China’s Great Leap Backwards

So why don’t I post anymore about China? Mainly it’s because most of the news about China in recent months has been pretty uniform: China under Xi Jinping is becoming more authoritarian so censorship is worse than ever, more human rights activists and lawyers are getting arrested, foreign and domestic web sites are getting blocked in record numbers and the crackdown on all aspects of the Internet is nothing less than catastrophic, even if you’re using a VPN. It is remarkable how stories like this have been dominating media coverage of the country. I feel a sense of China fatigue, where the news keeps getting more and more depressing, and I feel there’s little I can contribute to the conversation.

But let me try anyway by mentioning this article by China hand Orville Schell. It is the single most disturbing piece I’ve read on Xi’s repressive regime because it is panoramic in its scope, touching on the many ways China is cracking down on its people, harassing churches, implementing a draconian anti-corruption campaign complete with forced confessions, re-centralizing and consolidating power, expanding the country’s security apparatus, throwing out “anti-government” foreign correspondents, making it nearly impossible to speak truth to power….

A good friend of mine moved out of China with his wife and children a few months ago and we just caught up last week. He told me there were aspects of China I wouldn’t recognize anymore, especially the crackdown on so many websites. He was delighted to have left after more than 20 years in Beijing. Several other friends of mine have left over the past year, and most of them said they don’t miss it. Between the pollution and the repression, they’d had enough. I know, China is still a wonderful place to live and people enjoy a great deal of freedom in their personal lives — but for those who are perceived as working against the state, like human rights lawyers, Xi’s repression is very real, generating a sense of despair and helplessness. Everyone needs to fall in line and think the way the state wants you to think. This brings back painful memories of the Cultural Revolution, and of Stalinism.

“All news media run by the Party [which includes every major media outlet in China] must work to speak for the Party’s will and its propositions, and protect the Party’s authority and unity,” Xi warned. In front of a banner declaring “CCTV’s family name is ‘the Party,’” Xi urged people who work in the media to “enhance their awareness to align their ideology, political thinking, and deeds to those of the CCP Central Committee.” Then, only days later the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced new regulations banning all foreign-invested media companies from publishing online in China without government approval.

I can’t cover everything discussed in this article and recommend you read it all. It’s thorough and it’s deeply troubling. So many groups are under siege, like churches and NGOs and news services and activists. You have to admire Xi’s ruthlessness for its sheer efficiency, but it is painful to see China moving so far backwards so fast.

Do I miss living in China? Yes, and I think of my wonderful experiences there every day. But would I move back? I really don’t think so. My blog was blocked there seven years ago; if I came back and blogged like I used to, I wouldn’t be surprised if I were thrown out. One by one, Xi has extinguished many of the lights in China, and some areas, like the media, are nearly altogether black. Many live in a state of fear.

[I]ndependent-minded researchers at think tanks and outspoken professors at universities worry about the “chilling effect” of Xi’s policies on academic life in both China and Hong Kong. Feminist activists demonstrating against sexual harassment have been arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” while human rights lawyers have been swept up in a mass wave of arrests for “creating public disorder,” and even for “subverting state power.”

So no, I don’t miss China the way I used to. China is a wonderful place to visit, but at the moment I wouldn’t want to live there. I only wonder, how far will Xi go to pursue his utopian vision of a China where the people think in total conformity and unity? Will we see a return to Maoism, with its asphyxiation of the Chinese people’s brain cells? We are, I’m afraid, headed in that direction.

I am planning a trip to China in June, and look forward to giving my impressions of life there on the ground. So many of my friends have left, so much has changed for the worse, I wonder if I’ll recognize what was once my favorite place on earth.