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Why They Do That Thing They Do

No other country has so many different opinions held about it than China.  You may see a country that is gripped by a lethargic, outdated, backward communist dictatorship, you might see a country with a hideous human rights record, others may see a country steeped in history, now transformed to a commercial dynamo.  One question that many ask is why the Communist Party of China does what it does, punishing apparently minor crimes with obscene penalties, often for the most unfathomable of reasons.  Language complications don’t help much, at best, Mandarin translates badly into English, and the complex, interwoven, multilayered nature of Chinese culture only serves to confuse the layperson even more.

The first thing to remember is that largely communism in China is dead.  The original ideas that fueled the civil war, resulting in the creation of the People’s Republic has been superseded by a rampant free market, and a lust for money.  One of my high level students came to her class one afternoon and showed me her application for membership of the CCP.  I asked if she was a communist, and she said she wasn’t, it’s just that party membership is good when you are trying to find a job.  Rather than being a commitment to a political ideology, the CCP is seen as something of an additional required qualification when job hunting, rather than a overt statement of belief.

It’s here that we find something of a dichotomy.  While the people themselves are probably as interested in politics as the average American or Briton, the Party does have control of all the media in the country, and therefore is able to create the illusion of a China built on a pure political, socialist motivations, and gives the impression that the country is highly politicized.  This, as any long term visitor to the country will testify, is untrue.

A myriad of rules and regulations exist, some them conflicting, and over half of them pointlessly bureaucratic, almost all of them are bent or circumvented in some way.  My experience with the visa agent is one incident: I was able to procure a business visa without having the proper paperwork or intentions.  I then worked illegally at the local police academy.

For the most part, Chinese people see the government as an elderly grandparent.  They tell them they are going to do something one way, and then go off to do it their way.  The government is somewhat embarrassed by the gross liberties that are taken with the supposed law of the land, which explains the often used phrase “in accordance with Chinese law”  – this is nothing more than an attempt to try to improve the image of the Chinese legal system.

The laws have done nothing to deter the determined money makers in China.  Counterfeiting, as we shall examine later, is rife.  A trip to the Silk Market, Pearl Market, or Dazhalan will reveal fake watches, clothes, underwear, consumer electronics, cosmetics, books as well as the perennial favorite, fake DVDs (a market rumored to be controlled by the Chinese army).  Supposedly, since joining the World Trade Organization, China has strengthened it’s intellectual property laws, unfortunately, no one has told the counterfeiters.  There are probably more arrests, and there’s definitely more publicity about the arrests, but the counterfeiters continue to flaunt the rules.  During the Olympic Games, fake Olympic souvenirs were available to buy around Tiananmen Square.

The second point to bear in mind is that debate amongst Chinese people about the politics of their country is an exercise in futility.  The two generations of adults that have known nothing but the rule of the CCP now exists in China, and from the complete and total control of the media that the party has, the party’s philosophy, such as it is, is deeply and indelibly ingrained in the hearts of minds of the thirtysomethings and their parents.

When you look at it from their point of view, Chinese people do owe a lot to the CCP.  Less people than ever live in poverty, the country has unparalleled economic growth, and more and more Chinese are studying abroad, taking on new ideas and broadening the horizons.  The young adults in China, to praphrase Harold MacMillan, have never had it so good, and it’s all thanks to the pragmatic and technocratic leadership of the Politburo.

Closer inspection, as always, reveals a somewhat different story.

After the excesses of Mao Zedong led to a paranoid, closed and nose diving Chinese society, the official line is that a policy of “Reform and Opening Up” was initiated by Deng Xiao Ping.  The idea was to create “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.  This in itself has presented a confused view of China.  Essentially, the government maintains that it is essentially Marxist/Maoist, but that it has cherry picked ideas from Western capitalist nations to fit it’s own ends.  This demonstrates the first, most distinct characteristic of the Chinese Communist Party – big, new ideas are trumpeted, but the u-turn performed after the idea fails is kept quiet.  The Chinese took the worst of all Western ideas in an attempt to rapidly modernize and unify the country, and ended up with a communist leadership.

The Chinese government basically rewrote the rules on what exactly they were supposed to be. Communism wasn’t working, the country had been left in chaos after the Cultural Revolution, and China was heading back to where it started.  The CCP would have people believe that this writing and rewriting is all part of the master plan that will create a harmonious, socialist society, but while they’ve acknowledged that the creation of the People’s Republic was an irreversible change from the old feudal capitalist ways to the new socialist ones, they managed to hustle the Chinese people into believing that they’re still dyed-in-the-blood communists, only this time with more money.  Since the Chinese people are living the best lives Chinese people have lived for a long time, it’s hard to disagree with them.

The biggest hustle has been the idea that everything that is happening now is a conscious, premeditated pro-action by the Chinese government, but empirical analysis shows a different truth:  the Chinese government doesn’t start doing things, they stop doing things.  The CCP just stops standing in people’s way, and then takes the credit for making a positive contribution to the lives of 1.3 billion people.  The trend shows that they’re more likely to do this when they’re about to be pushed by the people.

This presents problem for the government.  How to convince over a billion people not to march on Beijing and kick the Politburo out of The Great Hall of the People.  Since communism is no longer a viable option, the powers that be have to find another way of keeping the masses in line.  They had to find a way of convincing people that living in China wasn’t so bad, and that having a military dictatorship/kleptocracy in power was a good thing.  The answer, as it turned out, was fairly obvious: nationalism.

Chinese nationalistic indoctrination begins at an early age for the people of China.  A new song that kindergarten teachers wrote for their students to recite every morning recently turned up translated into English on the Internet.  Entitled Go China!  2009, the song started off in village schools, and has spread to Chinese-only schools in Shanghai (adopted alongside the annual Anti-Japan Day).

It’s been the long time goal of nearly every leader of China from the earliest dynasties to unify China and create a single Chinese country.  Handily, China has had Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang separatists to either create problems to rally proud Chinese into defending the need for a unified China, or present golden opportunities for showcasing the elite Chinese security services.  Ironically, before 1991, both the sides across the Taiwan Strait wanted the same thing – create a unified China – the problem was, of course, which kind of China – a plain old vanilla republic, or a communist people’s republic.

In Taiwan’s case, the general consensus at the moment is to support the status quo, occasional outrage and saber rattling comes from the mainland government to try to remind everyone who’s actually in charge of the place (most recently the $6.5billion weapons deal between the US and Taiwan understandable angered Beijing because the weapons were sold to enable the island to defend itself from China”).  At other times, steps are taken accompanied by typical communist pomp when something actually goes to plan.  The biggest PR coup was the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997.  After nearly 800 years, China was finally one nation under Jiang Zemin.

The use of euphemisms when talking about national embarrassments (or what are perceived as national embarrassment) are common in mainland China.  “Mass incidents are protests or demonstrations and one of my students referred to the Cultural Revolution as a period of “silliness”.  Protests and riots are a source of embarrassment to the government because they show a loss of control by the police and party over the people.  When a riot erupts in an already sensitive are of the country, like, say, Tibet, a swift and uncompromising effort to regain control is almost guaranteed.  A media black out, followed by international confusion usually follows.

Immediately after the riots broke out in Tibet and the surrounding areas in Sichuan, the Chinese government locked down Tibet, interested in keeping foreign journalists out while they struggled to regain control over the rioting monks.  The only reporter who was in the Tibetan capital at the time was James Miles, who had planned a trip there, which just happened to coincide with the “mass incident”.

While Wen Jia Bao blamed the Dalai Lama for masterminding the rioting, Miles reported that he saw little in the way of organization, observing an eruption rather than a planned, premeditated protest.  The media blackout included The Guardian website, Youtube, and parts of Yahoo! News.  Footage of Tibetans rioting was playing constantly on new channels, and the People’s Daily demanded that the CCP resolutely crush the ‘Tibet independence’ forces’ conspiracy and sabotaging activities.  When journalists were allowed into Tibet, translators were not provided for western writers, and it was up to the Taiwanese press to report on comments that were made in Chinese and Tibetan by monks.  Premier Wen Jia Bao claimed that “there is ample fact and we also have plenty of evidence proving that this incident was organized, premeditated, masterminded and incited by the Dalai clique although none was ever presented, and none is unlikely ever to be presented.

In it’s current form, the CCP is more similar now to American neo-conservatives, creating and providing solutions to what amount to wildly exaggerated problems.  Wen Jia Bao says that the Dalai Lama masterminded the rioting and violence through a complicated communication system from India (a system that was detailed by the government’s media mouthpiece, Xinhua), while on the other hand, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly called for autonomy rather than independence, and has been jilted at the conference table by the Chinese delegates.

One of the hurdles that both westerners and the Chinese government have to overcome is the idea that there are insurmountable cultural differences between the two that will forever cause friction and misunderstanding.  Where the western media sees a brutal crackdown, the Chinese see the maintenance of law and order.  The big problem comes when Chinese try to sell western media the same thing they’ve already sold to the Chinese people.  For example, the idea that the Dalai Lama is in fact, an international terrorist mastermind is easily assimilated by the local populous, but a more sophisticated audience would and does dismiss the idea as ridiculous.

The CCP is caught in an unenviable situation where it needs to project it’s international image as a modern and progressive country, satisfying the new generation of wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs and taking care of it’s aging population who both fought for a New China, and lived through the worst of Chairman Mao’s excesses.

Criticism is a cornerstone of Maoism.  The only problem is that when the CCP is criticized, or even worse, thinks it’s being criticized, they don’t take too kindly to it.  What the CCP is most worried about, and most anxious to remove is not just direct criticism, but the implication that there is a problem that isn’t being addressed.

There are two important concepts that are difficult to grasp for Westerners living in or visiting China.  The first is the idea of “face”, which equates closely to public appearance.  If one person gets angry with another, then both people lose face, the person who instigated the fight loses out because he is seen as being unable to control his feelings, and the guy being yelled at loses face too as the target of those feelings.  This idea extends into the realm of international politics too.

While the CCP excelled at banning independent media so that it could monopolize images for it’s domestic audience, it’s the lack of independent reporting that has created a credibility gulf between the CCP and western media.  As Beijing based PR guru Will Moss put it, “China is much better at dictating ideas to a captive audience than at selling them to an open one.”.

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