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China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier

In China’s Mao years you could be detained and persecuted for talking with your neighbor about your cat. The Chinese word for “cat” (mao, high level tone) is a near homonym for the name of the Great Leader (mao, rising tone), and a tip to the police from an eavesdropper who misheard one for the other and took you to be disrespectful could ruin your life.1 Such things no longer happen. The importance of the Chinese government in the daily lives of ordinary Chinese people has receded markedly over the last quarter-century. The space in which unofficial life takes place has expanded, and informal speech is much freer than before. Although there are still no barbed political cartoons in newspapers, sarcasm no less biting is rampant in jokes and rhythmical ditties on oral networks throughout the country. Some of these sayings flatly blame the Communist Party (“If we don’t root out corruption, the country will perish; if we do root out corruption, the Party will perish”). Others dare to satirize Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, and other top leaders by name.

Yet repression remains an important problem, and its extent and methods are still poorly understood in the West. To appreciate it one must re-visit a dull but fundamental fact: the highest priority of the top leadership of the Communist Party remains, as in the past, not economic development, or a just society, or China’s international standing, or any other goal for the nation as a whole, but its own grip on power. Thus it continues to ban any public expression of opposition to itself and continues to crush any organization that it does not control or could not easily control if it needed to. The fate of qigong breath exercises is a good illustration. In the 1980s the Party encouraged qigong as an expression of Chinese essence and a symbol of national pride. The central government even set up a national qigong association, complete with its own bureaucracy. But in the 1990s, when some qigong masters (Li Hongzhi of Falun Gong was not the first) decided to build their own organizations outside Party control, the same Chinese-essence breath exercises overnight became an “evil cult” and a target for brutal repression. The founders of the Chinese Democratic Party, all of whom are in prison today, ran afoul of the same principle. Their crime was not the word “democratic” in their group’s name (China has long had eight “democratic parties,” all subordinate to the leadership of the Communist Party); their crime was to declare that their organization was independent.

Censorship in intellectual matters broadly follows the same pattern. Nearly anything can be said in private, which is a big advance over the Mao years. And because academic journals have such small circulations, they are given somewhat more latitude than other publishing media. As long as scholars don’t confront the top leadership head-on, they can write in scholarly journals pretty much as they choose. Moreover, in recent years, what many of them have chosen to write has been more favorable to the Party leadership than what they were inclined to write in the 1980s.2

But when an intellectual does want to express a politically sensitive idea in public, it remains the case that he or she must take a risk. As in the past, taking risks is not just a matter of personal courage, although courage of course is important. It helps as well to have allies or backers with whom to share the risk. It can also help to use indirection, such as pseudonyms, surrogates, or Aesopian expression. Even highly placed people, such as the sponsors of The Tiananmen Papers, a collection of internal documents on the genesis of the 1989 Beijing massacre,3choose to be indirect when going public.

Although repression under Jiang Zemin has applied to a narrower range of expression than it did under Deng Xiaoping, its essential methods have changed little. These methods have “Chinese characteristics”; they have always differed, for example, from those of the Soviet Union. The Soviets published periodic handbooks that listed which specific phrases were out of bounds, and employed a large bureaucracy to enforce the rules. China has never had such a bureaucracy or published such handbooks. The Chinese Communist Party rejected these more mechanical methods in favor of an essentially psychological control system that relies primarily on self-censorship. Questions of risk—how far to go, how explicit to be, with whom to ally, and so on—are to be judged by each writer and editor. There are, of course, material punishments that anchor a person’s calculations. If you calculate incorrectly you can lose your job, be imprisoned, or, in the worst case, get a bullet in the back of the head. If you live overseas you can run the risk of being cut off from your family and hometown. But most censorship does not directly involve such happenings. It involves fear of such happenings. By “fear” I do not mean a clear and present sense of panic. I mean a dull, well-entrenched leeriness that people who deal with the Chinese censorship system usually get used to, and eventually accept as part of their natural landscape. But the controlling power of the fear is impressive nonetheless.

Outsiders to this system can be puzzled by its use of vagueness. The puzzlement was rife, for example, in the well-publicized cases of the sociologists Gao Zhan and Li Shaomin, one a legal US resident and the other a US citizen, who were arrested last year during research trips to China. They were accused as spies and charged with collecting classified “internal” documents. But particulars remained unclear. What did they actually do? What line did they cross? How does the government define “spying”? Why were these two people arrested for using “internal” materials (of which there are many kinds and levels, some of which are openly available in bookstores) while so many other scholars both inside and outside China routinely do the same thing and are not bothered?

The answers to these questions in the cases of Gao Zhan and Li Shaomin indeed remain a puzzle, but the “vagueness” of the charges is hardly new. Such vagueness is purposeful and has been a fundamental tool in Chinese Communist censorship for decades. It has the following four advantages:

—A vague accusation frightens more people. If I, like Gao Zhan, am a Chinese scholar working in the US, and I don’t know why she was arrested, then the reason could be virtually anything; therefore it could be what I am doing; therefore I pull back. (Result: many people begin to censor themselves.) If, on the other hand, I could know exactly why Gao Zhan was nabbed, then I could feel fairly confident that my own work was all right—or, if not, how to make it all right. (Result: few people would pull back.) Clarity serves the purpose of the censoring state only when it wants to curb a very specific kind of behavior; when it wants to intimidate a large group, vagueness works much better.

—A vague accusation pressures an individual to curtail a wider range of activity. If I don’t know exactly why I was “wrong,” I am induced to pay more attention to the state’s strictures in every respect. This device has been used in literary and social campaigns in China since the 1950s. Who can say—or ever could—what exactly is meant by “spiritual pollution,” “bourgeois liberalism,” or other such terms for ideological misbehavior? (Is long hair “spiritual pollution”? How long? Why were some people with long hair punished in the 1980s and others with the same length not? And so on.) The cognitive content of key terms is purposefully vague; only the negativity is unambiguous. To be safe, a person must pull back in every respect, and moreover must become his or her own policeman.

—A vague accusation is useful in maximizing what can be learned during forced confessions. When Li Shaomin was arrested, he asked his captors the reason and they answered, “You yourself know the reason.”4 It was up to Li to “earn lenience” by “showing sincerity” through “confession.” This word game is standard. The police routinely say that they already possess an exhaustive amount of information on your crimes and that the purpose of interrogating you is not to get information but to measure your sincerity by observing your confession. In fact, though, this is often a lie. Usually the point is precisely to extract new information, which can then be used either against you or against someone else. Clarity about the accusation would obviously destroy this tactic.

—A vague accusation allows arbitrary targeting. Leaders who exercise arbitrary power like to disguise the real reasons for their actions. In a culture like China’s, where the leader’s “face” represents his morality, which in turn is the basis for his political legitimacy, the need to pretend that one is acting legally and morally is especially important. The need for pretense only increases as a leader’s moral behavior worsens. In this context, the availability of vague and even self-contradictory laws can be extremely useful to a leader. For example, a rule might state “It is forbidden to collect internal materials” at the same time that at least some internal materials, such as government reports, are easily available and it is well known that many people collect them. This situation makes it possible for me, the authority, to use the rule to arrest Gao Zhan or Li Shaomin or whomever I like—for who knows what reason—and at the same time to have a ready, face-saving justification for my exercise of arbitrary power. China’s constitution itself illustrates this handy flexibility. It provides that citizens have freedom of speech, of assembly, and of the press. But its preamble also sets down the inviolability of Communist Party rule, Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Zedong-Thought, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the socialist system. The huge space between these two contradictory poles (both of which, by the way, are poor descriptions of the actual patterns of life in China) gives leaders immense room to be arbitrary while still claiming to be legal.

But the big story in Beijing’s pressuring of overseas scholars is not in the high-profile cases of Gao Zhan, Li Shaomin, Wu Jianmin, Xu Zerong, and others. The pressures penetrate far deeper than those cases taken individually would suggest. The great majority of the other cases never come to light. Kang Zhengguo, writing in The New York Review, estimates that “hundreds and thousands” of Chinese who return to their homeland are invited for “chats” in which the police warn and threaten them in various ways (“Do you want to come back to China again?” “Do you wish the best for your friends and relatives?”). The police also specifically warn people not to say anything about these threats when they go back to the West. (“Let’s not have any loose tongues”; “Remember to preserve the positive image of State Security”; etc.)5 I cannot corroborate Kang’s estimate that there are “hundreds and thousands” of such “returnee interviews,” but would note that just within my own circle of friends I have heard a dozen or so such stories in recent years.

  1. 1

    See “Mao” (“Cat”), a story by Cao Guanlong in Anhui wenxue, No. 1 (1980), translated by John Berninghausen in Roses and Thorns, edited by Perry Link (University of California Press, 1984), pp. 123–130.

  2. 2

    The reasons for this shift are complex—some have to do with government pressures, others with shifting perceptions of China’s place in the world; to probe this topic properly would require a separate essay, beyond my scope here.

  3. 3

    Public Affairs, 2001. Reviewed in The New York Review, by Jonathan Mirsky, February 8, 2001.

  4. 4

    Lecture at Princeton University, October 1, 2001.

  5. 5

    Arrested in China,” The New York Review, September 20, 2001, pp. 6–8.

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