A Volcanic "Stability"

Qinglian He, former senior editor of Shenzhen Legal Daily in China, is currently a visiting scholar in the department of political science, economics, and philosophy at CUNY’s College of Staten Island. She is also the author of the Chinese-language bestseller, Pitfall in China, an updated version of which was published in Japan in 2002.

    How much longer can the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) last? Could China collapse into disunity or even civil war? These are challenging questions with no easy answers, and I have been asked both many times over the last few years, in China itself as well as overseas. While it is hard to predict the future with any precision, some provisional forecasting of structural changes is possible.

    China is a one-party state in which the interests of the government and the CCP are indivisible. Over recent years, the only answer the Party has had in its quest to uphold civil order has been to “pull up by the roots all factors with the potential to cause instability.” The Party has worked hard to create a reality in which no organizational force can replace Communist rule. In the CCP’s view, the death of the Party would mean nothing less than the death of China itself. 

    The supposed logical corollaries are that we must tolerate the CCP’s use of “reform” as a mechanism to stave off unrest and collapse, and that we must accept the CCP’s formula of “market economics plus totalitarian rule.”

    The construction of this scenario has been extremely beneficial to the Party’s goal of stabilizing its status in the international community, which in turn has adopted a policy of appeasement toward China. Much to the CCP’s delight, calls for China to improve its human rights record and work toward becoming more democratic have grown ever fainter. Since 2000, the international community’s response to the doddering incompetence of Jiang Zemin has been to hedge its bets and hope that the transfer of power to the next generation of Party leaders will foster “healthy” factions within the CCP and promote stability.

    This approach focuses too much on the Party’s monopoly of force and ignores the things that make for genuine stability. These include limits on ecological and environmental exploitation as well as the formation of moral and ethical values that can serve as benchmarks for society as a whole. If biological ecosystems and the environment in which they exist are the physical foundation for the continued survival of a nation and its people, morality and moral discourse do something similar on the spiritual level. Every society needs a healthy “moral ecology” to sustain it in real yet informal ways that are not captured by a focus purely on written laws and formal institutions.

    An Environment in Crisis

    China today is gravely threatened by severe, even life-threatening pollution. Since the Party took power, China’s environment has been wantonly plundered; whatever else economic reforms have achieved, they have clearly increased the pace of exploitation. Widespread use of chemical fertilizers has progressively reduced the fertility of arable land, while salinization and general soil degradation have reduced the quality of the land over large areas of the country. Deserts now cover 38 percent of China’s landmass as a result of destructive land use, and the output from cultivated land is already strained to the limit, rendering a bad situation potentially disastrous. China’s rich mineral resources are being consumed at a higher rate than ever (it averages four times the comparable per capita rate that one finds in a typical developed country), while the actual productivity gains associated with mineral inputs are meager—a sure sign of enormous waste. If we use the concept of a “green” Gross Domestic Product (GDP) [Can you provide a citation explaining this concept?—ed.] to take into account the true environmental and ecological costs associated with China’s manner of pursuing economic development, the average figure for the last 23 years would have a negative value.

    From a moral perspective as well, China is in poor condition. Honest public officials are the exception, corruption is the rule. In the sphere of economic relations, the collapse can be measured by the fact that just 60 percent of all contracts in China are honored and an abnormal lack of trust has descended over economic activity in general.

    The source of this ethical and moral degeneration can be traced back to the government itself. Whether it is cooking up fake statistics or churning out fabricated “news reports,” the Chinese party-state is unrivalled when it comes to spreading false information. Government officials have become experts in “official-speak”: Schooled in the courteous manners and smooth talk required by public office, they employ these skills on behalf of the knowing promotion of lies. Before they were convicted on charges of corruption and dereliction of duty, senior officials such as former National People’s Congress vice-chairman Kejie Cheng and former Beijing mayor Xitong Chen each authored a collection of speeches on “honest government.” These sermons extolling public and personal probity gave no hint of the disparity between their pious words and their habits of taking bribes, keeping mistresses, visiting prostitutes, oppressing ordinary people, and generally defying both the law and public opinion. With role models like these, is it any wonder that criminal behavior has been alarmingly on the rise?

    In any country, social morality and a general sense of ethics are more important than written laws when it comes to holding society together on a day-to-day basis. Social morality provides people with basic standards of right and wrong and regulates their conduct. In China today, however, the ideas of right and wrong are shrouded in chaos and confusion. It has become fashionable, for instance, for economists complacently to acknowledge and defend corruption. As a result, it is becoming more and more the case that Chinese society has little to hold it together except the raw power of the Communist Party.

    In recent years, the party-state has strengthened its various means of social control and resorted to political violence and the widespread use of secret police. These forces strangle at birth any group that has the potential to develop into an organized entity, thereby ensuring that China’s people remained consigned to permanent disunity—like grains of sand on piece of paper—and have no means of developing organized resistance. At the same time, the government has adopted such inglorious methods of controlling its own officials’ behavior as “anticorruption” campaigns that have less to do with stamping out corruption than with making enough examples to remind officials that had better remain useful cogs in the party-state’s vast machine if they wish to survive, let alone thrive.

    The New Uses of Ideology

    But more important than all this have been the government’s timely adoption of a new ideological strategy, its centralizing of control over public life, and the forging of an alliance between economic and intellectual elites. In implementing its new ideological strategy and strengthening control over the public domain, Jiang Zemin’s government has been far more rigorous and effective than was Deng Xiaoping’s. The government has entirely concurred with Jiang Zemin’s intention to “pull up by the roots all factors with the potential to cause instability,” and no truly independent popular or nongovernmental organization has been able to emerge in such an oppressive environment. While several degrees more subtle than the straightforward, jackboot-style political oppression that distinguished the Mao era, Jiang’s approach is more insidious, since it is calculated to do its work below the radar of international attention and condemnation.

    The CCP’s pincer strategy of vilifying Western democracy while firming up the party-state’s control over Chinese public life has done its work well. Intensified ideological indoctrination in schools and colleges has filled the minds of China’s young with countless political lies and fantasies. This helps to explain why, despite the admiration for the United States that persists thanks to nonofficial sources of information, many young Chinese people also harbor ideologically generated feelings of hostility toward the United States and what it represents.

    The party-state exercises a near-monopoly over almost all media outlets, and handles them with considerably more skill than it did in the comparatively crude days of Chairman Mao. Journalists are continually reminded, in no uncertain terms, who is paying their wages. Even the reporters themselves acknowledge that they are merely “Party mouthpieces,” a fact that leaves those members of the intellectual elite who still entertain a conscience with no reliable outlet through which they can honestly express their opinions. Since 1999, the government has employed university-trained computer specialists to be its “Internet cops.” It has also formulated regulations aimed at taming the “wild horse” of the World Wide Web.

    Since Tiananmen, intellectuals have faced a new and puzzling environment. Throughout the 1990s, the party-state in effect sought to bribe intellectuals with academic honors, ranks, and salaries in order to get them to line up in support of the status quo. Those few intellectuals who would not be bought off were beaten down instead: No one would publish research critical of the official line on any topic, and troublesome scholars could easily find themselves fired, albeit always for nominally “non-political” reasons, of course.

    Today, influential intellectuals are subjected to personal surveillance and searches by the secret police, often as part of general-harassment campaigns designed to force emigration from China. The application of this hard-soft policy—“hard” because it constitutes oppression, “soft” because it stops short of actual incarceration or physical torture—has effectively neutralized China’s elite intellectuals as an independent critical force. Most Chinese scholars today are willing to tailor their research to placate the regime, and adopt a cynical and perfunctory attitude to sensitive political and social issues.

    As recently as a decade ago, the Chinese government was still clinging stubbornly to the notion that it represented the working class—even as officials established intimate and profitable private ties with China’s new economic elite. Between them, the economic elite and the heads of the party-state now control 85 percent of all the wealth in China and constitute China’s super-rich. In the light of this reality, the government had no choice but to make a strategic adjustment in its class allegiances, and so Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” slogan was wheeled out, giving political and economic elites much greater room to cooperate and expand. His call to “allow private capitalists to join the Party” was nothing more than a device awarding economic elites a stake in the system and a legal political voice.

    Without doubt the most serious delusion held by Chinese intellectuals during the 1980s was that a mature middle class would demand democratic rights. The following decade extinguished this daydream forever. The Party’s political tactics have consisted of allowing the economic elite, along with duly submissive groups of intellectuals, to claim a stake in the system and share in some of its power—a far cry from the creation of a new democratic politics.

    To cope with unrest and turmoil in the ranks of the poor and dispossessed, the government has had to rely on increasingly violent repression. Snuffing out small-scale protests has become a routine task for local officials, who now have a wealth of experience at it. They generally favor a “carrot-and-stick” approach: Rank-and-file protestors (often peasants or out-of-work laborers) get a small “carrot” of perhaps a month or two months’ worth of livelihood subsidies in return for getting off the streets. Protest leaders, by contrast, get the “stick.” Almost without exception, the government comes down hard on any “troublemakers”—worker, peasant, or otherwise—on whom it can lay its none-too-gentle hands. At a minimum, it strives to break their spirits and take away their dignity, and will not shrink from killing them if this is deemed necessary. This is usually enough to frighten off potential leaders from becoming the sacrificial lamb whose figurative or real slaughter usually signals the end of official tolerance for a collective protest.

    Still the poor protest—and even riot—in response to the increasingly dominant and powerful alliances formed among the nation’s various elites. But the authorities are practiced at the containment and suppression of unrest, at times sealing off whole towns and areas. Protests, therefore, are local and episodic; none since Tiananmen has come close to putting change on the agenda of society as a whole. As far as the party-state is concerned, the broad and multifaceted concept of “human rights” can be safely reduced to the right to mere subsistence. Such a narrow reading of rights reduces the people of China to the level of animals at a trough, but as long as they remain docile, the party-state does not care.

    Options for the Future

    In general, the international community has chosen to take an unrealistically rosy view of China’s future. This view rests on a pair of expectations that are as false as they are appealing. The first is that allowing China to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) will encourage democratization; the second is that technological progress will breach CCP-imposed “firewalls” and open up Chinese society to uncensored news and information. Regarding the former, I can only point out that the WTO is an organization that regulates the international economy; we cannot expect or hope that it will change a country’s political system. As for the second expectation, Beijing is currently undermining it through its multibillion-dollar “Golden Shield” project, whose aim is to use computer technology to extend and tighten the government’s vice-like grip on society. Multinational corporations, dollar signs dancing before their eyes, have fallen all over themselves to get in on this particular act.

    But how do the China’s elites themselves see the future? Chinese society currently resembles a volcano on the verge of a major eruption. Nearly all Chinese can feel the heat from the subterranean fires, but perhaps none feel it more than China's various elites, whose tacit common understanding is that their best option is to maintain the status quo through political oppression and domestic espionage. In practice, this means that all social disturbances must be forcibly and massively repressed as soon as they break out. Over the decade and more since Tiananmen, this has been the party-state’s first line of defense against turmoil from below.

    Within the elite coalition, the bureaucrats have a much keener sense of crisis than do the intellectuals. Beginning in the 1990s, capital flight went large-scale as legions of officials shifted their new, ill-gotten wealth to banks outside China, usually in countries where their relatives were already settled in comfort. Meanwhile, European countries along with the United States, Canada, and Australia have moved to attract Chinese students going abroad in order to develop their domestic economies. Colleges and universities in these countries realize how great is the demand for study abroad among Chinese: By some estimates, China spends more than US$4 billion a year to finance the overseas studies of its most privileged young people. This is a sign of what China’s elites expect the future to hold: Through the arrangements they are making for their children, they are voting with hard currency.

    As I have tried to show, it is a mistake to think that some power shift within the top ranks of the Communist Party is going to extricate China from the crises that beset it. Analysts who argue that the CCP can determine the country’s future are adopting what I would call the “fire-brigade” theory. Their assumption is that the CCP regime is similar to a highly efficient forest-fire brigade equipped with the latest gear including the equivalent of a “fire-prevention system” that includes control over the media and public opinion, a high degree of political repression, squadrons of riot police, and an entire state-security apparatus dedicated to upholding the current order of things. But in China, the fire hazards are not simply random areas covered by dry wood. There are underground fires, smoldering dangerously just below the surface, that could erupt and rage out of control in any place and at any time. Even the most technically advanced firefighting equipment has its limits when faced with such hazards.

    Or to shift the metaphor, the day will come when the CCP will no longer be able to tamp down the fires that it has lit. And once its long rule is consumed in the conflagration, the unprecedented growth in China's population, widespread ecological and environmental destruction, and the near-total collapse of social morality are just some of the factors that will make the already enormous task of reconstructing China even more difficult.