China, Model of the Modern Digital Dictatorship

Western governments suspicions of Huawei Technologies have been heating up, with Poland arresting the firms sales director on a charge of espionage last week. Weijing Wang was summarily fired from his joba contrast with the shrill protestations from Beijing last month upon the arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Canada.

Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng called Meng’s arrest on a charge of sanctions-busting “unreasonable, unconscionable and vile in nature,” according to China Daily, the English-language newspaper put out by the government. The China Daily article went on to quote a Beijing law professor as saying that the U.S. request for Canada to arrest the daughter of the tech giant’s founder illegal and typical of U.S. “hegemonic practices.”

Another state outlet editorialized: “Obviously Washington is resorting to a despicable rogue’s approach” and lamented the American “tendency to abuse legal procedures to suppress China’s high-tech enterprises.” A separate opinion piece claimed that the Canadian and U.S. governments had “trampled on international law” by basically “kidnapping” Meng. (She was released on bail by a Vancouver judge on December 18, and the U.S. Eastern District of New York has asked the Canadian government for her extradition.)

While jumping to defend the “legitimate rights and interests” of executives working for a Chinese tech giant, Beijing does not hesitate to defend the indefensible in other situations. In late September, an op-ed published over the name of the Chinese ambassador in Jakarta baldly defended China’s mass-detention camps in the western region of Xinjiang, which according to State Department figures, hold as many as two million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. The op-ed’s title: “Xinjiang, What a Wonderful Place.”

Tantrum Diplomacy

Even before Meng’s arrest, Beijing had turned up the volume on its international diplomacy. At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea in November, members of the Chinese delegation tried to barge into the prime minister’s office, ostensibly to influence the summit’s draft communique. The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin called it “tantrum diplomacy.” A month earlier, a journalist with China’s state media CCTV disrupted a London forum on shrinking democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, shouting that the speakers were “liars” and “anti-China,” and slapping a venue volunteer. The list goes on.

Are these antics, or the shrill editorials in Communist Party media, intended to persuade or influence the English-speaking world? Quite the opposite. Extreme displays of anger and “patriotic” fervor by media and diplomats are their efforts to prove their loyalty to the regime back home. As the China Media Center’s David Bandurski put it, “There seems to be a trend of manufacturing histrionics around cases of abuse of Chinese, or intrusion on their rights,” geared toward impressing the bosses.

But the strange behavior abroad merely reflects an underlying dynamic that applies throughout Chinese society. The pressure for loyalty-display gestures among Chinese officials and companies is just as intense at home. Tencent, a Fortune 500 top-10 company, installed a sculpture outside its new Shenzhen headquarters featuring a hammer and sickle and the slogan, “Follow Our Party, Start Your Business.”

Tencent is an archetypical Chinese tech company, creator of the ubiquitous QQ and Wechat chat-and-mobile payment apps. The company’s Communist Party Committee has gone all out with the hammer-and-sickle motif, placing the symbol on the chest of its penguin-with-a-scarf mascot. These charming tchotchkes were sent as gifts to journalists, according to a tweet from a journalist at another state-run outlet, Global Times.

The requirement to pledge loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is in fact inescapable. Middle-aged academics and local officials alike have resorted to posting praise of the party in their private WeChat and other messaging groups. As ridiculous as they think these rants are, they are impelled to go “on the record” with their loyalty, even when communicating with their colleagues, in the hopes of staving off accusations of insufficient fervor for the party line of the day. There is even a “Clap for Xi Jinping” app.

This kind of rising cycle of political paranoia has proven extremely hard to contain in the past. The CCP’s recent wave of violent repression and tightening political control reminds most observers of the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, rightly called 10 years of madness. In fact, we need to remember that the party’s tendency to unleash political terror has a much longer history. It dates back long before its victory in the civil war, to at least 1942, when Mao Zedong and his secret police launched the Party Rectification Campaign in the mountain redoubt of Yan’an. Intermittent cycles of political terror continued through Mao’s death in 1976, and led to the murder of many millions of Chinese.

For more than 30 years, the CCP’s periodic thought-rectification campaigns relied on ritual humiliation of those who committed “errors” in their thinking. Party members and ordinary citizens spent months on criticism and self-criticism, “struggle,” and repeated confessions. Guilt extended to family members and associates stretching back to childhood or before, to the alleged evil deeds of one’s ancestors. Punishment included torture in public view. The only way to avoid torture, and the public disgrace that it brought, was to accuse others of crimes, however bizarre. If you didn’t participate in denouncing others, you were clearly guilty yourself. This dynamic of self-criticism, confession, and guilt by association is returning.

Political Paranoia Makes a Comeback

As the CCP celebrates “40 years of reform and opening up” in the post-Mao period, a new exhibition on this theme at the National Museum on Tiananmen Square predictably showcases the hi-tech face of modern China and material progress since the end of the Cultural Revolution.

But one part of the exhibit stands out.

The section dedicated to the CCP’s anti-corruption efforts is “a round semi-circle room that invokes images of the sickle in the Party’s emblem,” according to Global Times. Display cases feature handwritten confession letters by convicted officials, including those of former insurance boss Xiang Junbo and former internet czar Lu Wei, who was listed by Time magazine in 2015 as one of the “100 most influential people in the world.” Lu pleaded guilty to bribery charges in October. The ritual confession is a hallmark of the revolutionary style.

Guilt by association and punishment of family members never went away entirely, to be sure, but it has been intensifying again over the past decade. The spouses and children of many of the 300 or so “709” human-rights lawyers arrested in 2015 have been harassed, prevented from travelling, and in some cases suffered detention themselves. The husband and three daughters of one 63-year-old human rights defender are known to be currently in detention in a “black jail,” one of many such cases. In August, the father of a human rights activist was himself detained after trying unsuccessfully to visit her in the psychiatric hospital where she is unjustly detained.

Even the Nobel Prize is no protection. Liu Xia, the wife and now widow of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, was under house arrest, without charge or trial, for more than eight years.

Anastasia Lin, who held the Miss World Canada title in 2015 and 2016, spoke out about prisoners of conscience in China. Her father in China was openly threatened by officials. They told him that if she didn’t “stop her political and human rights activities,” her family members would be arrested.

We have also seen the return of the Maoist-style group “thought-work” session. Incredibly, it was a prominent part of the televised coverage of a Politburo meeting in January 2017. The publicly viewable session concluded with scenes of the 25 top leaders of the country pledging loyalty to president-for-life Xi Jinping as the essential “core” of the CCP.

At that meeting, party members were urged to conduct criticism and self-criticism, to study Xi’s latest speeches in a timely manner, and to stress in their own speeches that they would take the lead in studying and implementing Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.

Nor are international jet-setters immune. Superstar actress and luxury-goods endorser Fan Bingbing, who was in the movies X-Men and Iron Man 3 and served for a time as a United Nations Environment Program Goodwill Ambassador, disappeared for three months over the summer. She wasn’t born until five years after Mao died. Yet her return to public view this fall, in which she addressed government allegations of tax fraud, marks a new era of self-criticism-via-social-media. In her post on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform, Fan said:

For a long period of time, I did not uphold the responsibility of safeguarding the interests of my country and our society against my personal interests . . . I have realized that, as a public figure, I should have observed the law, setting a good example for society.

She did not omit the obligatory paean to the CCP: “Without the Party and country’s excellent policies, without the love of the general public, there is no Fan Bingbing.” This digital mea culpa must be bringing nightmares to those who lived through Mao’s rule.

Foreign observers are tempted to tune out odd language like this. Don’t. The return of ever-more-formulaic language should be setting off alarm bells. In his speech at the dedication of the “40 Years of Reform and Opening” exhibit, Politburo member Wang Huning called for

efforts to rally more closely around the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core. Hold high the banner of reform and opening up in the new era and accelerate the reform and opening up with greater confidence and stronger measures.

The return of the turgid party-speak formula is the flip side of China’s hi-tech razzle-dazzle. It is not meaningless verbiage. It tells us that officials’ positions, and possibly their ability to stay out of prison, depend on fanatical displays of loyalty.

One more sign of rising coercion even within the party is the rash of dramatic suicides and “abnormal deaths” among officials over the past four years. Beijing’s top official in Macau fell to his death from his high-rise condo in October. The number-two police official in Inner Mongolia committed suicide in November. The death, that same month, of a former editor-in-chief of People’s Daily, who fell 19 stories from the headquarters of that government-run publication, was described as a suicide in a single Chinese media outlet but was otherwise unreported.

The Uyghurs

Nowhere has the return of political cruelty and irrationality been more stark than in the mass detention of ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims since mid-2017. The most extreme and horrific use of guilt by association has been in these camps.

As “extremism” is associated with foreign ideas, people are taken into the camps for reasons such as: having ever travelled abroad, talking on the phone with someone abroad, speaking with someone who has travelled abroad, merely knowing someone who has travelled abroad, or being related to anyone who has done any of the above. Skeptical? It’s all here, in this article in Foreign Policy on “48 ways to get sent to a Chinese concentration camp.”

A camp survivor interviewed in May said that prisoners were forced to shout the slogans, “Xi Jinping is great! The Communist Party is great! I deserve punishment for not understanding that only President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party can help me.” 

A local official told Radio Free Asia that his superiors explained the need for mass re-education in these terms:

You can’t uproot all the weeds hidden among the crops in the field one by one—you need to spray chemicals to kill them all. Reeducating these people is like spraying chemicals on the crops. That is why it is a general reeducation, not limited to a few people.

A Future of Fear and Incoherence

Even outside the living nightmare of the Uyghur detention camps, an atmosphere of coercion is inexorably becoming the order of the day. The Xi Jinping cult of personality and the sweeping powers of the CCP’s anti-corruption units, including the new National Supervision Commission, have combined to make officials’ daily lives like riding the proverbial tiger. They have to hold on no matter how dangerous it gets, but many will be eaten alive regardless.

It is not enough to note that the loyalty-display imperative sometimes drives officials to impress superiors rather than to achieve policy goals. Officials’ fear of becoming a victim of Xi Jinping-style “rectification” is well on its way to becoming uncontainable, and likely to overwhelm institutional pursuit of coherent policy objectives.

Foreigners’ illusions about China as a normal country and trading partner are being punctured by revelations of its massive technology theft and extraterritorial surveillance of hundreds of millions of citizens of the West. But what if this isn’t the end of the story? How does a high-tech, well-resourced state conduct itself on the world stage when it is entering a period of internal political turmoil not seen for four decades?