China and its Discontents

Archive for the ‘PSB’ tag

Official Reaction to Wen Jiabao Scandal and Ningbo PX Protests Illuminating


The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has hit some serious speed bumps in the run-up to the 18th National Congress and the highly anticipated transfer of power to Xi Jinping and a new Politburo Standing Committee. The New York Times published an investigative article exposing Premier Wen Jiabao’s estimated family fortune of  $2.7 billion, and over the past few days, protests and riots have erupted in the coastal city of Ningbo over a toxic PX (paraxylene) chemical plant.

While both are serious sources of instability, the CCP’s public responses to each have differed in important ways. As for the Wen Jiabao scandal, both the English and Chinese versions of the New York Times website were quickly blocked in Mainland China. All search terms relating to the story, including Wen’s name, have been blocked on popular twitter-like service Sina Weibo and negative references to Wen have remained sanitized from the search engine Baidu. Lawyers supposedly representing the Wen family issued a strong statement condemning the New York Times article and rebutting particular facts, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the article “blackens China’s name and has ulterior motives.”

Meanwhile, the official reaction to the Ningbo PX protests has been quite different. Although Public Security Bureau (PSB) riot control squads were out in force using tear gas and batons against the crowd and making arrests, the city quickly folded Sunday evening, declaring that it would stop the PX plant from being built. Online, first person accounts of police brutality and rumors of a Ningbo University student death were suppressed; Sina Weibo even blocked photo-uploads from local Ningbo IP addresses. But the story was not censored to the same degree as the Wen Jiabao scandal. The Ningbo protests are being talked about and photos do circulate on Sina Weibo and elsewhere. The central and local governments want everyone to know that the issue had been resolved: the official announcement was trumpeted nationwide through the People’s Daily and to foreign audiences through the English-language Global Times.

What accounts for this considerable difference? In one case, the news has been thoroughly cleansed from the Internet as to make it impossible to even hear of the news. In the other case, the most egregious examples of state malfeasance have been removed, but the story itself remains. In the case of the Wen Jiabao scandal, the New York Times reporting strikes directly at the legitimacy and authority of the CCP; it goes to the very top. But cases like the Ningbo PX plant can serve as outlets for popular discontent without directly challenging the authority of the CCP.

As Rebecca MacKinnon argues in her recent book “Consent of the Networked,” netizens in China can bring attention to social injustice and can even have an impact on government policies; but ultimately these cases can serve to bolster state legitimacy when the CCP is seen as resolving the problem. There has been a raft of environmental protests recently that have been resolved in similar ways: the Shifang copper plant protests in July, Dalian PX plant protests in August 2011, and the Xiamen PX plant protests in 2007, among many others. The environment is not the only issue handled with relative kid gloves: the Party also emphasizes efforts to fight corruption in cases where the target of an anti-corruption sting is an expendable cadre; food safety is handled much the same (see the death sentences handed out as a result of the melamine tainted-milk scandal). And of course, nationalist protests are skillfully manipulated to further particular narratives and claims to legitimacy.

Hardly any of the actions of the PSB or the Propaganda Department are completely predictable during times of protest and damaging news, but there is a recognizable pattern. The Wen Jiabao and Ningbo cases are indicative of a larger truth: Chinese real-life activists and ordinary netizens are occasionally able to affect real social change in China, but they do so within the confines of acceptable political dialogue that the CCP has already laid out for them.

Last Train Home

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I just watched “Last Train Home,” a movie by Lixin Fan. It was incredible–encapsulating all of the themes of modern China into a simple story about a migrant couple working in Guangzhou and their children back at home in their rural village. This is a story about 留守儿童 (liushou ertong–left behind children) and their parents. First, there are the obvious themes of industrialization, globalization, and the ripping apart of traditional family norms in search of a better life. There’s also an indictment of American consumerism (represented by the ridiculous-looking stacks of jeans the parents and later their daughter make in Guangzhou–the factory manager also makes jokes about size-40 Americans). The movie goes one step further, however, in following through in the implications of a broken family life, which not only results in predictably rebellious and unstudious children, but also in its own form of mindless consumerism and despiritualization.

But what comes most clearly across is a sense of despair at being a cog in a giant machine. The movie’s most gripping scene is a depiction of the family struggling to get on the ‘last train home’ for the Chinese New Year, waiting for nearly a week amidst a crowd of thousands outside the train station. The paramilitary police step in to help the local police in riot control, erecting barricades and managing unrest in the crowd. At one point, a father attempts to climb the barricades, saying that his daughters are lost on the other side, but is stopped by the police. Upon being stopped, he tells the paramilitary policeman, “Today you work behind the fence. Tomorrow, you’ll be standing here in my shoes.”

Is there a better sentence that sums up modern Chinese life? The migrant workers fighting to get home and see their families are stuck in this machine that does little for them; the police officers are stuck in their positions and can likewise do little to affect the situation. One senses that there’s an invisible presence hovering over every scene of the movie–the Communist Party. The CCP isn’t mentioned once throughout the entire movie–not as the grandmother is describing her life during the Cultural Revolution, nor as the workers complain about the trains and their lot in life. This is probably a good thing, because the movie is after all really about the migrant worker family. But the CCP is there, standing behind that invisible fence.