China and its Discontents

Archive for the ‘Xi Jinping’ tag

Ideological Contradictions on Tiananmen Square

leave a comment

"Hold high the great flag of socialism with Chinese characteristics, under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping theory, the important thought of 'Three Represents,' and the Scientific Outlook on Development, and firmly and steadfastly advance on the road to socialism with Chinese characteristics, so as to build an all-around moderately-prosperous society and continue the struggle."

“Hold high the great flag of socialism with Chinese characteristics, under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping theory, the important thought of ‘Three Represents,’ and the Scientific Outlook on Development, and firmly and steadfastly advance on the road to socialism with Chinese characteristics, so as to build an all-around moderately-prosperous society and continue the struggle.”

When Western political commentators speculate on whether Xi Jinping could implement political reform, they are really asking whether or not Xi Jinping can successfully deal with Mao’s legacy and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy in the context of a modern, state-capitalist country. This is tricky because Mao’s legacy and the CCP’s legitimacy are inextricably linked—pull on one thread of the “Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong” formula and the entire apparatus could come crashing down.

The slogan shown, displayed on Tiananmen Square last November after the CCP’s 18th Party Congress (from a picture I took at the time), takes pains to include the ideas of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, but makes no mention of what is supposedly the foundation of the CCP: Maoism, Marxism, and Leninism. Marxism and Leninism have always been in the Party Constitution; Maoism was added in 1945, and taken out only briefly after Stalin’s death when some CCP leaders were afraid of replicating Stalin’s personality cult around Mao. Maoism was added back in after those leaders were purged. But now the CCP can’t be bothered to include these three in a propaganda outlet in one of the most visible spots in the country, right in front of Mao’s Mausoleum.

The sign is symbolic of an unsolvable paradox—the CCP is undermined by an ideological platform completely contradicted by its current economic and social systems, but it cannot change its ideology without the party losing its monopoly on power and the cadres losing their wealth and influence. That’s why it’s unlikely the CCP will reform politically until it is inevitably forced to change.

“Black Jails” a Stain on China’s Legitimacy

leave a comment

Earlier last week, major news outlets in China reported that a Beijing court had, for the first time, sentenced 10 Henan provincial authorities to jail for illegally detaining petitioners who had come to Beijing to air their grievances. Many China watchers, including myself, were surprised and happy to see China move in the right direction of strengthening the rule of law and depoliticizing the judicial system. The next day, however, the news was retracted; apparently no court in Beijing had made any such ruling.

The end result was quite a disappointment, especially because this brief moment of false hope is but one in a long string of depressing incidents. The illegal detention of petitioners in ‘black jails’ has long been an acute problem in the nation’s capital. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, millions of people utilize the petition system in China, often because of land disputes in which local officials illegally confiscate land and then sell it to developers for a kickback. Petitioners also seek redress of grievances against a number of other issues, including environmental damage, police abuse, and even rape. Petitioners begin with the local petition office, and if that is unsuccessful, they gradually make their way up to the provincial and national level offices. It is unknown how many people make the journey to the State Bureau for Letters and Visits every year, but it is probably in the realm of 100,000 people. Once there, many of the petitioners are ‘grabbed’ by provincial authorities and imprisoned in ‘black jails,’ before being sent back to their hometowns. The Chinese government officially denies the existence of black jails.

The problem for the CCP leadership is that much of their legitimacy in the future will rest on the government’s responsiveness to the concerns of the average citizen. But provincial authorities and the judicial system have time and again failed to live up to any minimal standard of justice. It is widely understood in China that the government and the courts serve to uphold the interests of the rich and powerful. In the past few months (and as I suspect into the next few years), “rule of law” and reforming the judiciary have been buzzwords not just among Western China experts but among the Chinese elite themselves. But this case only serves to illustrate the vacuity of official promises to reform.

I hope that I am wrong. I hope Xi Jinping and the Politburo Standing Committee make concerted efforts to crack down on the egregious abuses of power among provincial and local officials, and to provide real justice for those (mainly indigent) citizens who spend a small fortune to come to Beijing to plead their cases, only to be imprisoned and turned back. But in a system in which every instrument of power, from the military, to the state, the media, and the courts, are designed to serve the political interests of the party, how could it be otherwise?

Written by Will

December 10th, 2012 at 5:48 pm

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.

NYTimes: China and the US a “Confrontational Relationship”

leave a comment

Meaning to get to this for a while.

How big is the rift between China and the US?

Administration officials speak of an alarming loss of trust and confidence between China and the United States over the past two years, forcing them to scale back hopes of working with the Chinese on major challenges like climate change, nuclear nonproliferation and a new global economic order.

And David Shambaugh calls China “an increasingly narrow-minded, self-interested, truculent, hyper-nationalist and powerful country.” Ouch.

You can see this especially in Obama’s latest trip to Asia and his support for elevating India to the Security Council. This article was published before the trip and the midterm elections, and I definitely feel like some of the fear-mongering associated with the election has tempered slightly in the past few weeks. For a while, Blue Dogs and Tea Partiers alike were really shredding our precious guanxi (if there is one Chinese word you should know, it should be guanxi, or relationship). But the political system has now let out some steam.

There’s not much more analysis I can add that isn’t already covered excellently in the article (see below), only to say that we should neither disparage China’s (and our) growing calcification nor try to take an even harder-line to our relationship. This is simply a natural, and predictable reaction by the American public (and in reaction to them, Congress) to rather distressing bilateral economic policy conducted by both countries over the past decade.

To round out, here’s an especially pertinent section of analysis:

Political factors at home have contributed to the administration’s tougher posture.With the economy sputtering and unemployment high, Beijing has become an all-purpose target. In this Congressional election season, candidates in at least 30 races are demonizing China as a threat to American jobs.

At a time of partisan paralysis in Congress, anger over China’s currency has been one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement, culminating in the House’s overwhelming vote in September to threaten China with tariffs on its exports if Beijing did not let its currency, the renminbi, appreciate.

The trouble is that China’s own domestic forces may cause it to dig in its heels. With the Communist Party embarking on a transfer of leadership from President Hu Jintao to his anointed successor, Xi Jinping, the leadership is wary of changes that could hobble China’s growth.