Checking in with China, Part 1

It’s been a while since I last blogged. What’s happening in China these days?

Bad stuff, it seems.

Critics of Western media coverage of China often complain that articles are overwhelmingly negative and rely on easily digested tropes that conform to foreign biases. But reports on China’s current political climate over the past few years no longer feel like tired, false narratives. Instead, they actually do reflect the depressing and growing concern that the situation is indeed getting worse each day. Orville Schell has a concise analysis of where things currently stand in the New York Review of Books this week, and it is quite ominous. Not to spoil it for you, but his concluding paragraph is:

Whatever may come, China is undergoing a retrograde change that will require every person, business, and country dealing with it to make a radical reassessment of its willingness to seek convergence with the rest of the world.

Yikes! But why now? The government has always disappeared human rights activists and intellectuals who challenge the party, raided churches and religious groups, and kept a close eye on foreign journalists. Expats and the Chinese themselves have always had to make their peace (or not) with this aspect of the regime, and those who did, did so because they honestly believed that China was gradually turning into a place where the government would no longer feel the need to do those things. When Xi Jinping assumed leadership in late 2012, there was great optimism that he would be able to get party members in line to push forward with badly needed economic reforms (i.e. liberalization/modernization). But instead, over the past few years, the frequency and scope of such activities seem to have increased significantly and are no longer contained to the small fringe groups – they have spilled over into mainstream society with media and Internet crackdowns, and there is no sign of their limits under Xi’s reign. That peace many of us have made has been disrupted, and we are no longer sure if China is progressing. Schell writes:

The notion that the “Mao Zedong Thought” that had dominated the Cultural Revolution would ever make a comeback in China had long seemed as unlikely as it was unwelcome. But now that China is sliding ineluctably backward into a political climate more reminiscent of Mao Zedong in the 1970s than Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, more and more educated Chinese are making allusions to such frightening periods of Chinese history as the Cultural Revolution and the Ming dynasty.

I actually have a related anecdote. A couple of months ago, on my way to work, I was listening in on some old people as they fell into conversation on the bus. One of them started ranting about the Zhongguo meng (the Chinese Dream), telling the others that they can forget about whatever the government was saying today because the government could be saying something else tomorrow. He referred to the ’60s and ’70s. I basically got to hear what every foreigner dreams of hearing, which is a Chinese person trashing the government/party. But even better, he was speaking quite forcefully and loudly in public and had captured the attention of the entire bus. The reaction of his audience ranged from stoic passivity to amused chuckling. I don’t presume to know what Chinese people are thinking, especially because they have been engineered to be hard to read, but I got the impression most people were rather impressed by the old man’s bravery in speaking his mind, as well as in general agreement with him.

Such signs of dissent are always exciting. Last month was a particularly great time of rebellion. This month, hardly a word. There’s a cycle to it; it bubbles over and then dies down, always simmering. Still, it is comforting to know that there are people willing to speak out. Not that it is putting pressure on Xi to stop testing the people’s limits, but at least there are limits somewhere.

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