In the run up to China’s leadership change the People’s Daily has been trumpeting China’s political reforms claiming that “great achievements were made in boosting democracy” and that “In a landmark move, ‘protection of human rights’ was incorporated into China’s constitution in 2004, demonstrating the country’s determination to better safe guard people’s rights.” In other articles, Chinese media has been careful to use the word “election” with the US and “event” with China’s political shuffle, but the placement of the two side-by-side seems meant to erase the difference between them. They neglected though to mention Cao Haibo’s 8-year sentence, which was handed down behind closed doors in a Kunming court, for opening an online forum for discussing democracy.
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but how does one square the obvious contradictions between what is printed and what is happening?
While many may argue that Cao’s sentencing is another example of China being fearful of the power of individuals united online, I think it could also be argued that the Party is unable to admit what it really is – a dictatorship clinging to power. After all just two years ago, China was publicizing the verdicts of cases like this and working to turn public opinion against individuals like Liu Xiaobo, which from my discussions with Chinese friends was very effective (ironically, one cannot search People’s Daily for “Liu Xiabo,” one has to use an outside search engine). Since then it has only weakly defended its actions against Ai Weiwei and Cheng Guangchen, which for the most part were denied. Now with Cao’s case (and many others) the Party does not even try to defend it’s actions.
With China, elections and criminal trials share something in common – the results are known months in advance. Once Cao was arrested in May there was little doubt that he would be handed a hefty sentence (as Lu Xun once mocked, “If he wasn’t guilty, why would they have arrested him?”), and similarly once Xi Jinping took the stage in 2007, there has been little doubt that he would be the next president.
However, it is not entirely clear how Xi Jinping became the next president – there was no election, no public discussion, and no statement from Xi as to what policies he would pursue. His selection was just as transparent as the process to amend the Party’s constitution, which much like Cao’s case, happened behind closed doors. As with Cao, Xi must have possessed some trait that caught the attention of those unnamed higher-ups.
As Cao sits in his cell away from his newborn child, and Xi prepares to become the leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world, I can’t help but notice the similarities of their situations.