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Chinese dilemmas

Publication Date : 12-02-2014

 

Reading the Chinese official press every day, one gets the impression that China is the most powerful nation on the planet (after the United States of course); its leadership can dictate the agenda to its neighbours, friends (very few) and foes alike.

The last Obama-Xi Jinping encounter was symptomatic. The meeting of the Big Two was to be ‘relaxed’: no stiff protocol, no long speeches, no ties, not even a formal agenda. But Obama had in mind the Chinese hackers visiting the Pentagon’s and other US government Internet servers and stealing American military secrets. He had decided to corner Xi on the subject.

Xi obviously denied any wrongdoing from China. The cyber-security issue needed to be resolved in a ‘pragmatic way’, he said. China too was victim of cyber attacks.

The previous night, Edward Snowden had appeared on the world stage. Suddenly, it was the pot calling the kettle black, especially as Snowden suddenly emerged in Hong Kong, the Special Administrative Region of China! China can’t be put on the mat so easily. There is however another side to the coin, because China is today caught in a dilemma.

Whether it is pollution, dissidence or corruption, the Middle Kingdom faces massive problems and has only the Party to solve these thorny issues. For the leadership, the question is: should repression (like in the bad old days of Mao Zedong) be used or new ways explored?

Beijing is vacillating between reforms and repression.  During the recent Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year, this dance of uncertainty appeared upfront. China unveiled new rules asking party officials not to cover up what should be publicly available information. The Communist cadres often use the excuse of ‘state secrecy’ to scuttle open discussions on the political future of the nation.

The latest move is seen as a step towards greater transparency. Reuters explained: “China has notoriously vague state secret laws, covering everything from the number of people executed every year to industry databases and even pollution figures, and information can be retroactively labelled a state secret.”

The news agency quotes the detention of an Australian citizen and three Chinese colleagues working for the mining giant, Rio Tinto, ‘for stealing state secrets’ during the course of tense iron ore negotiations  in 2009.

Xinhua now says that government departments “must not define as state secret information which by law ought to be public”, affirming, that ‘it is an effort to boost government transparency’.

The new rules state that “the scope of what is secret should be adjusted in a timely manner according to changes in the situation”. Adjustable criteria!

In the meantime, Xu Zhiyong, a law lecturer at Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications has been sentenced to 4 years in jail. In early 2012, the pro-democracy activist dared posting on his blog an open letter to CCP’s General Secretary Xi Jinping condemning corruption and injustice.

In May 2012, Xu had founded the New Citizen Movement to promote social equality and a fair legal system; he also demanded that party officials should disclose their financial dealings. The Communist authorities immediately saw this as a threat. Xu is not a Chinese Kejriwal, no gimmicks, but his organisation collected 7,000 signatures which were officially submitted to the National People’s Congress; it requested members of the powerful Central Committee to disclose their assets. Xi Jinping and his colleagues, though they pretend to fight corruption, did not like it.

Xu Zhiyong knew about the consequence of his fight; in November 2012, he declared: “For the world to become a better place, someone has to pay a price.” Now, he will have to fight from jail.  Not only is the country in mutation, but the leadership is not sure which direction to take.

An article, recently published in Qiushi, a theoretical publication of the Party School of the CCP, speaks of three major risks affecting China’s political stability. The ‘Three Risks’ are worth pondering upon. The first is decentralisation of power. The article argues that democratic political reform carries the risk of polarising the power of the central government. It cites Vietnam as an example.

Practically, it means that there is no question of  ‘regional aspirations’ or even a sort of federal system, like in India for example. It is far too dangerous for the party which could explode (or implode).

The second ‘risk’ is an economic one: “Fluctuations in the economy. Sustainable economic development and maintaining social mobility are fundamental guarantees of social stability in countries going through industrialisation and modernisation. Over the next 10 to 20 years, maintaining sustainable economic development and social mobility will be vital for China's social stability.”  The main objective of the recently-created Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms (with Xi Jinping at the helm) is to introduce just enough 'economic' reforms to be able to maintain 'social stability' and save the party from a Soviet-type collapse. Of course, there is no question of 'democratisation' in  the Middle Kingdom, just a minimum of reforms to avoid the feared chaos.

The third risk is 'losing control of the media'. Qiushi   elaborates: “Guiding social ideology, controlling public opinion, and managing social emotions are an important part of national governance and important ideological conditions for maintaining social stability. From the experience of other countries and the new situations, China has encountered in recent years, the challenges and risks from the impact of social media and from the management of society's emotional impact are increasing.” This explains the severe sentence inflicted on Xu Zhiyong.

Voice of America (VOA) recently quoted the results of a survey published by The Daily Telegraph: the number of postings on microblogs dropped 70 per cent from 2011 to 2013. VOA stated that the Information Technology Institute of East China Normal University conducted the research for the paper. The usage of 1.6 million microblog users from 2011 to 2013 was analysed. It showed that, before March 2012, users posted an average of 83 million blogs every day. But since a 'real name registration system' was introduced, the number of postings dropped by some 50 per cent. It further dropped after some well-known bloggers were arrested.

This is China today. It speaks of 'reforms' and at the same time restricts further the freedom of ordinary people.  Xi Jinping, the Secretary-General of the party is the boss of both the leading groups, the one on Reforms and the National Security Committee.

According to another article in the Qiushi, the two new small  groups  will  yield  more  authority  than  the  government and will have more means 'to crack down on special interests', That is worrying as it means more repression against the Tibetans, the Ugyurs, the 'democrats' and others.

The Horse Year starts on an ominous note. But can repression, always more repression, help China to grow? Certainly not, though the apparatchiks believe that it could.

In the meantime, atheist China is burning incense;  China News reported that on the eve of the Chinese New Year, tens of thousands of people lined up outside Buddhist temples overnight to have the opportunity to burn the first incense of the year; the down-to-earth  managers of temples  did not miss the opportunity to raise their prices. One temple in Zhejiang Province is said to have priced the first incense at  US$20,000. The article admits that people have 'misconceptions' and are misled by the belief that the first incense will make their New Year wishes come true.

I wonder if Xi Jinping also burnt incense and what his wishes for the Horse Year were?

The writer is an expert on China-Tibet relations and author of  Fate of Tibet.

 

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