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.