SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER IN BEIJING

TRUTH, GREED, TRUST AND TRAIN CRASHES: NEW REALITIES OF NEW CHINA

Truth will out, as the Dalai Lama has always said.

Take two stories in the respected business and economics publication Caixin Weekly in early August 2011. In the guise of a film review, a professor of political science at prestigious Tsinghua University skewers the newspeak of the Propaganda Department, the pressure on everyone to think only in clichés, to reduce the vocabulary of what can be said or even imagined. Liu Yu uses the 2009 Greek film Dogtooth (or Canino) directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, to depict China as a family under the sway of a controlling patriarch who defines everything, keeping even his adult children in a state of chronic dependence, afraid and forbidden to go out into the real world. Their impoverished vocabulary helps keep them locked in. “The children are frequently beaten and are subjected to a recorder which constantly plays tapes to inspire love of the home. Other times, there are erratic eruptions of generosity.”

In case the parallels between a Greek movie http://www.dogtooth.gr/ and Chinese reality aren’t obvious Prof. Liu Yu reminisces about old mass campaign slogans he had to learn: “After years of education, I think “inspiring and tragic” when I hear “peasant uprising;” I think of the “Three Big Mountains (imperialism, feudalism, bureaucratic capitalism)” when I hear “Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party.)” This politicized lexicon has had a lasting effect on my consciousness. To replace reflection with conditioned reflex, and to enable any word to release a positive or negative message before you really think of it, is the success of such an education.” But the movie ends with the daughter breaking free.

Next to this in Caixin Weekly is an article by a popular tv host on Rupert Murdoch’s Phoenix satellite TV http://www.phoenixtv.com/phoenixtv/77412215665197056/20070604/908207.shtml
“Tormented by Gilt”, by Leung Man Tao, voices the widespread disgust in China at flagrant displays of wealth, and conspicuous consumption, by the new rich. Leung echoes the popular belief that anyone rich must have made it crookedly, through connections and corruption; their opulent lifestyle is to be viewed with suspicion and should not be flaunted.

Leung Man Tao http://www.phoenixtv.com/phoenixtv/77415514200080384/20040827/45249.shtml is a champion of China’s netizens, the online community ever ready to expose fraud, ridicule the new rich and question official versions, yet patriotically ready to defend China against all enemies. This is the new elite, denied political power or democratic representation, which cannot be silenced. Tao summarises their attitude: “Being too wealthy in today’s China definitely carries its own risks. An official who puts on an expensive watch is, in the same movement, endangering his career. Taking your fancy new sports car out on the road is tantamount to asking for someone to key it. But this won’t detract from how enamored the Chinese people are by luxury – the Chinese word for extravagance, shehua, has become ubiquitous in fashion magazines and advertisements aimed at China’s wealthy.”

This is remarkable, coming from a host on a tv station beaming into China from Hong Kong the latest luxuries and fashions, for the delectation of mainland Mandarin speaking audiences, and the betterment of Murdoch’s bottom line.

If Leung Man Tao and Liu Yu are right, the richer China grows, the deeper the disillusion, mistrust, inequality and disbelief of official versions. China’s netizens, and their colleagues in established media, were quick, after the Wenzhou train crash of July 2011, to accuse official China of literally burying the truth, pushing wrecked train carriages further into the mud to obliterate evidence of official incompetence or corruption or criminal neglect of basic safety procedures. Very quickly, the netizens and journalists in official media, assumed a cover up, a denial of an ugly reality. The fact that the crash happened at Wenzhou, China’s laboratory of freewheeling capitalism, the new Jerusalem of the new rich winning social status by embracing Christianity, made it all the more significant.

Even the most repressive regime cannot repress all the people all the time. It is physically impossible to patrol the streets for unpredictable outbreaks of “mass incidents,” while patrolling universities and media editorial rooms for any subversive thoughts or comments.

China’s media are irrepressibly breaking out everywhere, defying the censorship, making strength in numbers by speaking out all at once. The days of empire are numbered. The central apparatus of control is crumbling, overwhelmed by too much truth popping up everywhere. The stronger the directives from the Ministry of Truth to report only happy news, or nothing, the more strongly the media go see for themselves, witness the disasters, and reveal the greed of the powerful.

There is an instinctive awareness, in the face of repressive power, of the safety of protesting together, too quickly and unitedly for the lumbering machinery of repression to get traction. Whether it is the towns of Syria, or the media of Beijing, agility, unity and courage can withstand the apparatus of state power.

As soon as one or two official media refused to be silenced, a chorus, already suspicious, rose up in denunciation of the Propaganda Department instruction to not ask questions about the causes of the crash. Online posts virally quoted the best lines, that captured popular mistrust of officials, and official ever-upbeat narratives. At a press conference where officials said everyone should have faith in the high speed railway, a senior Central China Television reporter and news anchor, Bai Yansong, pointedly fired off questions which made the connection between official policy towards technology and towards the people of China: “The technology may be advanced, but is your management advanced? Are your standard operating procedures advanced? Is the supervision advanced? Is your respect for people advanced? Are all the minute details advanced? At the end of the day, is your overall operational capability advanced? Only when we can answer in the affirmative can we say that the system is “up to standard” and we can have “full faith” in the system.” http://www.ahtv.cn/ent/mingxing/ndxw/2011/07/2011-07-26542675.html

Bai Yansong’s critique is sharply pointed. Elder statesman Jiang Zemin’s great contribution to Marxism was his “Three Represents” theory, a slogan insisting that the Communist Party represents the most advanced forces in society, the most advanced technologies and scientific rationality. Directly and publicly questioning whether central leaders are as advanced as they claim to be would get a Tibetan thrown in gaol and tortured.

Tao goes deeper into the underlying dynamics. The ostentatious new rich and their netizen critics, he argues, are mirror images of each other, all dependent on what others think of them, all tormented by insecurity. It’s an analysis uncannily akin to the frequent comments by the Dalai Lama that underlying China’s arrogance is unconfidence and fear. Tao says: “In a starkly unequal society, everyone must base their self-esteem on consumption as this is the only way to get others acceptance. When faced with so much conspicuous consumption one is bound to feel inferior, belittling oneself and even feeling contempt for oneself. The ostentatiously wealthy are in reality an insecure group of people to be pitied. Neither they nor those who so ardently despise them are behaving with dignity.”

Thoughtful and insightful dissent, such as this, is be found plentifully in China today, in such places as Caixin, a publication dedicated to the creation of wealth. Unlike the dissidents of the Soviet Union and their underground samizdat, these critiques are published openly, alongside articles on where to invest your money. Dissenting voices come not only from courageous Tibetans risking arrest and torture, but from the heart of the system itself.

How is this possible? Cynically, one could say China has mastered the art –long perfected by Rupert Murdoch- of allowing a few liberal critics to offset the overwhelming bias of media towards supporting the party line and the accumulation of wealth. It is always handy, when accused of systemic bias towards the powerful and rich, to be able to point to the space given to other voices, especially in elite publications aimed at international audiences, while popular media maintain the drumbeat of the party line.

There may well be truth in this. China Daily, aimed at a global English speaking audience, is more critical than People’s Daily, in Chinese. It’s a shrewd kind of media management. But the cynical explanation isn’t the only one. It says much about contemporary China that the critiques pop up within the midst of the preoccupation with wealth making. That wealth, and the inequality it generates, are so new, so contested, so basically illegitimate, there is an abiding ambivalence.

This is also a practical question, of where dissenting voices can be published. Economic freedom is the only sort of widespread freedom in China. Only in the op-ed sections of media dedicated front and centre to wealth creation is there space, and camouflage, for the dissenters. The Tibetans pleading online for cultural space and basic rights are not alone. There is now an odd alliance between margin and centre, between the thoughtful elite and the anguished minority ethnicity intellectuals; their critiques are similar, and their voices are getting stronger.

The popular outcry over the Wenzhou train crash of 23 July will not go away or be readily silenced by Propaganda department directives. Its date, 7-23, is a code word for official criminal incompetence and corruption. Now, when there is a disaster, knowing local media will be muzzled, reporters and citizen volunteers from other provinces rush to the site, to see for themselves and report, whatever the official version. The onus of proof has shifted. Unless official China can, through transparency and honesty, show it is with the victims, there is now an immediate assumption, in any disaster, that the authorities have something to hide, and they will not get away with it.

When official censorship is ignored, ridiculed and openly likened to the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984, official China stands exposed as fragile, fearful and brittle. http://chinadigitaltimes.net/china/grass-mud-horse/

When the regime is challenged not only by voices from the periphery, by Tibetans knowing one shout means a life in gaol, but also by professors of political science in the best universities, news anchors and tv talk show hosts, the regime is in trouble. Not everyone can be bought. Empires fail from within when those at the imperial centre begin to doubt the imperial mission. Once it is no longer axiomatic that those in charge are highly advanced, exemplary leaders we should trust, the empire starts to crumble.