China pushes back on dissent into darkness
While our politicians and the military-intelligence complex hyperventilate over the rising assertiveness of China under Xi Jinping and his seemingly limitless supplies of cash, significant push-back is starting to emerge in China itself.
There is always subversive humour in totalitarian states. Among the latest in China, the equation of Xi with Winnie the Pooh, the portly bear tending to get his hand stuck in the honey jar, leading to online censorship of the reference and a ban on Disney’s Christopher Robin movie. Then on July 4, a young woman named Dong Yaoqiong live-streamed a video of herself splashing ink on a portrait of Xi, and railing against state “brain control”. She’s been taken to a mental hospital.
But a more serious challenge came on July 24 when embattled liberal institute Unirule in Beijing published online a 10,000-character essay by Xu Zhangrun, long regarded as one of China’s most brilliant legal scholars and a professor at the prestigious Tsinghua University.
In it, Xu forthrightly attacked the trend of Chinese politics as “betrayal” of the consensus governing the country since the rejection of Mao Zedong’s ruinous rule after his death in 1976: security and stability, limited property rights, personal freedoms, openness to the world, and set terms for the top leadership.
Now the rising cult of personality, the intrusion of spying into personal and academic life, the promotion of state activity at the expense of private enterprise, the warmth towards “evil regimes” such as North Korea and Venezuela, the tension with democracies, elite privilege, and the squandering of resources on foreign aid were taking China back to Maoist class-struggle politics.
“Who would have thought that, after four decades of the Open Door and Reform, our Sacred Land would once more witness a Personality Cult?” Xu wrote. “The Party media is going to great lengths to create a new Idol, and in the process it is offering up to the world an image of China as Modern Totalitarianism. Portraits of the Leader are hoisted on high throughout the Land, as though possessed of some spiritual mana. This only adds to all the absurdity. And then, on top of that, the speeches of That Official, formerly things that were merely to be recorded by secretaries in a pro forma bureaucratic manner, are now carefully collected in finely bound editions, printed in vast quantities and handed out free throughout the world.”
The tipping point, for Xu, was the scrapping of the limit of two five-year terms for the state president and premier by the National People’s Congress in March this year – “like scrapping 30 years of political reform with one flick of the pen”. Xu called for its immediate reversal, along with rehabilitation for the Tiananmen protesters before next year’s 30th anniversary of the massacre.
This summary can hardly give even a taste of the impact of Xu’s petition, written with immense scholarly depth drawing on more than a century of earlier examples of courageous objections to arbitrary rule.
As the Australian sinologist Geremie Barmé wrote along with a translation in the China Heritage online journal: “Xu Zhangrun’s powerful plea is not a simple work of ‘dissent’, as the term is generally understood in the sense of samizdat protest literature. Given the unease within China’s elites today, its implications are also of a different order from liberal pro-Western ‘dissident writing’. Xu has issued a challenge from the intellectual and cultural heart of China, to the political heart of the Communist Party.”
What happens to him remains to be seen. Xu is reported to be in Japan getting treatment for cancer. He can expect trial for sedition if he returns. “I’m done talking,” Xu concluded his essay. “I leave my own life and death to destiny, the rise and fall of the nation to Heaven.”
It does not yet amount to a challenge to Xi Jinping’s power – he has control over the Communist Party machinery, the economic agencies, the security apparatus and the People’s Liberation Army – but misgivings are reported to be widespread at senior levels, and faith has fallen in his leadership.
As the well-connected Hong Kong analyst Willy Wo-Lap Lam reports, there have been subtle reactions, such as the withdrawal of posters of Xi and his exploits around some cities, the sidelining of some of his key aides, and banning media from referring to Xi’s scheme of grabbing the lead in key technologies, known as “Made in China 2025”. The media are also banned from talking about a “trade war” with the United States.
Lam sees open dissent breaking out among China’s economic policymakers about the right response to Donald Trump’s tariffs. With China’s imports equalling a quarter of the value of its exports in the bilateral trade with the US, Xi’s policy of a “tooth for a tooth” lacks firepower, as does the capacity for domestic stimulus after Xi’s six years of propping up growth with debt. It’s been left to the recently permitted 10 per cent fall in the yuan to assist Chinese exporters, inviting more action by Trump.
“While Xi has arrogated decision-making authority on all major economic questions, the supreme leader seems to lack the professional knowledge and expertise to function as economic czar,” Lam observed.
Xu’s petition also attacked Xi’s largesse abroad, as the world’s largest foreign aid donor. “How can this wealth be so blithely squandered?” he wrote. “The era of face-paced economic growth will come to an end; how can such wanton generosity be allowed — a generosity which, in many ways, is a repetition of [Maoist-era] ‘Support Asia-Africa-Latin America’ that led to countless millions of Chinese having to tighten their belts simply to survive, and which even saw the corpses of those who had starved to death scattered in the fields.”
No doubt, sooner or later, we will see Xi’s biggest signature scheme − the $US1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative to extend rail and sea corridors to Western Europe, East Africa and the Middle East – being likened to Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward in the 1950s.
At this critical point, the move by Google to design a version of its search engine with features acceptable to China’s cyber-police could hardly be worse timed.
The tightly held plan, codenamed “Dragonfly”, was leaked to the US website The Intercept this week. For more than a year, small teams of Google engineers have been working on apps named Maotai and Longfei that would filter banned content when users entered certain trigger words.
Google had offered a censored search engine in China in 2006, but stopped it in 2010, taking a stance for freedom of expression. In 2015, parent company Alphabet added “Do the Right Thing” to Google’s earlier motto “Don’t Be Evil”. The leaks suggest the company is now working with the dark side.
Beijing’s apparatchiks are meanwhile preparing for the most bizarre exercise in the annals of atheist communism: controlling the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.
The present Dalai Lama, the much-loved 14th, is 83 and reported to be seriously ill with prostate cancer that has spread to lymph nodes. He has undergone treatment over the past two years in the US and is going to Switzerland this month for further therapy, according to reports from Dharamsala, his seat in exile since fleeing the communist seizure of Tibet in 1959.
A new Dalai Lama is located by parties of monks, seeking signs of affinity with the deceased among young boys born at the time of the old lama’s death.
The most recent succession of the more junior Panchen Lama shows how Beijing plays it. After the last Panchen Lama died suddenly in 1989, monks identified a boy in Tibet and he was duly endorsed by the Dalai Lama. Officials whisked the boy to Beijing, never to be seen in public again. Compliant monks produced a list of alternative names, the winner drawn lottery-style from a “golden urn”. Traditionally, the Panchen Lama supervises the search for the new Dalai Lama. This thoroughly indoctrinated one will no doubt be of great assistance.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 11, 2018 as "China pushes back on dissent into darkness".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.