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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
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.
China Change, September 22, 2018
Unsettling news from China emerges every week in a constant flow — on social media, in reports, and from our own sources in the country. Not every new development is suited to a fully fleshed-out analysis, and as with so much in China, many reports and developments cannot be immediately confirmed or properly evaluated. Nevertheless, while each individual brush stroke may not be decisive, upon stepping back a fuller picture begins to emerge. China Change catalogues and contextualizes these items so as to keep a growing awareness of changes in China. — The Editors
Local Government Debt: Going Bankrupt, or Raising More?
On September 13, the General Offices of both the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council jointly published a document giving ‘guiding opinions’ on limiting the debt that state-owned enterprises can take on. One line that attracted particular note said: “Local Government Financing Vehicles [LGFVs] whose assets are severely insufficient to collateralize their debts and have lost the ability to repay should engage in bankruptcy and restructuring, or liquidation proceedings, according to the law; resolutely guard against ‘Too Big to Fail,’ resolutely guard against the accumulation of risk becoming systemic risk.”
LGFVs are entities established by local governments around China, including fixed asset investment companies, real estate and urban development companies, and urban asset management companies. They invest in municipal construction and infrastructure projects, and are a de facto form of municipal debt (from 1995 to 2009 municipalities in China were forbidden from issuing bonds).
In early 2009 the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) and the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) issued the policy that gives the regulatory framework for this behavior, which “supports qualified local governments to organize infrastructure financing vehicles, issue debt, medium-term notes, and other financing instruments, in order to expand complementary financing channels for central government investment projects.”
Beijing economist Hu Xingdou (胡星斗) told Radio Free Asia (RFA) that the scale of LGFV debt in China has probably reached 40 trillion yuan, and the bankruptcy of LGFVs will likely cause serious losses among a very large investor base. “In particular, much municipal debt has been funded by Wealth Management Products [WMPs] sold through banks, and many people hold these products in their portfolios. A lot of people may lose their life savings.”
Chinese internet users remarked that bankruptcies in LGFVs equate to a default on the debt, and that a lot of people are going to lose their money. Some estimated that the number impacted in the coming LGFV bankruptcy wave will far outstrip, by an order of magnitude, the recent losses in the peer to peer investment sector, which saw thousands of angry investors protest in cities across China.
Yet even as municipal debt vehicles face bankruptcy, on August 14 the Ministry of Finance put out a circular demanding the rapid expansion of local government infrastructure bonds, which led to a massive rush of issuance. These bonds are the major way local governments finance their infrastructure expenditures. According to Xinhua, as of mid-September, around 200 billion yuan of new debt had been issued, which added to the August new issuance of 428 billion, making total new debt issuance in just 1.5 months over 600 billion yuan.
Why is so much new debt being issued even as the central government is warning against systemic risk and demanding the municipalities unable to support their debt initiative LGFV bankruptcy proceedings? We profess to have no clue.
The Government Wants Chinese to Spend, Spend, and Spend More
On September 20, the CCP and the State Council published a circular providing “a number of opinions” on encouraging more consumer spending: make the public increase their expenditures on food, clothing, accommodations, travel, and more; increase the quality and expand the number of things they spend money on (cultural products, travel, sports, health, retirement spending, housekeeping, education, training, children); create new consumer products, make them spend more online, consume more customized products, and also spend money on ‘smart’ technologies, fashion, and other popular trends. Rural residents are encouraged to up their consumption too.
Any economy is driven by investments, exports, and domestic consumption — but with the extraordinary growth of China’s fixed asset investment being largely exhausted, and exports facing tariffs from the Trump White House, the government seems desperate to boost consumption, even though it has been promoting it for some time now.
Someone in Zhongnanhai is evidently working overtime on these new opinions and demands, which are falling down like snowflakes.
Affirming for the 1001st Time That China’s Judiciary Is the Party’s Judiciary
Lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan noted the following piece of news: that on September 12 the Party Group of the Henan Higher People’s Court issued four circulars expelling from office 48 judges in the court. The circular attributed the decision to the provincial Party’s Organization Department. Liu Xiaoyuan notes that whether required by the provincial Party apparatus or decided upon by the court, going about it this way is against Chinese law. According to the Chinese constitution and the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Organization of the People’s Courts, court presidents are elected by People’s Congresses at the same level; deputy court presidents, presiding judges, deputy presiding judges, and judges must be appointed and dismissed by the Standing Committee of People’s Congresses at their same level.
Meanwhile on September 17, the Ministry of Justice held a meeting in Yunnan for the promotion of “Party Building Work” among lawyers. Minister of Justice Fu Zhenghua (傅政华) spoke at the convocation, demanding that “the Party must assume comprehensive leadership in lawyer work; implement total coverage of Party Organization and Party Work across the legal field before the end of this year; guarantee the three year goal of Party building having achieved total coverage, total conformity, and total leadership by 2020.”
Is China Moving Muslim Internees to Other Parts of China in the Face of International Outcry?
The Chinese edition of The Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-associated newspaper, recently reported the following: “An official source in China recently obtained information from an associate in the police that over the last few days Uighurs in internment camps in Xinjiang have been distributed to different areas around the country. This work is being conducted with a high level of secrecy, and the travel routes used are all under police and military control. The source told The Epoch Times that 1,500 people were sent to the area he is in, and the police involved were all made to sign confidentiality agreements. The source speculated that, because the government plans to spread the 1-2 millions of Uighurs detainees, they would be sent to different prisons and detention centers, and he expressed the fear that the Uighurs might be killed.”
This reminds us that, in mid-August, there were rumors that internees from Xinjiang were being sent to Jiuquan (酒泉), Wuwei (武威) in Gansu province and Delhi (德令哈) and Golmud (格尔木) in Qinghai. A screenshot of a WeChat conversation describes an unusually heavy presence of security forces at train stations, and the understanding was that Uighurs were being transported.
Uighurs: More Professors Sent to Internment Camps; One Literary Editor Jumped to His Death; Highest Ranking Uighur Cadre So Far Sacked for ‘Corruption’
At least four senior Uighur officials from Kashgar University in Xinjiang have been removed from their posts for “two-faced” activities [i.e. disloyal to the CCP, critical of Party policies, or showing sympathy to targeted ethnic groups]. They include President Erkin Omer, vice president Muhter Abdughopur, and professors Qurban Osman and Gulnar Obul; information about them has been scrubbed from the university’s website. Read more.
According to a report by RFA’s Uighur service: Professor Azat Sultan, former President of Xinjiang Normal University and former chairman of Xinjiang chapter of China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, has been arrested for being a ‘double faced person.’ His whereabouts are unknown.
RFA Uighur service also reported that Keyser Keyum, the editor-in-chief of Literary Translation magazine, jumped from the 8th floor of his office building. It is said that he had received a call from police that day about sending him to ‘re-education’ camp.
On September 21 Xinhua reported that the deputy director of the National Develop and Reform Commission and director of the National Energy Administration, Nur Bekri, was suspected of severe violations of Party discipline and is being investigated by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Hu Ping, a U.S.-based dissident, expressed horror at the news: “Nur Bekri was the chairman of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in 2009 during the July 5 incident. In Xinjiang, the only other Uighur to be secretary of the region’s Party Committee was Saifuddin Azizi, and subsequently all Party Secretaries were Han, and the highest ranking Uighurs were only chairmen of the region [not chairmen of the Party Committee of the region]. And now, Bekri himself has been toppled. From this it can be seen how serious the situation is in Xinjiang, and how horrific the plight of Uighurs in China.”
Hu Ping noted that “according to Bekri’s official curriculum vitae, he received a Han education since he was a child and joined the Party in his early 20s. Following the July 5 incident he was promoted to the Central Committee during the 18th Party Congress, but didn’t remain in the Central Committee during the 19th Party Congress, nor become a deputy in the 13th National People’s Congress. It’s clear therefore that he had not been trusted by the Party center for some years already.”
On the second day of the riots in Xinjiang in July 2009, Bekri went on television to criticize Uighurbiz.net, a Chinese-language website run by Professor Ilham Tohti and his students, accusing it of “inciting violence and spreading rumors.” In March 2014 during the ‘Two Meetings’ in Beijing, Bekri told a press conference that the evidence showing that Ilham—arrested in January of 2014—had engaged in splittist activities was conclusive and unquestionable.
Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014 and is currently being held in the Xinjiang No. 1 Prison. There has been almost no word about Ilham circumstances for the last two years, and many now worry about his health.
Moving Ordinary Residents out of Heart of Beijing
A social media post recently noted that following the expulsion of residents and demolition of buildings along Fuyou Street (府右街, the street along the west side of Zhongnanhai) and Xihuangcheng street (西皇城根, adjacent to Fuyou Street), a similar operation on the east side of Zhongnanhai has taken place, expelling residents along Nanchang and Beichang streets (南长街和北长街). The eviction and demolition notices stipulate that state leaders who live on these streets are not the targets of eviction. The post also said: “In the future, Nanchang street, Beichang street, and Fuyou street have all been closed off for regular traffic. According to the plan, in the next one to two years there will be a gradual eviction and demolition of residences on both sides on Jingshan (景山公园), the east of the Forbidden City, along Nanchizi and Beichizi streets (南池子和北池子), around Beihai park (北海公园), and around Shichahai (什刹海), in order to expand the living space for central Party leaders.” The elementary school on Beichang street, as well as Beijing 161 Middle School not far from Tiananmen, will both be relocated and incorporated into other schools.
We drew a rough outline of the area affected by the project based on the social media post:
Twitter User Detained for 10 Days for “Attacking Leaders of the Party and Country”
On September 11, a 42-year old Twitter user in Beijing, Quan Shixin (全世欣), went to the Haidian Public Security Bureau to request permission to demonstrate, and was administratively detained. He was released on September 21. The notice of administrative detention given to her said: “Quan Shixin used internet circumvention methods to attack the Party and state leaders on Twitter, the circumstances being severe. Thus she was administratively detained for 10 days.”
No Foreign Programs in Prime Time, and Foreigners Not Allowed in Key Positions on Chinese TV
On September 20, the National Radio and Television Administration published a draft version (for public comment) of a set of regulations regarding non-Chinese citizen involvement in television, broadcasting, and shows. The regulations apply to those from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and the rest of the world. The basic content is as follows: without the approval of the NRTA, TV outlets may not broadcast overseas programs from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.; television stations may not spend more than 30% of their daily broadcast time on foreign films, shows, cartoons, documentaries, or other programs; the screenwriter and director of a program cannot both be foreign persons; male and female lead roles cannot both be played by foreigners; television and film producers who employ foreigners as creative staff must register the contract with the NRTA within five days of its signing.
Foreign television programs are popular in China, and it appears rules of this nature are meant to curb the availability of imported programs and the enthusiasm for them.
When a band in China named Fangu (反骨) [Rebels] applied for a permit to perform in Suzhou and Shanghai, the authorities told them to change their name before they could be approved. The band announced on social media that “due to force majeure, the band has temporarily changed its name to zhenggu (正骨) [Bone Correction], and we ask for your understanding.”
The Berlin Schaubuehne theatrical troupe’s performance of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People has received a warm welcome in Chinese drama circles, but after three performances in Beijing the original plan to put on another two performances in Nanjing were cancelled. The authorities said that this was due to “technical reasons,” but is it possible that the drama’s storyline and theme felt a little too close to home for the Chinese authorities?
On September 15, the city of Jinan, Shandong Province, held a Rocket Music Festival (火箭音乐节); at one point during the event, when the audience felt particularly moved by the music, they began swaying their bodies together (as often happens at music festivals). At that moment, a police officer dashed onto the stage, stood at the microphone, stopped the music, and delivered a stern warning about public safety. “If you don’t cooperate, we’ll have to stop this performance [this elicited loud laughter]. Everything is subordinate to safety! If everyone is like you just were, then it absolutely cannot proceed. Everyone knows that our country is currently engaged in a special struggle in Sweeping the Black and Eliminating Evil… I’m watching everyone’s behavior from the stage. If there is danger, the performance could be stopped at any moment.”
‘Totalitarian’ Is the Word
Stein Ringen, Professor of Political Economy at King’s College in London, wrote a letter to fellow China analysts, asking that “we set our work straight in language.” “The People’s Republic of China is a totalitarian state,” he wrote. “Of its own kind, to be sure, hence neo-totalitarian, but totalitarian it is. No clarity of analysis is possible without clarity of language. The PRC is not ‘an authoritarian system,’ it is ‘a totalitarian state.’”
At China Change, we began to use the term “totalitarian,” “neo-totalitarian” and “market-totalitarian” in as early as 2013.
Signs of China (1), China Change, September 16, 2018.
By Chang Ping, published: October 1, 2015
“Why would the results of a poll conducted by a neutral, respected polling organization tally so closely with the propaganda of a totalitarian government?”
Can it be that 92.8% of Chinese poll respondents are truly satisfied with the Chinese central government, and that among these, 37.6% are “extremely satisfied”? For over a decade, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, in collaboration with Horizon Research (零点调查公司) in Beijing, has been conducting polls on Chinese citizens’ attitudes toward their government. In the most recent poll, respondents’ satisfaction with the central government was at an all-time high. The New York Times described it as a “reliable” public opinion poll.
Xi Jinping’s crackdown on “tigers” (corrupt officials and big-time economic criminals) has garnered the support of many Chinese citizens angered by corruption, but it is now abundantly clear that the vaunted crackdown is in fact a political power struggle in the guise of an anti-corruption crusade. At the same time, we have seen a continued Chinese economic slump, nightmarish losses for private investors who bought into government predictions about rising Chinese stock values, skies over Beijing that are made blue only for special occasions such as the recent troops review, a significant tightening of controls over online speech, large-scale incarceration of government critics, and mass arrests of human rights lawyers. One really has to wonder: from whence do these supposedly “high levels of satisfaction” derive?
Even more paradoxically, respondents’ levels of satisfaction with the Chinese central government have remained consistently high in every such poll taken over the last decade, as Anthony Saich, professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Director of the Ash Center, explained in an interview with the New York Times. In the two years since Xi Jinping assumed office, he has had a number of powerful rivals arrested: “security czar” Zhou Yongkang (周永康), whose former posts included chief of the China National Petroleum Corporation, secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, and member of the 17th Politburo Standing Committee; Ling Jihua (令计划), ex-President Hu Jintao’s most trusted consigliere and the former head of the General Office of the CCP Central Committee; and generals Guo Boxiong (郭伯雄) and Xu Caihou (徐才厚), Vice-Chairmen of the Central Military Commission (from 2002 and 2004, respectively.) In addition, Xi Jinping has sacked over 70 vice-ministerial or higher-level officials in various branches of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese central government, and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), and placed over 40 deputy- or higher-level officers in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force (wujing) under disciplinary investigation. There are even rumors that Jiang Zemin, long at the center of collective CCP leadership, could find himself in peril. The current fight against corruption is undoubtedly a negation of the two previous administrations [of President Jiang Zemin (1993-2003) and President Hu Jintao (2003-2013)]. But how is it that Chinese poll respondents so consistently expressed a high level of satisfaction with those previous administrations? If respondents’ support for the current administration is simply a reaction to past corruption, how do we explain their sudden change of heart?
According to this year’s Ash Center-Horizon Research public opinion poll, respondents’ satisfaction with county, district, township, village and lower levels of government dropped to their lowest ebb since the poll began in 2003. Only 7.8% of respondents described themselves as “extremely satisfied” with their township-level government, while 47% said they were “relatively satisfied.” Professor Saich notes: “The hope remains for the central leaders that people continue to see the abuses as local aberrations and that the central government is still seen to be striving to work in their best interests. Local protests would thus be easier to contain.” This would also give Xi Jinping a broad base of public support for his anti-corruption campaign.
It is fair to say that this is exactly the kind of positive publicity the Chinese authorities want—poll results that can actually be broadcast on CCTV, China Central Television. I couldn’t help but wonder what difficulties the polling organizations in China and overseas would have faced had the results been different: would they have been able to publish the results so openly if their poll had shown that 92.8% of respondents were dissatisfied with the central government?
I do not mean to suggest that these polling organizations deliberately lied to curry favor with the Chinese government. I simply want to emphasize that, when analyzing and disseminating the results of such polls, we should recognize when the results are at odds with past and present realities, and endeavor to keep in mind the following question: why would the results of a poll conducted by a neutral, respected polling organization tally so closely with the propaganda of a totalitarian government?
Truthfulness in a Totalitarian Society
Some have noted that the Chinese phrase “Defend the emperor, regain supreme power, purge the courtiers, clean up the court” is a cultural tradition, while the phrase “Oppose corrupt officials, but not the Emperor” represents a kind of ancient wisdom. The main reason it is so difficult to do away with certain long-standing practices and abuses, I believe, is because they are being manipulated by real-world political power. Otherwise, how can we explain why Chinese society, supposedly so steeped in traditional culture, would allow its cultural relics, ancient texts, and long-standing tradition of respect for elders to be swept away en masse during the Chinese Cultural Revolution?
Let us imagine for a moment the same sort of public opinion poll being conducted in Cultural Revolution-era China, or in present-day North Korea: what would the results of such a survey be, and what conclusions could we draw from those results? I believe that respondents would report an even higher level of satisfaction with their central governments than in this recent poll. Although, as Professor Saich points out: “It [the Communist Party of China] has striven to render history in such a way that the party is the natural inheritor of Chinese tradition — a wild cry from the days of the Cultural Revolution, when the party was determined to undermine tradition and portrayed itself as representing a radical break with the past.”
What do we really mean when we talk about the truthfulness of a public opinion poll conducted in a totalitarian society? Although superficially, many areas of life in China seem quite open, it is one of only a handful of countries in the world where Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are blocked; where all media is controlled by a powerful party propaganda department; where school textbooks are subject to stringent political censorship and filled with falsifications of history, a whitewashed version of the present, and exhortations to love the nation and the party. It is a country where Tibetans who receive a photo of the Dalai Lama via a Tencent messenger app are sentenced to prison; where Han Chinese who post Sina micro-blog messages in solidarity with Hong Kong “Umbrella Revolution” protesters are arrested for “picking quarrels and causing trouble”; where public intellectuals such as Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Ilham Tohti (伊力哈木∙土赫提), Gao Yu (高瑜) and many others are given harsh prison sentences—not for organizing any sort of “subversive” activities, but simply for voicing criticism.
This deliberately engineered system of news blockades, fear of information and educational brainwashing is not, as many imagine, some sort of absurd joke; rather, it is an extremely effective system of control. How can we expect ordinary people raised on a diet of such limited news to disbelieve pronouncements such as: “American imperialism still seeks to subjugate China” or “The Japanese are eyeing China greedily” or “Xi Jinping, with incorruptible integrity, is leading the Chinese people to a grand renaissance”? Naturally, many Chinese people remain dissatisfied with their government, but to them, is this not a simple problem of local government officials not properly following orders from above?
To appeal to members of the middle class who are striving for a better life and believe that they have the capacity for critical thinking, the Chinese propaganda machine has reinvented or co-opted certain theories – “autocracy is more conducive to economic development” and “Chinese society requires a unique model of governance” – that sound both fresher and more profound than century-old slogans about “fighting for freedom” or “building democracy.”
A Fear That Cuts to the Bone
Although they may be subject to brainwashing, the Chinese people are certainly no fools, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out the relationship between the Chinese central and local governments. But fear of information causes most people to simply choose not to think, because thinking leads to understanding, and understanding only leads to trouble. Václav Havel once offered an analysis of why a greengrocer living in totalitarian Czechoslovakia would post a sign in his shop window reading: “Workers of the world, unite!” The greengrocer, of course, did not really care whether the workers of the world were willing or able or even ought to unite. Therefore, to the greengrocer, the slogan was nothing more than a lie. Primarily, it was a lie that allowed him to feel safe. Secondly, the greengrocer was long accustomed to not caring what was “truth.”
Polling organizations will, of course, endeavor to protect the anonymity of poll respondents through the use of anonymous questionnaires and other means, but in a world where even the wealthiest and most influential global Internet corporations have capitulated to China’s “unique model of governance,” no one truly believes that the Chinese government will respect that anonymity or abide by the rules of the game. Writing something critical of China’s highest-ranking leaders – actually writing it down, in black and white – is a frightening thing for most Chinese people, a fear that cuts to the bone. This fear results in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome: “Why yes, I truly believe that my captors are bold and competent – not to mention handsome – and that they always have my best interests at heart!”
In similar opinion polls, citizens of western democratic nations typically reported much lower levels of satisfaction with their governments than did citizens of China, Singapore, Malaysia, and other totalitarian or quasi-totalitarian nations. In even more totalitarian North Korea, it is simply not possible to conduct such a poll. That fact in itself might offer some explanation for the satisfaction gap. But recent polls in Germany and other democratic nations show that this gap is beginning to close, which also raises some puzzling questions. Some might ask: are German citizens’ high levels of satisfaction with their government the result of brainwashing? Or is it that German poll responses reflect an environment that allows freedom of speech and individual expression, while Chinese poll responses reflect an environment characterized by news blocking, fear of information, and educational brainwashing? To which I can only answer: yes, that is truly the case.
Also by Chang Ping:
中文原文《长平观察：什么政府咱都满意！》, translated by China Change
By Teng Biao, translated by Rogier Creemers
Even in Robinson’s world of one man, his life required information, reflection and memory. Human society not having information is even more impossible to imagine. It may be said that a person is moulded by the information he or she comes into contact with and masters; a society is the same.
Thinking and memory cannot be separated from language. Modern philosophers have paid more and more attention to the extreme importance of language in human societies. The thinking human (homo sapiens) exists first and foremost as a language human (homo loquens). Society and language have not stopped interacting for a blink: regardless of whether philosophy is concerned, or whether politics or society is concerned, language not only is a tool for expression and memory – language itself has a huge capacity to create reality.
Because of this, all systems that want to control and transform society attempt to control and transform language. (Do you remember “Newspeak” from Oceania?) Movements to transform thinking are at the same time movements to transform language; the education to keep people in ignorance is at the same time an education that promotes a language system designed to keep people in ignorance. The highest effect of controlling language is ensuring that a person cannot produce heterodox thinking, and to ensure that persons cannot become their true selves. Because totalitarian ambitions are not only to transform public politics and transform private lives, but also to transform spirits (“Wreak revolution in your innermost soul”); they are surely aware of the deep effects of this revolutionary tool, language, and know how to achieve the greatest effect.
In the various Spring and Autumn thinkers, Han prose and Tang poetry, Song verse and Yuan drama, Ming and Qing novels, the Book of Odes and the Historical Records, essays and letters, plays and storytelling, calligraphy and couples, Mandarin art has extraordinarily enriched the spiritual world of Chinese, and has made immortal contributions to the culture of humankind. But its fate is similar to that of Russian, and the Mandarin that once created outstanding culture was unable to escape the ravages of totalitarianism in the 20th century. From character reform to revolutionary slogans, from applications to join the party to ideological reports, from the Little Red Book to poetry contests, from model plays to the Three Old Articles, from eight-legged Party writing to language and literature course, from letters to diaries, from film and television to comic dialogue: Mandarin has met with complete abuse and pollution. Totalitarian politics are a politics “without laughter” (dixit Zizek); totalitarian language must be a language lacking in humor, mechanical and insipid. Bloody and hypocritical politics have led to the withering of Mandarin; dull Mandarin has led to the desertification of the minds of the Chinese.
The editorials of the People’s Daily and the CCTV Evening News once were an important part of Chinese people’s lives and, for some, it is still their “compulsory course” every day. As soon as it turns seven in the evening, some people concentrate their attention on the television to watch the Evening News with the piety of apostles. If they watch a sports program at that time, they feel they have let down the benevolence of the Party, the country, heaven and earth. Every day, people see or hear these phrases in newspapers, magazines or the television:
“The Party’s strong leadership is the basic guarantee for doing good in everything. ……The Party cadres and State personnel across the board must persist in seeking truth from facts, progressing with the times, and maintaining a good spiritual outlook and work style, persist in using their powers for the good of the people, showing concern for them and working for their benefit, so as to better unite and lead the masses to base themselves on scientific development, strive for indigenous innovation, perfect structures and mechanisms, and stimulate social harmony.” (People’s Daily, January 1, 2006)
“Let us raise high the magnificent banner of Deng Xiaoping Theory, completely implement the important ‘Three Represents’ thought, closely unite around the Party Center with Comrade Hu Jintao as General Secretary, carry forward the cause into the future, progress with the times, work diligently in spite of difficulty, pioneer and innovate, and wrest new and even greater victories in the cause of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, imbued with confidence.” (People’s Daily, March 19, 2003)
“Carrying forward Lei Feng’s spirit is consistent with the basic requirement of completely implementing the important ‘Three Represents’ thought, and is a concrete reflection of practicing the important ‘Three Represents’ thought. Launching activities to learn from Lei Feng under new circumstances, we must closely grasp this topic of the times that is to study and practice the important ‘Three Represents’ thought, and we must persist in making the important ‘Three Represents’ thought into a mandatory course for young officers and soldiers to grow and establish themselves, a mandatory course for Communist Party members’ to train them about the nature of the Party, and a mandatory course for leading cadres to govern and use power. The broad officers and soldiers must carry forward the Lei Feng Spirit, earnestly comprehend and deeply grasp the scientific connotations and spiritual essence of the important ‘Three Represents’ thought, persist in using revolutionary theory to guide lives, consciously make the important ‘Three Represents’ thought into ‘nourishment,’ ‘weapons’ and ‘the steering wheel’, ensure that it becomes a formidable spiritual pillar for strengthening political convictions, hold high the magnificent banner of Deng Xiaoping Theory throughout, and determinedly obey the commands of the Party Center, the Central Military Commission and Chairman Jiang.” (PLA Daily, March 5, 2003)
The result of these sentences is not only that they strangle our thinking, but that they also strangle the delight and aesthetics of our language, so much so that chewing wax is more interesting than reading these sentences. If I am required to choose between ignorance and insipidness, I would rather select the former. But totalitarianism requires that we are insensitive towards language, that our souls become numb, and that we are both ignorant and insipid.
Through the round-the-clock and repeated clamor and unobtrusive influence of public language (newspapers, radio, television, plenary reports, red-headed documents, news bulletins, textbooks of history), the flavor of our writing, reading, lecturing and even daily speech is molded. When picking up a pen, we come up with nothing but clichés and hackneyed expressions. When we talk, there are either lies and double talk, or boasts and idle talk. Regardless of whether it is an official, an actor, a professor or a journalist, as soon as someone gets on the stage to speak, they all become prigs as if by appointment. The haughty official’s tune, the hypocrite’s tune, the revolutionary tune, in short, people just cannot talk like normal human beings. A few years ago, someone criticized the television drama “Grand Justice” for not speaking “the people’s language”, and I shared the same feeling deeply. In real life, people who talk like that are either lunatics or political counselors at Tsinghua University. It isn’t just in “Grand Justice”; in all the works with officially-promoted themes, few people speak the people’s language. The characters are either tall, grand and perfect, or false, ugly and vicious. How can they speak the authentic language of humanity when what they do is deceive by either dressing up as gods or playing devils?
“The style of Party newspaper editorials” and “the tune of the news broadcast” indicate that totalitarianism dominates our thinking habits and our aesthetic habits as a dominant grammar and as an official aesthetics. “Wolf’s milk” has become “wolf’s blood” in our veins through language, thinking and unconsciousness. Are there more “microscopic” or more profound “techniques of power” than these?
The governance of writing and speaking is realized through governing language users’ flesh as well as their minds. In order to transform memories, inject ideas into people’s minds and prevent independent writing, a formidable, comprehensive governance project to purge language is required: the work unit system of intellectuals, the prior censorship system, prototypical literature, the officially-promoted themes, language textbooks, political exams, the “five one project,” the writers’ associations, the literary inquisition as well as writers and speakers’ self-censorship. Furthermore, Mandarin has also been trampled beyond recognition by all sorts of banning and filtering technologies. Under so many taboos and restrictions, people can only say one thing and mean another, hold their tongue, make oblique accusations, beat about the bush, and perfect the art of being indistinct and ambiguous. The Mandarin world after passing through the filter is a harmonious society that is beautiful without parallel: “there is no speech that isn’t important; there is no applause that isn’t enthusiastic; there is no policymaking that isn’t wise; there is no path that isn’t correct; there are no popular feelings that aren’t inspired; there is no progress that isn’t smooth; there are no ranks that aren’t united; there are no masses that aren’t satisfied”. Thanks to our wise leaders, life has climbed another step up, enemies have made asses of themselves again, and the situation is excellent everywhere we look.
Because of this, apart from the fact that today’s Mandarin overflows with politicized clichés and prudery, it is also congested with naked lies and shameless perversions: “the Chinese Communist Party has first and foremost rushed into the forefront of the anti-Japanese war, the Communist Party is the mainstay of the nation’s united anti-Japanese resistance”, “the masses enthusiastically welcome delegates of the Two Meetings”, “our country’s human rights situation is at the best period in history”, “there is no conflict between peasants and the police in China”, “There is no one in China who has been arrested for speech online.” Such lies can be found everywhere. In totalitarian ideological language, there is a “class struggle” without “class enemies”, a “democracy” in which the people cannot make decisions, “constitutionalism” in which the Constitution is willfully trampled underfoot, “freedom of speech” that doesn’t let people speak freely, “citizens” who have no power and also aren’t protected by the law, “public servants” who are always higher than the “people” in power and position, “the representatives of the proletarian class interests” who care more for capitalists than workers”, etc. (Xu Ben). Through forced and deliberate misrepresentation, the CCP has changed China.
Mandarin under totalitarianism is brimming with tautologies, self-aggrandizement and gangster logic, it has no use, no mercy, no reason, no fun, and no taste; it is reduced to a language game that has no connection with reality. China’s “fault lines” are first and foremost the fault lines between the signified and the signifier in Mandarin, and the fault lines between Mandarin and Chinese reality. Mandarin is the home of every Chinese person, but nowadays it is as if all Chinese people are living under an enemy occupation.
Under the mirages constituted by false, aggrandizement and empty Mandarin, another, real world of Mandarin has been growing arduously on the solid ground. Behind a world that “puts up a false show of peace and prosperity,” ordinary people’s anxiety and difficulties are hidden; behind forced collective forgetting, there are tenacious individual memories; behind the grand lies and narratives, there is resistance against slavery as well as an incessant thirst for freedom. Public language and official language, often rigid, affected, ugly, dull, overbearing and coarse, has become the target of ridicule, sarcasm and disdain in private conversations.
Browsing some independent Chinese-language media or websites, you see a different world: “United Nations Special Envoy for Torture Novak says China’s use of torture is still broad”, “blind rights defender Chen Guangcheng has been arrested for 58 days without any whereabouts”, “Election results of Dashi Village Challenged”, “Yahoo Company has been exposed again as allegedly providing evidence to the Chinese police, resulting in a prison sentence of 10 years for Beijing online dissident Wang Xiaoning”, “‘Freezing Point’ weekly refuses to publish the reply article of Yuan Weishi”, “After a secret visit and investigation, rights defenders refute the official statement about the shooting incident in Shanwei,” “On the eve of the Two Meetings, the appropriate authorities have again been searching and arresting petitioners, and a petitioner was struck and killed by a train during pursuit.”
Through folk poetry, underground publications, individual blogs, network periodicals and free media, Mandarin begins to recover its vitality. Ever more people begin to write honestly from their heart; ever more people hope to read truthful, idiosyncratic writing; ever more people begin to think independently and speak the truth. In order to clean out the poison of totalitarian language, and in order to save Mandarin, individual writers, citizen journalists, liberal intellectuals, poets, directors, teachers, students, network writers as well as all conscientious Mandarin users have sprung into action. They do not want Mandarin to become a series of mechanical and dogmatic words devoid of imagination, to become a yoke that confines thinking and suppresses the individual, or to become a writing game of altering history and glossing over reality. Among the writers and journalists locked up across the whole world, the absolute majority are writers and journalist who write in Mandarin. This fact indicates the brave exploration and struggle of Mandarin speakers under grim circumstances.
They are creating a new Mandarin world. This new Mandarin world is continuously vying for members with the old Mandarin world. This process of competition and its results will decide what China looks like in the future. And every person is able to influence this process by answering the following questions: What sort of writing do we read? What sort of Chinese do we use?
The first step in rebuilding civil society is to build ourselves up; building ourselves up needs to begin with re-building our own language. “Power is the language of the powerful, language is the power of the powerless” (Hu Ping). Tyranny has occupied and continues to occupy our homes, bodies and language, and one of the easiest and the most basic works perhaps is to drive away the tyranny of Mandarin from our writing and speech.
May 6, 2006