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Choking on Smog, China’s Urban Dwellers Emerge in Protest

Wu Qiang, December 14, 2016

“They had merely to sit on the edges of Tianfu Square wearing smog masks for police bring them in for interrogation until the early hours of the morning — this is a clear show of how deeply anxious Chengdu authorities are about protests against smog.”

 

wu-qiang_masks_chunxi-rd

Wearing masks, a group of artists and writers sat at Chunxi Road, Chengdu, on December 11.

 

For the last week, inland China has been enveloped in smog. Some cities issued emergency smog warnings; others cancelled outdoor activities at schools. In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, the government banned gatherings in Tianfu Square (天府广场)— as though they were afraid of something. And just as expected, on the weekend, Chengdu residents came out in numbers on Chunxi road in the central business district and on Tianfu Square. Some sat down quietly wearing pollution masks, others held up banners of protest.

In the frigid winter night of a smog-enclosed 2016, the protest of Chengdu residents was like the flash of a shooting star.

These are the “smog politics” of contemporary China. The smog question has almost transformed the landscape of Chinese politics since February 2015, with the broadcast of the documentary “Under the Dome” (穹顶之下) by former CCTV journalist Chai Jing (柴静). The government has been busy: Under the aegis of unifying the Jing-Jin-Ji (Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei) conurbation, Beijing has embarked on a project of social engineering aimed at resolving the smog problem: heavily polluting industries in Hebei have been forced to lower output, stop production, or shutter; Beijing has embarked on a program of “low-end population congestion relief;” and villages on the outskirts of Beijing are in the midst of converting from coal-based to to natural gas energy for heating. Meanwhile, smog continues to enshroud China now and then, and saturating social media is the discontent of the Chinese middle-class, only interrupted from time to time by a variety of other politically-tinged incidents — the “poisoned running tracks,” “the Lei Yang incident,” the “Luo Er fundraising scandal,” and bullying at the Zhongguancun No. 2 Elementary School.

It is as though a new middle class, as full of uncertainty as it is of energy, is rapidly forming its own class politics in the shroud of China’s smog. There is, for instance, the movement to “make a fortune and get out as soon as possible,” referring to emigration. There are also large collectives of underground discontent who express themselves on social media. And then there are always the unexpected small-scale protest actions in the streets.

雾霾_口罩

A man in Hangzhou wearing a mask with the Chinese character 忍 (to put up with). Online photo.

Even as the authorities move to suppress human rights lawyers and emphasize once again political thought work in schools, a politically-awakened middle-class, oriented around the politics of pollution, is forming in a rapidly urbanizing China. With their own series of often indecisive demands and modes of expression, they’ve begun to displace the rights defense movement that came before, and their numbers are quietly growing.

For instance, on the evening of December 11 in Tianfu Square, the majority of those in the sit-in were local artists and culture workers — they’d either come of their own initiative, or were mobilized by emphatic protest slogans shared on social media in the last few days. The online posts advertising the protest seemed to be inspired by the confluence of art and politics over the last few years: the various artistic creations of Ai Weiwei (艾未未), for instance, or the protest performances of the Song Zhuang art circle (北京宋庄艺术圈子), or the anti-smog demonstrations during the Beijing Marathon. They had merely to sit on the edges of Tianfu Square wearing smog masks for police to bring them in for interrogation until the early hours of the morning — this is a clear show of how deeply anxious Chengdu authorities are about protests against smog. Local social media users on Monday even circulated an official notice that the wearing of masks is prohibited during school assembly, and that air purifiers were not going to be installed. It’s as though wearing a face mask is mobilizing for a color revolution.

The deep fearfulness of the regime makes clear the power of middle-class politics “under the dome”: they need barely to raise a crowd — simply holding a small-scale protest action, even when unlikely to have any real effect, makes the authorities extremely nervous, and they rally the troops like it was the eve of battle. The Pengzhou petrochemical project (彭州石化项目), close to Chengdu and most likely to have a deleterious impact on the environment, probably won’t be scrapped because of this. But leading officials in Sichuan and Chengdu know they don’t have the option of putting their feet up and blaming everything on the policies of those who came before. Quite the opposite: it’s likely that in the weeks and months ahead, they’ll be stewing over the protests, like they’re sitting on the mouth of a volcano. Perhaps this is precisely the homogenizing character of smog: concentrated in major cities, yet inescapable to all.

 

wu-qiang_masks_stone-lions

Students at Sichuan Fine Arts Academy put masks on stone lions on campus.

 

This is where smog politics differs from the NIMBY movement of the past few years. When the Pengzhou petrochemical plant got going, Chengdu didn’t erupt in mass protests like those against the paraxylene plant in Xiamen in 2013. That requires a small number of committed environmental activists coupled with widespread public engagement — but now the prophylactic and suppressive power of the security forces has grown so quickly, they’re able to shut such protests down.

Smog is different. Within just a few years, it’s turned all city dwellers into collective victims — and amplified the sense of frustration and grievance of those who are trying, and every day failing, to enter the middle class. The most aggrieved among them aren’t rights defenders that the authorities have already identified, ready to apprehend at a moment’s notice. Now, no matter how small the protest is — even if it’s just a selfie with a slogan written on paper — as soon as it happens, the homogenizing character of China’s pollution politics means that everyone soon hears about it, and it becomes a general protest.

All this means that everyone — not just those in North China, or denizens along the Yangtze river or coast, but the central and local governments too, and the state-backed “environmental experts” who were brought out to defend the Pengzhou petrochemical plant, as well as the nationalists like Zhou Xiaoping (周小平) — now finds themselves in an uncertain and unprecedented gambit. There’s no solution: only the arrival of a crisp northern gale, or a summer typhoon, is able to temporarily lift the stifling smog.

But these two natural forces are no help to those in the Chengdu basin. As long as the smog doesn’t clear, protests in Chengdu will continue to serve as a model specimen of China’s pollution politics, keeping the discussion alive among the urbanized middle class, fanning debate, and inviting citizens elsewhere to emulate. This will be a test of whether or not China has something like a “civil society,” and whether its middle class has political significance. Like France on the eve of 1789, any spontaneous protests by Chengdu citizens could turn into a movement demanding clean air. When that happens, the final stage of pollution politics will have arrived.

 

Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. He is a researcher of social movements and a freelance writer.

 

 

Also by Wu Qiang:

The Death and Life of Middle Class Politics in China

The Four Forces of China’s Politics of Smog

What Do Lu Yuyu’s Statistics of Protest Tell Us About the Chinese Society Today?

 

 

“They told us to love the Chinese and ‘look East’ for solutions” – Stories of China in Africa

As we looked at yesterday, China may not be as welcomed in Africa as some authors might argue. My friends told me a few stories after reflecting on our first discussion that I thought should be shared, but didn’t quite fit into yesterday’s post.*

Friend from Zambia

You know, it’s probably not fair to think that the Chinese are only bad for Zambia. If they weren’t there many of the mines would have closed. Any job is better than no job. The people working in the mines just consider how much better things were for them when the mines were operated by the gov’t, rather than thinking about what it would be like without any job at all. If we were rational we’d probably be thankful, but we aren’t.

We have a law that the bosses of the mines should be down in the shafts with the workers (this is supposed to improve safety), but when one of the mines collapsed it was only dead Zambians, the Chinese bosses didn’t even get dust on them. This happens in China too, but its not acceptable for them to do business in Zambia like they do in China. Were trying to get rid of corruption in my country, but it seems even more difficult when foreign companies refuse to obey the laws.

Friend from Zimbabwe

I remember when our economy collapsed after Mugabe took the land from the white farmers and gave it away. We didn’t call it land re-distribution, we called it something like “cleaning up.” After that with the sanctions and the departure of foreign companies, it was like things got worse every day. We had to start lining up for bread at midnight, and it seemed like every few weeks they were having to cut another string of zeroes from our money. It was a mess.

Then the Chinese came to invest, and things stopped getting worse. The government told us at that time to love the Chinese, and to “look East” for solutions to our problems. We didn’t like them though. Around that time, the government started cutting off all of the other voices in the media, so people started buying satellite dishes so they could watch foreign news and dramas. The government was then going to make these dishes illegal, and it was like we were becoming China.

When the Chinese companies came, they always brought a lot of their own workers, and so the government gave them some land in our low-density neighborhoods for housing. A few months later they had built a high-rise apartment building in the middle of this suburb. In that area people had walls around their home for privacy, but with this new building there was no more privacy.

Friend from Ghana

Even though it’s been decades since the colonialists left, our governments still have a colonial mind set when it comes to our economies. We export resources to foreign companies instead of refining them. This limits employment, and keeps us from realizing the full value of our resources. It’s not that China is colonizing us, but that they encourage us to keep the same frame of mind.  Our leaders our interested in the easy gains, but one day our minerals and oil will run out and then what will we do?

Conclusion

These stories highlight an important lesson that most world powers forget – just because you’re doing something that grows GDP doesn’t mean that you will be liked for it (ask a Tibetan, Uighur, Afghan…). China is helping to develop Africa’s economy, but many Africans want to see improvements in their governments. In my friends’ view it seems that their government officials are getting richer while their own needs go unmet. Like most foreign based projects, China is offering what it has available instead of what the locals are asking for, and these two forces create tension and opposition.

*These are paraphrases, not word for word, but the speakers have reviewed them to make sure I captured their thoughts.

Criticizing Everything – An interview with Chinese satirist Crazy Crab of Hexie Farm

It’s not surprising that China lacks a forum for cutting political cartoons, but one artist is challenging the Party’s dominance with pigs and ducks. Crazy Crab’s satirical cartoons on China, which he posts on his site Hexie farm, show the absurd nature of China’s one-party dictatorship and its efforts to silence discussion. He is probably best known for his work on the Chen Guangcheng dark glasses portrait campaign, and his series on China Digital Times.

Tom: How would you describe yourself and your work?

Crazy Crab: I’m an anonymous cartoonist who doesn’t know how to tell a joke.

I started to draw Hexie Farm in late 2009. It’s a series of political cartoons depicting a ‘great, glorious and correct’ era of ‘harmony’.

Were you always interested in politics or was there an event that changed how you view things?

No, I don’t like politics, especially the politics in China. I have been trying to evade it for a long time. I was only an engineer before I started to draw.

There were two events in late 2009 that made me start drawing political cartoons: One was Feng Zhenghu being refused entry to China, the other was the self-immolation of Tang Fuzhen. At that time, I could not find a Chinese cartoon relating to those two events. So I thought maybe I could try it. So I did it.

What do you hope to accomplish with your art?

There are lots of cartoonists in China. However, real political satires are still rare. No cartoonist dares to challenge the One-Party dictatorship and question the political system. I hope my cartoons could make a change.

Do you have a favorite cartoon and can you describe what was the motivation behind its creation?

I like some simple cartoons, for example, this cartoon I drew last year.

The standing committee had had a friendly and harmonious atmosphere, until discussion of the next generation of leadership started

It predicted that some events would happen in the future.  And it did happen, for instance the recent removal of Bo Xilai and the Wang Lijun incident.

The other one, is simply a truth that most people haven’t noticed yet.

For months you dedicated cartoons to the plight of Chen Guangcheng, and headed up the dark glasses campaign to raise awareness and show support. How did you feel when you heard that Chen had escaped from Linyi?

I just couldn’t believe that Chen Guangcheng escaped at that moment. Yes, I couldn’t help but burst into tears like a child when I found it was true.

Now that Chen is in the US, what cause will you shine your spotlight on next?

I don’t know. Chen is free now, however there are still many other people similar to him, for instance Feng Zhenghu and Liu Xia. They are also under illegal house arrest without any reason. Due to censorship, lots of similar stories, especially if they are common people, can’t even be known.

I don’t know what the next one will be. I hope it will be a funny one. At present, I’m just working on cartooning.

Activists and Dissidents are often labeled as anti-China and are accused of being funded by nefarious foreign forces. Are you anti-China? Do you receive funding from the US state department?

I’m anti-dictatorship, is it anti-China? I know some activists and dissidents who clearly say that they are not against the government, but just want to seek justice or defend their property.

No, I don’t have any funding. But I would like to try. Is there any funding I can apply for? (I’m not joking :))

When you first started posting your comics online, were you worried about the repercussions? Was there a specific one that made you more nervous than others to put up?

Yes, I worried a lot even before I started. My first question was: “Am I crazy enough to draw such political satire for nothing but a nightmare?” This question always bothers me. I don’t have an answer yet.

There are lots of cartoons that make me nervous (It’s unfair, because some of them make the audience laugh loudly). For example, some cartoons about Chairman Mao. But the cartoons that caused me the most sleepless nights are eight cartoons about Tibet. It might be the first Chinese cartoons, by a Han person, standing up for Tibet’s right to be free from religious repression.

Would you describe your battles with censorship and the absurd system as work or play?

It’s not play. Nobody wants to play with the security police. It’s not funny. It’s not a job either. Although I really want to take cartooning as a serious work, it’s very hard to find a place to publish these cartoons. There are only a handful media outlets that can publish this kind of cartoons. Some use them without paying and they take this for granted.

To me, I’m drawing these cartoons just because I want to see how far I can go with my pen.

What do you hope for China?

I hope China will be a country where people have rights to vote, a country where everyone can speak out without fear, and a country where political cartoonists can make a better living by criticizing everything 🙂

Special Offer: For the very first time Crazy Crab is making his art available for sale! If you are interested in buying signed prints of his cutting cartoons you can contact him on Twitter at @hexiefarm, or on Google+ at 蟹农场 (you can choose from anything featured on his site). Prints are usually $25+shipping, but for his first few customers he’s offering a 50% discount. So support a dissident artist and get some pretty great art at the same time.

Heard on Weibo 2/27-3/4 – Giving up Lei Feng for Fatty, Occupy Obama, and more from Chinese netizens

Earlier this week, out of nowhere, netizens in China found G+ was accessible and some began to post comments on President Obama’s campaign account making appeals such as “Free Chen Guangcheng.” By now all the rowdies have shown up, and I had difficulty cutting a screen shot with a CGC message on it. What a pity. This week, the annual National People’s Congress (NPC) and National Political Consultative Conference are getting ready to open on March 3rd and 5th respectively, and it is also the time of the year when online satire and sarcasm are at their thickest. Also this week, the latest spasm of “Learning from Lei Feng” campaign went full blown on state media, but this time around, thanks to the existence of Weibo, the deconstruction of Lei Feng by netizens is ruthless, overwhelming, and thorough. Click date below item for link to the original.   

  • 北风(温云超)@wenyunchao/(social activist, advocate of social media)/: A more apt description of the “Occupy Obama” phenomenon on G+ would be: the Chinese netizens take every possible opportunity to express their contempt for, and shame of, their country’s rulers.

8:09 AM – 27 Feb 12 via web 6 Retweets

G+ Occupy Obama

  • 蒲飞@pufei/(netizen who maintains the human rights website Tianwang in Chengdu)/: Next week, parent associations of top European and American universities will convene in Beijing. So will a summit of high-end clients of overseas banks.

8:53 PM – 28 Feb 12 via 32 Retweets 1 Favorite

  • 雒树刚/Luo Shugang/(Deputy Director, Propaganda Department of the Communist Party)/: The number one element of the Lei Feng spirit is to love the party, the country and socialism. (link)
  • 王冉/Wang Ran/(Investment banker)/: To try to solve the problem of moral bankruptcy with Lei Feng is like restoring virginity with a band-aid. To rebuild China’s moral system, people have to have faith, the nation has to have rule of law, power has to be caged, and the government has to be confined within borders.

Feb.27  21:53 Sina Weibo  Repost(3167) Comment(767)

  • 史上第一最震惊/Shi shang di yi zhen jing/No. 1 shock in history/(netizen)/:Your children have all emigrated, but you want me to learn from Lei Feng. I could be getting cancer just drinking milk, but you want me to learn from Lei Feng. Sinopec buys Mercedes-Benz in bulk, and you still want me to learn from Lei Feng! You eat banquets that cost 10,000 yuan each, you ride in luxury cars, live in villas, enjoy prodigious benefits, and fuck everywhere you go, whereas I eat gutter oil, my children drink fake milk, I work myself to death for 3,000 yuan a month and pay taxes… And you dare to ask me to learn from Leng Fei without asking questions. Learn from Lei Feng! learn from Lei Feng! Are you telling me to die early like Lei Feng?  (Via @作业本/notebook/author, well-known Weibo personality)

Mar1 00:10 Sina Weibo Repost(431) Comment(60)

In the past we learned from Lei Feng; for the future we learn from Fatty! (Fatty is a term of endearment for Ai Weiwei)

  •  人海骈民@jianjian5614/Ran Hai  Pian Min/(netizen)/: Zhang Jun, the propaganda clerk whose job was to photograph Lei Feng, recalled that, to establish this role model, the Shenyang Military Zone formed a photography team and a diary assistance team for Lei Feng. Over the course of more than two years, the photographer team took 300 plus pictures of Lei Feng, averaging one picture every three days. This is the truth behind Lei Feng the anonymous do-gooder who happened to have left a lot of photos and diaries. But it is only in recently years when the public has had access to internet freedom, although limited, that more truth about Lei Feng has been discovered.

6:21 AM – 29 Feb 12 via 12 Retweets 2 Favorites

  • 林奇99 /Lin Qi/(teacher, author)/:  It is not so much Lei Feng, or the Learn-from-Lei-Feng campaign, that irks people. On the contrary, the public’s desire for a moral society is stronger than ever. What’s repulsive is the absurdity of the attempt to use power to alter the moral landscape, the appropriation of Lei Feng as a move in a political game, the fact that those who call for learning from Lei Feng are themselves doing the opposite.

Feb. 29  09:53 Sina Weibo Repost(1138)  Comment(269)

王晓渔  /Wang Xiaoyu/(scholar, cultural critic)/: The most accurate conclusion about Lei Feng came from nowhere else but his own diary. He wrote on October 11, 1958, “[I will] be an obedient tool of the Party, resolutely and unconditionally.”

Feb.29 11:08 Sina Weibo Repost(2864) Comment(726)

Take a listen to the song “Learn from the Good Example of Lei Feng”, written in 1963 and available now on websites of the Youth League and party apparatus.

Lyrics from the first section: “Learn from the good example of Lei Feng. Be loyal to the revolution and be loyal to the party. We love and we hate with clarity. We do not forget our roots. We take a firm stand. We have a strong will to fight.”

The Chinese have had enough! To rebuild the moral and cultural foundation of the Chinese citizens, start with rejecting Lei Feng as a role model!

Drinking Tea with the State Security Police – Components of a He Cha Session

By Yaxue Cao

…Continued from yesterday

Components of a He Cha Session

When the state security police descended on these law-biding citizens, often in plain clothes, asking to have a talk with him or her, they didn’t bother to show their ID and did so only reluctantly in some cases when the interrogatee insisted.

Never mind the warrant. There was none.

In one case, the wife of an interrogatee opened the door to find policemen asking her husband to go with them. When she asked why, she was told “it’s inconvenient to say.” When she insisted the police show a warrant, the police said there was no warrant, threatened to use force, adding, “You are in China.”

The Interrogation:

The security police asked an interrogatee’s name, employer, what websites he or she had visited, who were his or her friends, questions about what he or she did, with whom he or she was associated, especially who “directed” him or her, his or her motivation and purpose. From the questions they asked, it is clear that there aren’t areas where they would not invade.

Answering questions, the interrogatee and the police engaged in a back-and-forth exchange where the police tried to impose themselves, and the interrogatee tries to defend him/herself or evade their questions for self-protection. While each interrogatee handled his or her own situation differently, the state security police emerged to be very similar in the narrative they tried to impose and the threats they made:

  • Stability is all, turmoil is bad for everyone, and you have to take into consideration the interests of the nation;
  • Democracy is not for China; look at Taiwan, what a mess (the Party was making the most of the brawling scenes seen in Taiwan’s legislative body, but I am sure the Taiwan card can no longer be played now that enough people have seen the latest Taiwanese presidential election with envy and admiration);
  • China is doing great; other countries are suffering from economic crises while China has tons of money;
  • You have family responsibilities, you have social responsibilities, and what you have done is irresponsible;
  • Your thoughts are not normal; these are not things for you to worry about; and you should mind your own business and focus on making money;
  • Ai Weiwei is a bad person; he is associated with anti-China forces overseas; he gets awards from them;
  • What you are doing is bad for yourself. Do you want to end up in jail? Going forward in life, do you want to have a criminal record?
  • You are manipulated by others; others are using you;
  • America also has corruption and injustice;
  • Activists overseas are all controlled and financed by the US government and their job is to disrupt and sabotage China.

The list can go on depending on what occupies the security police at the moment.

Their ignorance nauseated quite a few of the people they tried to “educate” with the “right thoughts.” In one session, the security police looked blank when the interrogatee mentioned the names of Gandhi, Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, and were puzzled by his statement that “government should be locked up in a cage.” In another, the police appeared not to know what Twitter was and asked whether it was the website of the interrogatee.

Most of the security police tried their best to play nice at the beginning. But as the conversation went on and they became frustrated, they would often jump up, smacking the table or huffing at the interrogatee. In one case, several security policemen yelled at the interrogatee, sticking their fingers in his face, “Are you a Chinese or not?”

You are not a Chinese if you are not like them.

In another case, when the interrogatee argued it was his natural right to attend the River Crab Banquet (河蟹大宴), an event to be held in Shanghai by Ai Weiwei in 2010, the police blasted, “Don’t talk about natural rights with me! Here the Communist Party rules!”

At the end of the session, an interrogatee was asked to sign the transcript of the interrogation, authenticating it with his or her finger print.

The Search:

Without exception, the security police searched computers of the interrogatees.

They looked up search histories and browsing history, downloaded personal files and, in one case, two Japanese pornographic films, which made the interrogatee wonder what it was for: for the policeman himself or for his job?

In some cases, they rummaged through the books an interrogatee had around, questioning why he read certain titles. A policeman turned red when he discovered a book titled On American Democracy. “Where did you get this book?” It was available in bookstores everywhere.

They photocopied IDs and business cards. In a few cases, they took away the computers and didn’t return them until days later.

In one case, they demanded to see, and photocopied, the interrogatee’s bank deposit book.

They didn’t always give the interrogatee a list of the things they took away.

The Guarantee:

Without exception, they asked the interrogatee to sign a written document, toward the end of the session, guaranteeing he or she would not do certain things. There was always pain and shame on the part of the signees because they had done nothing wrong; but they knew they had to submit, or they would invite more trouble for themselves.

About the inevitability of submission, Wang Lijun (王立军), the former head of Public Security in Chongqing who recently sought asylum in the American Consulate in Chengdu, knows best. “If I am jailed, I will have to say whatever they ask me to say,” he was reported to have told the Americans.

In some cases, they asked the interrogatees to report their activities and whereabouts everyday.

Threats and Insinuations They Made

Needless to say, he cha is all about intimidation, direct and indirect:

  • What you have done would have landed you in jail in the past;
  • You haven’t broken the law, but you have gone astray, and you are moving toward committing crimes. We are helping you and you should know better;
  • If we want to, we can jail you this minute;
  • (to a young man who gets paid for his writings for overseas publications and sites) We will see that you receive not a penny!
  • (to a man who makes 8-9k a month) It would be a pity if you lose your job for doing what you did;
  • Where does your wife work? What’s her name?
  • Where do your parents live?
  • Who is your landlord? (More often than not, the security police came with this information already and, in more than one case, the landlords were so scared that they quickly drove the tenants away.)

He cha, it appeared, doesn’t involve beating or sustained verbal abuse. That’s because it is the “low end” of the government intimidation and persecution, and depending on how big a threat you are in their perception, things can become much worse. Gu Chuan, an activist and former editor-in-chief of a blog host, was he cha-ed twice, for signing a condolence letter for Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳) in 2005 and for signing 08 Charter in 2009. And last year during the Jasmine paranoia, he was detained for 63 days and tortured badly.  

Responses of the Interrogatees

Some people dealt with their he cha sessions with composure and even playfulness, others left useful advice, such as “be firm and you have done nothing wrong.”

One of them, who was he cha-ed for signing an online appeal to eradicate prison bullying, felt deeply hurt and saddened: “How can they possibly visit me for this? How can they pressure a citizen for expressing himself out of conscience? How can they be so weak?”

One way or another, it is hard to exaggerate the kind of fear he cha can strike into ordinary people. It lays bare the fact that the state has every power over you, is prepared to use it in the most wanton way, while you have no power, no rights, and there is nothing you can do to protect yourself.

A man, who was taken to a police station and questioned about his blog and his signing an appeal against the detention of a Uighur scholar, wrote: “Nervousness aside, I was so frightened to see the two policemen. I kept thinking how will this develop, how should I answer their questions? When they asked about my family, I became more afraid. …

“…If I don’t yield, what will they do to me? Will they simply take me and jail me? Are they going to search my computer? Will they use the pornography in my computer against me?

“The interrogation is over for more than a day now,” he continued, “but I am still deeply upset. …What’s so disconcerting is not so much about the confession I wrote in the station, nor am I fearing for what they may do to me next. What bothers me is not the fear itself, but why I am so fearful. Why am I so fearful for something I believe I did right? Why am I so fearful for the videos and files saved in my computer? Why am I scared by the mere question ‘Do you pay attention to politics?’”

“Never before have I longed for freedom so badly as I do this moment—freedom from fear.”

Since I had the idea of writing a post about he cha a few of weeks ago, I have been paying attention to he cha-related tweets on Twitter. A young man reported being he cha-ed in Sichuan for attempting to travel to the Tibetan areas in northern Sichuan; another, a volunteer translator for a site that translates overseas articles, reported that his editor was he cha-ed for publishing “radical” translations; a man was he cha-ed for posts regarding the water contamination in Zhenjiang; Tibetan writer Woeser was summoned for the Nth time for her writings and tweets; an artist in Beijing was he cha-ed for staging a performance art show in support of the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng; a young mother was he cha-ed for being one of the organizers of the “Right for Fair Education” movement that seeks access to education for children of migrant workers.

The list can go on and on. I have learned for the first time how widespread he cha is and how much the state security police is watching. It seems that they are watching everywhere and everyone.

Just the other day, three Twitter friends had the following exchange:

A: There are far more ordinary netizens who have had he cha experience than we imagine. Sit at a table with a group of netizens you have never met before, you are bound to find someone who has been he cha-ed. There are all sorts of reasons for it, but none for breaking the law.

B: It’s good to he cha—it improves your sight.

C: The government creates its opponents through he cha.

All three of them have had he cha experience, perhaps more than once, and they know.

I, for one, am glad people shared their he cha experiences and made it public. When the security police, without exception, threaten, or coax you not to tell, you know you must tell, and to tell is the only weapon you’ve got.

China isn’t ready for democracy – Vote buying, low quality people, and other excuses

The idea that democracy doesn’t fit China’s national condition seems to be a weekly feature in the Global Times (like today’s article). The arguments provided in these pieces not only show a disgusting contempt for the common Chinese person (we’ll call them “laobaixing (老百姓) from here on), but also expose the deeper flaws in the current electoral-system which is a faux-democracy at best.

At present, China’s political system allows for choosing representatives at the local government level, these candidates though are handpicked by the Party. In the last round of elections there were several independent candidates, but many of these were harassed by the police and marginalized in the election. These elected officials are partially responsible for selecting the higher levels of gov’t although they too face a limited choice of candidates, and are frequently told how to vote. As a student in one of my wife’s classes stated with misguided pride, “In China, we don’t have to vote for our president.” In China the results of an election are often known before the first vote is cast.

The gov’t is interested in providing an appearance of reform while maintaining the current structure that ensures Party officials have the final say in village decisions. Voting for local officials who are established as supporting the Party means that this small concession appears as a step towards democracy, without fundamentally changing the higher levels of power.

Vote Buying

Many people have pointed to the fact that China’s poor would be easily swayed by money from politicians. Evan Osnos, from the New Yorker, covered a recent case of election fraud in Central China where two candidates reportedly paid a total of 9,000rmb per voter to secure votes in their campaign. As government positions offer lucrative opportunities for collecting bribes and other illicit financial gains, it is not surprising that some are willing to pay for these posts. In fact, the amount paid in this case indicates that some officials are able to make more than 5,000rmb per constituent from their office.

The Party argues that this is another reason that Democracy shouldn’t be expanded. The poor are simply too easy to buy, and the rich would just buy the elections leading to a Chinese Oligarchy. How is this different than the current system? As Bloomberg reported today,

“The net worth of the 70 richest delegates in China’s National People’s Congress, which opens its annual session on March 5, rose to 565.8 billion yuan ($89.8 billion) in 2011, a gain of $11.5 billion from 2010, according to figures from the Hurun Report, which tracks the country’s wealthy. That compares to the $7.5 billion net worth of all 660 top officials in the three branches of the U.S. government.”

This also ignores the facts on the ground. In many of the elections over the past year the most popular independent candidates were not gaining support because of their ability to buy votes, instead they were people advocating the construction of convenient marketsclean governance, and airing the complaints of the laobaixing. Unfortunately, none of these people actually managed to run for election, as they were arbitrarily disqualified from the races, ignoring the current election laws.

This indicates that perhaps the real reforms come after the establishment of a functioning democracy, and are not possible without it. Democracy, as a political system, can survive the initial turbulence as it adapts to the “unique” problems of a country. Advocates acknowledge that problems like corruption are not magically wiped away with a political shift, but there is some indication that democracy is useful in supporting efforts to limit it (18 of the 20 least corrupt countries are democracies).

That the laobaixing must wait for China’s national condition to improve, is an unfounded claim that ignores the history of dozens of successful democracies.

Low Quality People

As popular blogger Han Han argued at the start of the year, China isn’t ready for democracy, because the people aren’t capable of making their own good decisions (Charlie Custer, from ChinaGeeks.org, wrote an excellent post exploring this particular issue). This idea has been put forth time and again by Party sympathizers, that simply the character of the average laobaixing is too low to make these kinds of decisions (Similar arguments were made in the US around the turn of the century in relation to voting rights for minorities and women).

The part of this argument that I find the most sickening, is that many Chinese are poorly educated and are therefore ill-equipped for democracy. But who is responsible for the current state of China’s educational system? The very people who would lose the most in a democracy.

Given this, it is also worth noting that China’s current system seems incapable of promoting people worthy of public service. With rampant corruption leading to weekly scandals that effect the lives of the laobaixing, what evidence is there that democracy would make things worse? Are farmers really more likely to vote for candidates that can’t protect their land rights? Would urbanites put up with officials that approve the construction of heavily polluting factories that send their children to the hospital?

In fact, the results of low-level elections have already achieved encouraging results in the countryside. As John Kennedy noted in a 2001 study, village elections result in leaders that are more accountable to the villagers, and results in more equitable land distribution (cited in this 2009 paper by Kevin O’brien and Rongbin Han which is worth reading). The problem is that elected village leaders are still dominated by local Party secretaries in a way that minimizes the voice of the laobaixing.

Last week when I was talking with a cabbie we somehow ended up on the topic of gun ownership in the US, she told me that “in China, the quality of the people is too low. If you give them guns there will be chaos.” I explained that our right to gun ownership stems from our revolution, and that in theory we could use them to overthrow our government if it stops representing our interests. She nodded and added, “I think in China this is what the government is really afraid of.” To the Party, votes are no less dangerous.