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.

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Self-immolating Tibetans

I was delighted to see that longtime commenter Kevin Carrico has translated into English Tsering Woeser’s book Tibet on Fire: Self-Immolations Against Chinese Rule, and a generous sample has been published in the NY Review of Books online. The article helped me understand why these Tibetans light themselves on fire and what they are hoping to achieve. It comes down to politics.

In my interviews with international media on the topic of self-immolation, I have always tried to emphasize one area of frequent misunderstanding: self-immolation is not suicide, and it is not a gesture of despair. Rather, it is sacrifice for a greater cause, and an attempt to press for change, as can be seen in these two peaks in self-immolation. Such an act is not to be judged by the precepts of Buddhism: it can only be judged by its political results. Each and every one of these roaring flames on the Tibetan plateau has been ignited by ethnic oppression. Each is a torch casting light on a land trapped in darkness. These names are a continuation of the protests of 2008 and a continuation of the monks’ decision that March: “We must stand up!”

Tibet is always a tricky topic to blog about because it is so not black and white. It’s important to understand how the majority of Chinese see Tibet and how they wonder why Tibet would recoil from its supposed benefactors. The Han have built schools and roads and hospitals, ended serfdom and raised the standard of living for thousands of Tibetans. Why then do so many Tibetans see the Chinese as oppressors bent on snuffing out their culture, even their language? The reality of life in Tibet is far different from that imagined by so many Chinese people. Maybe the Tibetans really were “liberated,” but many of them ask, “Liberated by whom? Liberated from what?” This fine translation sums up their despair.

After the 2008 protests, a “patriotic education” program, forcing monks to denounce the Dalai Lama openly, was intensified and expanded beyond Lhasa to cover every monastery across Tibet. Outside of the temples, the people of Tibet face regular searches of their residences: images of the Dalai Lama are confiscated from their homes, and there have even been cases of believers being imprisoned simply for having a photograph of His Holiness.

Second, the ecosystem of the Tibetan Plateau is being systematically destroyed. The state has forced thousands to leave behind the sheep, grasslands, and traditions of horseback riding with which they have practiced for millennia to move to the edges of towns, where they remain tied to one place. In their wake, a sea of Han workers has arrived from across the country armed with blueprints, bulldozers, and dynamite. They have immediately gone to work on the empty grasslands and rivers, mining copper, gold, and silver, building dams, and polluting our water supply and that of Asia as a whole….

So how should we feel about Tibet? As I said, it is a very tricky subject, and I have always exercised a good deal of caution while writing about it. I have never advocated that Tibet be made an independent nation and I have criticized articles in the media that I see as biased against Tibet, only offering the point of view of the Free Tibet crowd, while there is more to the story than that. On the other hand, I’ve never congratulated the CCP for generously helping Tibet end serfdom and get on its feet. That, too, is simplistic.

Pieces like this remind me of just how harsh China treats Tibetans, to the point where more than 140 of them have chosen self-immolation since 2008. Like under apartheid, Tibetans are second-class citizens to the Han Chinese, and typically, the CCP responds to unrest only by making the oppression worse, to the point of not even allowing Tibetans to make photocopies, lest they make and distribute copies of anti-government literature. I want to be fair in my blogging about Tibet, but no matter how much I strive to remain unbiased, the stubborn facts remain: Something is terribly wrong, and the Chinese government bears direct blame for treating an entire class of its people as second-class citizens and worse.

Please read the entire excerpt. It is obviously told from the point of view of a supporter of the Dalai Lama, but it sheds important light on the steadily tightening of the screws on the Tibetan people and offers great insights into what is motivating these people to make the ultimate sacrifice for their ideals and setting themselves on fire. Congratulations to Kevin for this fine translation.

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The asphyxiation of Xinjiang’s Muslims

Xinjiang separatists who practice terrorism exist, as we saw in the horrific knife attack in Kunming in 2014. Does that justify the widespread suppression of all Muslims in Xinjiang and other parts of western China? China seems determined to radicalize its Uighur population, all under the rubric of state security. How far can China go as it tries to impose its will on Xinjiang Muslims, who feel they are under siege as Han Chinese settlers continue to “colonize” the province? It looks like they are willing to go pretty far.

Families sundered by a wave of detentions. Mosques barred from broadcasting the call to prayer. Restrictions on the movements of laborers that have wreaked havoc on local agriculture. And a battery of ever more intrusive ways to monitor the communications of citizens for possible threats to public security.

A recent 10-day journey across the Xinjiang region in the far west of China revealed a society seething with anger and trepidation as the government, alarmed by a slow-boil insurgency that has claimed hundreds of lives, has introduced unprecedented measures aimed at shaping the behavior and beliefs of China’s 10 million Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority that considers this region its homeland.

Outrageous restrictions are being imposed on Uighurs in Xinjiang, as the article delineates, and this iron-fisted approach only serves to exacerbate tensions between the Han and the Muslims. Read the article to see just how extreme these restrictions are. Imagine bein know that if I were a Uighur in Xinjiang I would resist with every fiber of my being.

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Night and Fog in Hong Kong

In 1941 Hitler instituted a program referred to as Nacht und Nebel — “Night and Fog.” Put simply, it called for dissidents and enemies of the state to be disappeared without a trace, with no notice to their families. They were simply captured and killed. This policy was implemented to instill fear in potential “enemies” and partisans in conquered territory.

China is not Nazi Germany, of course, but the recent articles about Hong Kong booksellers who have disappeared brings the notion of Night and Fog to mind. No one knows where these booksellers have gone, and that’s probably the point: their vanishing is meant to instill fear in others like them, who have sold books critical of the CCP. Bookseller Lee Bo is the latest of five disappearances.

Albert Ho, a pro-democracy lawmaker, told CNN that he believed that Lee Bo, 65, a major shareholder in Causeway Bay Books, had been taken across the border to China against his will.

“It’s a forced disappearance. All those who have disappeared are related to the Causeway Bay bookshop and this bookshop was famous, not only for the sale, but also for the publication and circulation of a series of sensitive books,” said Ho.

Ho said that the publishing house had been planning on publishing a book about the “love affairs” of China’s President Xi Jinping during his time working “in the provinces.”

Lee was reported missing to police Friday. Swedish national Gui Minhai, the owner of the publishing house Mighty Current that owns the bookstore, disappeared while on holiday in Thailand, the South China Morning Post reported.

Maybe the five victims will reappear and get back to their work. But for now, this is a truly alarming story. As Jack Ma takes over the South China Morning Post and as political “enemies” disappear in Hong Kong, one must wonder if One Country, Two Systems is working. I see it as being slowly chipped away, and I’m afraid similar clampdowns on those who have the temerity to stand up to the mainland government will only increase, all a part of Xi Jinping’s ruthless campaign to control what people say and think about the CCP. I hope I’m wrong.

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The scourge of white “China experts”

[Update - someone pointed out that this article is a year old. It was posted today on my FB timeline so I thought it was new. Sorry about that - still a funny read.]

This is too rich to pass by. Apparently foreign “China experts” are part of a vast conspiracy to take over the country. Written by a German “cultural critic,” it’s by far the most bizarre thing I’ve seen in recent weeks, the Republican candidates notwithstanding. Here’s a sample:

There is a cult of Western evangelists and self-righteous crusaders who are determined to dislodge non-Western nations and usurp their governments.

In China they act as if above the law. That’s because they see the Chinese government as corrupt, non-elected, and communist, and thus illegitimate. So why care about what it says or stands for? Moreover, these evangelists believe Westerners can do whatever they want in China because America and the entire Western propaganda apparatus will bail them out should trouble arise.

These so-called China experts are now a political force in direct opposition to the Communist Party. They form clusters and networks, with a strong hierarchy and code of ethics: They reward their Twitter followers and lickspittles and praise each other’s work, while policing social media and punishing “traitors” or “China apologists”.

This could have been written by a certain marketing shyster executive in Shanghai but it’s too nutty even for him. And that excerpt is just for starters. Who knew that these “China experts” would poison the entire country?

Taking part in the Western mission to civilize the East is highly spiritually rewarding. And what is political destabilization and social unrest but a sweet revenge for China’s disregard for Western hegemony. Favorite targets are: corrupt officials, suppressed minorities, Han chauvinism and misogyny, demonstrations, currency manipulation, and censorship. It makes China experts feel good about themselves. They feel like social justice warriors. The problem: this is not their country, and their negativity is poisoning everything.

There’s lots more there, if you are looking for a good laugh. He even mentions the periodicals these white China experts write for to spew lies and hurt China. One of the crazier pieces about China in recent memory, bordering on self-parody. Please read the whole thing, for entertainment’s sake.

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China and other stuff

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.

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The June 4th Incident

Allow me to emerge from my self-imposed hibernation to comment briefly, as I have done nearly every year in this blog’s 13-year history, on what happened in the streets around Tiananmen Square and in other Chinese cities on June 4th, 1989.

I had just moved to Phoenix in the Spring of 1989 for a new job, and for the first time I could afford cable television. CNN’s coverage of the demonstrations in China transfixed me as I watched the entire drama unfold. I remember watching amazed as the students carried out the “Goddess of Democracy,” and as thousands of others — not only students but working people, even police officers — joined the demonstrating masses. I had no particular interest in China at the time, but was riveted to my TV set; I saw the students as heroes and the government as villains. Now I know it was not nearly so black and white, but I still see the students as idealists fighting for a noble cause, and I see those who ordered the shootings as murderers.

In past posts on the subject, some of my Chinese commenters came back with the “America does it too” argument, pointing to the Kent State shootings. But here’s the big difference: Everyone in America who is literate and curious about the nation’s history is familiar with the story of the Kent State massacre. Public television (maybe CNN?) just a few weeks ago had a special program all about the shootings, what led up to them and how the deaths were seared into the national psyche. In China, of course, not only is there a total blackout of anything having to do with the TS demonstrations and ensuing massacre, there is a willful campaign to purge it from the national consciousness.

I can’t say much more about this subject than I have in the past. I’ve acknowledged that not all the students were angels, and that they had power issues of their own. But they were fighting for the right cause — greater representation, challenging rampant corruption, demanding accountability from those in power. The catastrophic turn of events that culminated in soldiers firing live ammunition into crowds on the side streets of Tiananmen Square was an act of brutality I can never forgive or forget.

One year ago I wrote a post about the remarkable book by former NPR correspondent Louisa Lim, The Peoples’ Republic of Amnesia. I wish everyone who argues that enough has been said about the “incident” already and that it’s time to move on and forgive/forget would read this book, which makes it clear that the TSM remains an open wound for many, and that won’t end until the government comes clean about what actually happened. As I wrote in my post:

…Lim notes how thoroughly the government has wiped out nearly all memories of the TSM. Every reference to it is silenced. The Tiananmen Mothers are persecuted. Several Chinese I spoke with in my old office said the only thing they know about it is that angry demonstrators killed innocent soldiers. Ignorance is Strength. This is what I call brainwashing — wiping the slate clean and restricting what the people can know. Anyone who reads this book will have no doubt that the Chinese people have been brainwashed on the subject.

In addition, a fine review of Lim’s book in last year’s Economist lays out the argument that the effects of the TSM resonate through China today:

One of Ms Lim’s most revealing portraits is of Bao Tong, an outspoken former senior official in Beijing who was imprisoned for seven years after the crackdown and still lives under constant surveillance. She says that from Mr Bao’s perspective the suppression of the protests was the “defining act” of modern-day China, accounting for its major ills today: rampant corruption, lack of trust in the government, a widespread morality crisis and the ascendancy of the security apparatus. The Chinese may not be so quick to blame the 1989 bloodshed, but most would recognise these symptoms.

One of the most illuminating chapters in the book deals with an atrocity I had no idea ever occurred, namely the brutal beating to death of demonstrating students in Chengdu. Lim’s harrowing description of the murders, carried out in a hotel courtyard is evidence that there is still much about the June 4th incident that hasn’t been exposed. Read the book for this alone. The violence in Chengdu is a story I will never forget.

Many Chinese — even a friend of mine — argue that the TSM was unfortunate but necessary to keep the Party in power so it could oversee the “economic miracle” that started in the early 1990s. It’s a shame some lost their lives, but it was more important to keep China from sliding into chaos and anarchy the way Russia did.They also argue that proof of the massacre’s justification is that China is moving toward greater political freedoms — the demonstrations were not necessary, the CCP is heading in the direction the students demanded all by itself. An article I saw today does a good job blowing a hole in this argument.

Even today, there are still some who believe that with further development, and the growth of a middle class, China will gradually evolve towards liberal democracy. This long-held narrative presupposes that China is on the right path now. But it isn’t. It isn’t, because of choices made through political expediency after the Tiananmen Massacre. Continuing down this crooked path is simply going to move China further away from democracy, and this has become plainly evident especially over the last couple of years since Xi Jinping took power. For 26 years, precisely because too many people have accepted the faulty premise of economic development inevitably leading to political reform, the proper and righteous resistance to the Party’s dictatorship has been forgotten. Instead, the world sits and watches, or even helps the hydra grow.

There’s a lot more I can say on the subject: tank man, the Tiananmen mothers, Zhao Ziyang, the horrors of the dead and maimed brought to Beijing emergency rooms. I’ve written about them extensively for years, and I won’t rehash it all here. Let’s just say that this is an incident that must not be forgotten, that it in many ways has helped define the CCP and its obsession with total control of its people — an obsession that has reached its pinnacle under Xi Jinping. I look at China now, with its crackdown on NGOs and repression of all dissent and the inexcusable prison sentences handed down to many who have dared speak out, and I’m not so sad that I left. In some ways, the spirit of the massacre lives on, especially in the minds of government leaders who dread the thought of anything like it happening again. They will never forget how the swelling masses of students challenged their authority; and neither will we.

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Peter Hessler’s China Daily “article”: how low can they go?

Now this is chutzpah: China Daily asked author Peter Hessler to participate in a Q & A with his friend and translator Li Xueshun comparing aspects of Egypt and China (both countries where Hessler has worked as a New Yorker correspondent). China Daily then had the nerve to take Hessler’s replies and shape them into what looks to the reader like a bylined article by Hessler. Li’s replies were totally removed. From Hessler’s Facebook page:

[I]t omitted crucial parts, including the most important point: that I believe it’s harder to make a political change in China, where the system is deeper rooted than in Egypt, and thus the flaws are also more deeply rooted. I said that this is the reason why the current anti-corruption campaign will be a failure, because China is not addressing its systemic flaws. This material, among other things, was not included in the published article. (Nor did the paper print any of Li Xueshun’s answers, of course.)

…I want to emphasize that this article does not in any way represent a comprehensive picture of my views on China and Egypt, and I never would have agreed to such a story. And I want readers to understand that the terms under which I was approached – that this was a year-end interview with my friend and colleague Li Xueshun, on a range of topics – are completely different from being approached for an article specifically about Egypt and China (especially when my byline will be used, not to mention with key material removed).

Hessler finally got the paper to remove the piece but China Daily has refused to retract it. Meanwhile, the “article” got translated into Chinese and posted on other Chinese news sites so it’s now all over the place. This is a perversion of what journalism is meant to be, a form of entrapment that would defy the belief of any media ombudsman. It is vintage “only in China.” Hessler is careful to end by saying that this incident is not representative of his working with Chinese journalists he respects. He still sounds like he’s simmering, and can anyone blame him? In case you can’t access the Facebook post, here is the entire piece below, with Chinese translation. Nice to see that this has made international news.

(more…)

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Is it a police state?

The best post I ever wrote (and I realize that’s not saying very much) is this one. Its simple point is that underneath a veneer of happiness, prosperity and optimism there can lurk a much darker and more dangerous side. People can be content and appreciate their government while being oblivious — willfully or not — to what it is going on beneath the surface.

There have been a rash of articles in recent months of a severe crackdown in China on civil rights lawyers, professors, journalists and activists. A story from yesterday drove this home:

As the year came to a close, at least seven prominent Chinese human rights lawyers rang in the New Year from a jail cell. Under President Xi Jinping, 2014 was one of the worst years in recent memory for China’s embattled civil society. Bookending the year were the cases of two prominent legal advocates: in January, Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years imprisonment for his moderate criticism of government policy and leading the “New Citizens’ Movement,” a group advocating for political reforms in China. Outspoken free speech lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who turns 50 tomorrow, has spent the past six months in detention as authorities continue to build a case against him.

But that’s just for starters. A few days earlier a reporter for the German magazine Die Zeit wrote a harrowing article on how her Chinese assistant was arrested after they returned from Hong Kong where they were covering the Occupy Central demonstrations. Not every article is “must read,” but this one is. I can already hear apologists saying the assistant brought it on herself because she posted images from the scene on social media, and she wore a yellow ribbon showing her solidarity with the demonstrators. In other words, she should have realized China is a police state and not pushed the envelope.

What is a police state? To me, it is any nation whose security apparatus can arrest and hold anyone with no accountability. A police state has no rule of law to speak of. It uses terror, however subtle, to keep the public in line and stifle dissent. As we all know, only four months ago a moderate professor in Xinjiang was sentenced to life in prison for advocating equal rights for the region’s minorities. This is an act of terror, a warning that advocates for change, however peaceful, are putting their lives at risk.

it is not just a war on dissent, but on any form of self-expression that the government sees as harmful. Even children’s libraries are being shut down for encouraging “subversion.”

The libraries are among the victims of a sweeping orthodoxy laid down by President Xi Jinping, who continues to consolidate his power. While crackdowns on budding expression here come and go, the new variant is spreading its net more widely, ensnaring even prominent moderate voices.

In recent weeks and months, scholars have seen their books banned after they voiced sympathy for pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong; artists with independent ideas have been silenced; lawyers representing political prisoners have been locked up; and human rights campaigners and civil society activists have been detained by the hundreds.

The Chinese government has to be credited for doing good, for improving many of its citizens’ lives, for overseeing the lifting of hundreds of millions from poverty. If elections were held today and the CCP ran against another party (though there is no other party), the CCP would win. Why then is there such a tenacious campaign to silence any perceived threat to the state, even to the point of locking up lawyers whose only “crime” was representing dissidents? We’ve gone over this before and the answer is the same: the government’s primary objective is to stay in power, and in their minds having a “harmonious” society with no one speaking out is key to maintaining their grip. I’ve been blogging about that since the early days of this site 12 years ago. But now under Xi the problem is worsening, the net is being cast wider and the punishments are more severe.

Most Chinese citizens can live with this limitation on their freedom of self expression. They have more personal freedoms and are free to make money, and they have no reason to cross the red line and question their government. Personal freedoms, yes. Political freedoms, not so much. I have had three friends woken up in the middle of the night, a black hood placed over their heads and taken by the PSB to shabby hotel rooms where they were held for days in one case and months in another. The security apparatus is always watching and no one who is perceived as rocking the boat is safe. What is this if not a police state?

Critics who are perceived as threatening the monolithic portrait of China that its rulers try so hard (and so successfully) to cultivate are an existential threat. And it is getting worse under Xi. I remember so clearly how some 12 years ago the Chinese blogosphere expressed great hopes that newly sworn-in Hu Jintao was going to be a reformer who would usher in an age of greater transparency and openness. There was such a promising beginning when, in the spring of 2003, the government came clean about its cover-up of the SARS epidemic and even held a televised press conference to answer reporters’ questions, including foreign correspondents. Hu went on, of course, to strengthen repression and censorship.

I realize this post, my first in months, is a bit all over the place, but I want to address one related topic, and that is the question of whether Chinese people have been brainwashed by their government. This is a tricky topic because the answer is not black and white; maybe the answer is yes and no.

I know many educated, urbane young Chinese people (young being under 40) who are highly critical of their government. Most if not all say that while they respect the strength of the government in its ability to get things done, they have serious issues with the CCP. They hate its censorship of the Internet and its hysterical pursuit of “harmony.” They hate its propaganda. And yet, these same people all have one thing in common: when asked about certain topics they go into automatic pilot and recite a script that is remarkably similar. When asked about Taiwan, they say it must be returned to China, like a baby returning to its mother’s arms. On Tibet, everything is the fault of the Dalai Lama and his clique that tries to undo all the great things the government has done for the Tibetan people (roads, schools, the end of serfdom).

In her wonderful book The People’s Republic of Amnesia, journalist Louisa Lim notes how thoroughly the government has wiped out nearly all memories of the TSM. Every reference to it is silenced. The Tiananmen Mothers are persecuted. Several Chinese I spoke with in my old office said the only thing they know about it is that angry demonstrators killed innocent soldiers. Ignorance is Strength. This is what I call brainwashing — wiping the slate clean and restricting what the people can know. Anyone who reads this book will have no doubt that the Chinese people have been brainwashed on the subject.

However disappointing the leadership of Hu Jintao was, under Xi it is only getting worse. I could post hundreds of links to stories of his regime’s cracking down on dissenting voices. His government is doing all it can to silence these voices and keep its people brainwashed, at least politically. I said the answer to whether the Chinese are brainwashed is “yes and no.” On most issues, they are not; those I know are free thinking, successful, open-minded people. But most of them know when to shut up and to avoid discussing certain uncomfortable topics. And nearly all have certain scripts, tapes they turn on when asked about sensitive topics like the three T’s. (Japan is another topic where the tape gets turned on.)

China doesn’t look like a police state. Bustling and prospering, with plenty of artists free to express themselves, and with greater and greater personal freedoms, it looks quite open. But ask Liu Xiaobo whether China is a police state. Ask Ilham Tohti, languishing in prison for the rest of his life, whether it’s a police state. Ask some of those hundreds of activists and civil rights lawyers. There is much more to China than meets the eye. It’s a glorious, wonderful country, my favorite place on earth after the US because its people and its culture are so magnificent. But when you pull the curtain back there is a lot of bad stuff happening, too, and if you only see the good you are not seeing China in its entirety.

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Writing “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited”

That’s the ingenious title of a new book by NPR correspondent Louisa Lim, who I had the pleasure of working with briefly when I was working on a project in Shanghai in 2010. I just ordered it and plan to review it soon. But the story of how Lim wrote this book is remarkable and bears mentioning now; it brings to light just how dangerous a topic Tiananmen Square remains for journalists today. Lim tells the story in a Washington Post article from earlier this week. I can’t urge you strongly enough to read it all. So intent is China on wiping out all recollections of the Tiananmen Square violence of June 4 that Lim had to go to extraordinary measures to keep her book secret while she was writing it.

I wrote my book on a brand-new laptop that had never been online. Every night I locked it in a safe in my apartment. I never mentioned the book on the phone or in e-mail, at home or in the office — both located in the same Beijing diplomatic compound, which I assumed was bugged. I took these extreme measures because I was writing about that most taboo of topics in China: the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, when soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians on the streets of Beijing, killing hundreds of people, maybe even more than 1,000.

I stuck to my rules doggedly. When I decided to throw out the structure I had outlined in my proposal and take a completely different approach, I waited until I left China months later to tell my patient editor. I didn’t tell any of my colleagues what I was working on in my off-hours. For weeks I didn’t even tell my children — then ages 7 and 5 — for fear they might blurt something out at home. Later on, when they began to ask why I didn’t have time to play, I swore them to secrecy.

Lim describes how this year’s crackdown on any attempts to commemorate the killings is being clamped down on early, with activists being arrested weeks in advance. She describes the arrest of five attendees at a “June 4 commemorative seminar,” and notes how one Chinese newspaper reported on the seminar:

Of the seminar, a state-run newspaper, the Global Times, wrote dismissively, “It is obvious that such an event, which is related to the most sensitive political issue in China, has clearly crossed the red line of law.

At least they admit there is a thick red line when it comes to Tiananmen Square. It appears this year it’s thicker than ever. To cross it is to violate Chinese law (though I’m not sure which law that is).

Lim’s book is a series of portraits of witnesses and participants in the Tiananmen Square massacre, including a former PLA soldier from the unit charged with clearing the square. She even tells the little-known story of the crackdown on student protestors in Chengdu. Lim’s book and a second book are the subjects of an exhaustive review in The NY Review of Books. It is a more thorough, detail-rich review than I could ever write, so I strongly recommend it.

Another piece in the NYROB examines this year’s crackdowns and how people are being arrested simply for talking about June 4th. This article focuses on activists determined to speak out, and how the government deals with them. Also highly recommended, if painfully grim.

A couple of years ago a blogger I respect put up a post about how he wasn’t writing about the TSM anymore, that it had been covered enough already and that there was nothing to add at this point. I respect and understand that. For me, however, the massacre is an exposed nerve and I can never forget my own surges of emotion, from hope to elation to disbelief to despair as I watched the story unfold. For thousands of Chinese citizens who remember it, the wound has never healed; some of them are even willing to go to prison for their efforts to keep the memory alive. Yet the government is more determined than ever to silence all voices. The censors, Lim writes, are in overdrive this milestone year.

China’s online censors are busy scrubbing allusions, no matter how elliptical, to June 4. As the anniversary nears, judging by precedents set in recent years, the list of banned words and terms will grow to include “64,” “today,” “that year,” “in memory of” and even “sensitive word.” History is apparently so dangerous that China’s version of Wikipedia, Baidu Baike, does not have an entry for the entire year of 1989.

As I have written before, this obsessive mission to delete the protests and crackdowns from China’s collective memory speaks to just how insecure and fearful the CCP remains, even now, when China is doing well and there is no risk of a popular uprising anytime soon. Why are they so afraid? Whatever the reason, the story of the Tiananmen Square protests and the ensuing violence are an indelible part of China’s history, and whether the Party likes it or not, many voices will be raised to keep the memory alive. The vigorous crackdowns this year only make those who have an interest in China more determined to seek the truth about June 4th.

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