The Chinese Crackdown: Arrogance? Or Insecurity?

By James Fallows

If you'd like to take several steps ahead in understanding the current crackdown and repression in China, I recommend a post that appeared a few minutes ago on the reliably acerbic site The Peking Duck.

PekingDuck.pngThe post's author, Richard Burger, is an American with long experience inside China -- and working with Chinese authorities to more effectively "tell their story" to the outside world. As I've written before, the way official China "presents" itself to the outside world makes conditions look considerably worse than the mixed realities of the country itself. When criticized from outside, the government typically stonewalls (as with the ludicrous assertion that most of the world agreed that the Nobel Prize for Liu Xiaobo was illegitimate). When criticized from the inside, in recent months it has taken simply to locking the critics up. The political situation now is objectively bad - and looks even worse because of the government's belligerent tone, which makes it hard to for outsiders to bear in mind the vast other areas of Chinese life that are ticking away open and uncontrolled.

GlobalTimes1.pngThat is why "The Peking Duck's" testimony is so valuable. He describes up-close contact with one part of the core of the government's propaganda information machinery, a paper called Global Times that you could think of as the pro-Communist Fox News of China. Richard Burger's account begins:

>>Nine days ago, Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of The Global Times, assembled all of the Chinese staff into the paper's large conference room and shut the door. As is nearly always the case with such meetings, the expats, known as "foreign experts," were not permitted inside.

Hu had a direct and simple order for his shock troops staff: They were to go to their desks and seek out any Chinese comment threads, any discussions on Chinese BBS's and portals and blogs -- any discussion on the Internet at all -- about the detention of Ai Weiwei and counter them with the party line, as expressed so clearly and ominously in a recent Global Times editorial, namely that Ai Weiwei is a self-appointed maverick who deserves to be detained, and who is being used by hostile Western powers to embarrass, hurt and destabilize China. This was not a request, it was a direct order. It was compulsory. <<

OK, you may be thinking: "Censorship in China, we know all about that." But the real value in the post is what comes after, in explaining the mentality that leads to official China's scorched-earth uncompromising stance, notably in that Global Times editorial. Burger describes a discussion with a senior Global Times editor about the daily realities of life in still-developing China, which leave many ordinary people, not just government-security officials, placing a premium on "stability" and "order." Burger contrasts that complex, "here are the realities" view with the hysterical stridency of official statements and the harshness of the current wave of arrests. He says (emphasis added):

>>This led to a very long conversation -- over an hour -- in which I explained that if only China would actually engage in a dialogue about these issues with the outside world instead of sabre-rattling and always sounding like a misunderstood and petulant child, maybe then China would advance its cause and help people outside China understand what China is really all about, how human rights are seen through Chinese eyes...

"Maybe, as you keep saying, the West truly doesn't understand China. Well, you are focusing now on soft power. The Global Times itself is actually an outgrowth of China's thirst for soft power, for global reputation and respect. And look at how you're failing. You are driving away foreign talent and making China look worse, not better -- in precise contradiction to the paper's stated goals. If your media and leaders could articulate China's point of view as clearly and calmly as you just did in this conversation maybe then China could get somewhere in fostering understanding.

"But railing against Ai Weiwei at the top of your lungs -- a man seen as an artist and a celebrity -- is exactly what you should not be doing. Why not throw the West a bone and let him go, declare an amnesty and then explain why he was detained in the first place."

This evoked quite a response. "Let Ai Weiwei go? But Richard, how can we do that? How can China admit to the world it is being defeated, it is bowing to international pressure and not doing what is right for China? How can we humiliate ourselves like that?"<<

A debate has gone on among everyone involved with China: how much of the current crackdown reflects over-confidence by the government? How much reflects its nervous insecurity? And in practice is there any real difference between the two? Statements like the one highlighted above are so revealing -- and in my experience so typical. No one in the outside world would take it as a sign of "weakness" or "humiliation" for the Chinese government to let Ai Weiwei go -- or not to have arrested him in the first place. But nearly everyone in the Chinese hierarchy seems to fear that it would be seen that way.
That's a problem, to put it mildly. For now, the Peking Duck's description is useful on-scene testimony for understanding the mindset behind the current hard line.

By the way: If you think you can help, I notice this just now on the GT's home page. Opportunity abounds.

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