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…

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