Today’s China is not the future we should want

China’s strategy with the Hong Kong ‘security’ law seems intended to send a global message: critics of China will be increasingly punished as the state’s global influence grows.

This is disturbing in many ways, for the welfare of people in China, the region, and around the world. The degree of authoritarian control that technology has granted over citizens’ lives is disturbing in itself, and could permanently inhibit reform or political progress. While it tries to present itself as organized and competent in comparison to chaotic democracies, there is also reason to believe that China is replicating the dysfunctional and corrupt politics of the Soviet Union, with officials at every level incentivized to conceal and misrepresent what is really happening to protect themselves and advance their personal interests. Ethnic and religious nationalism, in India as well as China, are also deeply frightening and drivers of abhorrent humanitarian abuses.

Given the expected trajectory of relative power in global politics — with North America, Europe, and Japan all in relative decline — perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a peaceful revolution within China to remove the Communist Party, potentially along the lines of the establishment of the Sixth Republic in South Korea after 1987.

China hasn’t grown richer out of the brilliance or wisdom of the communist party, but out of that party’s abandonment of communist ideology for a synthesis between export-driven industries making use of inexpensive labour and an unaccountable state willing to smash anyone who gets in the way of the big plans. The idea that there’s an appealing “China model” that other states should consider in the face of American decline is just wrong. It’s a police state rising through cynical diplomatic manipulation and a central role in the global consumerist manufacturing system, not a model for the future that any free people should embrace. Indeed, it is a model we should resist, even when the Chinese government cultivates fear over what the personal costs of doing so will be.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

45 thoughts on “Today’s China is not the future we should want”

  1. Whereas past actions from Beijing chipped away at Hong Kong’s “One country, two systems” institutions, such as education, free elections and an independent judiciary, the security law eliminates free-speech protections, inserts political bodies as lawmaking authorities and grants police authority without judicial oversight, thus dismantling wholesale the legal institutions that previously insulated Hong Kong from its control

  2. I witnessed a Chinese form of terrorism in Tibet when I went there with my son. It involved colonialism, brutality, arrogance and economic exploitation. Although the world has verbally supported Tibet for more than half a century, nobody has stopped China in any way. I think that only serious domestic economic problems can unsettle the leadership.

  3. The police can now demand that any message posted on the internet that is deemed a threat to national security be removed and that its author be banned from the host platform.

    Censorship is spreading. Public libraries have removed books by politicians who have called for greater autonomy for Hong Kong. Schools have been “recommended” to do the same. The education bureau has ordered pupils not to sing the protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” or otherwise “express their political stance”. Mrs Lam has told foreign journalists that their freedom to report is conditional on a “100% guarantee” that they abide by the new law.

  4. China blocks Piketty book on inequality as leadership prepares to declare victory over poverty – The Globe and Mail

    Mr. Piketty’s newest research, meanwhile, has shone an unflattering light on China. Using new analytical methods, he found that the country’s top 10 per cent earned 41 per cent of all income in 2015, compared with 27 per cent in 1978, and have accumulated almost 70 per cent of all private wealth. The bottom half dropped from 27 per cent of all earnings to 15 per cent over that time

    “The fact that China so quickly became so much more inegalitarian than Europe was by no means inevitable and clearly represents a failure for the regime,” Mr. Piketty writes in Capital and Ideology. “In the 1980s, the level of income inequality was close to that of the most egalitarian countries in Europe, such as Sweden.”

    Thomas Piketty refuses to censor latest book for sale in China | Thomas Piketty | The Guardian

  5. Furthermore, a regime’s internal dynamics often presage external behavior, so it is ominous, the New York Times reports, that Xi’s regime is directing the security agencies to “drive the blade in” and “scrape poison off the bone” as they “resolutely put absolute loyalty, absolute purity and absolute dependability into action” to make everyone “obey Xi in everything.”

  6. Chinese censorship is enforced ignorance, and no society based on forced ignorance will prosper.

  7. China’s Techno-Authoritarianism Has Gone Global
    Washington Needs to Offer an Alternative
    By Maya Wang
    April 8, 2021

    Nearly every week, the international news media reports on the Chinese government’s troubling use of technology to spy on its own citizens and those of other countries. China’s tech giants, Foreign Policy reported late last year, work hand in glove with the country’s spy agencies. The Guardian suggested in December that a Chinese state-owned phone operator spies on American users.

    Surveillance is a fact of life for Chinese citizens and, increasingly, for those who live in countries that have adopted Chinese surveillance technology, from Ecuador to Kyrgyzstan. Even more worrisome, this ecosystem of Chinese-based technologies carries with it a set of values that undergirds the Chinese state—a form of twenty-first-century authoritarianism that marries social control and efficiency.

    The United States has kneecapped Chinese technology giants in the name of national security and human rights. But the United States and its tech companies also have a checkered history with the very ideals they claim to uphold. To prevent China’s techno-authoritarianism from gaining traction, the United States must reverse course and start leading by example: it must reform its own surveillance practices, protect citizens’ privacy and security, and work with allies to set rights-respecting global standards for tech firms to follow.

  8. The People’s Republic of The Future

    When it comes to technology, Shenzhen may well be the most fascinating city in the world. It makes the majority of our electronics. It clones the best technology Silicon Valley has to offer with ease. And, these days, Shenzhen buzzes with new ideas and an unrivaled energy that ensure it will play a major role in shaping our collective futures.

    In this episode of Hello World, journalist Ashlee Vance heads to the spectacle that is Shenzhen to experience it firsthand. The results are equal parts inspiring and disconcerting as tech-fueled entrepreneurs try to navigate an authoritarian regime.

  9. All this inclines officials to vigilance. On March 5th, in his annual report to the National People’s Congress, the prime minister, Li Keqiang, called for greater public civility in cultural industries, in the name of “advanced socialist culture”. Four days earlier, the Chinese Association for Performing Arts, a state-backed body, began enforcing a new list of 15 behaviours that could see actors, musicians and other artists banned from performing for a year or longer. The penalty-incurring activities range from insulting China’s national honour to drink-driving, gambling or lip-synching during commercial performances. The guidelines build on earlier moves by industry associations to defend social stability, including rules forbidding depictions of gay love, extramarital affairs, smoking or witchcraft. In today’s China, a painfully unequal society, film and television regulators have tried to limit displays of wealth or inherited privilege. To that end they have criticised reality television shows featuring the children of famous people.

  10. When dissent emerges, Mr Xi uses technology to deal with it before it grows. Chinese streets are bristling with cameras, enhanced by facial-recognition software. Social media are snooped on and censored. Officials can solve problems early or persecute citizens who raise them. Those who share the wrong thought can lose their jobs and freedom. The price of the party’s success, in brutal repression, has been horrendous.

  11. Mr Xi wants to restore its visibility. Busybody party members are making a comeback. Even before he took power, experiments had begun in some cities with a new system of control called “grid management”. This involved dividing communities into groups of households, or grids, and assigning people (often retirees and usually party members) to keep watch on other grid residents. Mr Xi has extended this system nationwide. The big-brain screen in Pudong shows the locations of grid monitors. When something worrisome happens, it can help officials to decide who should take a closer look.

    An official newspaper gives an example. Its journalist saw one camera home in on a piece of wastepaper on a street. That information was relayed to a grid monitor, who disposed of it. A trivial example, seemingly, but some readers may have taken note. Had the scrap been an anti-party flyer scattered by a dissident, the perpetrator could have been whisked away as quickly as the paper.

    At the top of the grid hierarchy sit neighbourhood party committees. These have been beefed up by putting local police chiefs in senior positions and giving them more authority over other party committees, such as those in businesses. The committees relay the intelligence they gather from grid managers to the police. Universities cause particular anxiety. Every big anti-government upheaval for more than a century has seen students at the forefront, including the May Fourth Movement of 1919, in which Mao participated. There is no sign of rebelliousness on campuses today. But Mr Xi is watchful. For universities to be run well, he said in 2016, they must be “firm strongholds” of support for the party. Some, he lamented, were not strong enough. Two years later he called for “resolute” measures to prevent the spread of “incorrect political trends of thought” among students.

    Once again, party members are used as his footsoldiers. Since the unrest of 1989 student party members, or applicants to join the party, have been deployed as xinxiyuan, or informants. Their job is to submit regular reports to the party on topics being discussed by students and to snitch on anyone, including their own tutors, deemed to be erring ideologically. Under Mr Xi, their role has become more institutionalised, with campuses divided into grids. Each deploys xinxiyuan to monitor fellow students in their dormitories. Their intelligence is fed into campus computer systems.

    Mr Xi has also put more effort than his post-Mao predecessors into ensuring the party operates inside private enterprises and ngos. Employees who are party members have formed cells (xiaozu) or branches (zhibu), one function of which is to keep an eye on workers and report potential trouble. Their chiefs often take part in neighbourhood party meetings that discuss threats to social stability. Under Mr Xi, the party is getting back into business.

  12. The party is pushing for more than superficial change. It is using a suite of new laws and regulations to force tech firms to alter both their behaviour and their products. The aim is to control what Chinese people see and do online. The new rules will require tech firms to write code for their platforms so that they promote content that the government likes, and inhibit what it does not. This is likely to be more efficient than the whack-a-mole approach of enforcing the party’s will case by case, and plausible at a scale that the labour-intensive approach of trying to control technological systems directly would not be.

  13. Xi Jinping is waging a campaign to purge China of capitalist excesses. China’s president sees surging debt as the poisonous fruit of financial speculation and billionaires as a mockery of Marxism. Businesses must heed state guidance. The party must permeate every area of national life. Whether Mr Xi can impose his new reality will shape China’s future, as well as the ideological battle between democracy and dictatorship.

    Trading on cryptocurrency exchanges has been banned as, more or less, has for-profit tutoring. Gaming is bad for children, so it must be strictly rationed. China needs larger families, so abortion must become rarer. Male role models should be manly and celebrities patriotic. Underpinning it all is Xi Jinping Thought, which is being drummed into the craniums of six-year-olds.

    The slogan of the moment is “common prosperity”, reflecting how Communist China remains as unequal as some capitalist countries. The top 20% of China’s households take home over 45% of the country’s disposable income; the top 1% own over 30% of household wealth.

  14. The pace of recent events suggests Mr Xi is in a hurry. He has clamped down not only on big business but also on the entertainment sector. Ideological education in schools has been reinforced: children as young as six are being taught about “Xi Jinping Thought”.

    And as often happens when congresses approach, ideology is becoming a bone of contention. Since the launch of the country’s “reform and opening” policy in 1978, a huge gap has emerged between the party’s professed socialism and China’s reality. The country is much richer, but it practises a Dickensian kind of capitalism that offers far less protection to the poor than many capitalist societies in the West provide. The disposable income of people in the top fifth of Chinese households is ten times higher than those in the bottom fifth, official figures show. Credit Suisse, a bank, reckons the top 1% own more than 30% of household wealth, about the same as in America.

    In the 1990s, when the party began encouraging private enterprise, it also allowed people a degree of personal freedom, at least outside politics. Hitherto suppressed forms of art and entertainment, from the avant-garde to punk rock, were given freer rein. Mr Xi, however, has been signalling that his “Chinese dream” is of a conservative society: Xi Jinping Thought is suffused with references to ancient Chinese philosophies stressing conformity.

  15. Xi Jinping’s talk of “common prosperity” spooks the prosperous

    The idea might be motivating everything from China’s crackdown on tech tycoons to a putative property tax

    “We must not allow the gap between rich and poor to get wider,” Mr Xi insisted in January. People in the top fifth of Chinese households enjoy a disposable income more than ten times as high as people in the bottom fifth, according to official figures. Disposable incomes in cities are two and a half times as high as in the countryside. And the top 1% own 30.6% of household wealth, according to Credit Suisse, a bank (compared with 31.4% in America).

  16. Growing anti-media sentiment is driven by politics and economics. Until about a decade ago, journalists at swashbuckling news outlets talked openly of holding the powerful to account. Then the Communist Party struck back, hard, neutering liberal publications and purging newsrooms. To earn press cards today, journalists must take politics tests and attend 90 hours of training each year, stressing their primary mission of “public opinion guidance”. As an extra incentive to toe the party line, censors allow online nationalists to savage any journalism deemed unpatriotic. Nationalist zealots hounding “liberal media” do not realise that “what they are attacking is already dead,” says a veteran editor.

  17. A second explanation for China’s embrace of Russia is harder to see and hear, for it involves an indoctrination campaign within the Communist Party. This draws lessons from the “tragedy” of the Soviet Union’s disintegration. It takes its lead from Mr Xi, who casts the Soviet collapse as a crisis of lost communist faith. Several times during his first decade as leader, Mr Xi has condemned Soviet party leaders and officials for becoming a self-serving caste and for losing political control of the army. Above all, Mr Xi blames the Soviet collapse on “historical nihilism”, jargon for allowing ideological foes to dwell on dark episodes in history.

    A new, 101-minute Chinese documentary made for internal party use, “Historical Nihilism and the Soviet Collapse, Reflections on 30 years since the Disintegration of the Soviet Party and Nation”, takes up that charge. Though not widely publicised, the film has been studied since late last year. There are brief reports of screenings all around China, in central and provincial government bodies but also at universities and law courts, municipal party committees and at least one local forestry bureau: evidence of a campaign ordered from the top. The film has not been released in cinemas or on television, but may be found online.

    The film lionises Stalin. It blames famines that followed his collectivisation of agriculture on rich peasants hoarding grain. It denies that his political purges killed millions, though it admits to some excesses. The documentary calls it slander to accuse Adolf Hitler and Stalin of jointly launching the second world war (Poland, which the two tyrants invaded from the west and the east, might disagree). It expresses outrage at those who question whether some Soviet-era heroes and martyrs are inventions. And it accuses the West of scheming to undermine the Soviet Union for decades by handing Nobel prizes to dissenting writers, inviting reform-minded officials on academic exchanges and, by the late 1980s, supporting civil society and a free press. The film’s villains include Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, whose denunciation of Stalin’s personality cult is called “90% lies”. The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, is blamed for capitalist policies that—the film asserts—destroyed a planned economy that had outperformed America’s. There follow scenes of post-Soviet chaos crafted to appal watching officials, involving toppled communist memorials and mobs attacking former oppressors. Then comes the Putin era, with proud war veterans and goose-stepping troops in a sunlit Red Square, over the strains of Russia’s national anthem. Mr Putin is hailed for commissioning new, patriotic history books.


    How a free and open Hong Kong became a police state

    Almost every prominent democrat in Hong Kong is now either in jail or exile.

    Every other major pro-democracy news outlet in Hong Kong has been closed. The newspapers which matter are Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po—which the party now uses as proxies to help run the city. Democrats have learned to read them closely. If you become one of their targets, you can expect a knock on the door in the middle of the night.

    A culture of fear and reporting has seeped into the civil service and schools, courts and universities. Some outspoken teachers have lost their licences. Many others have received warnings after being anonymously accused of saying the wrong thing. Their so-called crimes are often vague, which encourages those who want to avoid their fate to attend to every possible aspect of their lives that might bring disapproval.

    The authorities have established an anonymous hotline for Hong Kongers to report on each other. More than a quarter of a million such reports have been lodged over the past two years.

    Academics at the city’s world-class universities have stopped researching subjects deemed sensitive by the party such as Taiwan, religion in mainland China and public opinion in Hong Kong. “We look at scholars in mainland China and see our future. To survive, we will have to be the government’s mouthpiece,” says one Hong Kong academic. “If you are outspoken, the government will attack you through its newspapers.” In April 2022 Peter Baehr, a retired academic who worked at Lingnan University in Hong Kong for 21 years, wrote that “University senior managements are the chief drivers of repression…They are opportunists and weathervanes, rather than militants and pioneers. It is ambition more than ideology that motivates them.” Such mediocre opportunists are now littered throughout the texture and fabric of Hong Kong.

    A once outspoken legal profession has been neutered. The former chair of the Hong Kong Bar Association, Paul Harris, vilified by the pro-Beijing press, fled the city after being questioned by national-security police. Barristers know they may lose business from mainland firms if they speak up. In his first interview as the new chair of the bar, Victor Dawes said the organisation would not discuss politics. He means the bar will not oppose the government.

    The authorities have used similar tactics, as well as colonial-era laws, to bring teachers, social workers and labour unions to heel. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong suspended its annual human-rights press awards just days before the winners were to be announced in April. “Successful reporters know where the red lines are…Some may decry that as self-censorship. I call it common sense,” Keith Richburg, the club’s president, wrote. The anaconda above gave a soft, satisfied hiss.

  19. Outsiders may find it helpful to think of the CCP as more of a mafia organization than a political party. The head of the party is the don, and below him sit the underbosses, or the Standing Committee. These men traditionally parcel out power, with each responsible for certain areas—foreign policy, the economy, personnel, anticorruption, and so on. They are also supposed to serve as the big boss’s consiglieres, advising him on their areas of responsibility. Outside the Standing Committee are the other 18 members of the Politburo, who are next in the line of succession for the Standing Committee. They can be thought of as the mafia’s capos, carrying out Xi’s orders to eliminate perceived threats in the hope of staying in the good graces of the don. As a perk of their position, they are allowed to enrich themselves as they see fit, seizing property and businesses without penalty. And like the mafia, the party uses blunt tools to get what it wants: bribery, extortion, even violence.

  20. Yet, revealingly, ruins parties are not seen primarily as acts of thrill-seeking rebellion. A college graduate who attends such parties says that she and her friends would rather go to regular nightclubs, but are prevented by pandemic rules that they consider “stupid”. The young woman describes how she accepted controls early in the pandemic, frightened by reports of deaths and of overwhelmed hospitals. But her trust faded, especially after a harsh, bungled lockdown that saw 24m people strictly quarantined for two months this year in Shanghai, China’s most prosperous city. Calling the Omicron variant “not that serious”, she is more frightened by rules that require Beijingers to scan qr codes with a movement-tracking smartphone app each time they enter a shop or public building or catch a taxi. That app generates green health codes needed to enter any public place. Such tracking systems, which exist all over China in various forms, create a constant risk of being ordered into quarantine for visiting the same place as a suspected case, even hours later. Her parents accept such controls, the graduate says, suggesting that older Chinese were rendered “obedient” by long-ago hardships. But like a striking number of her peers, she works hard to keep her own movements hidden.

    Until recently, scofflaws tricked guards and taxi drivers by showing old screenshots of green health codes, avoiding the need to scan qr codes afresh. To stop this, the latest Beijing health codes boast an animated border and a synthesised voice. Rule-breakers now record short videos of a scan generating a health code, and show them. Others boast of maintaining two health codes, one registered with their Chinese identity card and one with a passport. This lessens travellers’ risks of getting stuck, should a health code be compromised by visiting a risky town or city, a disaster which could trigger a ban on entering Beijing and even orders to quarantine. That dodge is also against the rules. If reports of prosecutions are any guide, covid law-breaking is on the rise. Beijing police recently arrested drivers who helped people enter the city from areas with cases of infection. Authorities in the southern province of Guangdong charged software firms with selling apps that generate fake health codes. Videos of scuffles with big whites are increasingly common on social media.

  21. In an increasingly dangerous world, the party’s chief aim is political security, which Chinese officials and state media have defined as “safeguarding party leadership, China’s socialist system, and the authority of the Central Committee with Xi Jinping at the core.” Xi and other CCP leaders believe that both political unrest and ideological contamination could threaten this order. In their view, communism in the Soviet Union was doomed by corruption from within, lack of ideological commitment, and insufficient party control over the organs of coercion. One can draw a direct line from these threats to each of Xi’s signature initiatives: his anticorruption campaign; his efforts to strengthen patriotic education, ideological indoctrination, and the party’s penetration of society; and his push to assert party control over the military and domestic security apparatus. Comprehensive national security is the strategic concept that ties these seemingly disparate efforts together.

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