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.