China: ‘Capitulate or Things Will Get Worse’

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Ai Weiwei
Photograph by the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei (middle) that he took in a mirrored elevator with two police officers and the Chinese artist and musician Zouxiao Zuzhou (right), Chengdu, China, 2009

The massacre of protesters in Beijing on June 4, 1989, and the harsh repression during the months immediately following put China into a foul mood. Among ordinary Chinese, the prestige of the Communist Party, whose leaders had ordered the brutal assault, fell to a new low. Western governments applied sanctions and (at least in public) distanced themselves from “the butchers of Beijing,” to borrow Bill Clinton’s phrase. Some China-watchers wondered how long the regime could hold on.

Then, it did hold on. Moreover, it grew stronger. Today China-watchers are writing about the regime’s “resilience” and “adaptability.” Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth Perry have published a conference volume called Mao’s Invisible Hand, in which they describe in detail this surprising resilience. They trace its origins to Mao Zedong, whose “guerrilla policy style” permitted flexibility in all things but one: Mao stayed on top. The approach, they write,

is fundamentally dictatorial, opportunistic, and merciless. Unchecked by institutions of accountability, guerrilla leaders pursue their objectives with little concern for those who stand in their way.1

In the years since 1989, the ways in which Deng Xiaoping and Mao’s other successors have continued the tradition have included (this list is mine, not Heilmann and Perry’s): (1) “political education” in textbooks that omit much of modern Chinese history and distort much of what remains; (2) stoking nationalism by staging events like the Olympics and a World’s Fair, using publicity that presents “China” and “the Party” as synonyms; (3) distracting attention from problems in people’s lives by magnifying rivalries with foreign countries and domestic “splittists” like Tibetans or Uighurs; (4) use of hundreds of thousands of cyberpolice to delete “unhealthful” posts from the Internet and to “guide opinion” by inserting pro-regime posts; (5) pouring a fortune (more than is spent on health, education, and social welfare programs combined) into “stability maintenance,” which includes, in addition to ordinary police work, monitoring people to stop “trouble” before it starts. Troublemakers are not only harassed; they are also cajoled, “invited to tea,” and advised “for your own good” to concentrate on moneymaking instead of wandering into such dangerous topics as fairness, justice, or clean air.

The methods work. It is possible, whatever one thinks of the regime’s goals, to admire its savvy. Western commentators sometimes laud the obvious efficiency. Things do get done. The economy booms.

A great virtue of Liao Yiwu’s new book, For a Song and a Hundred Songs, is that it suggests what we have to look at before crediting the regime with efficiency. It shows that not only cleverness but a beastly ruthlessness undergirds the resilience. Liao, who is well known for his essays on life from the bottom up in China,2 spent 1990–1994 in prison for a long …

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  1. 1

    Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China, edited by Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth J. Perry (Harvard University Asia Center, 2011), reviewed in these pages by Jonathan Mirsky, June 21, 2012. 

  2. 2

    See Howard W. French, “ A Hero of the China Underground,” The New York Review, October 14, 2010.