Suffering from chronic repression

Fears of a new Cultural Revolution are beginning to look justified as Xi Jinping advances the pace of control in China

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Pedestrians pass burned-out vehicles the day after the Chinese army crackdown in Tiananmen Square, 1989 (Photo by David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

At a Beijing event in early 2015, a businesswoman told me that her circle feared a return to the Cultural Revolution, with its control of society and lack of freedoms. She can only have been ten years old when Mao died in 1976, yet her fears ran deep. Five years later, those fears look justified.

Yet we should not be surprised: well before 2015 it was obvious what was coming. The workings of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are not a closed book, if you bother to read what it puts out to its own people. The communique of its 6th Plenum in October 2011 revealed plainly that the party would tighten control over culture, religion, education, the media, the internet and society.

It is common to put this all down to Xi Jinping, and indeed he was in charge of the drafting of the 6th Plenum’s communique. But political tightening started as early as 2008/9 when party elders saw that new forces, entrepreneurs and businesses, the internet, foreign ideas and culture and protests in Tibet and Xinjiang were a threat to the CCP’s future hold on power. At that time Xi was far from being the all-powerful party general secretary that he has become since. Indeed, he was originally to have been number two to the current Premier Li Keqiang, but he got the top job because CCP elders, led from behind the arras by Jiang Zemin, felt that he would better reassert the power of the party and was of their persuasion.  He was—and some.

Xi has pushed the pace of control. Former Australian prime minister and China expert Kevin Rudd is writing a PhD on Xi and his Marxism. He puts him down as a believer. It may be so, or he may be like a priest who has lost his faith but sees the role of ritual, symbolism and profession of belief in providing a stable moral framework for society. Certainly, at times Xi talks of Marxism almost as a religion, a Sinicised one made up of an eclectic mix of Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, nationalism and Chinese culture. Yet the resurgence of religion—an estimated 100 million Christians, 50 million Muslims and over 200 million Buddhists—suggests that this newest of foreign religions, Marxism, fails to meet the people’s spiritual needs.

Whatever the foundation of Xi’s political views, he believes in control. Perhaps the most chilling phrase of all CCP sloganising, which has spread from the war on corruption to broader application, is “do not dare to, are not able to, do not wish to” (the party inserts the verb appropriate to the occasion). A translation: citizens will be controlled by fear, restrictions and by being moulded into “New China Man”, a phrase which Xi uses.

“Dare, able, wish” is not new. It is a course Mao attempted to follow for 27 years and it is what Deng Xiaoping had to reassert after the protests of 1989, which occurred throughout China, not just in Tiananmen. But it has become more urgent as greater urbanisation has splintered collective control, with globalisation and opening up facilitating the spread of political viruses such as democracy and personal rights, and with the internet broadening access to dangerous material. And where Xi has the edge over Mao is in technology-enabled totalitarianism.

Technology is an enormous boon to all elements of “dare, able, wish”. It underpins the “Golden Shield” and “Police Cloud”, projects whose long-term aim is to allow the security authorities to know everything about an individual within seconds, to impose restraints and, through artificial intelligence working on mass data, predict and pre-empt actions inimical to party interests (they are far more extensive and threatening than the social credit system, so often overdramatised in the western media). Chinese businesses are willing accomplices: there is much money to be made. Hence companies such as Huawei and Hikvision, a world leading CCTV company, have heavy presences in Xinjiang, where over a million Uyghurs have been put in concentration camps. Huawei has three joint laboratories with Public Security bureaus in Xinjiang.

A prime element of “dare” has been the “July 2015” (the start date) persecution of lawyers who defend dissident and human rights cases. Lawyers are important because they work across regions and fields; in addition to this ability to coordinate and unite, they are intelligent, and they use the party’s own laws against the party. Lawyers who defend in political cases are being hunted to extinction.

Another encouragement to cease daring is the strengthening of collective, street level surveillance. Party documents are full of references to the “Fengqiao (Maple Bridge) experience”, recalling a mass movement launched by Mao in 1964. But Xi’s version is not about class struggle, but about control of the masses by the masses for the masses. It goes hand in hand with strengthening of the neighbourhood committees and the “grid system”. Under the latter, urban neighbours are divided into manageable grids with volunteers reporting comings and goings to the police. My old Beijing district had a population of 3-4 million, with 120,000 such volunteers, or one nark for fewer than every 30 narked. In the words of a 1930 letter of Mao, the CCP is not going to risk that “A Single Spark can Start a Prairie Fire”.

When it comes to “able”, the party’s first concern is that no one should be able to organise. This is why it stunts the growth of civil society or religion. Any organisation outside its control represents a potential threat, even if working in areas manifestly in the  Party’s and society’s interest, such as the environment. After all, environmental organisations might grow; heaven forfend if they formed a Green Party. It is also why the internet censorship focuses so intently on any hint of discontent coalescing: any call to gather in protest must be quickly scotched or scorched.

If “dare” and “able” are Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, “wish” is more Huxley’s Brave New World. The 6th Plenum talked of “using the socialist core value system to guide society’s thoughts” as “even more pressing”; and of the need to “promote Socialist advanced culture even deeper into everyone’s mind”. It starts with the party itself. Gone is the talk prevalent in 2011-2 of cutting the number of the “vanguard”; now the party numbers over 90 million, perhaps 11 per cent of all adult males (only a quarter of members are women). The reason? Party members are subject to party discipline and they are the most important members of society: 85 per cent of officials are CCP members.

“Wish” is long-term. It works in the ever-more pervasive social credit system, which is moving from a CCP version of Experian to a means of conditioning behaviour through punishments and rewards. “Wish” starts in the kindergarten and continues throughout education. Then there is propaganda, education’s elder sibling; and censorship, the obverse of learning the narrative which the party pushes. My language teacher in Beijing, a graduate aged 28 years, once asked me why no European leader would be attending the military parade in Tiananmen. I knew she had no knowledge of 1989.  So I asked her what was the most famous photograph of China, which every person in the West would know. No idea. I asked if she had heard of “tankman”.  No idea.  Then I opened my computer and watched her watch the CNN film of tankman. She looked on in shocked silence and then said quietly, “I am sorry. I had no idea.”

For most Chinese “dare, able, wish” are not shocking. Certainly, there are intellectuals bravely expressing their disquiet, human rights defenders being cut down for their views, and highly inventive, ephemeral humour and cynicism on the internet. It is telling that, for so many high-ranking Chinese and increasingly the middle classes, the best which they can do for their (one) child is to get him or her educated and, preferably, settled abroad. Telling too that the budget for internal security is bigger than spending on the military. Yet Xi Jinping and his government remain popular with large swathes, even if communist officials at the local level, often corrupt despite an eight year war on corruption, are not.

The party might put this acceptance of the curtailment of personal freedoms down to different, “core socialist values”; to Chinese culture; to a greater weight given to the collective rather than to the individual; or even to a greater ability of the people to “chi ku” or put up with hardship (literally “eat bitter”). The trouble with this “China is different” argument is that it is undermined by Hong Kong and Taiwan, Chinese societies which do subscribe to the values enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights (as it happens, two Chinese diplomats played a large part in drawing up the UDHR). It is also undermined by China’s own history of protest, hence the history-laundering of the 1989 Tiananmen and China-wide protests.

The explanation for public tolerance is partly that the party has brought better living standards to most people; the streets are safe; and China’s position in the world is stronger and more respected. It is also partly that education, censorship, and propaganda work (even for the handling of Covid-19, after a bad start).  Finally, if all else fails, the CCP can wield a heavy stick.

It may need to, if the economy, already ailing and facing the costs of past policies, in particular towards debt, demographics and the environment, fails to deliver. Technological totalitarianism may be strong enough to keep the lid on protest. The real fear is a split in the leadership if mounting problems are ascribed to Xi’s helmsmanship. There is no sign of that. But there rarely is. Coups happen not according to Hemingway’s first form of bankruptcy, gradually, but in line with the second, suddenly.