What Is Behind China's Big Internet Crackdown?
The recent spate of arrests is reminiscent of an earlier, darker time in Chinese history.
Last weekend, Charles Xue Manzi, a Chinese American multi-millionaire investor and opinion leader on one of China’s most popular microblogs, appeared in handcuffs in an interview aired on China Central Television. Xue is just the most visible blogger to be snared by a new Chinese Communist Party dragnet that threatens to charge with defamation any netizen whose microblog post is viewed by more than 5,000 readers. Some observers say that Xue’s self-criticism is the result of a broader crackdown on microblogging that employs political maneuvering and tactics not seen since The Cultural Revolution.
This campaign against “pro-democracy” voices in Chinese society will be marked as the harshest since the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, and I predict that what we are seeing now is just a beginning. It also is the clearest manifestation yet of Xi Jinping’s political standing and future direction—returning to Maoist mass movement methods to control and mobilize the society, in order to firmly grab the power of the Communist Party.
This generation of Chinese leaders, whether it’s Xi Jinping or Bo Xilai, all are coming from one past—Mao and their own fathers’ Communist revolution, which gave therm “legitimacy” to inherit power. Even as victims of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Mao is the only role model they can draw from in order to rule Chinese society. In this sense, Xi and Bo are from the same roots and same political heritage.
What Bo Xilai did in Chongqing was his way to experiment with creating a “Chinese model.” Despite Bo’s failure in the power struggle, Xi seems to have no different political inspiration than Bo. Today’s China is no longer the China of the 1960s or 70s, but if Xi is taking this Maoist approach politically, it is hard to imagine any democratic opening from the top in the next five to ten years.
Breathtaking, really, to watch Xi bring Bo down with the most open trial in Communist Party history while borrowing from his Mao-era playbook of public confessions, self-criticisms, mobilization and intimidation to “rectify” the Party and assert control over the strategic heights of the Internet.
Defenders of Xi, like Bo before him, say the Party has grown so sclerotic and its legitimacy so battered that these are desperate times, demanding desperate measures. Civil society leaders, meanwhile, are rightly dismayed that there seems to be no end to China’s cycles of political violence and repression. It doesn’t seem like a sustainable way to run an aspiring super power. It’s sure going to be a bumpy ride.
It is truly horrible watching the slow, steady humiliation of the Chinese-American businessman Charles Xue play out on nationwide TV and the Internet in ten minute “news" packages and sanctimonious editorials.
China Central Televison (CCTV) added to the tension by playing an interview with Pan Shiyi, a real estate developer and “Big V” Weibo user famous for social activism around air pollution. In the interview, Pan stutters as he repeats the government line that online rumors are harmful to society. And then there was the detention on trumped up charges of Wang Gongchuan, businessman and supporter of now detained lawyer Xu Zhiyong. All in all, a nasty atmosphere of menace.
But while these tactics of intimidation might be new to some ad agency executive and real estate billionaires who have found a home on Weibo, others have long ago been exposed to the brutal side of information control. For many journalists, writers and activists, the idea of being arrested and humiliated by the security forces is all too familiar. Is the treatment of Charles Xue worse than what happened to Ai Weiwei in 2011, long before Xi Jinping's ascension? Ai was held for 81 days without being charged. The authorities have done nothing since Ai's release to prove that their economic crime charges against him were anything but trumped up. The conditions of Ai's detention appear to have been significantly worse than Charles Xue's. Nor are the aims of the current campaign and the language used to describe it new. Last year, summarizing government actions on the Internet in 2011 after the July 23 Wenzhou train crash, I wrote this:
[A] carefully orchestrated campaign was launched in the official media calling for an end to the publication of “unsubstantiated rumors” in the blogosphere and on the Internet. The Party Secretary of Beijing pointedly visited Sina, the host-owner of China’s Weibo microblogs and his remarks on rumor control were widely reported. For its part, Sina sent messages to all of its Weibo users warning them that it would suspend the accounts of anyone guilty of spreading rumors and fomenting trouble. As part of the coordinated campaign, Xinhua New Agency released an article calling for an end to “poisonous rumors” on the Weibo blogs, employing highly colored political language that was reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution era (1964-1978) and the ‘anti-spiritual pollution’ campaign of 1983.
Comparing Xue's treatment to Ai Weiwei’s, a cynic could almost find grounds for optimism. After all, Xue was originally arrested for acts that are in fact considered criminal in China’s written laws: soliciting prostitutes and group sex. The police did not just detain him and then find themselves having to make up a charge like they did with Ai Weiwei. But such a reading would of course be naive. The only thing that is clear is that while Weibo might be new media, the authorities will continue using the same old thuggish techniques that they have always used to maintain control.
This is how Lu Wei, the director of the State Council’s Internet Office put it in an editorial published today:
In the Internet era, media convergence is inevitable. If we [the Party] do not effectively capture the new battlefield of public opinion, other people will occupy it, and they will challenge our dominance and our right to speak. We must strengthen our awareness of the battlefield, vigorously promote the integration of traditional and new media, enhance our communication ability, credibility and influence, and ensure that we implement the principle of Party control of media.
If the Internet had been around a hundred years ago, Vladimir Lenin would perhaps have written something like the lines above. The pushback against Big V’s is nothing new, it’s just the latest example of the authorities’ tried and tested methods of control. It’s not a page out of Bo Xilai’s playbook, nor a return to the Cultural Revolution. It’s merely business as usual.
While my Xinhua journalist friend tried to convince me that the recent arrest of the Charles Xue was not staged by the authorities, the overwhelming view of the Chinese internet and foreign media points to a “systematic crackdown” aimed at silencing perceived political dissidents in China.
Xue’s seemingly candid admission on Sunday night thickened the plot, with some commentators noting similarities to the class struggle and public humiliation during the Cultural Revolution. "My irresponsibility in spreading information online was a vent of negative mood, and was a neglect of the social mainstream," Xue, 60, confessed.
Perhaps directors at CCTV are trying to set a chilling example for anyone who might want to follow in Xue’s footsteps. Similar actions in the past always have worked in China. Last month, Xue’s former intern, a 22-year-old college graduate who had recently returned from the U.S., was visibly wary when I asked what she thought about Xue’s arrest. She looked around furtively and in hushed tones replied, “I just came back from overseas, and I don’t want to comment too much on this because I might be regarded as spreading rumors.”
This is what the authorities should be really concerned about. A couple of weeks ago, Chinese internet regulator Lu Wei passionately advocated “liberty and order” in cyberspace on a forum in the U.K. But if no one is willing to speak out online for fear of being punished, and most official information is neither transparent nor reliable, what will most likely happen is the spread of more offline rumors that further disrupt social order.
The massive campaign against “online rumor spreaders” also goes against the government’s effort to respond to public opinion. The Washington Post reported in August that the government is trying to understand public opinion “on an unprecedented scale” several public opinion centers being built across the country. But the crackdown on internet voices negates that effort.
No one knows what’s behind the curtain, perhaps not even Mr. Xue himself. While everyone is making sense of what's going on, one impossible explanation has been cited tens of thousands of times by events-watchers: Those who submit to me shall be whores; those who resist me shall be johns (shun wǒ zhě chāng, nì wǒ zhě piáochāng). If my Xinhua friend genuinely believes Mr. Xue’s arrest was non-political, won't she find the interpretation ironic as well?
This post first appeared at ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site.