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.