China: A Nation Afraid

As is evident from my last few posts, I believe that now more than ever (aside from the days of Mao) China’s leaders are using fear as a tool to silence dissent and hold onto power. Not that that’s anything new, but it is a matter of degree. I don’t mean to be a broken record and parrot the same line again and again but the past few days have seen a deluge of articles about this precise subject: the ascension of China’s rule by fear. Of course, the irony of this phenomenon is that no one is ruled by fear more than the CCP. They are ruling by fear out of fear. They are afraid of losing their grip, especially as their economy slows and the threat of social unrest rises.

Perhaps those living in the most fear are party officials and bureaucrats who know they are being watched. The high-profile arrests of officials on corruption charges have sent shock waves through the government. The arrests of activists and lawyers have instilled fear in anyone who dares speak out.

Outspoken China critic Minxin Pei notes how the rule by fear is spreading among the bureaucracy, universities, rights lawyers and activists.

China is once again gripped by fear in a way it has not been since the era of Mao Zedong. From the inner sanctum of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to university lecture halls and executive suites, the specter of harsh accusations and harsher punishment is stalking China’s political, intellectual, and business elites.

The evidence of pervasive fear is easy to discern. Since President Xi Jinping’s remorseless anti-corruption drive began in December 2012, arrests of government officials have become a daily ritual, sending shivers down the spines of their colleagues and friends.

….Even as China’s economy has boomed and modernized, its political system has retained its core totalitarian features: a state exempt from the rule of law, a domestic security apparatus with agents and informants virtually everywhere, widespread censorship, and weak protection of individual rights. Having never been repudiated, these institutional relics of Maoism remain available to be used and intensified whenever the top leadership sees fit, as it does today.

Censorship has become so severe that even the editor-in-chief of the Global Times is complaining that journalists can’t do their jobs.

China’s ruling Communist Party is cracking down on internal criticism, and the editor of one of the country’s most nationalist tabloids isn’t going to take it anymore. In a post on his Weibo microblog over the weekend, Hu Xijin, editor in chief of the Global Times, called on Chinese authorities to show greater tolerance for dissenting opinions.

“China should open up more channels for criticism and suggestions and encourage constructive criticism,” Mr. Hu wrote on Sunday. “There also should be a certain amount of tolerance for unconstructive criticism.”

I know Hu and I believe he is being sincere. He is a good party man, but he really has strived to bring the GT — at least the English edition — up to journalistic standards, with varying degrees of success. From personal experience, I know there was often a sense of frustration among the journalists there that the censors had the final say of what would go into the paper. Sometimes articles were published that truly pushed the envelope, to my surprise, but now it seems the censorship has reached a whole new level and the staff can only push the envelope so far.

Yet another article (and an excellent one) out this week traces how Xi has slowly but surely implemented “an anti-liberal shift of rhetoric and attitude,” enforced by fear and made known to the public in ways that bring the Cultural Revolution to mind. It is especially scary that they are now targeting foreigners; no one is safe.

We could see the results as one after another distraught individual was wheeled out on national television to ‘confess’ to wrongdoing, express repentance and (in some cases) humbly ask to be given another chance, shortly after being disappeared. The Party-State seems intent on advertising its repression. As was quickly observed, these confessions made very little sense, but then again that was the point. Precisely because they made no sense and offended basic principles of criminal justice such as the presumption of innocence, recorded ‘confessions’ were effective in projecting unlimited, in principle arbitrary and all the more fearful state power.

In televising and advertising its repression, the Party-State clearly seeks to amplify these fear effects. By detaining foreigners in China and allegedly orchestrating cross-border abductions of Chinese and foreign nationals, as well as submitting the victims of these abductions to the same kinds of measures, it has taken its visual repression even further. It is not only transmitting images across its borders, but also signalling to the world that foreigners may become targets. It is thus exporting rule by fear techniques and making them a transnational phenomenon.

Fear has long been a tool to protect the state, in China and elsewhere. What I find so alarming is the crescendo of repression in recent months, culminating in the disappearance of Hong Kong booksellers and activists and rights lawyers on the mainland. I had thought we’d seen the culmination of repression under Hu Jintao, who tightened Internet controls and forced the media to only report “good news,” punishing those that did not comply. Well, I was entirely wrong. Things have become worse, and once again I am glad I left, though I still miss it terribly. But the bloom is off the rose. Can the situation get any worse? I wouldn’t think so, but Xi has managed to surprise me more than once.

Update: I felt I had to add that China remains a magnificent place, and if you walk around Beijing and Shanghai you will see a happy, irrepressible people full of hope and optimism and ambition. The fear is harder to see, lurking beneath the surface, experienced by those who dare raise their voice to criticize the state or to publish stories that put the country in an unflattering light. This, to me, is the great paradox of China, where there is so much happiness, and so much brutality. I will always love China and its people; maybe that’s why I write posts like this.


No Chinese activist is safe, inside or outside China

Even if you have fled China, if you are perceived by the government as being overly critical of the CCP you just might disappear, until you reappear in a Chinese prison. This upsetting article shows just how far China will go to persecute and silence its critics. Leaving the country might not be enough to escape its grasp. The article notes the disappearance of Li Xin, a human rights activist and columnist for the Southern Metropolis Daily, who vanished into thin air shortly after talking on the phone from Thailand with his wife. Even more terrifying is the case of political activist Wang Bingzhang, who had fled to the US, when he was lured to Vietnam to meet with other human rights activists.

“They were conferring over lunch in a restaurant near the China-Vietnam border when several men speaking Chinese ordered them into a car,” Wang’s daughter, Ti-Anna Wang, recounted in a Post op-ed. “Beaten, blindfolded and gagged, my father and his two colleagues were abducted into China by boat. They were left in a Buddhist temple in Guangxi Province for the Chinese authorities.”

Wang Bingzhang was sentenced six months later to life in prison and has been confined ever since — going on 14 years. He is 68 years old.

This blood-pressure-raising piece makes it clear that no one is safe, that China under Xi is exerting a take-no-prisoners approach to dealing with its enemies, even though “none of the victims has engaged in violence or committed crime.” And reaching its tentacles outside of China to kidnap activists is not very unusual. Brazen as these kidnappings are, the world has remained largely silent. The writer says you can understand this only if you follow the money. It’s all, he says, about business. China is just too big a player in international business for politicians to challenge it.

Britain may feel slighted when China makes a mockery of their agreement on Hong Kong autonomy. Sweden might wish that its passports would be respected, and the United States might regret China’s increasing repressiveness.

But business, apparently, come first. As long as that remains true, it appears that no critic of China, of any nationality, in any nation, will be safe.

China has become hell for thousands of activists and lawyers. When it seems it can’t get any worse, Xi always surprises us. Every day we see more stories of repression, whether it’s bookstore owners in Hong Kong or lawyers on the mainland. Forced public confessions in the style of the Cultural Revolution’s struggle sessions have been making a comeback as Xi pushes China ever further toward Maoism. I read stories like this and I have no regrets for leaving China, despite my love for so many of my friends there.

There are no limits to how far the party will go to silence any form of dissent (I know that’s nothing we don’t already know, but it is only getting worse). In a post below, I compared the disappearance of Hong Kong booksellers to the Nazi campaign called Nacht und Nebel. That is not extreme; check the link. People vanishing into the night is an exceptionally brutal form of repression, filling activists and lawyers throughout China with terror. When will the world speak out?

Update: America speaks out about the vanished booksellers. Good.

The United States has called upon China to shed light on the mystery surrounding the five missing Hong Kong booksellers, and to allow them to return home.

In a daily press briefing on Monday, the spokesman for the State Department, John Kirby, said that the US is “deeply concerned” about the disappearances of the five men associated with the Causeway Bay bookstore.

“These cases, including two involving individuals holding European passports, raise serious questions about China’s commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework,” said Kirby.