Ruining their own image

Several commenters here (and I) expressed concern that the arrest of Ching Cheong was a colossal mistake that could only result in China looking bad in the eyes of the world. I tried to understand why they’d do it, and this article in the Financial Times at least has a theory: the CCP is terrified that revelations by Ching about Zhao Ziyang’s house arrest would reach the mainstream population.

China’s current rulers are particularly anxious not to allow their citizens to hear about Zhao Ziyang, a Communist leader who died this year having spent the latter part of his life under house arrest for sympathising with the Tiananmen demonstrators and opposing the crackdown. Mr Ching, it seems, was detained after seeking to obtain a document airing Zhao’s criticisms.

Chinese officials, eager to clean up corrupt state banks and strengthen their increasingly capitalist economy, have tolerated and even encouraged investigations into financial misdeeds. They seem to think it is possible to promote transparency and honesty in Chinese corporate life while maintaining a wall of secrecy around the country’s unaccountable political leaders.

This is a naive and dangerous policy. Admittedly, the security services have been surprisingly efficient at limiting the amount of uncensored information on the internet in China, but even so the Chinese today enjoy much more freedom to speak, communicate and travel than they did a decade ago.

It is inconceivable that tens of millions of well-educated and increasingly prosperous people will allow themselves to be kept in the dark much longer. The contrast between a modern, open economy and a Stalinist political system is too extreme, and something has to yield. The chances are it will be Communist politics that crumbles, not capitalist economics.

My question is, isn’t Zhao Ziyang’s house arrest pretty much known throughout China? In the Internet age, can such a well-covered story really have been kept a secret from the masses for 15 years? What could Ching have said that they don’t already know? It still doesn’t quite add up to me, but neither do a lot of the things the CCP does.

Ching Cheong is only part of this article, which is more about how China seems intent on destroying its own image, just at the time when it can be capitalizing on all the good news, like the Olympics and the economy. Instead, they do provocative things like arrest a Straits Times reporter, which inevitably make them look very, very bad.

The Discussion: 28 Comments

Maybe there are some serious strifes happening in the highest level.

June 5, 2005 @ 5:45 pm | Comment

>>>It is inconceivable that tens of millions of well-educated and increasingly prosperous people will allow themselves to be kept in the dark much longer. The contrast between a modern, open economy and a Stalinist political system is too extreme, and something has to yield. The chances are it will be Communist politics that crumbles, not capitalist economics.

You know, although I would hope this is the case, I suspect that it may not be. We’ve already seen lots of very rich people in china, and the middle class is rising aggressively. Rich, educated people might very well not feel the need to protest the current unaccountability of the CCP as long as the CCP doesn’t step on their toes – the Sangedaibiao is a decen example of the ways that Jiang sought to include this new class, and, therefore, to be able to keep the status quo.

It’s like this: democracy is very much a stablizer and, in fact in many ways very conservative, because everyone has a say and therefore it is sometimes hard to change things. It follows that the way you keep people from having threatening power to the system is by giving them power within the system. I suspect this is what is happening with the Chinese rich – the bulk majority won’t have an incentive to try and change anything, as long as they are able to pursue the activities they want to, make more money and live the way they want – within culturally acceptible reason, of course. In exchange they’ll cooperate with the people leading the system that gives them the ability to pursue such amenities.

This is kind of cynical, but I would apply this to most governments – for instance, we’ve got a serious poverty problem in the states in urban areas, but the poor don’t often amass and take to the streets because they feel like they can get ahead, and that they aren’t systematically oppressed, because they can still buy TV’s and work hard to try and get ahead. We keep them in the cultural and economic system and so they play the game.

So I think the rich in China will get richer, and as long as the CCP doesn’t do something stupid, I think it’ll be the proletariat that will eventually force change.

Does this make me a Marxist?

June 5, 2005 @ 6:37 pm | Comment

I don’t think it’s serious strifes as much as deals being made for Hu to take the top post of the CMC.

Certain Chinese generals don’t wake up in the morning thinking that China is what is wrong with the world and China’s image abroad will be better if it can project a tough/strong image than if it projects “soft power”.

So Hu throws the hard-liners a few bones to keep them happy, because Hu bets that China’s “soft power” will be enough that other governments will quickly forget any single individual or story sacrificed as a political sop.

And my guess is that Wen is more interested in the transparency in the economy, but Hu sees the anti-corruption campaign as a political tool to clean out a notoriously corrupt group of cadres whose loyalties are not to the current leadership {outside VP Zeng}.

June 5, 2005 @ 6:42 pm | Comment

I don’t see the Marxism, Laowai. I do think you may be optimistic about the CCP’s future. They don’t necessarily need to do something stupid. Some things are simply beyond their control and I think there’s a good chance a number of things could deal the Party a death blow, especially a banking crisis, an energy crisis, intense inflation or deflation, etc. (My money is on the banking crisis.) It may ne long off in the future, but there are structural defects in China’s economy that match the defects in the Three Gorges Dam.

June 5, 2005 @ 6:43 pm | Comment

“I think there’s a good chance a number of things could deal the Party a death blow, especially a banking crisis, an energy crisis, intense inflation or deflation, etc. (My money is on the banking crisis.) ”

That would not just be a death blow to CCP, but the whole China.

June 5, 2005 @ 6:47 pm | Comment

The Chinese people are too smart and too industrious to be destroyed by an economic crisis. Set back, hurt, temporarily made poorer — yes. But they’d bounce back. I don’t want the bank crisis to happen; there are too many people I care about deeply in China, and I couldn’t stand seeing them get hurt. But I see it as a strong possibility, maybe even an inevitability unless there are major reforms. I have no answers for this one, and wouldn’t wish this situation on anyone – not even the CCP.

June 5, 2005 @ 7:12 pm | Comment

Tom, you make some interesting points. In a comment to an earlier post eswn made it seem quite absurd that they’d have 1,000 spies in Oz, but then, maybe they’d need a lot of spies to watch their people there. I’ve seen restaurants in China with 8 greeters and two customers, so maybe so many spies down under isn’t really that improbable.

June 5, 2005 @ 7:14 pm | Comment

Bing – considering how much China has gone through over the past 100 years alone, there’s no way a banking crisis is going to destroy China. Have a little faith. The fact that young chinese today are so comfortable with the past shows how resilient people are.

Richard – you’re right. I’m pessimistic about change. you are totally right though – it’s the external factors that will count – the factors that elicit the survival instincts and throw people into turmoil. It’s too bad that change so often comes from pain.

June 5, 2005 @ 7:43 pm | Comment

You raise a rhetorical question about how well known Zhao Ziyang’s house arrest is. Here’s a propagandist’s point of view:

Making someone an un-person, or changing history, is a generational exercise, and a few things seem to have conspired to make it possible for China to do this with Zhao.

Ideas are useless unless they are communicated. Censorship works on many more levels than simply blocking access to published information, which is just the bluntest expression of it. It also works by making people afraid or unwilling to communicate ideas amongst themselves. You don’t need people to not know about Zhao. You simply need them to not talk about him.

A few things seem to have worked in China’s favor in accomplishing this. First, if people live in fear, even a mild undercurrent of fear, many will keep their mouths shut. Secret police forces are really good for this sort of thing. If you don’t know who will inform on you, who do you share your opinions with? This may not be a major factor now, but it would have been huge in the formative few years after 1989.

Prosperity helps as well. Plenty of people don’t want to rock a boat that seems to them to be floating along nicely.

As time goes by, the generational aspect comes into play. People who were born in the last twenty years will have little or no memory of Tiananmen and Zhao as a public figure. So you get a critical mass of people who won’t discuss Zhao or were never exposed to him, and he becomes marginalized as an idea.

But times change. The language gulf and isolation that made censorship especially effective in the 90s is breaking down. Ideas that have been marginalized can become relevant again, if there is a catalyst, and martyrs are powerful symbols.

June 5, 2005 @ 7:48 pm | Comment

I got it Imagthief – very well said. And Zhao has certainly been marginalized effectively. What I’m curious about is this: in light of his being marginalized, what is the CCP so afraid of in regard to Ching Cheong? Whatever article Ching might have written, it certainly wouldn’t have come out in People’s Daily. It would have been published in Singapore or HK, where there’s already huge awareness of Zhao, so I’m struggling to see why it was worth it to them to arrest him and create an international uproar.

June 5, 2005 @ 7:52 pm | Comment

Since the original post was about Ching, I’d like to put to you what a Chinese reporter told me the other day.

I asked whether it was true that Hong Kong media would just let the issue of his arrest slide into the nether regions of history and go about their business like no other thing.

she, and the guy next to her, said the best thing for them to do would be to lete the issue die down after an initial spark of controversy, because that would be the only way the CCP would save face and let Ching go.

I weighed that for a while, and thought, that can’t be.

Could it be?

June 5, 2005 @ 8:47 pm | Comment

Sure it can be, Doug. It kind of makes sense, when you look at it through the CCP’s filter. Right now they have to huff and puff, like they did with Liu Di, the “stainless steel mouse.” Then, months later they tried to quietly end it. The problem is that with Ching, as with Liu Di, the eyes of the world are on the situation, and even after a few months the international press will pounce right back on it again.

June 5, 2005 @ 9:12 pm | Comment

me being naive – why can’t the CCP just be more moderate in how they react? I feel like they’re always over-reacting. Not as in – I feel like they react more than I think they should (although I do) – but more: I feel like they react more than they end up realising they had to, if they wanted a better result.

June 5, 2005 @ 9:28 pm | Comment

ESWN has a very nice post on Ching Cheong’s arrest. He includes a translation of Ching Cheong’s wife’s recent open letter to Hu Jintao, written just after the arrest of Lu Jianhua was made public. In the letter, she admits that indeed Lu Jianhua has passed copies of secret internal Chinese government documents and speeches to Ching Cheong, but she insists that the 2 men were always working in China’s interests.

ESWN also points out that if Ching Cheong’s arrest was because he tried to pick up a copy of the manuscript written by Zhao Ziyang’s qigong teacher Zong Fengmin, then why is
Zong “still chatting on the telephone with the Washington Post and talking about his work-in-progress”?

To me it looks like Ching Cheong’s arrest has nothing to do with Zhao Ziyang, as the Chinese government has insisted all along. But of course, it makes for a better story for western audiences and we can expect the western media to continue to pursue this angle despite all the evidence to the contrary.

June 5, 2005 @ 11:19 pm | Comment

Well, hopefully the media won’t be that possessing of inertia to keep running with something that isn’t true. If the Washington Post is talking to Zong about his work in progress it does indicate that there may be some real investigative journalism going on!

June 5, 2005 @ 11:35 pm | Comment

I’m actually with Bing on this one. If the CCP falls because of some major crisis (bank collapses, etc) … then it is the end of China as we know it. There’ll be political and economic chaos, and widespread violence after an initial stumbling period trying to find a new direction.

That’s why (in my view) it is so vital that China implements political reform to make a peaceful transition of power possible. As someone else said, democracy is in fact very conservative, and the political situation which would lead to chaos in a one-party state, simply leads to the emergence of a new political party in a democracy.

Perhaps someone will cite the Japanese example … how the parliamentary democracy of the 1920s descended into the military government of the 1930s as a result of the Great Depression. My own argument there is that the heart of the problem was the constitution of 1889. The senior oligarchy introduced the constitution to preserve their own power, and to specifically avoid British or American style democracy (preferring the Prussian! … as a result, the Japanese legislature lacked sufficient authority, in particular over the military … and consequently was unable to weather the crisis.

June 5, 2005 @ 11:37 pm | Comment

When Bing says “death blow”, I don’t think he/she means the literal destruction of the Chinese people. Of course they’d survive a banking crisis, but that survival would not be pretty.

Like Filthy, I think that something like that would cause widespread chaos and a transitional period. Filthy called it a “stumbling period”, but it could really be a total social crash. While I look forward to change in China, a total upending of Chinese society is not something I want. 20th Century China had a binge-and-purge (no pun intended) addiction to massive social and political movements, which most of time caused enormous amounts of unwanted (to any reasonable person, a.k.a. most Chinese people) damage. I think this is one reason the CCP still has so much support – its not simply because of censorship or lack of information. Most Chinese people know that the authorities are often dissembling (disassembling, Shrub?), lying, cheating or generally full of it. I get the impression many people ignore it and hold out for improvement because the only other choice they see is massive upheaval, and they’ve been burned that way. Many times.

June 6, 2005 @ 6:47 am | Comment

Hui Mao, the key is in those words “secret government documents.” Based on its track record, I know that could mean anything in China. Just because someone gave him a document the CCP marked Secret doesn’t mean he’s a spy. Far from it.

June 6, 2005 @ 6:56 am | Comment

>>>It is inconceivable that tens of millions of well-educated and increasingly prosperous people will allow themselves to be kept in the dark much longer.

Inconceivable??? How many times do we hear Chinese people say “I’m not interested in politics”? From my experience, it’s a near-universal sentiment.

But more importantly, wasn’t it here at Peking Duck that we were recently discussing the observation that the Chinese with the most economic clout and the most access to information are the very ones *least* likely to want to change things? They, by far, have the most to lose in any gambit for change.

June 6, 2005 @ 11:19 am | Comment

hi, i’m chinese boy in univ of BeiJing, luck to find this great place, you really are a diligent blogger. and thank u for your concern to china. i’ll try to say something.
“My question is, isn’t Zhao Ziyang’s house arrest pretty much known throughout China”,i say yes, and i think most of my friends too. and what happened on june 4 1989 is just a public secret. and a lot of people don’t believe the CCP or gov. maybe more question will appear. China is a large and complicated country with more than 1000 years of Confucianism. the change will be difficult and take time. i think everyone has a long story to share.
do you often talk with chinese? no offence, maybe a lot of surprising chinese will be your friends.

June 6, 2005 @ 11:32 am | Comment

Henry, thanks so much for the great comment! Yes, a lot of Chinese people read this site and leave comments, and I always am very interested in the things they say. Please comment here as often as you would like — I think we can all learn a lot from you.

June 6, 2005 @ 11:37 am | Comment

i agree with the base of your points above, but i still have different views on such as “not interested in politics, do not want to change”.
i think more communications should be involved.
who will believe an election with only one candidate and limitless round voting before voters starve to death?

June 6, 2005 @ 11:52 am | Comment


Of course that doesn’t make Ching Cheong a spy, especially if it is as his wife says that he was only working to promote China’s interests. But it does show that his arrest has nothing to do with suppressing memories of Zhao Ziyang. Ching Cheong’s wife’s open letter was published 4 days ago on June 2nd, and the western media is still focused on the Zhao Ziyang angle, with articles like the one you quoted presenting a very distorted and filtered picture of what’s going on.

This is why I have such a big problem with western media coverage of China. They don’t report just the facts and let the readers draw their own conclusions. Instead, they always try to tie it in with some preconceptions of China that they have, which is inevitably negative. China cracking down on porn is spun into a campaign to suppress dissent on the internet. China developing friendly trade relations with Southeast Asian nations is talked about as the “China threat”. China building railways is interpreted as an effort to flood Tibet with Han colonists. Relying on the western media on issues involving China is like following Fox News for coverage of the democrats. Except Fox News have to temper its coverage because it knows its audience has access to other sources and view points, but for China issues, most westerners don’t have access to any other sources or viewpoints other than those presented by the western media.

June 6, 2005 @ 12:34 pm | Comment

We’ll see about the Zhao Ziyang connection; there may be none at all, but for now I don’t know.

Unlike you, I find coverage of China by the top journalists like Philip Pan and Joseph Khan to be balanced and intelligent. The only time I see it being very negative is when they are writing about repression (especially of journalists) and corruption — but then, there’s not much to be positive about when writing about these topics. Compared with how the Chinese media cover the US, I’d say the US media do a fantastic job of maintaining balance. (Though I would never set the bar so low — China’s media is controlled by the state and can only go so far in differing from the Party line.)

June 6, 2005 @ 1:36 pm | Comment

I think western media is actually not too bad on China. For instance, the last the NYT had on Ching Cheong:

>>Ms. Lau portrayed her husband as a pro-Beijing activist who would never spy for a foreign country. Mr. Ching’s employer, The Straits Times, and many Hong Kong journalists who know him offered a different defense. They said Mr. Ching was a consummate professional whose efforts to report on delicate political topics might have prompted Chinese authorities to muzzle him.

Is what you are complaining about the seeming unwillingness of Western media to follow the CCP line and believe what they say?

If this is the case, I’d point out that this isn’t they way the media works. But that being said, the media does report the CCP line, along with many others – three opinions alone in the last NYT article, including the official CCP line.

The Ching Cheong case has been taken in the light of the “secret documents” probably because of the wife, Ms. Lau. Is she more trustworthy than the CCP? Maybe not.

June 6, 2005 @ 1:48 pm | Comment

A very bad habit I’ve got since I left China is that usually the only thing I could have an interest from Mainland China media is tablod stories or sports news.

Many times I feel uncomfortable or even angry about biased China related news from Western meida.

But one thing for sure, they do tell a lot of things you won’t see in Chinese media (mainland).

BTW it seems BBC is the most unbiased media.

And Guardian, independent, etc, I feel sometimes they are so left winged and could have harmed their own national interest.

And laowai, other lisa thanks you for commenting on my underconstruction blog.

June 6, 2005 @ 5:23 pm | Comment

Bing – I think the Ny times is the best on the Ching Cheong case thus far. The BBC hasn’t really reported on it as much. And Yardley and Kahn are nuanced and subtle. And pro-peasant. ๐Ÿ™‚

June 6, 2005 @ 7:33 pm | Comment

Yes Laowai, BBC hasn’t. I was just saying it is generally unbiased in what it reports.

June 7, 2005 @ 2:51 am | Comment

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