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China’s ‘Perfect Dictatorship’ and Its Impact — An Interview With Professor Stein Ringen

China Change, November 6, 2018 

Teng Biao interviewed Prof. Stein Ringen on August 2, 2018 and October 5 via Skype. Stein Ringen is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Oxford and Professor of Political Economy at King’s College London. Teng Biao is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute, New York University and a Chinese human rights lawyer. – The Editors

 

Ringen_the perfect dictatorship

 Teng Biao (TB): I think your book, The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century, is one of the best books on Chinese politics in recent years. Is this your first book on China? What inspired you to study China?

Stein Ringen (SR): First, I’m interested in governments and states and how they work. This is the biggest and most challenging one. So if you want to understand states you need to understand the Chinese state, and so there’s the challenge. The other reason is that I had already done a study of the South Korean state. And I thought that the developmental states’ experience of Korea might be a relevant background for looking into the Chinese story. I thought it might be rather similar. In fact, it turned out that the Chinese story is very, very different.

TB: Yes, and then you wrote the book The Perfect Dictatorship. Why did you choose this title?

SR: I found that it is a dictatorship that is, from its own point of view, functioning very well. It is a dictatorship that is in full control. So my idea with the title was not to praise the Chinese system but to give a warning that this is a dictatorship that is very hard, and very much in control.

TB: In your book you created some interesting concepts, like “controlocracy.” What do you want to suggest by creating this term?

SR: The idea was, on the one hand, to say that this is a regime that is dictatorial, but in a way that sometimes it doesn’t even look dictatorial. It is obsessed with being in control. It is not obsessed with dictating everyone in their daily lives. It’s not like under Mao that people have to dress in a certain way or like certain forms of entertainment. But, it is in control. So control is the commanding feature of this dictatorship and it is very good at keeping and staying in control. The party-state is everywhere. It sees everything and knows everything, and they are in their very big population in perfect control.

TB: Another thought-provoking term in your book is “sophisticated totalitarianism.” In a piece I wrote recently for ChinaFile, I cited your term and elaborated on it a bit. I wrote: “This totalitarianism is strict and refined without being brittle and dogmatic; it’s cruel and barbaric without being chaotic. China’s booming economy, social stability, and apparent popular support for Xi have fooled both the world and most Chinese citizens.”  What’s your view on the difference between this “sophisticated totalitarianism” and Stalin or Mao Zedong-style total control system? Is this system more adaptable, flexible and resilient, than traditional totalitarianism? Is the CCP able to learn from the collapse of other party-state dictatorships and maintain its own monopoly on power for quite a long time, say 40 or 50 years?

SR: It’s not acceptable. It is a very hard dictatorship and is therefore an unacceptable form of government. But they are very clever in making themselves look acceptable. I think both within China, but also in the outside world. As you know, people keep travelling to China and when they come back they are starry-eyed in admiration of the delivery of the system. So they are very much able to control their own narrative both at home and abroad. And, of course, they have learned very much from the collapse of the Soviet Union, which in Beijing was studied very carefully. And they understood the weaknesses in the Soviet Union that they had to prevent at home. These are, for example, to never lose control of the narrative, to always consolidate the alliance between the Party and the military, to maintain surveillance and propaganda and censorship ruthlessly, and to never let go, and also to not allow factions in the Party system. This they learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union and they are determined that there shall not be a similar kind of collapse in the Chinese system.

TB: Former Singapore UN ambassador Kishore Mahbubani once said that every year tens of millions of Chinese people travel internationally and then they voluntarily go back to China. He used this as a strong example to praise the so-called “China Model.” What do you think are the reasons? Do you agree with that?

SR: Many Chinese are traveling. Mainly, I think, because they can afford it; they have enough money to be able to travel internationally. We know that very much in Europe, for example, that there are very many Chinese tourists who travel here. They go back. On the other hand, there are many people in China who leave the country either because they have to, you know something about that, or because they wish to send their children to education outside of China. They try to bring their own money out of China to invest it and secure it outside of China. So many of those who are able, are showing with their behavior that they do not have much confidence in the future of the Chinese regime. The idea that the Chinese regime is better, the Chinese model is better than a democratic model, for example, is a very powerful narrative from the regime’s side. But we need to keep priorities right here. It is not a system that is better just because it delivers development, because it does that at the cost of depriving all Chinese of freedom. We know about authoritarian, totalitarian regimes previously, and that is the main characteristic of this regime. It is to the benefit of some, but it deprives everyone of liberty and freedom.

TB: Relatedly, George Orwell’s 1984 was famously regarded as a perfect dictatorship, do you think China’s “controlocracy” is equal to 1984, or is it even an advanced version of 1984? And I also used the term “technical totalitarianism” to analyze the advanced version of totalitarianism in China, with such examples as networked “stability maintenance,” big data, street cameras, facial recognition, voiceprint recognition, artificial intelligence, DNA collection, strengthening of the secret police, the Great Firewall, etc. Are we exaggerating the ability of the dictators’ use of high-tech? Aren’t high-tech and new tools a double-edged sword that can be utilized by civil society or resisters as well? 

SR: Yes, China is very much like Orwell’s warning, including in the control of language, control of history, control of the narrative. But they have moved on because they now have technologies that Orwell could not even imagine at the time. And these technologies, these modern technologies, are being used for control in a very sophisticated way by the Chinese authorities. They are in control of the Internet. It was long thought to be obvious that no dictatorship can control the Internet. But the Chinese dictatorship is in control of it. They are actively using the Internet by engineering the stories that circulate. They are using other technologies, big data systems, facial recognition. All of this in order to control what is happening in their country. I mean this is now very advanced, particularly in Xinjiang, which is a police state of the kind that has never been seen previously. In the last few years, as you well know, the security budgets in that province have doubled year by year. And the control, explicit control there, by old-fashioned means –– police and military forces –– and modern means –– electronic surveillance, is still a kind that has never been seen previously. There has never been control of this kind anywhere in any country before, like the way we see now. We now see it unrolling in China.

TB: You know I was a human rights lawyer for 14 years in mainland China. Harshly speaking, during Hu Jintao’s era, we had some space to develop our human rights movement. And we felt that the Internet-related technology were more in favor of the civil society than the government, even though we knew both the human rights communities and the rulers made use of high tech. Now it seems that we should not be that optimistic.

SR: You know better than I do. The community of human rights lawyers has suffered very badly in China in the last several years. What was at one time, you say, a movement is now really crushed, and it has become very much more difficult for your brave colleagues to continue their work in China. Many have their businesses shut down. Many have been imprisoned, persecuted in other ways, and their ability to stay in touch with each other has been reduced very strongly. So it’s a very sad story what’s happened to that brave community. This is a story you know better than I do, but it is very hard to watch from the outside. There was a vibrant, brave community of lawyers, and they have really been taken down.

TB: Yes. The 709 crackdown on rights lawyers is the worst crackdown on lawyers since the legal system was reconstructed in 1978 after the Cultural Revolution. 

TB: Most people know that China is one of the most unfree countries, but forget China is also one of the most unequal countries. How does this inequality affect the CCP’s political legitimacy? Or is it a necessity of the one-party rule of the Communist Party?

SR: Well, in my book about China, I looked at both inequality, poverty and public services. And I looked at taxes. I found that the tax burden of the Chinese people is very, very high. What is returned to the people in the form of services is minimal. Inequality has been increasing very rapidly. So now China is one of the most unequal societies in the world. And I think this is part of the reason for the dictatorship, because these are realities that could not be maintained under a democratic system ––the combination of very heavy taxes and very inferior services. It just doesn’t always look like that to observers, but that is the way it is. So the system, the political economy, extracts enormous resources from households and returns to the household sector a system of rising inequality. That is explosive in any society and is part of the reason why this regime needs to maintain such draconian controls as they do.

TB: The ideology of Marxism-Communism-Maoism has gradually declined in China. The CCP, and most Chinese people believe in money and power. How does this shift influence the CCP’s rule? Is this the reason why Xi Jinping tried to resort to a return to ideology and a cult of personality? 

SR: Yes, among the innovations of Xi Jinping is the reintroduction of ideology, but now not Marxist ideology, but a strongly nationalistic ideology. His slogan of the “China Dream” and all that is a nationalistic narrative. So here we have a regime that is very strong, very dictatorial that is giving itself guidance by an ideology of nationalism and chauvinism. These are Xi Jinping’s innovations, the heart of his relentless movements of the regime into a heavier and heavier dictatorship.

TB: You mentioned nationalism. You know when the Chinese Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China, they strongly — and successfully — utilized nationalism. Theoretically, nationalism is in conflict with Marxist theory—i.e., communism and internationalism. So, from the beginning, paradoxically, the CCP employed a mix of Marxism and nationalism, and now maybe they feel they need more nationalism. Do you agree with that? 

SR: Yes I do. I think that part of the regime’s efforts to control the narrative is that they need an ideological superstructure. They need a story of purpose for the regime, and for the nation. And that they are now finding not in Marxist internationalism but in Chinese nationalism. And that story of nationalism has been notched up very strongly and very explicitly by Xi Jinping. This is again part of the control system. This is a regime that gives itself the praise that they have the support of the people, but at the same time, it never ever trusts in the support of the people. So they never relax controls even though they say that they are governing in such a way that they have the support of the people. They do not for one moment trust that that support is genuine. So they rely on controls.

TB::Some scholars noticed the similarity between the current Xi Jinping regime and Hitler’s Third Reich. The one-party rule and the total control of society. Ideology, propaganda, brainwashing, nationalism. What happened in Xinjiang is race discrimination, mass detention and cultural elimination, secret police and the cult of personality. So in your opinion, how possible is it that China’s political system goes toward fascism in the future? 

SR: Well it’s a system that has very many characteristics of fascism in it now. Important in that statement is the use of ideology. Deng Xiaoping and his followers presented themselves as non-ideological, just pragmatists, engineers of economic progress. That is all gone, and the regime is back to ideology. So it is a dictatorship that is very hard. I now call it a totalitarian system. It is a totalitarian system that is informed by ideology and that ideology is nationalistic. These are characteristics of fascist rule. Now, I think, we should always be aware that the Chinese system is very much of its own kind. It’s very different from anything else, but it is a system that has taken very clear likenesses with the characteristics of fascism under the rule of Xi Jinping.

This regime does not present itself to the world as a bully in the way, for example, Putin’s Russia does. It is a bullying state. Ask democracy activists, who routinely get beaten up. Ask human rights lawyers, who are now pretty much forbidden from practicing. Ask the people of Xinjiang, now a horrific police state, complete with a vast network of concentration camps. Ask international corporations that are forced to humiliate themselves and pay tribute if they want to do business, or governments in smaller countries if they want collaboration. Or ask neighboring countries around the South China Sea. But it is also a state with the clout and skill to disguise its bullying side and make itself look sophisticatedly elegant. 

TB: In a recent letter, you were publicly calling for China analysts to describe China as a totalitarian, not an authoritarian state. It aroused interesting debates. In your opinion, what are the academic and non-academic reasons behind the reluctance to categorize China as totalitarian? 

SR: I think there are now very few academic reasons for not categorizing the PRC as a totalitarian regime. I go by Hannah Arendt’s pioneering work and I think the PRC under Xi now fits the bill. The final straw has been the imposition of outright terror in Xinjiang.

In the debate following that open letter, there was much support for my position, but also, as you note, reluctance. Some of that reluctance is simple self-censorship. Many China scholars have invested their careers in work that requires being in China, having access to Chinese universities, archives and so on, and they cannot risk this being refused. That is understandable and I do not find it particularly upsetting. Another reason is what I have called “China fascination.” China, with its long history and rich culture, has an uncanny ability to fascinate. I think some academics in the field really wish for the best for China and the Chinese people and are for that reason reluctant to accept so negative a label as “totalitarian.” I think this kind of reluctance is misplaced, but also understandable. Related is a view that China is unique and that it is, therefore, too crude to apply a categorization that puts the Chinese regime in the same class as various other unpalatable regimes.

I should add that when I speak about totalitarianism in China it is of course the regime I am talking about and not the country, the culture or the people.

TB: You had analyzed the Chinese state as “trivial”. How “trivial”–– in your context, it means having no purpose beyond itself ––is the Chinese state? F.A. Hayek emphasized the “purposelessness” of a state. How should we understand the difference between purposelessness and triviality?

SR: I thought that one kind of dictatorship could be called “trivial” in the sense that it is nothing but control for the sake of control. There is no mission, no idea. I do not think that applies to the Chinese system, certainly not now. There is now a mission; there is an ideology, a vision of what this is for, and that vision is for China to regain its position as the Middle Kingdom in the world. This is a very ambitious idea that gives the dictatorship a purpose that makes it–– in my terminology––more than trivial. It makes it an ideological system, a system with a strong purpose of its own definition.

TB: So you mean Deng Xiaoping had no big ideology, and his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, had less ideology, and Xi Jinping has more ambition to “make China great again?” 

SR: I mean that may have been the ambition all along. Deng Xiaoping perhaps understood that it would take time before China had the economic and other powers to really accept the ambition of making itself the central power in the world. Now, they have the economic and other powers. And they are hard at work in making China the dominant power in the world.

TB: Some people argue that Xi Jinping’s personal dictatorship is a collective choice of the Communist Party, when it is facing comprehensive crises –– political, financial, and ideological crises. Do you agree? 

SR: There’s always one branch of thinking about the Chinese system that says that it is in crisis. As you know, people have been predicting that it would collapse for a long time, but that hasn’t happened. I think it’s a system with many tensions in it. And I think Xi Jinping made his first mistake from his own point of view, his first mistake, when he had the time limits on the presidency abolished earlier this year. That was a mistake, because it wasn’t necessary. It was a display of power that was demonstrative; it pulled aside the curtain for the rest of the world to see that this is a ruthless dictatorship where the top man can change the constitution by flicking his fingers, and it exposed the inner conflicts in the regime. Of course, there are disagreements and conflicts within that regime. And this step by Xi Jinping was demonstrative towards anyone who is not firmly within his camp, and he gives those others a motivation for organizing factional activity. We see some signs of that now, so I think this was a mistake on the part of Xi Jinping. He undermined, to some degree, his own position. And he let himself become the victim of the hubris of too much power.

So he committed a great mistake, in my opinion, and that mistake has followed through to some tensions within the system. Those tensions are now being stimulated by what is seen as not strong enough economic growth, and so on. So there are now visible signs of tension. That tension has been stimulated by Xi Jinping’s mistake. I think this was really the first mistake he did in his first five years. Otherwise, he has been consolidating power and cohesion within the system. And suddenly he took a step that undermined some of the “achievements” that he had made in his first years. However, I do not think this is a system on its own terms that is in any way in crisis. The control is very, very strong, and the strengthening of control that has happened under Xi Jinping is in anticipation of difficulties with economic growth, for example.

TB: Relatedly, will Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaigns hurt the dynamic or motivation of the CCP cadres? As to the totalitarian dynamic, like interest, ideology, nationalism, brainwashing, violence, or fear, will they be exhausted in China or elsewhere? 

SR: The anti-corruption campaign has had two intended results, I think. One is to make the regime look more attractive in the eyes of many Chinese people. There have been improvements in the corruption environment. So most Chinese are now less exposed to arbitrary corruption than they have been previously, or at least, they have seen improvements in that respect. The other result is that it has been a powerful weapon of power, control within the system. When everyone is corrupt, anyone who needs to be taken down can be taken down in the name of corruption. So under the auspices of the corruption campaign, Xi Jinping and the other leaders have been able to eliminate anyone within the system whom they’ve seen as not approving of them, or are seen as in anyway threatening. These “achievements,” dictatorial achievements, have been notable in the anti-corruption campaign. It has worked in both respects. It’s a remarkable system in the way it gives itself credit for liberating the people from the miseries that it, itself, has imposed on them.

TB: Some Chinese people, I think, are unhappy with the anti-corruption campaigns, even though they feel good once some corrupt government officials are arrested or sentenced, or even executed. But first, some privileged families are not affected. Most of the privileged families, those very high-level families, are not affected, like Deng Xiaoping or Li Peng’s families. And second, more and more Chinese people realize that this kind of corruption is embedded in the political system. It exists everywhere and is systematic. So what’s the next step of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign? Will the anti-corruption campaign influence Xi Jinping’s political agenda? 

SR: As I see it, I think the anti-corruption campaign has done its work. You know, we hear much less about it now than previously. I think there is less ordinary workday corruption. So it’s done its work, cleaning up a bit, in the daily lives of many people. Many potential opponents of the regime have been eliminated, so I think it’s really done its work. As I understand it, it goes on, but now it’s more of a routine. It’s not a big show anymore. I think it’s mainly had its time; it has run its course. And it does not have the prominence in the regime’s self-presentation as it did for a while. I’ve no doubt it will continue, but it is not the central instrument that it once was.

TB: Samuel Huntington distinguished performance legitimacy from procedural legitimacy; and A. John Simmons made an even clearer theoretical distinction between legitimacy and justification, arguing that recognition, through free elections, is the only source of modern legitimacy. In the context of post-Mao Chinese politics, is “performance legitimacy” enough for the regime’s political legitimacy? 

SR: Well, not in the opinion of the leaders themselves. They do not trust that they are seen as legitimate, so this is why they never relax controls. They praise themselves for the delivery to the people. They praise themselves for the gratitude that they are getting back from the people. But they never trust that they are seen genuinely to be legitimate, so they always fall back on control — never relaxing controls and always maintaining controls. No genuine trust that there is genuine legitimacy.

TB: Has the world had second thoughts about China after Xi Jinping removed the presidential term limit from the Constitution? Is the image of China changing in light of the facts of the deteriorating human rights situation, failure to abide by WTO rules and UN norms, even the CCP’s abduction of dissidents on foreign soil? You know the Gui Minhai case, a Chinese publisher with a Swedish passport who was kidnapped in Thailand and sent back to China and detained. So can we say that the presumption many people accepted, that is, that a market economy and globalization would lead China to become a democratic, open society, has been proven wrong? 

SR: Yes, I think so. It is now very difficult for anyone in the world to escape the recognition that in China there is a hard dictatorship. It’s a dictatorship that in many ways is good for business. Many people are fascinated with China and want to see the good in the system. But the development under Xi Jinping clarified to the rest of the world that this is a hard dictatorship. This is not a mild, benevolent autocracy; this is a hard dictatorship. I think the regime has brought upon itself a more difficult evaluation from the outside world.

TB: Have you seen many scholars, Beijing watchers, start to rethink the assumption that the market economy and globalization will guide China to become a liberal democracy? 

SR: I mean this was a strong theory for a while. But it is not a theory that anyone subscribes to anymore. In the long run, we do not know. In the immediate future, it’s clear that this is not a system that is on a path towards a more open society. It’s a system that, for the last five or six years under Xi Jinping, has been on a very clear road towards tighter dictatorial controls. In a way, it is moving politically in the opposite direction than was previously assumed because of its economic development. Economic progress, and political regression –– this was not thought to be possible previously. We are seeing in China that this is possible. It’s possible for the country to modernize economically and to regress politically towards an increasingly hard dictatorship. 

TB: For the past two decades or so, there has been a return to totalitarianism, the expansion of authoritarian influence, in Russia, Turkey, the Philippines and, of course, China, and some countries in South America. What’s behind this phenomenon? 

SR: I think that there are, at least, some very clever dictators out there. Vladmir Putin in Russia is from his own point of view a clever operator. I think also there is a problem on the democratic side that democracies have been functioning quite poorly in many ways in recent years after the global crash. In 2007-2008, the democracies had not really managed to govern in a way that seemed to be beneficial to most people. And to be fair, I think we are seeing a revolt against what is perceived to be inadequate governance in the democratic countries, in particular, in the United States and in Britain. So that is weakening the democratic side. Why the autocratic side is strengthening, for someone like myself, that is a source of great concern and sadness in the world. And, I think, we on the democratic side really need to get our own house in order and to step up and to see that there have been real shortcomings in the way we are managing our affairs. That’s true in much of Europe and the European Union. It’s true in America. We really need to step up and do better than we have been doing.

TB: What’s your view about Francis Fukuyama’s claim (deepening a tradition of Hegel and Kojève) that liberal democracy is the end of history? 

SR: Well, the history of democracy is not a very encouraging one; it was invented 2500 years ago but we have had very little democracy since then, so it’s possible that democracy will not survive. And right now, there is, for my tastes, too much admiration of autocratic strength and not enough appreciation of democratic liberty. And what I’m, in modest ways, trying to do is to encourage the understanding of the importance for our way of life of democratic governance. I think again, we need to step up and to do better in the democratic world.

TB: When Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Chinese government tried to punish Norway with “Salmon politics.” My personal experience is that the American Bar Association rescinded my book proposal for fear of angering the Chinese government, and some universities canceled my scheduled talks to avoid the risk of infuriating Beijing. In Hong Kong, China has torn up the “one country, two systems” commitment and the Sino-British Declaration. Hong Kong’s freedom is in danger and the UK has remained silent to a great extent. From your point of view as a Norwegian scholar living in the UK, is the policy of “buying silence” successful? What should the world do to fight the growing aggressiveness of the CCP?  

SR: Yes, the policy of buying silence is successful. This is sad to say, but it’s the case. You see that in my own country, as you mentioned, in Norway, they have normalized relations with China on the condition, in writing on paper, that the Norwegian government shall do nothing to disturb the new normal relations between the two countries–– a commitment to silence. And in Britain, the authorities here want Chinese investments for various purposes. They are silent. So severe human rights abuses that occur in China, they go on without much mention in the rest of the world. What we should do, I think, is to continue to be in contact and collaboration with Chinese people and Chinese authorities. For example, in the academic world where I operate, we should continue to be in contact. But, we, and our governments, should at the same time speak, in clear language, about the Chinese regime’s transgressions against human rights and the regime’s aggression in international politics. This happens to some degree but it does not happen as clearly and straightforwardly as I think it should, given the harshness of the Chinese dictatorship. And I think the democratic countries should collaborate and find some kind of common voice against the excesses in dictatorship and aggression from the Chinese side; we should speak with clear language.

TB:  China is playing a more and more active and aggressive role on the international stage, and shapes the international order. How far will China go on the way to influencing the international order? Or how possible is it for the West to give up its appeasement policy toward China, before it is too late? 

SR: I’m very pessimistic about all of this. I think that the Chinese regime is, by and large, able to control the narrative, and they are widely regarded to be a positive influence in the world as they present themselves. This is for many reasons; partly it is for reasons of self-censorship. Many of us have interests in China, economic interests, interests in being able to do research, for example, and we exercise self-censorship. So there is no common voice from the democratic side in response to Chinese totalitarianism. 

TB: To what extent does the CCP in foreign affairs, represent the interests of China and the Chinese people, and to what extent does it represent only the Party itself, every diplomatic choice is aiming to maintain its one-party rule and the interest of the privileged? 

SR: I always start from the basic premise that the PRC is a political project. Policies, domestic and foreign, are always designed to the perpetuation of the party-state. In foreign policy, that includes making this party-state ever more influential and dominant on the world stage. Is it in the interest of the Chinese people that the party-state gains in strength? I would say no, since it is not in the interest of the Chinese people that the dictatorship becomes stronger and more invincible. However, the nationalistic narrative of “national rejuvenation” no doubt has resonance in much of the population. This dictatorship, as many others, finds nationalism a strategically useful card. 

TB: So these are my questions, do you have other comments before we wrap up?

SR: I know that many China observers always see signs that things are cracking in the Chinese regime. The economics are not performing well enough. There is disagreement within the regime, and so on. Personally, I think that the right description is to see this as a regime that is in control and that we can expect very little improvement in that respect in the foreseeable future. So I’m deeply pessimistic about any movement on the Chinese side towards a more open society, and a more collaborative profile in international relations. I think, on the contrary, it’s increasing control domestically and increasing its quest for domination internationally.

TB: Thank you very much, Professor Ringen.

 

 


Also by Teng Biao on China Change:

Politics of the Death Penalty in China, January 16, 2014.

The Confessions of a Reactionary, August 27, 2013.

 

 

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The Thinking of the System vs. The Thinking of Individuals Within the System

Sun Liping, January 21, 2018

 

This essay was published when I first launched a public WeChat column. Now, I’ve made some revisions, and am publishing it again as follows. I’m doing this because people have a hard time comprehending a few recent events because they were incredibly unreasonable. It’s hard to understand why people, who are clearly smart and have gone through great travails, are screwing things up so badly. This essay attempts to explain this phenomenon from the perspective of the thinking of the system. –– Sun Liping, December 14, 2017.

 

About 20 years ago, I once said: Sometimes the system is more stupid than individuals in the system. That is to say, people within the system may all appear to be shrewd, but the system as a whole sometimes nevertheless behaves foolishly. Certain academic big shots were unhappy about my comment.

Below I’ve recounted a story I told in 2008 during a lecture at Tencent’s Yanshan Lecture Hall (腾讯燕山大讲堂), which says something about the truth of what I said.

Around the late 70s or early 80s when I was studying at Peking University, I came upon a short story in a provincial literary magazine. It’s been so long that I’ve forgotten the title of the story and the name of the magazine; nor do I remember the author, and haven’t found any other mention of this very meaningful story. But I remember vividly the plot of the story, nearly 30 years later.

The story involved a soldier who was about to be demobilized. In order to be able to find a good job after he left the military, he wanted to secure Communist Party membership (at that time, the kind of work you could find and whether or not you were a Party member were directly related). So, acting on suggestions from friends, he started to give presents to his political instructor, spending a lot of money on the effort. But up until the day before he left the army, he still didn’t have his Party membership.

One evening, he charged into the instructor’s office and got into a big argument. Suddenly, he spotted a gun in the office, grabbed it, and pointed it at the instructor’s head. The company commander, who was nearby, heard the altercation. The moment he opened the door, he saw the soldier pointing the gun at the instructor’s head.

What to do? If the company commander forcibly seized the gun, it was likely to accidentally discharge and kill or injure the instructor. In such a state of emergency, he thought of the plot of a movie he’d seen not long before, involving the use of psychological deterrence. Accordingly, he walked towards the soldier while shouting “Go ahead and shoot!” “Shoot!” The soldier was stunned: How could the commander be yelling at me to shoot? Meanwhile, the commander slowly walked over and pushed the muzzle of the gun toward the floor, preventing a tragedy.

Now it was time for the incident to be handled. That the soldier would be punished was inevitable. The next to be punished was the commander. The reason for punishing the commander was because he was telling the soldier to shoot when the gun was pointed at the instructor. The commander defended himself: “It was to deter him psychologically.” But the system is incapable of acknowledging the law of psychological deterrence, because in the only political logic recognized by the system, there is no way to put the law of psychological deterrence in an appropriate position. What the system could acknowledge was a fact that could not be simpler –– that “when the muzzle of the gun was pointed at the instructor’s head, you said ‘shoot.’” As independent individuals, the people who were handling the case perhaps understood perfectly well the true intention of the commander, but the system in which these individuals operated had no way to do so.

What’s my point in telling this story again? I hope to point out the difference between an individual’s thinking and that of the system. Some years ago, a well-known British anthropologist, Mary Douglas, wrote a book titled How Institutions Think. The title implies that systems are able to think. Indeed, systems are able to think. Such a proposition gives us an even greater recognition and understanding of systems. But regretfully, in the end, scholars still often attribute the system’s thinking to human thinking; that is, they suppose that the thinking of the system thinking is carried out through individuals. In this way, individuals and the system are again rather simplistically confounded with one another.

What I want to emphasize is that the thinking of the system is not the same as the thinking of the people within the system. In fact, the thinking of the system is sometimes quite different from the thinking of the people in it. Every person in the system may understand a matter, but the system does not. For another example: during the Cultural Revolution, a man accidentally broke a statue of Chairman Mao. Everyone understood that it was an accident, but the system does not allow such an event to be an accident: If you broke a statue of Mao, you must be punished.

Why is the system’s thinking different from the that of individuals within the system? Because the thinking of individuals depends on the individual’s intelligence and knowledge, and institutional thinking depends on the logic and circumstances of the system. And so to the question raised in the title of this article.

 

 

Sun Liping (孙立平) teaches sociology at Tsinghua University in Beijing. This is an unauthorized translation of his WeChat post 《孙立平:体制的思维与个人的思维是不一样的》 on December 14, 2017. (Archived here.)

 

 

 

A Human Rights Lawyer’s Notes on the ‘709 Incident,’ Two Years on

Wen Donghai, July 6, 2017

 

 709 

 

With the second anniversary of July 9, 2015 approaching, and as someone who has witnessed it first hand and served as the defense lawyer for one of the prominent 709 detainees, I’ve racked my brains about what to say. I feel that I have so much to say — but at the same time, it seems that only being as quiet and still as a mountain could truly encompass the full meaning of the 709 Crackdown.

Naturally, the first people I was worried about when the crackdown began were my client Wang Yu (王宇) and her family. Prior to 709, she was extremely active as a human rights lawyer, gaining the nickname “Goddess of War” (战神) for her fearlessness. The 709 incident seemed designed to shatter this legend, and so in the early hours of July 9, 2015, the shocking, flagrant conspiracy that was the 709 incident began to unfold, with Wang Yu bearing the brunt of the impact as the first to be snatched away. Wang Yu was at home by herself that night, having just seen off at the airport her husband Bao Longjun (包龙军), and their son Bao Zhuoxuan (包卓軒). A group of men began idling about outside her home, and when she yelled out asking who they were, they shrank away and kept quiet. About an hour later, when she was unable to raise her husband and son on the phone, and just beginning to get anxious, the lights in her apartment suddenly went out. Her internet was also cut. The harsh buzz of an electric drill shattered the silent darkness and within a few minutes the lock had been drilled out, falling to the ground. A gang of men rushed in, shoved her onto the bed, and snapped a cold pair of handcuffs on her hands, twisted behind her back. She was hooded and hauled out into a waiting vehicle, then taken to a facility whose location is unknown to this day. There, they drew a circle around Wang Yu’s spot on the bed: for several weeks, she had to sit with her legs crossed in the circle, and if she left it would be screamed at or beaten.

In the month that followed, Zhou Shifeng (周世峰), Li Heping (李和平), Xie Yanyi (谢燕益), Xie Yang (谢阳), Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), Sui Muqing (隋牧青) and another few dozen human rights lawyers lost their freedom one after another. I myself was one of the 300 or so lawyers and activists around China who were summoned, interrogated, and temporarily detained. I was warned away from paying any attention to what happened to Wang Yu, Zhou Shifeng, or anyone else.

Fortunately, after the majority of the lawyers overcame the initial sense of terror, they bravely announced that they wouldn’t be cowed. Other lawyers also began joining the ranks of those willing to defend their persecuted colleagues, and thus began the tenacious work of rescuing detainees. The obstacles facing the lawyers were formidable: many were unable to even see their clients from beginning to end; they were illegally told by police that they’d been fired; the atmosphere of terror was constant and nagging; the 709 defense work required groping in the dark given that little information about the detentions was available; and the 709 detainees’ wives and children were swallowed in anxiety by the unfathomable unknown. But despite all this, the 709 defense lawyers and their families didn’t shrink from the fight. From the beginning they were awaiting the arrival of dawn. It’s this persistence that will stand as a monument to the honor of China’s human rights lawyers as a whole.

Every step in the resistance of 709 lawyers and activists has been a trial, and it’s far from over. There is still no news about Wang Quanzhang, and his safety is now our greatest concern; Jiang Tianyong has been given a brutal lesson: the mercy he hoped to receive from the police through a confession led instead to harsher criminal charges, again proving that it’s futile to harbor any illusions about the authorities. Wu Gan (吴淦) set a courageous precedent by refusing to give quarter, adding more dignity to the last part of the 709 resistance. Then there is the long list of others – Zhou Shifeng, Hu Shigen (胡石根), Zhai Yanmin (翟岩民), Gou Hongguo (勾洪国), Wang Yu, Bao Longjun, Li Heping, Xie Yanyi, Xie Yang, Zhang Kai (张凯) — who have either been sentenced to actual prison, or been given suspended sentences under strict control, or been let out on a “probation” that amounts in fact to house arrest…

Although there’s often a great deal of disagreement in the Chinese legal field about how to categorize a human rights lawyer, there is simply no doubt that 709 lawyers are the true heirs to this title. Their efforts give real meaning to to the vocation of a human rights lawyer, and their comportment in the face of power shows the strength of character of those in their field. Because of the 709 lawyers, China’s human rights lawyers now have clear values to pursue.

With this understanding in mind, I begin to imagine that, in the years to come, there won’t be such a thing in China as a “human rights lawyer,” because as soon as the values pursued by human rights lawyers are internalized by China’s legal community as the universal standard of professional conduct, every lawyer will have become a human rights lawyer. The only distinction will be whether or not a lawyer has the fortune of coming across a case in which rights must be safeguarded, and whether they discharge their responsibility to see it to the end.

Human rights lawyers are guardians of fairness and justice. Their success in this role comes for their proactive involvement in public affairs and the positive leadership role they play. Some people have said that lawyers are manufacturers of public incidents — but I disagree. Public incidents don’t need lawyers to manufacture them; they arise naturally in society. The key is that lawyers can get involved in public affairs, and through their professional activities, knowledge, and experience, to a certain extent guide public discussions. Or to put it another way, lawyers are creators of public discourse — but they don’t manufacture public incidents. It’s precisely through participating in matters of public interest that they’re able to guide the discourse, and thus truly safeguard fairness and justice.

To an extent, human rights lawyers are dispute resolvers; strictly speaking, however, the resolution of disputes should ultimately rely upon the healthy operations of an independent judicial system — not merely the skill of lawyers. In actuality, the correct designation for lawyers is “a defender of the interest of the client,” and in this regard human rights lawyers are no different. There are particular circumstances under which lawyers, in order to safeguard the interests of their client, are forced to create a certain level of dispute so that the process of resolving the dispute results in a reparation to the party whose interests were harmed.

Human rights lawyers are entirely worthy of the title of human rights defenders. The rights of the lawyer, indeed, come from the basic rights accorded to any specific individual; and if the fundamental rights of the individual aren’t protected, the rights of the lawyer won’t be respected. But the defense of human rights is the responsibility of all people; lawyers are at the forefront of this defense of rights, as a result of the nature of the profession itself. Just as in the realm of environmental protection, which in the same fashion requires a group of experts getting involved to protect the environment.

Mostly, human rights lawyers defend personal rights, so they are inevitably on guard against the power of the state. Most of the attacks against human rights come from the abuse of state power. The 709 lawyers are worthy of the title of human rights lawyers because of their fearless exertions in balancing against the power of the state, and for their attempts to establish anew the proper balance between the state’s rights and individual rights in China.

Human rights lawyers should be the advocates of policies and the proponents of democracy. If they do so, of course, they will have entered the realm of politics — at which point they won’t merely be lawyers. This is just the same as how many social activists are also journalists, writers, scholars, or even regular citizens, simply adopting different roles in different contexts. In the case of lawyers, however, the law in which they believe and the political system are necessarily connected, making them natural-born politicians. Lawyers are often more apt than other professionals to take an interest in political affairs, and to use their knowledge and natural political acuity to get involved in public and political matters.

China’s human rights lawyers have gone through a stage of significant growth and transformation in the roles they play. Before the 709 incident, the majority of them avoided from commenting on political affairs, or kept away from them, whether deliberately or subconsciously. Indeed, lawyers would often try to turn political questions into legal ones, legal questions into professional ones, professional questions into procedural ones, and then engage in the minute analysis of procedure.

The initial form of human rights lawyers in China was the “diehard lawyer” (死磕律师). Even though the majority of “diehard” lawyers didn’t particularly want to touch cases that officialdom had designated “politically sensitive,” they were willing to walk into the Communist Party’s courts and use the Communist Party’s laws to hold forth a robust and courageous resistance. Through this, they won widespread social approbation. This circumstance was possible because at the time there was still a limited space for legal resistance. But after the 18th Party Congress, and in particular in the post-709 China, the Communist Party has severely rescinded the space for so-called “legal resistance,” replacing it instead with violent repression and power. This, conversely, led more lawyers to see clearly for themselves the true face of the slogan that the Party is “ruling the country according to the law.” They began to think over the root cause of all this. And as this took place, human rights lawyers began to slowly emerge into the view of the public. While the Party tried to besmirch their reputations and persecute them, they won the recognition of a wider and wider swathe of the public, and the number of supporters continued to swell. Even though the activities of human rights lawyers have been severely restricted by the authorities, the persecution has helped them reach a far greater audience, and has enhanced their reputations across society.

The direction taken by human rights lawyers in China will test how civilized the country becomes. If China undergoes a democratic transition in the near future, a portion of these lawyers will inevitably be set on the path of professional politicians, while others will continue in their role as lawyers, becoming even more professional. Moreover, they’ll increasing depart from being “human rights lawyers,” because a truly civilized country doesn’t require that many rights lawyers — only a country that engages in constant human rights abuses, and which also maintains a minimal degree of social openness, leads to the proliferation of human rights lawyers as a professional group.

Upon the occasion of the second anniversary of the 709 crackdown, this article is offered merely as a call to remember. I continue to believe that the steadfast pursuit of values will become the direction towards which China’s lawyers develop, and only that attitude is appropriate to lawyers in a civilized country.

I give my respect to Wang Quanzhang, Jiang Tianyong, Wu Gan, and the many, many other 709 lawyers and activists, as well as all the older generation of human rights lawyers!

 

Wen Donghai (文东海)

July 6, 2017

 

Wen Donghai latestWen Donghai is a human rights lawyer based in Changsha, Hunan province.

 


Related:

To American Bar Association With Regard to ABA Human Rights Award to Wang Yu, August 6, 2016.

The Vilification of Lawyer Wang Yu and Violence By Other Means, July 27, 2015.

14 Cases Exemplify the Role Played by Lawyers in the Rights Defense Movement, 2003–2015, August 19, 2015.

 

Translated from Chinese by China Change.

 

 

 

 

 

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.