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Matthew Robertson, October 11, 2018
China’s rapidly expanding interest in researching and applying artificial intelligence has been widely noted. Last year, the Chinese government published a plan to become a world leader in the field by the end of the next decade; billions of dollars are being funnelled into AI startups; and China is competing head-to-head with industry in the United States on the cutting edge of the field.
What makes AI developments in China so different from those in the United States, however, is that as with any technology, if it can be used by the Chinese Communist Party to strengthen its grip on power or further its panoptistate, it will.
This is almost a truism, of course, and military adoption of new technologies applies just as well to the U.S.
The real difference is that in China, exploitation of new technologies is almost always attendant with human rights abuses. The area of AI may end up becoming a particularly grim demonstration of this principle, if current trajectories continue.
And researchers from the West may have already given China a significant helping hand. Witness the case of the French research institute Inria’s (French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation) collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and in particular its assistance in developing the technology underpinning one of China’s AI ‘unicorns,’ Cambricon (寒武纪).
Cambricon, the company featured in Science’s February 2018 profile of the burgeoning AI sector in China, was supported and spun out of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Computing Technology (中科院计算所). Their flagship AI chip, the Cambricon-1A, hit the market last year and has been incorporated into Huawei smartphones, among other products.
It was one of Inria’s researchers, Olivier Temam, who was instrumental in helping to lay the technical foundations of Cambricon’s breakthroughs.
“Cambricon’s founding team came from academia, and I myself was a professor and doctoral tutor at the Computing Institute of Chinese Academy of Sciences,” writes Chen Tianshi (陈天石), Cambricon’s co-founder and CEO. He goes on to thank Inria and and long-time academic collaborators Chen Yunji (陈云霁) and Olivier Temam.
Temam’s LinkedIn profile describes him as a senior research scientist at Inria from September 2004 to May 2014.
The three — Chen Tianshi, Chen Yunji, and Olivier Temam — have collaborated on a dozen journal and conference papers, including many that won best paper awards. With names like “DianNao: A Small-Footprint High-Throughput Accelerator for Ubiquitous Machine-Learning” and “ShiDianNao: Shifting Vision Processing Closer to the Sensor.”
It is papers like this that underlie innovations in AI chip development that Cambrion built its company on.
The chip architecture has another highly useful feature for China’s security authorities: use in image recognition systems for filtering and processing the bucketloads of data collected by the Communist Party’s pervasive surveillance apparatus.
VOA quoted a Cambricon employee in June 2018 commenting on a provider of surveillance cameras to the Party, Hikvision:
“A staff member at Cambricon, another Chinese company that provides the government technical support for security needs, told VOA that major video surveillance companies in the Chinese market are working with the government and that government authorities can access the information from any company at any time.”
The engineer remarked that surveillance technology, in attempting to identify ethnic minorities, might “consider beards, facial, and head accessories.”
There is as yet, at least as far as China Change could discover, no public evidence that Cambricon’s chips have been used to drive surveillance technologies.
Its chips, however, have been listed as among those that Hikvision could make easy recourse to.
When the subject is reported in the Chinese media, surveillance technology is just another one of the potentially lucrative uses that Cambricon can exploit, alongside self-driving cars and cloud computing.
Along with Inria, MIT has also begun collaborating with iFlytek, a Chinese company whose AI technologies are being deployed by the security apparatus.
“Authorities are collaborating with iFlytek, a Chinese company that produces 80 percent of all speech recognition technology in the country, to develop a pilot surveillance system that can automatically identify targeted voices in phone conversations,” Human Rights Watch wrote in an October 2017 report.
HRW shows clearly how iFlytek has marketed the security uses of its technology, including deep relationships with official entities that have helped the authorities build the Golden Shield Project, one of the key components of China’s surveillance apparatus.
The MIT relationship with iFlytek was announced in June 2018.
Olivier Temam did not respond to an email requesting comment. Since July 2018 he has worked at Google — a somewhat ironic move given the context.
Under the guidance of Google’s former AI chief, Fei-Fei Li (李飞飞), the company opened an AI lab in China. Aside from meeting Google’s own research needs, the institution will without doubt also help fertilize China’s own AI ambitions and talent.
Li, born in Beijing in 1976, immigrated to the United States at 16 and went on to gain a BS from Princeton and a PhD from Caltech. She was appointed as AI leader and Chief Scientist at Google while on sabbatical from Stanford where she was a full professor, and while there became among the most outspoken opponents of Google cooperating with the Pentagon.
“Weaponized AI is probably one of the most sensitized topics of AI — if not THE most. This is red meat to the media to find all ways to damage Google,” Li wrote in an internal email seen by The New York Times.
But Silicon Valley, for one reason or another, does not seem to be as intent on opposing all forms of cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party and its appurtenances.
Google recently discontinued its contract with a Pentagon artificial intelligence program, saying that “we couldn’t be assured that it would align with our AI Principles,” but it has shown no qualms developing the Dragonfly search engine, in cooperation with the Chinese government, which would aid the official internet censorship regime. Meanwhile, Google has been recommending security keys manufactured by a Chinese company that has deep ties with the PLA and government.
Matthew Robertson is a Research Fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. He was previously a translator and editor with China Change.
Google Recommends Product From a Chinese Company with Communist Party and Military Ties for its ‘Advanced Protection Program’, Matthew Robertson, August 23, 2018.
China Change, September 30, 2018
Unsettling news from China emerges every week — on social media, in reports, and from our own sources in the country. Not every new development is suited to a fully fleshed-out analysis, and as with so much in China, many reports and developments cannot be immediately confirmed or properly evaluated. Nevertheless, while each individual brush stroke may not be decisive, upon stepping back a fuller picture begins to emerge. China Change catalogues and contextualizes these items so as to keep a growing awareness of changes in China. — The Editors
‘Public-private partnerships’ 2.0: la chasse à courre
Chinese officials have come out with a string of comments recently that have spooked private companies. The first was a “senior financial figure” Wu Xiaoping (吴小平), who advised that “the private sector in China has already completed its task of assisting state sector economic development, and it should now gradually diminish in importance.” This was shortly followed by vice-minister of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, Qiu Xiaoping (邱小平), saying that private enterprises must implement the “democratization of management, with the participation of workers led by the Party organizations of private enterprises,” and that “workers and enterprises must work together to create mechanisms for co-creation of benefits, sharing of benefits, and sharing of risks.” This process appears to be already underway.
On September 26, The Economic Daily (《经济日报》) defended the practice of SOEs buying stakes in troubled private companies and becoming the controlling owners. The paper argued that private companies encountering difficulties should turn to SOEs to be rescued — and indeed there have been many private companies that have already “sold” control rights to SOEs or state capital to survive. “The introduction of new SOE shareholders in listed private enterprises and the reform of mixed ownership are very much in the same direction. Both are in order to stimulate enterprise vitality, improve production efficiency, and achieve mutual benefit and win-win results.” Yet the author neglected to delve into the institutional reasons as to why private enterprises in China are facing such peril. “According to the chief economist of China Merchant Bank, all 11,000 businesses that went bankrupt between 2016 and the first half of 2018 were private,” Huang Yasheng wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times.
In a September 27 article titled “Vigilance against new public-private partnerships under the banner of ‘sharing’”, Hu Deping (胡德平), the son of the former Party secretary Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), voiced unease and opposition to the above prescriptions and maladies. He cited a certain ‘Document 15’ from 1991 meant to encourage the development of private enterprise. Hu concluded that, “At a time when the private sector is in such difficulty, I feel that what’s happening in some places differs starkly from what people thought they understood clearly yesterday. Problems that have been understood clearly and resolved previously are now being brought back in a new form. There’s still a wish to crush private enterprise and force them into public-private partnerships. If this becomes a trend, and none dare to criticize it, then the consequences will be frightening.”
Just a few days ago, an essay titled “Wandering in the land of one’s ancestors” began spreading on the Chinese internet, despite being repeatedly censored and deleted. Who is said to be wandering on the land of their ancestors? China’s private enterprises — because the country doesn’t belong to them. A 60 year-old businessman lamented, as the author explained it: “After so many years of doing business and experiencing so many trials and tribulations, this is the first time that death has felt so close to his business: he suddenly felt like a wanted fugitive and pursued by tax, environmental, industrial, and urban management authorities, even neighborhood committees. In order merely to survive, his enterprise debt has been levered up to a degree that would wake him in his dreams. His company is walking on a tightrope. If short sellers attack him in the market, or a bank tries to pull one of the loans, the company could collapse overnight.”
The author writes: “Chinese SOEs occupy over 70% of the resources, but generate less than 30% of GDP, whereas in the four decades of reform the private economy contributed at least 50% of China’s GDP, 60% of the tax base, 70% of the technological innovation, and more than 80% of urban employment. Even in 2017, the peak year of the targeted tightening of supply-side reforms, private industrial enterprises outperformed state-owned industrial enterprises, getting an overall return on net assets of 19.6%, versus less than 10% return on net assets by SOEs. If private enterprises can be liquidated and banished at any moment, is there any other outcome than a net loss for society?”
The author continued: “It is no accident that China’s economy has been on a downward spiral since 1956 when joint public-private operations came into effect. By 1978 China’s GDP’s accounted for only 1.8% of global GDP, and the national economy was on the verge of collapse.”
The article features numerous graphs and data points.
The reason private companies can be ‘beaten’ at a moment’s notice, the author writes, is because of their ‘identity,’ or the nature of their ownership. The fact that the enterprises are private means that they’ll always be outsiders and exiles in China. The author asks: “Why can’t we put aside the debate about the ‘identity’ of who owns the means of production? Why can’t all enterprises simply follow the law across the country, work hard, serve this country, and be equally treated, honored and praised? Why is that so hard?”
It’s very hard. Because it’s the equivalent to demanding that China changes its political nature, establish a functioning rule of law, protect private property rights, and enshrine liberty and equality before the law. For the Communist Party, this is a hard ask indeed.
123 Hong Kong-listed SOEs amend their charters to give the Communist Party sweeping control over companies
Hong Kong’s Apple Daily reported that, from March 2017 to today — a period of about 18 months — 123 Hong Kong-listed SOEs have amended their articles of association to expand the power of their Party committees without limit, including eight blue-chip companies: Commercial Bank of China (939), Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (1398), Bank of Communications (3328), Bank of China (3988), CITIC (267), Sinopec (386), PetroChina (857), and China National Petroleum Corporation (1088). The state-owned companies involved included Conch Cement (914), China Jiaotong Construction (1800), and China Huarong (2279), among others.
The revised constitution stipulates that the companies must set up Party Committees: “The Party Committee will play a core leadership role, taking charge of the direction, managing the overall situation, safeguarding implementation, ensuring supervision of the implementation of Party and state policies in the company, and implement the major strategic decisions of the Party Central Committee and the State Council.”
The revised constitution also gives the Party Committee the power to override the board. “When the board makes major decisions, it must first listen to the opinions of the Party Committee.” Also, executive appointments and dismissals also fall into the hands of the Party.
Aren’t they just writing into articles of association what they already practice?
Xi embarked on a tour of northeast China this week. He visited the Heilongjiang Agricultural Reclamation and Construction Jiansanjiang Administration (黑龙江农垦建三江管理局), an important grain production base; in Qiqihar, he visited China First Heavy Group (中国一重集团), the old industrial base of China’s planned economy; he went to Chagan Lake in Jilin and the oil fields in Liaoning; he also went to Lei Feng Memorial Hall.
One may as well say that Xi was on a trip strengthening the symbolism of the Maoist era.
He also visited the Zhongwang Group (忠旺集团), a private enterprise in Liaoning, and said that the Party has always encouraged private economic development, and has promoted policies supportive of the private sector. Huh? Does China’s Chairman-of-Everything not know that private companies in China are falling off the cliff?
Of the 30 minutes of CCTV’s Evening News (新闻联播) on September 30, 25 minutes were dedicated to Xi Jinping’s inspection tour of the three northeastern provinces. One of the recurring watchwords was ‘self-reliance.’ Chinese must be self-reliant on grain, self-reliant in industry, etc.
Observers noted that whenever the Party was faced with serious political and economic challenges on the one hand, and become isolated internationally, it called for ‘self-reliance.’ The phrase first appeared in 1941, when the Party mobilized its people to grow opium in Nanniwan, near Yan’an, in the Party’s Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia base. The second time it was used was in 1960 during the great famine, and the third time in 1975 during the Cultural Revolution. This is the fourth occasion. Those who study China can reflect for themselves on the meaning of those four occasions.
Throughout his trip in the three provinces, Xi Jinping talked about ‘rejuvenating the Northeast.’ In the course of his visit, he even held a seminar on the very topic. The fact is that the economies of the three provinces — Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang — have been deteriorating for a long time now (read more), exhibiting the weakest economic growth numbers in China, and likely exhibiting decline over the last few years.
Less discussed is the bureaucracy, corruption, and mafiazation of the northeastern political sphere. In 2016 Sina Finance published an article titled ‘How bureaucratism has destroyed the northeastern economy,’ which was quickly deleted. The article however is still visible on some discussion forums.
None of these hard facts has made into Xi Jinping’s photo ops and the state media verbiage.
On the other hand, China’s grain crisis has been a major topic of public discussion recently, and research indicates that China is headed for serious food supply problems in the years ahead. On September 21, Xi led the Politburo in its ‘eighth collective study session’ to discuss the implementation of his rural revitalization strategy.
On September 26, the State Council issued the ‘Strategic Plan for Rural Revitalization’ (2018-2022), the first basic principle of which is to “adhere to the Party’s control over rural work,” and “ensure that the Party always assumes full control of the overall situation in rural work, coordinates all parties, and provides a strong political guarantee for rural revitalization.”
No reporting bad economic news
Chinese regulators in recent days have demanded that online finance websites like Sina Finance and Phoenix Finance be suspended and rectified. ‘Big V’ financial commentators on Weibo have also been commanded one-by-one to stop posting. Media reporters revealed that almost every web portal received notice from the Central Propaganda Department to cease reporting in six categories of news: 1) Disclosure of declining economic data, 2) Local government debt risks, 3) The adverse effects of Sino-US economic and trade frictions, 4) Data showing a decline in consumer spending, 5) Inflation and economic stagnation, and 6) Hot social trends. All such reports are to be strictly censored, the notice said.
The New York Times has a detailed report on this.
Once again, a campaign against ‘bourgeois liberalization’
Global Times said CCP has new rules that will “expel members who express support for bourgeois liberalization online.” We ran through the article twice trying to find out just what ‘bourgeois liberalization’ is. We didn’t find a definition but we did learn what behaviors can lead to expulsion under the label: “opposing the Party’s decisions on reforms and opening-up through online platforms,” “speaking out against the Party’s major principles online,” and betraying faith in the Party without discarding Party membership.
Also, criticizing problems like corruption, or the gap between rich and poor is also ‘bourgeois liberalization.’
Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan (章立凡) said that the bourgeois liberalization being talked about now appears to be referring to freedom of thought outside the scope of the regime. “The ruling party has become the biggest landlord and the biggest capitalist in China; the crony capitalists are the real bourgeoisie, and they treat those who think and speak critically of them as ‘bourgeois liberalists.’” Zhang continued: “Raising once again the idea of anti-bourgeois liberalization is due to the Sino-US trade war of late, which brought out a lot of divergent views from within the party, and so now they’re clamping down on public opinion.”
Deng Xiaoping was the one who invented the term “anti-bourgeois liberalization,” because he was afraid that the opening up and reform he had championed would lead to the erosion of the Party’s ideology. In 1987, there was a national “anti-bourgeois liberalization” campaign in response to vibrant discussions of democratic values on university campuses.
Mass trials in Xinjiang; Uighurs are being shipped to other provinces
Many thanks are due to Twitter user @uyghurspeaker who has been translating reports from RFA’s Uighur service into both English and Chinese. We post below some of his tweets edited for clarity:
Kunes County, Ili, is reported to be holding mass trials in internment camps, sentencing around 500 prisoners on each occasion. Officials asked the inmates: “Will you eat halal or non-halal foods?” Those who answered “halal” were sentenced to 3-5 years. (link)
Mass trials are also taking place in camps in Tokkuzak, Kashgar. At least 50 people per day have been sentenced for 3-15 years. Nejmidin, the political commissar at the Bulaksu police station, said that he escorted a group of convicts to prison in Chinese provinces three weeks ago. (link)
These RFA reports about mass sentences in internment camps are consistent with recent news of railways closed-off in Urumqi, Gansu, and Qinghai for the purpose of dispatching Uighurs throughout prisons in China. That is, it appears the authorities are handing down sentences, then sending Uighurs to prisoners around the country. We first noted The Epoch Times’ reports of such news in Signs of China (2).
A RFA Chinese report, citing a Uighur service report on September 28, says that in a township in Kashgar, policemen were taking local Uighurs in internment camps to other provinces in China. They said the transfer started early this month.
The Chinese railway and Urumqi tourist bureau announced that “due to adjustment to the operation schedule of passenger trains,” starting October 22, the railway will not sell train tickets going to or leaving Xinjiang. It didn’t say when service will resume.
The Uighur writer and activist Ilshat Kokbore writes: “We’ve already heard some things about this. The farthest they’ve transferred Uighurs is to prisons in Heilongjiang.” Heilongjiang is China’s northernmost province, bordering Siberia.
More Uighur elites sentenced or sent to camps
According to an RFA report, Halmurat Ghopur, president of the Xinjiang Food and Drug Administration’s Department of Inspection and Supervision in the regional capital Urumqi, was taken into custody in November 2017 and is being held in an unknown location for “acts against the state,” sources in exile told RFA’s Uighur Service earlier this year. He was recently given a two-year suspended death sentence for exhibiting “separatist tendencies,” according to an official source.
According to a RFA Uighur-language service report, Sattar Savut, chief in the education bureau, and Yalkun Rozi, a writer, critic, and editor, as well as three others, were charged with separatism for teaching children about Uighur cultural figures. Sattar’s sentence was given with two years of reprieve, while Yalkun was reported to receive a life sentence.
‘Where are my family members?’
Member of the Uighur diaspora initiated a YouTube series in which overseas Uighurs tell stories of their loved ones who have gone missing, been tortured, or died in internment camps.
How much money do Chinese officials have in the United States?
The United States recently announced sanctions on PLA lieutenant general and director of the military’s Equipment Development Department, Li Shangfu (李尚福), because the department he led violated American sanctions by buying military equipment from Russia. The sanctions on Li include a visa ban that restricts him, and his agency, from U.S. financial transactions and access to any assets in the jurisdiction of the United States.
Some have asked: is there any evidence of the much-talked-about notion that high-level Party officials and relatives have assets in the United States? The Weibo account ‘Los Angeles Landlord’ (“洛杉矶房东”) recently reminded everyone of a case as a way of answering this question: “A shocking case took place in the San Francisco Bay Area last year, where a certain Tiffany Li (李凡妮) was charged with murder of a man. Bail of $70 million was put up. Tiffany’s Li’s mother, Li Jihong (李继红), traveled from China to the United States and submitted to the court real estate assets of $62 million, as well as $4 million in cash for the bail. This was the eighth largest bail amount in the history of the U.S. court system.”
According to the reporting of Apple Daily last year, a California property insurance company’s investigation revealed that Tiffany Li and her mother, personally and in a trust, had multiple properties in San Mateo and the elite areas of Hillsborough and Burlingame.
Internet users are adamant that Tiffany Li’s mother, Li Jihong, is the younger sister to Li Jinai (李继耐), former director of the General Political Department of the PLA.
The example of the Li family highlights why sanctions against characters like Li Shangfu might cause unease and panic among senior Communist Party officials who have family and vast wealth in the United States.
Men in Black on Tiananmen Square
PRC National Day is upon us (it falls on October 1), and security officers are now out in force on Tiananmen Square. The following video clip was posted online, showing the conspicuous ‘undercover’ officers in black suits, with black umbrellas. What is the purpose of the latter? So that if anything happens on the square, they can quickly open their umbrellas, cover the scene and prevent it from being seen or photographed.
Signs of China (1), September 16, 2018.
Signs of China (2), September 22, 2018.
China Change, September 22, 2018
Unsettling news from China emerges every week in a constant flow — on social media, in reports, and from our own sources in the country. Not every new development is suited to a fully fleshed-out analysis, and as with so much in China, many reports and developments cannot be immediately confirmed or properly evaluated. Nevertheless, while each individual brush stroke may not be decisive, upon stepping back a fuller picture begins to emerge. China Change catalogues and contextualizes these items so as to keep a growing awareness of changes in China. — The Editors
Local Government Debt: Going Bankrupt, or Raising More?
On September 13, the General Offices of both the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council jointly published a document giving ‘guiding opinions’ on limiting the debt that state-owned enterprises can take on. One line that attracted particular note said: “Local Government Financing Vehicles [LGFVs] whose assets are severely insufficient to collateralize their debts and have lost the ability to repay should engage in bankruptcy and restructuring, or liquidation proceedings, according to the law; resolutely guard against ‘Too Big to Fail,’ resolutely guard against the accumulation of risk becoming systemic risk.”
LGFVs are entities established by local governments around China, including fixed asset investment companies, real estate and urban development companies, and urban asset management companies. They invest in municipal construction and infrastructure projects, and are a de facto form of municipal debt (from 1995 to 2009 municipalities in China were forbidden from issuing bonds).
In early 2009 the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) and the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) issued the policy that gives the regulatory framework for this behavior, which “supports qualified local governments to organize infrastructure financing vehicles, issue debt, medium-term notes, and other financing instruments, in order to expand complementary financing channels for central government investment projects.”
Beijing economist Hu Xingdou (胡星斗) told Radio Free Asia (RFA) that the scale of LGFV debt in China has probably reached 40 trillion yuan, and the bankruptcy of LGFVs will likely cause serious losses among a very large investor base. “In particular, much municipal debt has been funded by Wealth Management Products [WMPs] sold through banks, and many people hold these products in their portfolios. A lot of people may lose their life savings.”
Chinese internet users remarked that bankruptcies in LGFVs equate to a default on the debt, and that a lot of people are going to lose their money. Some estimated that the number impacted in the coming LGFV bankruptcy wave will far outstrip, by an order of magnitude, the recent losses in the peer to peer investment sector, which saw thousands of angry investors protest in cities across China.
Yet even as municipal debt vehicles face bankruptcy, on August 14 the Ministry of Finance put out a circular demanding the rapid expansion of local government infrastructure bonds, which led to a massive rush of issuance. These bonds are the major way local governments finance their infrastructure expenditures. According to Xinhua, as of mid-September, around 200 billion yuan of new debt had been issued, which added to the August new issuance of 428 billion, making total new debt issuance in just 1.5 months over 600 billion yuan.
Why is so much new debt being issued even as the central government is warning against systemic risk and demanding the municipalities unable to support their debt initiative LGFV bankruptcy proceedings? We profess to have no clue.
The Government Wants Chinese to Spend, Spend, and Spend More
On September 20, the CCP and the State Council published a circular providing “a number of opinions” on encouraging more consumer spending: make the public increase their expenditures on food, clothing, accommodations, travel, and more; increase the quality and expand the number of things they spend money on (cultural products, travel, sports, health, retirement spending, housekeeping, education, training, children); create new consumer products, make them spend more online, consume more customized products, and also spend money on ‘smart’ technologies, fashion, and other popular trends. Rural residents are encouraged to up their consumption too.
Any economy is driven by investments, exports, and domestic consumption — but with the extraordinary growth of China’s fixed asset investment being largely exhausted, and exports facing tariffs from the Trump White House, the government seems desperate to boost consumption, even though it has been promoting it for some time now.
Someone in Zhongnanhai is evidently working overtime on these new opinions and demands, which are falling down like snowflakes.
Affirming for the 1001st Time That China’s Judiciary Is the Party’s Judiciary
Lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan noted the following piece of news: that on September 12 the Party Group of the Henan Higher People’s Court issued four circulars expelling from office 48 judges in the court. The circular attributed the decision to the provincial Party’s Organization Department. Liu Xiaoyuan notes that whether required by the provincial Party apparatus or decided upon by the court, going about it this way is against Chinese law. According to the Chinese constitution and the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Organization of the People’s Courts, court presidents are elected by People’s Congresses at the same level; deputy court presidents, presiding judges, deputy presiding judges, and judges must be appointed and dismissed by the Standing Committee of People’s Congresses at their same level.
Meanwhile on September 17, the Ministry of Justice held a meeting in Yunnan for the promotion of “Party Building Work” among lawyers. Minister of Justice Fu Zhenghua (傅政华) spoke at the convocation, demanding that “the Party must assume comprehensive leadership in lawyer work; implement total coverage of Party Organization and Party Work across the legal field before the end of this year; guarantee the three year goal of Party building having achieved total coverage, total conformity, and total leadership by 2020.”
Is China Moving Muslim Internees to Other Parts of China in the Face of International Outcry?
The Chinese edition of The Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-associated newspaper, recently reported the following: “An official source in China recently obtained information from an associate in the police that over the last few days Uighurs in internment camps in Xinjiang have been distributed to different areas around the country. This work is being conducted with a high level of secrecy, and the travel routes used are all under police and military control. The source told The Epoch Times that 1,500 people were sent to the area he is in, and the police involved were all made to sign confidentiality agreements. The source speculated that, because the government plans to spread the 1-2 millions of Uighurs detainees, they would be sent to different prisons and detention centers, and he expressed the fear that the Uighurs might be killed.”
This reminds us that, in mid-August, there were rumors that internees from Xinjiang were being sent to Jiuquan (酒泉), Wuwei (武威) in Gansu province and Delhi (德令哈) and Golmud (格尔木) in Qinghai. A screenshot of a WeChat conversation describes an unusually heavy presence of security forces at train stations, and the understanding was that Uighurs were being transported.
Uighurs: More Professors Sent to Internment Camps; One Literary Editor Jumped to His Death; Highest Ranking Uighur Cadre So Far Sacked for ‘Corruption’
At least four senior Uighur officials from Kashgar University in Xinjiang have been removed from their posts for “two-faced” activities [i.e. disloyal to the CCP, critical of Party policies, or showing sympathy to targeted ethnic groups]. They include President Erkin Omer, vice president Muhter Abdughopur, and professors Qurban Osman and Gulnar Obul; information about them has been scrubbed from the university’s website. Read more.
According to a report by RFA’s Uighur service: Professor Azat Sultan, former President of Xinjiang Normal University and former chairman of Xinjiang chapter of China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, has been arrested for being a ‘double faced person.’ His whereabouts are unknown.
RFA Uighur service also reported that Keyser Keyum, the editor-in-chief of Literary Translation magazine, jumped from the 8th floor of his office building. It is said that he had received a call from police that day about sending him to ‘re-education’ camp.
On September 21 Xinhua reported that the deputy director of the National Develop and Reform Commission and director of the National Energy Administration, Nur Bekri, was suspected of severe violations of Party discipline and is being investigated by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Hu Ping, a U.S.-based dissident, expressed horror at the news: “Nur Bekri was the chairman of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in 2009 during the July 5 incident. In Xinjiang, the only other Uighur to be secretary of the region’s Party Committee was Saifuddin Azizi, and subsequently all Party Secretaries were Han, and the highest ranking Uighurs were only chairmen of the region [not chairmen of the Party Committee of the region]. And now, Bekri himself has been toppled. From this it can be seen how serious the situation is in Xinjiang, and how horrific the plight of Uighurs in China.”
Hu Ping noted that “according to Bekri’s official curriculum vitae, he received a Han education since he was a child and joined the Party in his early 20s. Following the July 5 incident he was promoted to the Central Committee during the 18th Party Congress, but didn’t remain in the Central Committee during the 19th Party Congress, nor become a deputy in the 13th National People’s Congress. It’s clear therefore that he had not been trusted by the Party center for some years already.”
On the second day of the riots in Xinjiang in July 2009, Bekri went on television to criticize Uighurbiz.net, a Chinese-language website run by Professor Ilham Tohti and his students, accusing it of “inciting violence and spreading rumors.” In March 2014 during the ‘Two Meetings’ in Beijing, Bekri told a press conference that the evidence showing that Ilham—arrested in January of 2014—had engaged in splittist activities was conclusive and unquestionable.
Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014 and is currently being held in the Xinjiang No. 1 Prison. There has been almost no word about Ilham circumstances for the last two years, and many now worry about his health.
Moving Ordinary Residents out of Heart of Beijing
A social media post recently noted that following the expulsion of residents and demolition of buildings along Fuyou Street (府右街, the street along the west side of Zhongnanhai) and Xihuangcheng street (西皇城根, adjacent to Fuyou Street), a similar operation on the east side of Zhongnanhai has taken place, expelling residents along Nanchang and Beichang streets (南长街和北长街). The eviction and demolition notices stipulate that state leaders who live on these streets are not the targets of eviction. The post also said: “In the future, Nanchang street, Beichang street, and Fuyou street have all been closed off for regular traffic. According to the plan, in the next one to two years there will be a gradual eviction and demolition of residences on both sides on Jingshan (景山公园), the east of the Forbidden City, along Nanchizi and Beichizi streets (南池子和北池子), around Beihai park (北海公园), and around Shichahai (什刹海), in order to expand the living space for central Party leaders.” The elementary school on Beichang street, as well as Beijing 161 Middle School not far from Tiananmen, will both be relocated and incorporated into other schools.
We drew a rough outline of the area affected by the project based on the social media post:
Twitter User Detained for 10 Days for “Attacking Leaders of the Party and Country”
On September 11, a 42-year old Twitter user in Beijing, Quan Shixin (全世欣), went to the Haidian Public Security Bureau to request permission to demonstrate, and was administratively detained. He was released on September 21. The notice of administrative detention given to her said: “Quan Shixin used internet circumvention methods to attack the Party and state leaders on Twitter, the circumstances being severe. Thus she was administratively detained for 10 days.”
No Foreign Programs in Prime Time, and Foreigners Not Allowed in Key Positions on Chinese TV
On September 20, the National Radio and Television Administration published a draft version (for public comment) of a set of regulations regarding non-Chinese citizen involvement in television, broadcasting, and shows. The regulations apply to those from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and the rest of the world. The basic content is as follows: without the approval of the NRTA, TV outlets may not broadcast overseas programs from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.; television stations may not spend more than 30% of their daily broadcast time on foreign films, shows, cartoons, documentaries, or other programs; the screenwriter and director of a program cannot both be foreign persons; male and female lead roles cannot both be played by foreigners; television and film producers who employ foreigners as creative staff must register the contract with the NRTA within five days of its signing.
Foreign television programs are popular in China, and it appears rules of this nature are meant to curb the availability of imported programs and the enthusiasm for them.
When a band in China named Fangu (反骨) [Rebels] applied for a permit to perform in Suzhou and Shanghai, the authorities told them to change their name before they could be approved. The band announced on social media that “due to force majeure, the band has temporarily changed its name to zhenggu (正骨) [Bone Correction], and we ask for your understanding.”
The Berlin Schaubuehne theatrical troupe’s performance of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People has received a warm welcome in Chinese drama circles, but after three performances in Beijing the original plan to put on another two performances in Nanjing were cancelled. The authorities said that this was due to “technical reasons,” but is it possible that the drama’s storyline and theme felt a little too close to home for the Chinese authorities?
On September 15, the city of Jinan, Shandong Province, held a Rocket Music Festival (火箭音乐节); at one point during the event, when the audience felt particularly moved by the music, they began swaying their bodies together (as often happens at music festivals). At that moment, a police officer dashed onto the stage, stood at the microphone, stopped the music, and delivered a stern warning about public safety. “If you don’t cooperate, we’ll have to stop this performance [this elicited loud laughter]. Everything is subordinate to safety! If everyone is like you just were, then it absolutely cannot proceed. Everyone knows that our country is currently engaged in a special struggle in Sweeping the Black and Eliminating Evil… I’m watching everyone’s behavior from the stage. If there is danger, the performance could be stopped at any moment.”
‘Totalitarian’ Is the Word
Stein Ringen, Professor of Political Economy at King’s College in London, wrote a letter to fellow China analysts, asking that “we set our work straight in language.” “The People’s Republic of China is a totalitarian state,” he wrote. “Of its own kind, to be sure, hence neo-totalitarian, but totalitarian it is. No clarity of analysis is possible without clarity of language. The PRC is not ‘an authoritarian system,’ it is ‘a totalitarian state.’”
At China Change, we began to use the term “totalitarian,” “neo-totalitarian” and “market-totalitarian” in as early as 2013.
Signs of China (1), China Change, September 16, 2018.
China Change, February 28, 2018
We don’t know what Xi Jinping was expecting when the proposed removal of the term limit for state chairman was announced on February 25 — but he was wrong if he was expecting that the news would be received like a beam of light from the sky, eliciting awe and relief, as depicted in a recent CCTV propaganda video glorifying Xi as the father figure of the people and the country.
Xi and his loyalists seem to have been stung by the shock and ridicule — and sometimes the pointed silence — coming from Chinese social media. The censors clamped down fast and heavily. An explainer in People’s Daily a few hours after the announcement summarized ten “major changes” proposed by the Party, except for the one change that everyone was talking about: the removal of term limits. It was tucked away in a long succession of empty rhetoric towards the end of the piece.
From Monday to Wednesday, the CCP held the Third Plenum of the 19th Party Congress. Its communique, approved and published on Wednesday, made no mention of the proposed constitutional amendments.
Meanwhile, several sources reported that Xi was angered that Xinhua first broke the news about the proposed constitutional changes in English and highlighted the abolition of term limits. Reports said that an editor was fired, and leaders at Xinhua were forced to make self-criticisms.
Meanwhile, human rights lawyers received warnings from lawyers associations, Justice Bureaus, as well as police that they should not talk about the removal of term limits, and by all indications they have been silent.
Chen Xiaoping, a journalist with a legal background who hosts a show at Mingjing Media, reported that he belongs to a WeChat group of constitutional scholars from two of China’s most prominent universities — Peking and Tsinghua — and “the chat group has fallen into a dead silence since the proposed constitutional amendments were announced.” He reminisced how, in 1982, the last time China’s constitution was amended, People’s Daily called for a public discussion four months before the law was passed. Well, that was then, and the amendment was to limit the chairman’s term, a corrective after Mao Zedong’s brutal lifetime rule.
In the internet age in 2018, however, China is unable to have an open and candid debate about a change that will have monumental consequences for everyone in China, and indeed the world. Some, however, have spoken out, and a sampling of their reactions is featured below.
Li Datong (李大同) is a 66-year-old, well known journalist and editor in Beijing. A reporter with the official newspaper China Youth Daily (《中青报》) during the student democracy protest in 1989, he collected over 1,000 signatures of journalists calling for a dialogue with the authorities. In 1995 he founded “Freezing Point” (《冰点》), a cutting-edge current affairs and investigative reporting section in China Youth Daily. The publication of “Freezing Point” was cancelled in 2005 by the Central Propaganda Department for “commenting recklessly on current politics.”
Li responded to the proposed abolition of term limits by urging the 55 People’s Representatives from Beijing municipality in the National People’s Congress to vote no to the proposed abolition of term limits:
Addressed to: Xu Tao (徐韬), Ren Ming (任鸣), Yang Yuanqing (杨元庆), Chen Jining (陈吉宁) and the other 55 Beijing delegates to the National People’s Congress,
Greetings! I am a Chinese citizen and a voter in Beijing. You are the delegates that we elected; you represent us in the political sphere, engaging in politics and representing our right to vote.
After discussion with numerous like-minded constituents, we reached a consensus to send you this urgent appeal: in the upcoming First Plenum of the Thirteenth National People’s Congress, please cast a dissenting vote — veto the Central Committee’s proposal to amend the 14th Article of the PRC Constitution, which abolishes the term limit for the post of state chairman.
It is widely known that the 1982 constitutional amendment that limited the tenure of the post of state chairman to two terms was an epoch-marking political reform for the Chinese Communist Party and the people of China, after the enormous suffering of the Cultural Revolution. This amendment was a precaution against personal dictatorship, and the most effective legal restraint of one individual placing themselves above the Party and the nation. It accorded with the tide of history, and marked a significant step forward in China’s political civilization, as well as being one of the most important legacies of Deng Xiaoping’s leadership. Only on this basis can China make progress, and there is absolutely no reason to reverse from it. The abolition of the term limit for the state leadership will be ridiculed by civilized countries around the world; it will reverse the wheels of history, planting the seeds of another period of chaos in China, and bring about untold harm.
We ask that in the highest interest of the Chinese people, for the long-term peace and stability of China, and in order to uplift and truly safeguard China’s political civilization, you earnestly consider our request and cast a vote against the proposal!
Citizen Li Datong
February 28, 2018
He Weifang (贺卫方), law professor at Peking University:
“The standard for procedural justice is that once a game starts, participants should abide by the pre-established rules to the maximum extent. Unilaterally changing the rules is unacceptable. In order to prevent the strong from changing the rules for their own benefit — for instance, breaking the rule on tenure limits — those who change the rules should abide by the pre-established rules, while new participants can use the new rules.”
Li Yinhe (李银河), a sociologist known for her study of sex, wrote, in response to the question “Professor Li, what do you think?”
“Perhaps you’re afraid that because the topic is sensitive, you don’t want to directly say it — so I’ll guess that your question must be about the Central Committee’s proposal. I think that bringing back the system of lifetime rule is not going to work. It’s a reversal of history and takes China back to the Mao era. Yet the National People’s Congress will very likely pass it unanimously. Because they’re not truly elected representatives of the people, they won’t represent the people in casting votes, and they’ll vote as the leader wants them to.”
Wang Ying (王瑛), a former private equity fund manager who has spoken out on political topics in recent years:
“I am citizen of the People’s Republic of China, Wang Ying. I hold that China’s realization of a republic is an ideal reached after 100 years of blood and struggle, and that it is also the commitment of the governing party. The February 25, 2018 announcement of the Chinese Communist Party regarding an amendment to the 14th Article of the Constitution — that is, the proposal to abolish the term limit on the position of state chairman — is a thoroughgoing betrayal, a departure, and a reversal. I know that there’s nothing you people won’t dare do, and that you can pass it with a unanimous vote, and can guarantee that the votes will be unanimous, and that the words of a regular person are of no use. Yet, I am a citizen of China, I don’t plan to emigrate, and this is my ancestral land! If I didn’t even register my objection to this, I would have no human dignity. I have no control over what happens to this proposal, but I need to give myself a reason to live on. I publicly protest this retrograde ‘proposal,’ and I protest turning the will of the so-called party into the will of the nation, flagrantly writing it directly into the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China.
Zhang Qianfan, professor of constitutional law at Peking University, penned a commentary for the Financial Times’ Chinese edition:
“Currently, China does not have a politically neutral institution of power, like a court, to tell us what can and cannot be amended [in the Constitution]. Nevertheless, everyone has a set of scales of justice in their own hearts, and the people are the ultimate interpreters and deciders on the Constitution. Whether it’s amending the Constitution, writing a Constitution, or establishing laws, the most important thing is to win the hearts of the people. The four previous constitutional amendments had different emphases, but they were ultimately about constantly improving it, thus they comported with the tide of history and won the widespread support of the people. On the other hand, Chinese history amply demonstrates that violating a long-held consensus on the Constitution held by the Chinese people, as well as the overall trend of constitutional government in global civilization — even if it appears to be supported by the people, but does not enjoy genuine social support — will in the end not stand the test of time.”
The June 4 student leaders Wang Dan (王丹) and Wuer Kaixi (吾尔开希), along with those involved in the political reforms of the 1980s, including Yan Jiaqi (严家祺), Wang Juntao (王军涛), Su Xiaokang (苏晓康), the widow of Fang Lizhi (方励之), Li Shuxian (李淑贤), published a statement. It says, in part:
“The whole of human history, including the 5,000 years of China’s history, shows that lifetime rule of a nation’s top leader cannot be separated from tyrannical government. It will with certainty bring calamity to the people. In the arduous process of attempting to avoid this disaster, humanity gradually began to form the ideal of democratic, constitutional governance, with different countries establishing actual constitutional democracies. The Chinese people have already struggled for over 100 years to implement a constitutional democracy, in order to avoid the disaster of tyranny and dictatorship. […]
“We call upon overseas Chinese to use any variety of means to oppose Xi Jinping setting himself up as a dictator-for-life as China’s head of state. This is an opportunity to mark a turning point in the growth and establishment of Chinese civil society. Let us work together for the future of a rule-of-law constitutional democracy in China, for the freedom, equality, rights, and happiness of the Chinese people, and for fairness and justice in Chinese society!”
Xi Jinping’s Abolition of the Term Limit Ruptures Assumptions of Party’s Adaptability and Stability, Mo Zhixu, February 27, 2018.
Mo Zhixu, February 27, 2018
On February 26, China’s official news agency Xinhua published the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s Proposed Amendments to China’s constitution (Chinese). The Party proposed revising the clause “The term of office of the Chairman (国家主席) and Vice-Chairman of the People’s Republic of China is the same as that of the National People’s Congress, and they shall serve no more than two consecutive terms” to “The term of office of the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the People’s Republic of China is the same as that of the National People’s Congress.” During the Party’s 19th congress in November, 2017, no one in the new politburo standing committee appeared to be the potential successor of Xi Jinping, as Hu Jintao was to Jiang Zemin, and Xi Jinping was to Hu Jintao. People then already predicted that Xi Jinping would continue to stay in power after his term ends in five years, with the only unknown being: will he follow Deng Xiaoping’s example to hold onto power as the chairman of the Central Military Committee or/and the general secretary of the Party (the two positions have no term limit), or will he amend the constitutional term limit on the term of the chairman so that he will also keep the nominal position of the chairman?
Even though the proposed removal of term limit is only the dropping of the other shoe, it caused a huge stir. Since yesterday, one can sense a certain desperation in every chat group on WeChat; searches for “yi-min” (immigration) spiked, and people have been discussing which countries they can flee to.
There are complex reasons why such a constitutional change has jolted Chinese society, the most fundamental being that the two-term limit enshrined in the current Constitution, which was amended in 1982, is the political and economic mental setup of the Deng Xiaoping era. To dismantle it is to hit the reset button for a new era.
The two-term cap in the 1982 constitution was a result of Chinese leadership’s painful re-evaluation of the Cultural Revolution: a supreme leader who had life tenure had enough time to elevate his power to be worshiped by all others, and he had absolute power over the lives and deaths of others. Those who paid the highest price were the ones who once had occupied high positions. Abolishing life tenure and replacing it with a limited term would prevent the emergence of the likes of Mao. It was, in the first place, a self-protection measure for those in high power.
In practice, however, the term limit and the institution of collective leadership had a greater effect: to effectively curb the power of the number one leader. As China shifted its focus to economic development, China has been able to give a pragmatic or even reasonable appearance in its governance, even though the regime has remained a dictatorship. To political scientists who have observed China closely, such as professors Andrew Nathan and David Shambaugh, this appearance was an indication of the regime’s “resilience.”
Such an appearance has afforded average people an optimistic outlook of China’s future, while ensuring that foreign capital could trust the system. These have been the psychological fundamentals of China’s rapid economic growth over the past decades.
In China’s liberal discourse, the two-term cap has been regarded as a landmark of political reform, a manifestation of the Chinese communist party’s self-reinvention.
For a long time now, China’s emerging middle class has wanted to pursue change but has been equally scared of chaos: that is, they’re dissatisfied with China’s autocratic polity and hope that it reforms, yet simultaneously, as beneficiaries of the current arrangements they’re opposed to radical change. Their vested interests guide their psychological orientations, and make them more inclined to advocate gradual reform. To a great degree, China’s rapid social and economic development and transformation has taken place under remarkably stable political conditions. Aside from credit earned through the so-called ‘performance legitimacy,’ the CCP’s ability to adapt and reform has been widely accepted, and is a bedrock assumption of China’s political stability.
Gradual Reform — Gone With the Wind
For these reasons, the abolishment of the term limit, while first threatening those in power, strikes the strongest blow against the faith in China’s economic and political system. This is because for the last few years, Xi Jinping’s power has swollen enormously, vitiating the public’s belief in the basic rationality of communist rule. The cancellation of the term limit is the straw that will break the camel’s back: now, the leadership has returned to strongman rule and there are no limits to his power, and thus the appearance that it is a fundamentally pragmatic regime has also been crushed.
The explosion in people searching the phrase “immigration” is a perfect example of the psychological trauma of the latest news. The post-1989 period already saw a severe challenge to the narrative of Communist Party self-reform and adaptation; now, that narrative seems based merely on the reforms of the 1980s, and in particular the 1982 constitutional amendment which saw term limit implemented for state leadership posts.
Since he came to power, Xi Jinping has increased the suppression and control of society, and prospects of gradual reform are simply no longer on the table. The abolition of the term limit system would completely tear away the basis for claims about the CCP’s adaptability, and has turned all hopes for gradual reform based on this argument into a joke. This is equivalent to a death penalty for gradual reform, about as effective as the emergency cabinet established at the end of the Qing Dynasty to deal with the Xinhai Revolution.
Over the last few years, many people unhappy with Xi’s rule had pegged their hopes on Xi being disabled in a (fictitious) power struggle; while others had resigned themselves to wait until 2022 when he would hand over power. But Xi’s consolidation of power at the 19th Party Congress destroyed the former wish, and the elimination of term limit has burst the bubble of the latter.
Xi Jinping’s power and the political line he has pursued will now continue indefinitely. But more importantly, the basic assumptions about China’s politics and economy, about the future of Xi Jinping, and about the prospects of reform, have all been punctured by this development. There are now no immediate prospects for change. This is why what was such an unsurprising announcement has led to such universal shock and lamentation.
Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor of Chinese-language publications known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy. He currently lives in Guangzhou.
Translated from Chinese by China Change.
Also by Mo Zhixu on China Change:
Mo Zhixu, February 4, 2018
“Rather, reform has been used as a kind of calibrating tool for the system to retain complete control in the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres.”
In 1981, Polish president Wojciech Jaruzelski ordered a crackdown on the growing Solidarity movement. Eight years later, under pressure of internal unrest as well as a cultural thaw in the Soviet Union, the Polish Communist government and Solidarity held roundtable talks. On June 4, 1989, free parliamentary elections were held in Poland and the Communists suffered a crushing defeat. Jaruzelski resigned in 1990 and Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa took his place as president. Poland marked its transition to democracy without shedding a drop of blood.
Poland’s case is unique among the political transitions in the collapse of the Soviet and Eastern European communist bloc. Unlike the Soviet Union, where reform was led primarily by Communist Party bureaucrats and went through a chaotic implementation, or Czechoslovakia, where change came through the sudden mass demonstrations of the Velvet Revolution, Polish democracy emerged as a product of the state coming to an agreement with society.
In the view of political scientist Juan José Linz, this phenomenon has to do with Poland’s unique political and social structure. Unlike other Eastern European countries, Poland was not a totalitarian system even though it was also a communist country.
After World War II, Poland did not experience agricultural collectivization. Land remained privately owned and private economy had had a significant percentage in agriculture — a strong contrast with events in other Soviet satellite states.
In addition, the traditional influence of the Catholic Church in Poland remained intact through decades of Communist government. In 1978, Karol Józef Wojtyła from the Krakow parish was selected to become Pope John Paul II of the Roman Catholic Church. As the history’s first Polish pope, his nationality played a major role in shaping the social movement in his homeland. Each of Pope John Paul II’s returns to Poland to celebrate Mass was tantamount to a large-scale social mobilization and at the same time a demonstration of the power of civil society.
A few years ago, my friends Jia Jia (贾葭), Murong Xuecun (慕容雪村) and Michael Anti (安替) met with former Polish President Wałęsa and inquired about his country’s experiences in the transition to democracy. To their surprise, Wałęsa stated bluntly, “My friends, the Polish transition can’t be a model for China. We were blessed to have a Polish Pope.” At a loss for words, Anti replied: “God bless Poland!”
The fact that Poland was not a totalitarian state left room for the growth of civil society. Because of it, organizations like Solidarity could arise in Poland and garner widespread support against the Communist regime.
Following China’s market reforms, Chinese citizens gained more personal, economic, social, and cultural autonomy. Mainland Chinese society seemed to have departed from the familiar dictatorial style, giving many hope that civil society would appear in China and form a local version of the Solidarity movement that would bring peaceful democratic change.
Until a few years ago, this prospect didn’t seem too far-fetched. Limited marketization did bring a handful factors favorable to the growth of civil society, such as the emergence of new social classes, market-oriented media outlets, the establishment of judicial institutions that have the appearance of rule of law, and the growing space for expression on internet. These developments resulted in the spread of the ideas of universal freedom and civil rights, the rise of rights defense activities, and the willingness of participation of the the emerging social classes. People were encouraged by these phenomenon and began to harbor an optimistic picture that the growth of civil society would be tolerated by the regime, that a healthy interaction would develop between the government and the civil society, and that China could thus transition toward democracy.
This optimistic vision was quickly shattered.
After some initial observation, the authorities tightened control over all of these rising social fields: the media and internet were brought under ever-stricter control; human rights defenders and NGOs also faced mounting pressure. Furthermore, the government has been strengthening its grip on the new social classes by establishing party cells in what it calls “the new economic organizations and the new social organizations.”
Some might think these measures are only a product of Chinese leaders’ regimented political mindset, and their optimistic vision is still viable as long as the leaders of the regime change their way of thinking.
But upon closer examination of contemporary China’s political and social structure, you will see that the problem lies not in the mindset of the leadership, but is deeply built into the system.
China’s reform toward marketization has also been called a marginal revolution. This revolution developed as agrarian land was contracted to households, individuals were allowed to create their own businesses, enterprises cropped up in towns and villages, and special economic zones were established in coastal cities. The authorities adjusted accordingly, fuelling the hope that such reforms would eventually make inroads to systemic change, or the most difficult “deep water of reform.”
But in practice, little change has been effected on the system. On the contrary, the reforms on the margins have been adapted to reinforce the system. Specifically, the Party, government, and military saw little substantial change; the Party retained control over the core economic departments, strengthening itself through financial avenues — a phenomenon reflected in the fact that the government has grown more in power and resources while the masses have been regressing. In terms of society and culture, the regime’s monopoly has remained strong but at the same time it has introduced some market elements to strengthen itself.
Thus, the economic progress achieved during the marginal reforms reinforced the regime’s financial capacity and allowed it to double down on its control over society. Contrary to what the optimists had envisioned, market reforms have not touched the root of the political system. Rather, reform has been used as a kind of calibrating tool for the system to retain complete control in the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres.
With the system still firmly in control, factors that optimists believed would herald social change never got off the ground, and the gains civil society made were lost. For example, reacting to the demands of the the new social class, market-oriented media outlets developed a liberal trend for a limited period, but because the industry is subject to Party monopoly, they have ultimately bent to the will of the political system. Faced with combined political and economic pressure, the fate of the internet was similar.
The limited market reform in mainland China didn’t relax the political system’s need for absolute control. It’s more apt to see China as a neo-totalitarian regime with characteristics of a market economy — it can by no means be called merely “authoritarian,” as some do. The neo-totalitarianism does afford the Chinese masses a certain degree of personal, economic, and cultural freedom as well as some social space. Yet that social space is tightly controlled by the state and given little potential for free growth.
In the face of the neo-totalitarian regime’s total control and persistent suppression, the prospect that a civil society born of social movements will usher in progressive political transformation seems increasingly distant and elusive. But history continues. In the 1980s, Poland’s non-totalitarian nature permitted democratic transition through state-society negotiation. Other Communist countries made the transition all the same, whether through peaceful mass demonstrations or violent regime change.
No matter the methods, when a totalitarian regime imposes absolute control over society and robs the people of their rights, it does so against popular support. Social progress may be hindered, but the people will continue to resist the system from within. When the window of opportunity presents itself, history will bring change — at once unpredictable yet in hindsight inevitable.
Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor of Chinese-language publications known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy. He currently lives in Guangzhou.
Chinese original 《莫之许：新极权下没有所谓公民社会》
Also by Mo Zhixu on China Change: