(cross posted at the Paper Tiger)

Philip Pan reports in the Washington Post that many of China’s intellectuals, journalists and CCP reformers have concluded that Hu Jintao, far from opening up China’s political process to greater transparency and the competition of ideas, has instead presided over a crack-down on public discourse and a call for increased Party discipline with rhetoric that echoes that of the Cultural Revolution:  

Hu has placed particular emphasis on tightening the party’s control over public opinion, presiding over a crackdown to restore discipline to state media and intimidate dissident intellectuals. He has also gone further than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, by adopting new measures to regulate discussions on university Internet sites and the activities of nongovernmental organizations.

The crackdown has been a great disappointment to scholars and party officials who welcomed Hu’s rise to power in the hope he might be more open to political reform than Jiang. After giving him the benefit of the doubt during a long political honeymoon, many have concluded Hu is an ideologically rigid and exceedingly cautious apparatchik who recognizes the party’s authoritarian system is in trouble but wants to repair it.

“He is the ultimate product of the system,” said one party academic with access to the leadership who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He never studied overseas or had much contact with the outside world. He was educated by the system, spent his entire career in the system, and his values are the same as the system’s.”

As an example of the kind of rhetoric that has alarmed reformers, Pan cites Hu’s address to the full Central Committee at the end of September:

Hu warned that “hostile forces” were trying to undermine the party by “using the banner of political reform to promote Western bourgeois parliamentary democracy, human rights and freedom of the press,” according to a person given excerpts of the speech.

Hu said China’s enemies had not abandoned their “strategic plot to Westernize and split China.” He blamed the fall of the Soviet Union on policies of “openness and pluralism” and on the efforts of “international monopoly capital with the United States as its leader.” And in blunt language that party veterans said recalled Mao Zedong’s destructive Cultural Revolution, he urged the leadership to be alert to the danger of subversive thinking.

“Don’t provide a channel for incorrect ideological points of view,” the person who had read some of the speech quoted Hu as saying. “When one appears, strike at it, and gain the initiative by subduing the enemy.”

Hu also was said to have commented that while North Korea and Cuba’s economic policies were regrettably flawed, their political policies were essentially correct – as though there was no connection between the utter poverty of North Korea and its seriously whacked-out neo-Maoist Cult of Personality politics.

Writers have been arrested, lawyers disbarred, professors fired, restrictions on the internet increased – not, as some have noted, the actions of a man confident of his or his Party’s authority.

Still, I really have to wonder, in this day and age, how it is that Hu thinks censoring public dialog and using Cultural Revolution rhetoric is going to shore up his power. China is not North Korea. It isn’t the country I first saw in 1979, stunned and blinking as it emerged from the trauma of its recent history. China has made the choice to engage with the world. Restricting the flow of information is not only counter-productive, it’s on a practical level, impossible, regardless of the technological sophistication of the Great Firewall. Every foreigner carries with him or her the virtues and flaws of their own culture; every Chinese who studies abroad comes back with the awareness that there are different ways of interpreting history and different methods of doing things.

China was able to maintain rigid political control when the government and the Party controlled nearly every aspect of Chinese peoples’ lives. But that isn’t the case any more. The government has ceded that portion of its authority. Hu apparently thinks that rigid political control combined with pumped-up nationalism will keep China’s people in line, will be sufficient to deal with ups and downs in the economy, with corruption, with economic dislocation, with environmental devastation. I personally have my doubts. People need a real safety valve, not just permission to demonstrate against Japanese sins of the past, however justified Chinese anger might be. People need a mechanism to express their grievances, to have their wants addressed, to exchange ideas that might improve the way things work. A country as large and complex as China needs this sort of exchange, I think, in order to function at its best. And when things go wrong, perhaps to function at all.

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