Sunday, April 26, 2015

The End of Reform in China

Here's a great piece from the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, from Youwei, "Authoritarian Adaptation Hits a Wall":

Xi Jinping photo Xi_Jinping_in_USA_zpsjt1jnbvq.jpg
Speech is censored, in the press and on the Internet, to prevent the publication of anything deemed “troublesome.” Actions are watched even more closely. Even seemingly nonpolitical actions can be considered dangerous; in 2014, Xu Zhiyong, a legal activist who had led a campaign for equal educational opportunities for the children of rural migrants, was sentenced to four years in prison for “disturbing public order.” Public gatherings are restricted, and even private gatherings can be problematic. In May 2014, several scholars and lawyers were detained after attending a memorial meeting for the 1989 movement in a private home. Even the signing of petitions can bring retribution.

Just as important is the emerging mass line—that is, official public guidance—about China’s critical need to maintain stability. A grid of security management has been put in place across the entire country, including extensive security bureaucracies and an extra-bureaucratic network of patrol forces, traffic assistants, and population monitors. Hundreds of thousands of “security volunteers,” or “security informants,” have been recruited among taxi drivers, sanitation workers, parking-lot attendants, and street peddlers to report on “suspicious people or activity.” One Beijing neighborhood reportedly boasts 2,400 “building unit leaders” who can note any irregularity in minutes, with the going rate for pieces of information set at two yuan (about 30 cents). This system tracks criminal and terrorist threats along with political troublemakers, but dissenters are certainly among its prime targets.

In today’s China, Big Brother is everywhere. The domestic security net is as strong yet as delicate as a spider web, as omnipresent yet as shapeless as water. People smart enough to avoid politics entirely will not even feel it. Should they cross the line, however, the authorities of this shadow world would snap into action quickly. Official overreaction is a virtue, not a vice: “chopping a chicken using the blade for a cow,” as the saying goes, is fully approved, the better to prevent trouble from getting out of hand.

This system is good at maintaining order. But it has reduced the chances of any mature civil society developing in contemporary China, let alone a political one. And so even as grievances proliferate, the balance of power between the state and society leans overwhelmingly toward the former. Social movements, like plants, need space in which to grow. And when such space does not exist, both movements and plants wither.


Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.