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.