinese system – the free-market fundamentalists, the religious fundamentalists, and all the others of that ilk, they are in so many ways most like the Communists ruling China. And it is a declared socialist, Bernie Sanders, who would take us back to our American roots and create the conditions that can again enable us to thrive and prosper and avert environmental catastrophe. If we tend to our situation at home we will create a situation where China will inevitably have to turn around and follow the path we are on.

These are my views anyway. Richard, thanks so much for all you have done and are doing. I think it’s fair to say you’ve played a role in history. Now, like the rest of us, you are faced with the necessity of reinventing that role, somehow or other. I have faith in you and in your success.

December 26, 2015 @ 10:37 am | Comment

@William R. Stimson:

your point of view is very interesting, but it is rather America-centric. If the Chinese people decide to become politically active it will be for internal reasons, not because of what happens in the US.

The truth is that, regardless of how oligarchic and unjust the United States becomes (but hasn’t it always been that way?), it is not a society which stymies creativity. And the same goes for the rest of the Western World, and indeed the democratic world at large.

Most educated Chinese know quite well that Western countries are more creative than China. They tend however to put it down to cultural factors, or to China “still being a developing country”. They generally don’t see it as a reason to push for real political change.

@Richard Burger: I only started reading this blog a couple of years ago, but it remains interesting. Keep it up, a bit of informed commentary will never harm anyone. And I agree with you, China is becoming less and less inviting by the day.

December 26, 2015 @ 6:13 pm | Comment

I agree that much about today’s China is depressing. It has become, by any reasonably standard, a worse place to live – the pollution alone has seen to that. The economic miracle that we have celebrated for the last 30 years seems to be approaching its end, though dubious statistics and government censorship may well stop us from identifying the exact moment that growth slow-down becomes a fact.

The question is: what will the CCP’s response to this be? The apparent answer is strengthening of censorship, oppression, assertiveness overseas. Little seems to contradict this.

Unlike Richard, I was never really a confirmed optimist about it going this way, though in the years 2003-2006 I believed things could go either way. The 2007-2008 period confirmed for me that things would go the way that was feared rather than hoped – this was at least a small part of why I left, but really explains why I never returned for good, though I still visit occasionally on business (though, except for lay-overs in Beijing, I haven’t been to mainland China since early 2014).

The really depressing thing has been the hints at rising xenophobia in China directed at the visibly foreign population and foreign influence in general. First we had Yang Rui’s despicable comments about “cleaning up” the “disaster zone” of places where foreigners congregate in China such as Sanlitun. Then we had the horrific attack earlier this year when a deluded man acting on apparently the same sentiments that Yang Rui expressed seriously injured a Frenchman and killed his wife. Now we see areas of Beijing patrolled by armed police to guard against an attack that appears likely to have been threatened against foreigners.

Whilst I would not pretend that the majority of Chinese people agree with such xenophobic sentiments, that a significant minority does seems very likely given the degree of agreement with Xi’s warning about foreign cultural influence in universities.

December 26, 2015 @ 10:21 pm | Comment

… that has staff and resources I can’t compete with

I think one of the great things about the internet is that you don’t need to “compete”, but that you can put a lot of information together when making the right choices. One source is never enough anyway, and a good blogroll, rather than that one or those few good blogs, makes good sources. The internet can be a very cooperative business.

Glad to read that you have plans to continue blogging. Hope to see lots of it, and happy new year!

December 28, 2015 @ 1:13 pm | Comment

China waxes and wanes, loosening up and then tightening. We individually decide if we can stand the political wind or leave. It cannot be as bad as in ’89 when there was martial law and university areas had armed military on each corner. That was pretty scary and I still remember the uncomfortable feeling.

China marches to its own drummer. I really feel that China will find its own way to a better life for all Chinese. It certainly will not be quick, but it will happen. Pollution is a big issue and there’s no way politicians can run from it. Beijing’s air will eventually get cleaned up.

I see a newer era where, as the saying goes, people “Call a spade a spade”. Eschew the pro whitewashed China propaganda and panda-for-cash programs and see China as it really is. This is a more truthful way of viewing China, and I much prefer it. Worldwide, China and the CCP are more powerful now and have little to lose by acting naturally. Their actions will belie their true character, and for good or bad, will facilitate better understanding of China worldwide. This can only be positive for all.

Happy Chinese New year 2016.

February 1, 2016 @ 1:44 am | Comment

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