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Xi Jinping’s Abolition of the Term Limit Ruptures Assumptions of Party’s Adaptability and Stability

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 ZhixuMo 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:

In Beijing, Who Is and Isn’t a ‘Low-end Person?’

Why Is Wu Gan ‘The Butcher’ So Important?

China’s Future: Unstable and Unsettled

The Glory and Suffering of Pu Zhiqiang

Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers

The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China





Under Neo-Totalitarianism, There Is No ‘Civil Society’ in China

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:

In Beijing, Who Is and Isn’t a ‘Low-end Person?’

Why Is Wu Gan ‘The Butcher’ So Important?

China’s Future: Unstable and Unsettled

The Glory and Suffering of Pu Zhiqiang

Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers

The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China




In Beijing, Who Is and Isn’t a ‘Low-end Person?’

Mo Zhixu, December 14, 2017



Beijing expulsion, diggers


In the evening of November 18, 2017, a fire broke out in the Jufuyuan Apartments (聚福缘公寓) in Beijing’s Daxing District (大兴区), prompting authorities across the city to begin “clearing out illegal apartments.” In an abrupt and sweeping action, tens of thousands of people were commanded to collect their belongings and vacate their homes onto the cold and windy streets of China’s capital. It was heart wrenching to watch.

The incident raised much online discussion. The drive to remove the so-called “low-end population” (低端人口) of Beijing harks back to the “shitizen” (屁民) phenomenon that arose a decade earlier in Shenzhen. For many, it is a blatant reminder that in China, a veil of prosperity and affluence conceals the poor state of human rights and even that of the Chinese human condition as a whole.

What Is Meant by ‘Low-end Population?’

A cursory look at the term “low-end population” suggests it is a concept of class, but detailed analysis shows this isn’t necessarily the case.

Firstly, “low-end population” in the Chinese sense refers exclusively to those from other regions. It is an identification status created by the household registration system (戶籍), as opposed to a class formed by market forces. Low-income but legally urban residents and poor rural dwellers may belong to a similar economic class, but they are not included among the “low-end population.”

Secondly, “low-end population” is partially defined by profession. As noted in the overseas edition of the People’s Daily on August 1, 2016, “low-end population” refers to “workers employed in wholesale markets inappropriately placed in megacities, or in mid-to-low-level industries.” Others, combing through past usage of the term, have discovered that “low-end” is often used primarily to characterize a type of industry, and as such it mainly refers to low-income people of low cultural background engaged in physical labor; in short, mostly rural migrant workers in the manufacturing or construction business.

By contrast, unskilled workers such as nannies, janitors, restaurant staff, deliverymen, etc. do not count as belonging to the “low-end population.” This is because they provide services essential for the “high-end population’s” standard of living and without them, the city’s functions would come to a halt.

In Beijing, the “high-end population” comprises first and foremost those in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) power structure, or the regime’s privileged class. As a result, some of the central authorities’ state-controlled media have commented sympathetically on the service workers among the “low-end population” who were affected by the recent expulsions, putting out phrases like “the city can’t only run on white-collar workers.” The starting point for their rhetoric is that these people are needed.

Lastly, it is possible to be considered “low-end” even if you are not economically poor. The stall owners in the wholesale markets make a sizeable income, even higher than that of the average middle-class resident. But because the customers at these markets are typically “low-end people,” the business is irrelevant to the needs of the “high-end population.” Thus even the affluent stall owners have themselves become “low-end people.”

In 2016, prior to the clearing out of illegal apartments, the famous Beijing Zoo clothing wholesale market, which boasted tens of thousands of stalls, was forcibly dispersed and the market closed.

As can be seen, the meaning of “low-end population” is determined entirely according to the needs of the “high-end” privileged class. It is derived from blatant discrimination based on status.


Beijing expulsion, line of police


Why the Urgency to Clear People From the Capital?

Why is the city of Beijing in such a hurry to suspend the so called “non-capital functions” and remove people from the region? It’s impossible to explain this using an economic rationale. But looking at it from the political perspective and considerations of the privileged class, everything falls into place.

Beijing was the imperial capital of multiple dynasties and is built around a single center. After the CCP seized power, Mao Zedong rejected a proposal by Liang Sicheng (梁思成) to relocate the administrative center to a different part of the city. Mao criticized the architect’s ideas as an “attempt to deny that Tiananmen was the political center in the eyes of all the nation’s people.” Development of the new Beijing was therefore carried out radiating out in concentric circles from the government sector at Tiananmen and Zhongnanhai [the CCP leadership compound].

Liang Sicheng had his concerns: “Whether the multitude of government buildings are placed here in a meandering shape along narrow streets, or snaking about the edges of the massive public square, either option results in a long line of administrative workplaces. With the constant coming and going of vehicles, traffic will increase uncontrollably and the parking situation will be fraught with serious difficulties as well.”

After the year 2000, China began to industrialize. Beijing’s population increased rapidly, jumping from nearly 14 million in 2000 to 22 million in 2016. At the same time, the number of automobiles shot up from several tens of thousands to nearly 6 million in 2017. The daunting flow of people and vehicles overwhelming the single center validates the concerns Liang Sicheng raised back in the Maoist era.

The business day ahead of the mid-autumn festival in 2009, Beijing was hit by unprecedented traffic jams due to the high-level social gatherings and gift exchanges taking place at the time. “Cars couldn’t even get out of Zhongnanhai.” Rumor spread that following this experience, Hu Jintao gave the order: “Control the population, improve traffic.”

However, early decisions made by CCP authorities mirrored Mao’s architectural thinking. Moving the administrative district was out of the question given the need to “reinforce and safeguard the political center’s spatial security,” “safeguard safety and stability to ensure that the central military and political leadership can operate with high efficiency.”

As a result, the only option was to cut down the flow of people, vehicles, and goods in, toward, and around the core district. But as explained above, Beijing radiates outwards from a single center, so merely expanding the core to within the second ring cannot achieve this goal. They have to clean up all the rings one by one, to create some breathing room for the center.

This is the basic mentality behind Beijing’s need to weed out “non-capital functions.” Looking at the latest map of cleared-out areas summarized and provided by the media, it can be seen that virtually no distract is untouched. Put plainly, the people who are now freezing in the streets were expelled for the comfort and convenience of the privileged people occupying Zhongnanhai.


Beijing expulsion, street



In a Totalitarian State, Who Isn’t a “Low-end” Person?

Just removing this small portion of the “low-end population” is clearly far from sufficient when it comes to satisfying the CCP regime’s need to ensure the convenience of its privileged class in the center core district. It can be assumed that even more “non-capital functions” and “low-end people” are awaiting treatment. But just who isn’t a “low-end person” in the coordinates of privilege?

Firstly, a “low-end person” is anyone who is unnecessary. University students don’t directly benefit the “high-end population,” so they can be considered transitional “low-end people” and thus be driven to the fourth or even sixth rings [Beijing’s beltways]. Beyond this group, the elderly and infirm provide no use to the “high-end population” and even consume extra resources, so the hospitals must also be relocated to the outer rings.

Beijing expulsion, 哑河

More importantly, to “reinforce and safeguard the political center’s spatial security” is meant in the political as well as the physical sense. Auxiliary to Beijing’s cultural, media, technical, education, and health resources, the city has developed some of its own competitive industries. In these industries, many are self-employed workers, specialized technicians, administrative staff, sales personnel and the like. They are a new social class, and a good part of the near 10-million population growth in the past decade belongs to this class.

This new class has intrinsic liberal tendencies. As a center of culture and cosmopolitanism, Beijing has become a multifaceted and dynamic stage. It is a ripe environment for nascent social movements. In the last few years, whether it’s the rights defense movement, the Charter 08 movement, or the New Citizens Movement, all of them began and were most active in Beijing.

Civil society and opposition movements have found space for expression in large part due to the existence of this new and large-numbered class. From the standpoint of the Party authorities, the presence of such a social class makes it possible for a repeat of the 1989 Tiananmen incident, should certain conditions converge.

Some commentators are already pointing out that the expulsions targeting the “new displaced class” are designed to preemptively halt large-scale social incidents. The logic is quite sound.

Getting to the core of the matter, the definition of “low-end population” in China is determined by the “high-end population,” that is, the demands of the privileged class. By clearing out “non-capital functions” to satisfy this privileged class, Beijing authorities have brought physical, emotional, as well as economic pain to a large number of people. As long as the government continues to operate on this logic with its premium on political security, still more people — including those currently involved and seemingly still in the ranks of the upper middle class — can be targeted according to their political leanings, societal potential, or perhaps just because of their numbers, and end up in the ranks of the “low-end population” all the same in a blink of an eye.




Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a mainland-based Chinese dissident intellectual known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition.



Beijing Refugees and the New Displaced Class, Wu Qiang, December 3, 2017.

Campaign to Drive Out Migrants Slams Beijing’s Best and Brightest, The New York Times, December 11, 2017.


Translated from Chinese 特權之下 誰不是「低端人口」》





The Pipe Dream of Independent Candidacy, Once Every Five Long Years

Mo Zhixu, July 1, 2016

2016 is also an election year in China, in case you are not aware of it.


Wukan elections, February 2012. Photo: Xinhua

Wukan elections, February 2012. Photo: Xinhua

A struggle is once again brewing in Wukan. Four years ago, after a protracted struggle during which village representative Xue Jinbo (薛锦波) lost his life under mysterious circumstances in police custody, the people of Wukan were able to elect a village leader that they trusted. But several years later, they still haven’t been able to win back their rights and things have again become unsettled. Police recently detained Lin Zulian (林祖恋), the elected head of Wukan’s village committee, and then put him on television to confess to accepting bribes.

And in just the past few days in Gansu Province, independent candidates for local People’s Congresses, like Qu Mingxue (瞿明学), have been detained on criminal charges of “sabotaging elections.”

It wasn’t long ago, back in the heyday of Weibo, that everyone was talking about how the village elections in Wukan and the appearance of independent People’s Congress candidates were hopeful signs for grassroots democracy and politics in China. Back then, both media and netizens placed considerable hope in these phenomena. But a short five years later, we’re once again in an “election year” and the situation looks as bleak as ever.

High Hopes for Grassroots Democracy

After 1989, China found itself in a deep freeze as far as political participation was concerned. As radical transformation became impossible, and what came to replace it after Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour” in 1992 were various visions of gradual change premised on the spread of market forces in China.

Entering the 21st century, China joined the WTO and successfully held the Beijing Olympics. Economic development went relatively smoothly, leading to the rapid formation of new social strata. At the same time, the authorities targeted particular opposition groups with continuous repression and severe crackdowns. In this atmosphere, there’s been a gradual withering-away of the idea of radical transformation that had guided the tragic movement in 1989. In its place, gradualism has become the new mainstream — even politically correct — discourse.

The main evidence supporting these visions for gradual change have been phenomena like grassroots democracy, legal rights defense, the opening up of discursive space through commercialized media, spaces for online expression, and the development of civil society and NGOs. Grassroots democracy has quite an important place in this discourse. This is because rights defense, the opening of discursive space, and the development of civil society are more facilitative or necessary conditions for political transition, or else serve as substitutes for political participation in certain periods where such participation is difficult or impossible.

Grassroots elections, on the other hand, is the essence of political participation itself; moreover, they can be seen as the true beginning of the gradual political transition made possible by the maturation of those other conditions.

At the end of the 1990s when the Law of Self-Rule by Village Committees (《村委会自治法》) appeared, the prospect of direct elections or use of “write-in ballots” first sparked hopes that grassroots democracy might lead China’s democratic transition. However, the practice of village-level democracy remained within the scope of self-rule and didn’t affect the overall political system. Nevertheless, grassroots democracy at this level has been put under all sorts of control and finds itself breathing what may be its last, dying breath. As Chang Ping (长平) recently wrote in “Wukan: China’s Domestic Experiment with ‘One Country Two Systems’”: “Within the overall dictatorial environment, small-scale democratic elections face all sorts of difficulties and inevitably wind up at a dead end.”

Comparatively speaking, the appearance of independent candidates in township- or county-level people’s congress elections was invested with even greater hope and even seen as a possible transition path. This is because, under China’s current electoral system, it remains possible for members of the public to nominate their own candidates or even to elect a write-in candidate by selecting the box of “other” on the ballot. This is how Yao Lifa (姚立法) got elected in Qianjiang City, Hubei, for example, back in 1998.

Independent candidates are formally allowed under the current system and there is a theoretical chance of ultimately being successful. And when you factor in the new market forces and online modes of communication, it’s possible for regional independent candidates to become known throughout China and even internationally. For these reasons, many people hoped that independent candidacy might serve as a path to broader political participation and, in the process, advance China’s democratic transition. For these same reasons, whether it was at the beginning of the new Hu-Wen regime in 2003 or during the heyday of Weibo, grassroots elections, and especially independent candidates, were seen as the next step and something in which people could invest their hopes for political transition. For a time, more hope seemed to be invested in it than internet expression, participation in public interest causes, and rights-defense activities.

The Uselessness of China’s ‘Elections’

It’s always been open to debate, however, whether or not China’s electoral system can sustain such hopes. For a variety of reasons, mainland Chinese observers often take Taiwan’s transition to democracy as a point of reference. There’s no doubt that elections played quite a significant role in Taiwan’s democratic transition, and for this reason Chinese gradualists never tire of talking about the subject. However, comparing the electoral systems in Taiwan and mainland China, as well as Taiwan’s road to democracy, we can see that it’s much more difficult under China’s electoral system for independent candidates to play the important role of pushing forward this transition.

First of all, the elections in which they compete take place at too low a level. Everyone knows that People’s Congresses at all levels in China are rubber stamps, and Chinese elections are merely decorative to the dictatorship. China’s so-called elections are limited in that no executive offices are chosen through direct elections and even elections for delegates to People’s Congress are restricted to the county and township levels only. Taiwan, on the other hand, had put in place direct elections for county commissioners, and representatives in both county and provincial assemblies in as early as 1954. Starting in the late 1960s, there were competitive elections for some seats of the National Assembly and Legislative Yuan.

Direct elections thus cut across executive and legislative branches and span from the central government down to the local level. It was only because of this that elections were able to have a social influence and promote transition to democracy in Taiwan. And under these circumstances, the officials and legislators who ran for office could form a political core outside of the KMT. Whether it was the 1979 demonstrations by Huang Shin-chieh (黃信介) and other members of the opposition in the Kaohsiung Incident or the formation of the Tangwai Research Association for Public Policy, these independent politicians were able to have an impact and eventually lead to the formation of an opposition party because of Taiwan’s particular electoral system and election practice.

A second difference between Taiwan and mainland China is that many constraints have been placed on China’s electoral system. The essence of dictatorship is total control over society and the elimination of spontaneous political participation. Since China’s electoral system is merely decorative, it was designed from its inception with all sorts of restrictions and mechanisms to limit participation.

So-called independent candidates can only take part in elections for county and township people’s congresses, but even these elections have been painstakingly engineered so that small electoral districts are coordinated with the political structure in order to facilitate control and mobilization. In order to prevent members of the public from nominating their own candidates, an “incubation phase” has been set up to ensure that any unacceptable individuals can be weeded out from the formal list of candidates. Given all of these various measures, it takes a miracle for any candidate who isn’t part of the political system to get elected. This not only considerably dampens enthusiasm to participate; it also means that it’s nothing but a pipe dream to hope that elections will somehow lead to a democratic transition in China.

Finally, we must consider the long interval between elections in China. Because Taiwan holds elections for executive and legislative offices over three levels of government from central to local, contests are frequent and “election season” is always just around the corner. Under Taiwan’s particular form of authoritarian reality, “election season” served to expand political participation and ultimately created favorable conditions for Taiwan’s democratic transition. China’s “decorative” electoral system, on the other hand, only allows for direct election of county and township people’s congress delegates once every five years, meaning that “election season” arrives much less often in China. And considering how much participation is suppressed, this long five-year interval between elections makes it difficult to gather a sustained accumulation of experience.

Altogether, it means that there’s little hope that independent candidacy alone will do much to promote democracy. This is why, from almost the very beginning, those who have advocated for independent candidacy have all made even higher demands for the electoral system.

They expect the electoral system to undergo a number of reforms. First, they want to see direct elections at higher levels of government, including for executive offices. Others want to see the system of village elections expanded to direct elections for government positions at the township level and above. In 1998, 6,000 voters in Buyun Township in Suining, Sichuan (四川遂宁步云乡), chose the first township head elected through direct vote since 1949. Afterwards, similar experiments were conducted in Shenzhen and other places. This attracted much attention from the media and liberals, but in the end it never led anywhere. In recent years, among the reform proposals Prof. Yu Jianrong (于建嵘) has repeatedly been peddling, county-level direct election reform has been a core proposal.

A Reality Check

Unfortunately, things have gone in precisely the opposite direction from what people had hoped for. The expansion of market forces has led to the emergence of a variety of rights demands and stimulated the desire of new social strata to take part in politics. These new social strata have gravitated toward independent candidates. The craze for independent candidates that appeared on Weibo back in 2011 was based on these socio-economic changes. However, thanks to the political logic in place since 1989, the current system hasn’t changed in any way to accommodate these new demands. Instead, the regime continued to pursue its policies of stability maintenance. The stronger these social forces became, the more rigid the stability-focused regime grew. In this way, Chinese authorities have come to see independent candidacy as a form of protest that must be restricted and suppressed.

The irony is that even when independent candidates have a desire to work inside the existing system, the authorities see them as representing the “other.”

Five years ago, during the online craze for independent candidates, I reminded people that running for office was a form of protest: “Those running for People’s Congress want to broaden political participation in China, but the stability-maintenance regime is focused on using autocratic deterrence and management and repression of society, including the elimination of political participation. Standing for election thus constitutes a direct challenge to the stability-maintenance system and must be suppressed. The fate of people like Liu Ping (刘萍) is proof of this point. I hope that Li Chengpeng and others who want to run as independent People’s Congress candidates will be prepared.”

What happened afterward proved that my judgment was correct: “Under the stability-maintenance system, there will be no hesitation about repressing independent candidates or blocking information about elections.” Such a system can’t even tolerate the presence of an independent candidate as a token of democracy. Given that running as an independent candidate is a form of protest, it will inevitably meet with even greater repression. The criminal detention of Qu Mingxue and others demonstrates this escalating repression. Of course it also demonstrates further that any hope of using independent candidacy to further the transition to democracy is unfounded.

But protest is never insignificant. Some people shy away and retreat after having taken part in this form of protest, but others like Liu Ping emerge from their participation in grassroots elections to follow even more resolute paths of protest. In this respect, elections may not be able to change the system, but taking part in them can have a transformative effect on us as people. Once we cast off our false hopes, perhaps our struggle will finally generate some real hope.


Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Beijing-based 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.


Also by Mo Zhixu on China Change: 

China’s Future: Unstable and Unsettled

The Glory and Suffering of Pu Zhiqiang

Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers

The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China


原文:莫之许《独立参选的五年一梦》, translated by China Change. 



China’s Future: Unstable and Unsettled

By Mo Zhixu, published: April 6, 2016

Authoritarian resilience has always been an illusion.  


Ten Years

Movie “Ten Years”


On March 6, 2015, the Wall Street Journal published a piece by George Washington University Professor David L. Shambaugh entitled “The Coming Chinese Crackup.” In it, he pointed to five indications that China’s political system is seriously falling apart—a view that attracted widespread attention for some time after its publication.

Ever since 1989, many have predicted the impending collapse of Chinese Communist rule. But there are two reasons why Shambaugh’s piece was so noteworthy. First, Shambaugh has enjoyed good personal relations with leading Party officials. His books have been published in Chinese translation, and state media have often quoted his views. In January 2015, the China Foreign Affairs University under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs named him second on a list of “America’s Most Influential China Experts.” Second, Shambaugh previously held a more positive assessment of the prospects for Chinese Communist rule. Like Columbia University Professor Andrew J. Nathan, Shambaugh was seen as one of the main proponents of the idea of “resilient authoritarianism.”

Over the past several years, these two leading American China experts have undergone a huge change in their evaluations of where China is headed. In January 2003, Nathan published an article entitled “Authoritarian Resilience” in the Journal of Democracy. In it, he wrote: “Under conditions that elsewhere have led to democratic transition, China has made a transition instead from totalitarianism to a classic authoritarian regime, and one that appears increasingly stable.” And in his 2007 book China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, Shambaugh argued that the Party had, through learning and adaptation, developed a capacity to overcome or contain many of its problems, including corruption.

Over the past several years, these two scholars have flipped their positions on the stability of Chinese authoritarianism. Shambaugh’s Wall Street Journal piece in 2015 was not only a re-evaluation of his personal views; it was also read as a signal that mainstream Western academics had begun to shift their views on the future of Chinese Communist rule. In that piece, Shambaugh wrote: “[Xi Jinping’s] despotism is severely stressing China’s system and society—and bringing it closer to a breaking point. . . . Its demise is likely to be protracted, messy and violent.”

In his most recent book, China’s Future (published in March 2016), David Shambaugh continues to echo the positions he raised one year earlier and explains in greater detail how he arrived at his conclusions. He writes that, if China continues on the path of rigid authoritarianism that it has followed since 2009, it will inevitably fall into the same middle-income trap that has snared the majority of developing economies. Chinese society will become increasingly unstable and unpredictable, and without political liberalization at some point something will cause a “sudden rupture.” This is obviously completely at odds with the earlier idea of a resilient authoritarianism with capacity for adaptation.

Before Shambaugh, Andrew Nathan wrote in 2009 in “Authoritarian Impermanence”: “The most likely form of transition for China remains the model of Tiananmen.” I’ve noticed that more and more political scientists have been expressing similar views. For example, in “The Twilight of Communist Party Rule in China,” published in the November 2015 issue of The American Interest, the Chinese-American political scientist Minxin Pei wrote: “The Communist Party’s post-Tiananmen survival strategy is exhausted, and its new strategy is likely accelerating the party’s demise.” Mainstream western scholars have indeed changed their views on the future prospects for Chinese Communist rule.

The Resilience Illusion

To a certain extent, it’s true that the Chinese Communist Party possesses a capacity to learn and adapt. Ever since Mao Zedong’s death, the Party has left behind the traditional planned economy and pursued a different model of development. This pragmatic effort isn’t without concrete goals. At first, the Party tried to learn from then-authoritarian regimes in Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore, as well as from the East Asian authoritarian development model represented by the long-term one-party rule of the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan.

In 1989 the Party crushed the massive democracy movement, and in the same year Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union underwent tremendous political changes. Given the fates of these other Communist states, many were pessimistic about the prospects for the Chinese Communist Party’s regime. However, the Party never stopped its experimentation and efforts at adaptation. Spurred on by the collapse of Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and, after Deng Xiaoping’s landmark “Southern Tour,” the Party accelerated the pace of the market reforms and opening to the outside world that it had begun in the 1980s.

Contrary to many predictions, the Chinese Communist regime emerged from the assault undamaged. It successfully became part of the international economic order and achieved sustained economic growth. During this same period, there was a peaceful handover of power from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao. As China was experiencing miraculous economic growth, the government bureaucracy seemed to be growing more specialized and responsive to society’s demands, even if there was also more and more corruption. Although the same period witnessed the repression of the China Democracy Party, a dissident opposition party, and Falun Gong, economic growth brought performance legitimacy that increased the degree of support for the Party. With the arrival of autonomous cultural consumption and the Internet age, people began to feel that things had begun to loosen up. In sum, to many observers the Chinese Communist Party had effectively used adaptation to “re-consolidate itself.” As Andrew Nathan concluded in “Authoritarian Resilience”: “[China’s] particular authoritarian system . . . has proven resilient.”

What’s more, to many observers, the Chinese Communist Party’s resilience gave it the potential to become, through further transformation, even more open and develop into a semi-democratic or freer single-party regime. Shambaugh wrote that the Party could take steps to govern in a more active and dynamic way and adopt a more open stance toward reforming its leadership and governance. Such steps would include further privatization of the economy, especially privatization of large state-owned enterprises, as well as liberalizing the land market. It would also include further development of rule of law in order to promote economic growth and innovation.

In this view, political transformation would take the form of party-building measures centered around the “Three Represents” policy, enabling members of the newly emerging social class like private entrepreneurs, technical professionals, and managers to become part of the political system and even join the party. This would not merely change the Party’s methods and style of governing, but also change its composition and direction. To a certain degree, this is similar to how, in the 1970s after losing its seat at the United Nations, the Kuomintang embarked on a new strategy of “Taiwanization.”

Within China, many people also believed that the Party could achieve the “transition from a revolutionary party to a governing party” through opening and proactive reform. Market reforms and opening up to the world would inevitably bring growth of the private economy and a newly emerging middle class, and it would also lead to the growth of social organizations, including NGOs. Eventually, pushed forward by these new social forces, a transformed Party would, together with these social forces, carry out a gradual, interactive, and stable transformation of all society, including transformation of the political system.

Ironically, however, these observations and predictions lost their interpretive power almost as soon as they were put forward.

First, those anticipated reforms never took place. In the economy, the 1990s policy of retaining ownership of large state-owned enterprises and selling off underperforming ones was replaced by a policy of building up bigger and stronger state-owned companies. Not only was there no further privatization of the state sector; we actually saw a resurgence of the state sector and a retreat of the private sector.

There was a similar phenomenon in terms of rule of law. Instead of moving in the direction of more emphasis on rights, rules, and limits on government power, statist tendencies re-emerged in the form of the so-called “Three Supremes” (in which judges were told to consider the supremacy of the Party’s cause, the people’s interest, and the constitution and law in deciding cases). Even more disappointing is that, after the transfer of power from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, the “Three Represents” policy that had inspired so much hope quickly ceased to get much attention and was relegated to a kind of ornamental existence.

Second, even those things that were seen to be the basis of authoritarian resilience turned out to be not as stable as they had seemed. The Bo Xilai affair demonstrated that struggles at the highest levels of power have not disappeared as a result of fixed terms of office. Since the 18th Party Congress, Xi Jinping’s strong anti-corruption campaign has not only firmly established his own personal authority, but also to a certain degree weakened the system of collective leadership and destroyed the consensus within the bureaucracy that economic growth could be a source of both political legitimacy and personal gain. At the institutional level, the post-1989 unity among elites that was so crucial to the regime’s survival and the bureaucratic driving force based on performance legitimacy both quickly became things of the past.

Perhaps one ought also to consider the shocking way that China’s leaders handled the 2015 stock market crisis. Once they were treated as mythical beings, but in the end they were shown to be just as mediocre as the bureaucrats responsible for the Japanese economy. These Chinese officials who had once been considered to be increasingly specialized and in possession of unrivaled capabilities were quickly exposed as “emperors in new clothes.” This shows that the core ideas of authoritarian resilience—meritocratic selection of a group of officials whose capacity for learning and adaptation makes them responsive to society’s demands and able to promote economic development—is most likely a myth, and China’s past economic miracle was little more than being in the right place at the right time.

Ultimately, the resilience of authoritarianism would have to be based upon an ability to attract emerging social classes. But with the quiet demise of the “Three Represents” policy, the Chinese Communist Party has increasingly come to base the continued survival of its regime on the suppression of new social groups. Even if the political system can successfully achieve relative security in the short term, it will have driven these emerging social groups to grow increasingly alienated from the regime.

In his controversial 2015 op-ed, David Shambaugh put forward “five telling indications of the regime’s vulnerability.” The first is that “China’s economic elites have one foot out the door, and they are ready to flee en mass if the system really begins to crumble.” In fact, it’s not only China’s economic elites: immigration has become quite a common subject of discussion among China’s middle class, and more and more of them are beginning to take action. Even more unsettling is the increasingly heavy repression of China’s emerging social groups, with the crackdown on online expression, rights lawyers, NGOs, and religious groups growing in both scale and intensity.

Only a few years separated the appearance of Andrew Nathan’s article, “Authoritarian Resilience,” and his subsequent admission that “the most likely form of transition for China remains the model of Tiananmen.” In 2015, Shambaugh told the New York Times: “in the middle of 2009, after Zeng [Qinghong] had retired, [the Party’s direction] abruptly shifted.” It had been only two years since the publication of his book, The Chinese Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation. However, the strengthening of the Party’s stability apparatus after the Beijing Olympics and the increasing repression since the 18th Party Congress all demonstrate that, set against the earlier economic miracle, any resilience that China’s authoritarian system may have had now appears to have been illusory.

What Will the Future Really Bring?

How did the illusion of authoritarian resilience disappear so quickly? No doubt this is a question shared by quite a few outside observers and thinkers inside China, with each one of them likely to put forward a different answer. But in my view, there are a few fundamental reasons why the illusion of authoritarian resilience faded so suddenly.

First, the basic factors accounting for the continued survival (or authoritarian resilience) of the post-Tiananmen regime—things like elite cohesion, performance legitimacy, absorption of emerging elites, a foreign policy of “concealing one’s strengths and biding one’s time”—were all probably responses to the crisis of 1989. For example, elite cohesion was to a great degree spurred on by the sense of crisis brought on by the June Fourth crackdown and the collapsing regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Sensing themselves to be “all in the same boat,” these elites found temporary common cause and for a while obeyed the rules regarding fixed terms of office and collective leadership. However, this sense of crisis was bound to fade over time. In other words, these may have been short-term phenomena from the very beginning, rather than systemic phenomena.

Other things like a pragmatic foreign policy, emphasis on economic development, or co-optation of new social elites can all be explained similarly. If the basic factors accounting for the continued survival (or authoritarian resilience) of the post-Tiananmen regime were reactions to the June Fourth crackdown, then you can’t ignore the fact that the June Fourth crackdown was carried out in order to maintain dictatorship, prevent liberalization, and “refuse to give in even a bit” (“一步都不能退”). This means that so-called authoritarian resilience was, from the beginning, always bounded by the goals of maintaining dictatorship and denying liberalization. The further reforms that so many observers hoped for and the gradual transformation that some Chinese still await were in fact never under consideration by the Chinese Communist regime.

A political system with maintaining dictatorship as its goal achieved incredible economic results, and it led people to believe in the illusion of resilience. However, under the accelerating slowdown of the Chinese economy, the demands of the emerging society will increase and, under internal and external pressures like rampant corruption, quickly reveal the regime’s more repressive side. In his new book, David Shambaugh continues to believe that the “political system is the key” and that the Party can return China to the path of political reform, gradually increase political openness and change without losing control or power and thereby rescue itself from the brink of collapse.

Based on the logic of my brief analysis above, however, the basic factors accounting for the continued survival (or authoritarian resilience) of the post-Tiananmen regime from the beginning ruled out any political liberalization. So there will be never be any political reform. On the contrary, the Chinese Communist regime depends on maintaining the status quo of dictatorship. Looking toward the future, the far more likely prospect for China is a protracted and “highly unstable and unsettled” decline that Shambaugh predicted.



Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Beijing-based 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.




Miner Protests in the Northeast and the End of China’s Economic Boom, by Wu Qiang, March 17, 2016.

In the Wake of the Sino-American Summit, the Potential for a New Cold War, by Wu Qiang, October 12, 2015.


Alos by Mo Zhixu on China Change:

The Glory and Suffering of Pu Zhiqiang

Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers

The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China


莫之許《中國未來:不穩定和充滿混亂》, translated by China Change.



Fear of Losing Control: Why China Is Implementing an Internet Security Law

By Mo Zhixu, published: October 4, 2015

“[T]he existence of a relatively free, relaxed, and anonymous Internet for the regime is ‘the root of all evil.'”


August 5 was the last day that opinions were solicited by the government for its new Internet Security Law, meaning that in the near future the legislation will be formally unveiled. In draft form, many of its clauses have already attracted scrutiny: for example, the draft stresses that Internet sovereignty is the extension of state sovereignty into cyberspace; it also takes as its objective “protecting the sovereignty of cyberspace and national security,” granting almost unlimited powers to the administrative organs in charge of the Internet. Many think that the Chinese government is setting up a “national Intranet.”

The draft law holds website operators primarily responsible for the content on their websites, with detailed and comprehensive rules, particularly on cyber security. For instance, website operators have a duty to deal with illegal information (Article 40), they must prevent the transmission or publication on their platforms or software information that violates regulations (Article 41), and they’re required to provide all necessary support to investigatory organs (Article 23), and so on. The draft law also gives the relevant departments the power to punish those transmitting information found to be in violation, as well as to block such information (Article 43), and even to “shut down the Internet according to the law” (Article 50).

But what has attracted the most attention from regular Internet users is the real name registration system, which ensures that all information posted to the Internet can be traced to its origin (Article 20). With all this—granting state agencies extraordinary powers, forcing website operators to take total responsibility and dutifully follow the law, and funneling Internet users into a monitored real-name system—a cyberspace is created in which strict control is exercised, and from which there is no escape.

That the “Internet Security Law” would be such should come as no surprise. For the last several years, Beijing has upped its control of the Internet; the purge of two years ago [in which famous users of Sina Weibo who were critical of the government were publicly humiliated and in some cases jailed] is still in the memory of many. In the eyes of the authorities, control of the Internet is not just a matter of regular social management; it involves the so-called “national security,” or in other words, the stability of the regime. Control of the Internet has enormous strategic significance.

In my view, Internet control is of supreme importance for a totalitarian regime because of the social consequences of marketization and modernization: the regime on the one hand needed to introduce markets in order to keep the country running, but on the other hand, the social fallout of this process could also be subversive. Since the Internet is the most likely space in which this subversive effect would begin, it has become something that the Chinese rulers must control with utter thoroughness.

Before market reforms, the totalitarian system in China had no civil society to speak of, and the movement of resources, information, and people were all under its absolute control. The work unit (单位) and People’s Communes (人民公社) were the basic social structures, and every individual was integrated into a system of direct management and even personal control. Through this, the system gained extraordinary stability. Of course, such a system also lost its vitality, falling into stagnation and want which not only exemplified the differences with the free world in terms of economic, scientific, and military development, but also brought general dissatisfaction, including inside the the ruling group itself.

This apparatus saps the energy from the system, and in extreme cases can become another threat to it. The massive changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to a large degree demonstrated this. In this regard, mainland China’s limited introduction of market economy can be seen as a need for self-repair to overcome its own systemic deficiencies, narrow the gap between it and the rest of the world in the development of its economy, science and military, and boost the vigor and lifespan of the dictatorship.

Over the last 30 years the market reforms in China have to a very large degree achieved those goals: markets have brought economic development, they’ve overcome general stagnation and underdevelopment, and have indeed lessened the gap between China and the rest of the world on the economic, scientific, and military fronts. This is the basis of the so-called “Three Self-Confidences.” It’s also clear that reforms have since the beginning all been about preserving the dictatorship, not what some wishful observers think — a step in the transformation of China’s polity toward a democracy.

However, while the regime gained all these benefits, markets have indeed brought new challenges for the maintenance of dictatorship.

First, market reform requires the free movement of capital, information, and people, so members of society need to be granted personal rights, economic rights, and cultural (and consumption) rights. This also inevitably brings about the dissolution of the work unit and commune system, and removes the vast majority of the people from direct, personal control by the state.

Secondly, marketization has brought about new constellation of interests and resulted in new social groups, who each have their own interests and demands, one after another. For instance, statistics from varying sources all indicate that mass incidents [protests involving between dozens and tens of thousands of people] have gone straight up in recent years.

Finally, marketization and opening up have the inevitable effect of stimulating demands for rights from newly emerged classes, spreading liberal ideas, and expanding the social base of people who harbor fundamental suspicions about the status quo.

All these changes on the one hand bring endless pressure for the authorities to engage in “stability maintenance,” and on the other become a primordial fear they will never be able to shake: The vast masses, who are not under direct administrative control and who are free to move, have a natural desire for rights and interests that stand in opposition to the system; they have a natural affinity for freedom. As soon as the social and economic conditions appear—that is to say, once a crisis descends—this vast group is entirely capable of turning around, questioning the fundamental legitimacy of the system, and setting off a subversive social movement.

This fear has stalked China’s marketization, and the result of it is the increasing rigidity of the stability maintenance system and the covering-all grid of  social management. 

A relatively free, relaxed, and anonymous Internet has offered just such a suitable platform for such a possibility, and has thus become a thorn in Beijing’s eye. On the one hand, the mainland does not have freedom of speech; all media are still owned and controlled by the government, making the Internet the most important platform for the spreading of liberal thought. On the other hand, China has no freedom of association, and no formal opposition group can form, so cyberspace offers the tools for all kinds of informal associations and opposition networks, and facilitates protest actions. For the authorities, the Internet is the most important, or even only, platform for people under no direct control to assemble together. Not only that, but as soon as the right social conditions arise, and doubts about the system bubble up widely in society, the Internet is the only place it could converge, potentially becoming a platform for revolutionary mobilization. Because of all this, the existence of the Internet for the regime is “the root of all evil.”

Over the last few years, Beijing has launched wave after wave of attacks against the spread of all manner of ideas and protests on the Internet. These attacks have first of all targeted activists that are known to the authorities: through implementing the grid of stability maintenance system, and through a continuous purge from the Internet [through account deletion or censorship], activists have been put under thorough control and pressure. This is evident in the recent mass arrest of lawyers since July 10. After years of continuous repression, they have already eliminated the possibility of any organized resistance developing; and because of this, in the eyes of the authorities, they have already reduced to the utmost the possibility of an organized and subversive movement.

But just eliminating the threat of organized resistance doesn’t mean Beijing can sleep peacefully; there’s still the possibility that under certain economic and social conditions, mass incidents could take place, forming a social movement that topples the regime. If such a movement were to happen, cyberspace and Internet tools again become crucial—their immediacy and scope give them explosive and revolutionary possibilities. For the authorities, getting rid of this is like buying the ultimate insurance policy; or put another way, like finding the final puzzle piece for regime security. This is precisely the base reason for the “Internet Security Law,” and the draft version completely displays Beijing’s intent.

The regime’s claims about Internet sovereignty being the enbodiment and extension of state sovereignty are just a means to block information inflow from the world, and eliminate the voices of support for China’s civil resistance and social movement. Pushing the responsibility onto Internet operators is to thoroughly purge the voices that call the legitimacy of the regime into question, and to get rid of all manner of dissent and protest. And finally, the real name registration system is a means for ridding the Internet of anonymity, allowing the authorities to identify the activists and dissenters, driving them completely out of cyberspace.

After the roll-out of the “Internet Security Law,” the Internet will never have the same freedom, tolerance, and anonymity which have been steadily diminishing anyway. As a result, mainland China’s voices for liberalization and opposition will gradually lose their only platform. And then, even if there are the right social and economic conditions, Beijing will still be able to prevent the Internet from becoming a platform for people and ideas to coalesce, thus lowering the possibility of sudden large-scale gatherings, and stopping the Internet from acting as a source of revolutionary mobilization. The so-called “shut down the Internet according to law” article in the new legislation makes clear this intent.

There is no suspense or uncertainty about the goal of the “Internet Security Law”: it is to keep the dictatorial system in power. Since its entry to China, the Internet has been heralded as the agent of “change in China,” but as the “Internet Security Law” is enacted, this virtual space will fall under the same strict control as real space, and all the romance will depart like a dying breath.

After losing this important, or even sole platform, what form will China’s civil resistance take? Without the Internet as a meeting place for people and ideas, what form will sudden, mass protests take? None of these questions have ready-made answers, but there is no doubt that the “Internet Security Law” will bring the gradual silencing of the Internet, the herald of an unendurable ice age. This will profoundly influence, and even transform, the development of Chinese society.


Mo Zhixu (莫之许)

Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Beijing-based Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor to Chinese-language publications, known for his incisive views on 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.





Also by Mo Zhixu on China Change:

The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China, April 2013

Internet Freedom in China: A Menace that Must Be Removed, March 2014.

The Advent of a National LAN in China, July 2014.


Urban Grid Management and Police State in China: A Brief Overview, by Wu Qiang, China Change, August 2013.


中文原文《莫之许:中国为何要推网络安全法》, translated by China Change.