A Great Leap Backwards for China?

Over the past decade and a half China has become increasingly wealthy and apparently more ‘small ‘L’  liberal’, and the Western assumption that China would eventually morph into some sort of Asian Germany, was the popular belief. Alas those who believed this wishful thinking were falling for the greatest foible of analysis. They were  looking at a very different culture through the looking glass of Western cultural assumptions. A fatal error in many Western beliefs about the true and emerging reality of 21 st, Century China. “Understand the past and you will know the future“.

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The blend of Western financial lust for an almost unlimited Chinese customer base, twined to a wilful ignorance for what truly drives China’s rise and rise, has caused Western projections of China’s advance to be fatally flawed. It’s been over a century since China’s descent into ‘cultural disgrace’ at the hands of the West and the Japanese, but the Chinese still hold the collective memory of the Middle Kingdom’s former greatness and pride. A century of massacres, wars, destitution and shame appeared to be lifting with the dawn of the 21st. Century.

The post Mao era  of economic privation and collapse was past, and the Chinese people felt the thrill of a new powerful China once more on the move amongst the powerful nations of the world. The blend of ‘photoshopped socialist’ authoritarianism blended with State sanctioned crony capitalism, seemed the formula for lifting China back to what it believed was its rightful place in the world. The rise of President Xi seemed to suggest that the dynamic of a Chinese 21st. Century was just around the corner. The Chinese people would accept the re-imposition of a growing authoritarianism under Xi, if only their continued rise to ‘Economic Superpower’ status could be attained.

Alas China’s economy was apparently based on foundations of rhetorical sand. It’s optimistic exhortations, about becoming the biggest richest and best economy on Earth, were rather premature. Systemic flaws in China’s economic ‘miracle’ are coming to light as its economy staggers, foreign currency reserves evaporate and the reality of the sham that is Chinese economic advancement becomes apparent through the fragility of its banks. Not across the whole economy by any stretch of the imagination however, and there have been great advances and successes for China’s rise as well. Especially in some advanced technologies. With that advance, as well as the faux economic successes elsewhere, we have also seen the rapid growth of yet another Chinese authoritarian ‘strong-man’ in President Xi. A ominous pattern repeated many times in China’s historical record.

The contradiction in terms between a modern, free, market driven, innovative and advancing economic model, and an authoritarian centrally planned command economy, with crony capitalist dressings to be sure, is appearing. The old bane of the Chinese, a stifling authoritarianism is emergent again. Looking at a single ‘indicator’ of growing authoritarianism can give one a snapshot of what is happening in China today.

Communications. China’s internet, always censored and firewalled, is now even more strictly separated from the rest of the world’s than ever before, and becoming more so. China’s own internet companies (Baidu as a search engine rather than Google, WeChat for Twitter) are more heavily censored. Virtual private networks and other work-arounds, tolerated a decade ago—the academic who invented China’s “Great Firewall” system of censorship even bragged about the six VPNs he used to keep up on foreign developments—are now under governmental assault. When you find a network that works, you dare not mention its name on social media or on a website that could alert the government to its existence. “It’s an endless cat-and-mouse,” the founder of a California-based VPN company, which I’m deliberately not identifying, recently told me. “We figure out a new route or patch, and then they notice that people are using us and they figure out how to block it. Eventually they wear most users down.” On a multiweek visit to China early last year, I switched among three VPNs and was able to reach most international sites using my hotel-room Wi-Fi. On a several-day visit last December, the hassle of making connections was not worth it, and I just did without Western news sources.
China’s print and broadcast media have always been state-controlled and pro-government. But a decade ago I heard from academics and party officials that “reasonable” criticism from the press actually had an important safety-valve function, as did online commentary, in alerting the government to emerging problem spots.

The political climate is darkening. “China is experiencing the most sustained domestic political crackdown since Tiananmen Square.”
Those days are gone. Every week or two the Chinese press carries warnings, more and more explicit, by President Xi Jinping and his colleagues that dissent is not permissible and the party’s interests come first. Also this year, the government banned foreign-owned media—that is, all media beyond its direct control—from publishing anything in China without government approval. It cracked down on several publications (notably the business magazine Caixin and the Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekend) that for years had mastered the art of skirting government controls.

This past February ‘The Guardian’ ran a poignant piece about young journalists in China who had decided that there was no point in even trying to report on their society’s challenges. “Being a journalist has no meaning any more,” a person identified as “a thirtysomething editor from one of China’s leading news organisations” told The Guardian’s Tom Phillips. “My greatest feeling is that in recent years the industry’s freedoms have reached their lowest ebb in history.” A few weeks earlier I had been in Shanghai meeting with a group of 20‑something, still-idealistic Chinese student reformers, talking about their long-term hopes. One student wanted to open legal-aid clinics for migrant workers; another, a muckraking-style news service about urban inequities; another, a center for women’s rights. A few years earlier, I would have been excited to hear such plans. Now I’m fearful—and expect that if those students end up realizing their dreams, they will be doing so in some other country.