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.


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: 15 Comments

The update was a bit unnecessary – people tend to throw these things in, even if they are also genuine sentiments that they hold, because they are afraid (there’s that word again) of being accused of being “anti-China” simply because they’ve voiced criticism of the place.

February 19, 2016 @ 4:02 pm | Comment

I added the update so people don’t think I’m saying China is a police state where everyone lives in fear. That is not really the case.

February 20, 2016 @ 12:31 am | Comment

The “anti-corruption” campaigns are probably the main source of fear – I don’t think that any single official has risen through the ranks with completely clean hands, because this would have triggered backlashes from his comrades.

Wang Qishi, probably Xi Jinping’s closest ally at the top and the spritus rector of the campaign, appears to have realized this: he urges cadres to drop the “outdated” idea that you are either a good cadre or a potential prisoner, and to realize that there are shades of grey.

Different from the “cultural revolution”, the party center appears to be pretty much in control of these days campaigns, and determined to keep it that way. It’s not the “masses” who bring the flies and tigers to “justice”, even if some laobaixing would like to see it that way.

But the repression against lawyers is probably unparalleled in China’s recent – after-1980 – history. That’s the real trouble – you can’t have rule of law when power shows consistent disrespect for it. And there will be no trust without reliable rules, binding for the grassroots and the top alike.

February 20, 2016 @ 2:01 am | Comment

Comparisons with the cultural revolution are misleading. During the cultural revolution (at least the first few years), students and ordinary people were encouraged to become politically active, albeit in a fanatic way which was manipulated from above.

Currently the government wants ordinary people to continue staying out of politics, and mind their own business. In the main, that is what they are doing. The repression strikes at those who refuse to comply.

February 20, 2016 @ 6:09 pm | Comment

With all the signs of strain, division and tension coming out of China right now I think a more apt post title would have been “China: A Nation Frayed”.

February 23, 2016 @ 11:10 am | Comment

@Richard – I doubt the majority of people “lived in fear” even in the old DDR or in the USSR back in the 1970′s, but those most definitely were police-states.

I think a strong argument can be made that the modern-day PRC is a police state. Does the government police every-day speech? Yes – the activities of the authorities on the internet most definetly constitute policing of every-day speech. Yes, there is no Stalinist gulag, though there are black jails and what is essentially internal exile for people the regime considers its enemies.

February 25, 2016 @ 7:03 pm | Comment

The longer I live in America, the more I love Central Empire

When I was an undergraduate student in Central Empire, I lived in school dorms even though home was a 40 min subway ride away. My mother often visited my dorm, and gave me a weeks’ worth of food. I often told her not to visit me so often, and I rarely called home during my college years.

Home was just 40 mins away, what’s the rush? I thought to myself.

Living in the USA, I spoke to my mother for at least one hour per day until years ago. Whenever I heard her voice in the phone, no matter what she was saying, I’d be satisfied. Whenever I picked up my phone and the other came came ‘Wei’ instead of ‘Hello’, I’d be satisfied.

Whenever there was any mention of Central Empire, whether in papers or online, I’d browse it carefully. I’d once searched ‘Central Empire’ on youtube and watched the first 100 hits at home over the weekend. Any American who said anything bad about Central Empire was my immediate enemy.

Today, as a Centralian living in America, Central Empire has no faults in my eyes.

Today, America has fresh air, abundant food, beautiful houses, advanced technology. Yet I never feel this is my home, I never feel I have roots here.

The last time I visited Central Empire was 2 years ago, as I stepped out of Beijing Capital International Airport, a thick blanket of smog enveloped my face, and hordes of people pushed and shoved me without any civility. I saw people coughing, spitting, and even pissing on the streets.

Yet I kissed the Centralian ground below my feet, and said to myself, ‘Oh, Central Empire, my motherland, home sweet home’.

February 26, 2016 @ 10:58 am | Comment

Last month, Chinese lawyer and dissident Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest and sought refuge in the American Embassy in Beijing, sparking political debate here in the United States. In this clip, Chris Hayes considers what we really mean when we talk about political issues involving China.Thats what I know and think.
Thank you for post

February 29, 2016 @ 10:36 am | Comment

“The longer I live in America, the more I love Central Empire”

You genuinely are fruit-loops.

February 29, 2016 @ 9:52 pm | Comment

Centralian: You’re a braver man than I if you still kissed the ground after all that spitting and pissing you witnessed. That’s like a Cambodian exile returning to his homeland after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and jumping straight on a landmine.

March 1, 2016 @ 5:44 pm | Comment

The longer I live in America, the more I love Central Empire

Sure. And if you moved back to China, the longer you stayed, the more you’d hate it.
It’s not because of America or China – it’s because you don’t get on with any people.

March 1, 2016 @ 5:49 pm | Comment

Was gonna post this on your old blog post about John Naisbitt from way back in 2010 but the comments are closed already. Looks like the Ed and Lorraine Warren of Chinese futurism are at it again:

March 1, 2016 @ 6:20 pm | Comment

Bless you all, this is still the only place my friends all gather.

And a fine article, by the way.

That said, it’s notable that the only folks who comment on an article of this (high) quality, are my old friends. The so-called ‘old hands’. This is a bit of a worry, too.

March 9, 2016 @ 11:40 pm | Comment

Would you rather this thread were flooded with 50-centers?

Basically, China-blogging suffers from at least two serious hindrances.

The first is blocking which means that new expats cannot easily discover the old blogs or start their own – those who are already in the know can simply fire up the VPN and come here (or would if VPNs weren’t slowly being rendered unusable as well), but newbies don’t know it’s here in the first place.

The second is social media has driven a lot of the discussion on to Twitter/Facebook etc. However, I’m not sure this is as serious as the first factor – blogs outside Mainland PRC still do well (e.g., The Big Lychee Blog in Hong Kong, Michael Turton’s blog in Taiwan), and whilst Twitter and Facebook are useful discussion tools, they also lack much of the functionality that blogs bring.

March 10, 2016 @ 4:17 pm | Comment

remember a while back I stated the CCP and China is like a cancer, now things are beginning to manifest itself. Censorship and fear at all time high with reminders of Cultural Revolution with more black jails and mental hospitals for those who speaks against it.. China has resorted to kidnapping outsides its borders (Thailand, Vietnam, HK and Macau) and forced booksellers and publishers in HK to sell their businesses to the CCP so CCP can control it.

the CCP now bullies the entire Asia (sans Thailand and Russia) and squatting the entire East and South China Sea. Next they invade other countries if these other countries win in courts.

*** CCP is likea parasitic cancer and it is time to remove it before it infects the entire world (or causes WWIII)***

March 30, 2016 @ 4:58 pm | Comment

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