Friday, June 26, 2009

Ryan Pyle Blog: Missing Pages (Economist)


After spending several exhausting days in rural Tibet I managed to get home in one piece, albeit very sore from the nine days I spent combing through remote river valleys on foot.

Upon my return to Shanghai I was craving news, newspapers and news magazines. I love to know what's going on and I was mostly craving my Economist. I reckon I would have a backlog of two or three issues waiting for me at home and I was more than ready to put my feet up and dive right in.

To my astonishment my Economist magazines were not waiting for me at home. They had failed to show up. This often happens when sensitive China articles are published, but to be honest it hasn't happened in months and I was pretty pissed off by the fact that the post office just decides to put a hold on my magazines when ever it feels like it.

So in a huff I made my way to the grocery store, that I frequent, and managed to get a week old copy, the May 28th to June 4th version that has (in Asia) "Kim's Bombshell" on the cover. Feeling happy after my purchase I brought it home and pushed through the opening sections and devoured each article at a record pace (as you do after a long absence away from any form of reading/writing). I was so quick in fact that I read from Page 30 to Page 33 almost without noticing that Page 31/32 was missing. It had been torn out.

Now, it had been torn out very neatly and in a fashion that didn't disrupt the other articles. But the act itself lead to several questions: Like, how many people in China are employed to rip out magazine articles that are deemed sensitive? No wonder China Post is losing money hand over fist; so much so that DHL and FedEx have now been banned from operating domestically in China - a very protectionist move. Also, who decides what articles are deemed offensive or not? Is this why sometimes my other magazines don't show up? Who is this magazine editing actually targeting, foreigners or Chinese? If it is targeting foreigners, might the effort be seen as futile? If this behavior is directed at Chinese, I would be curious to know how many locals are reading the Economist that are not web savvy enough to know that the week of June 4th was the anniversary of Tiananmen. Is this the behavior of a global power? Is this the behavior of a regional power? Does the United States censor and rip out pages of Chinese language magazines and periodicals? Food for thought.

Now, the page in question "Banyan: The Party Goes On" deals specifically with Tiananmen and the party's survival skills, and it is copied below. Is this article really so piercing and critical that it requires the embarrassment involved in being torn out of the magazine by hand several thousand times? Me thinks not. I would expect behavior like this from Burma, but not China. It's a weak effort from a seemingly strong country. Imagine how the country will progress when we, locals and foreigners, begin being treated like adults; who can actually handle the truth. Could be a magical era, think of all the prison space that could be freed up.

Copywrite: The Economist
The party goes on
May 28th 2009
From The Economist print edition

Who, 20 years ago, would have thought that the Communist Party could come to this?

WHEN the tanks departed Beijing after the crackdown of June 1989, no one with an interest in China thought the matter ended. The Chinese Communist Party had won its battle for survival, but the war seemed unwinnable. All the more so after communism collapsed in Eastern Europe later that year, followed by the Soviet Union. Even China’s lunge for breakneck growth from 1992 looked set to accelerate forces the party might not control. As the party’s ideological and moral foundations crumbled, it was no longer clear what on earth it stood for.

China-watchers’ scenarios ran from party collapse to a democratising path. As late as 1998 Bill Clinton was able to tell his Chinese host, President Jiang Zemin, that suppressing dissent put China “on the wrong side of history”. Banyan was in the audience that day, his Flying Pigeon (state-made bicycle) outside. Mr Clinton’s words seemed self-evident. But with hindsight, much of where the West said China was going was wishful thinking.

What nearly no one predicted has transpired. Today, the party is as strong at home as at any time since it seized power in 1949. Though still authoritarian, it rules largely by consent, preferring persuasion to violence and intimidation—though these remain handy, as during the crushing of Tibetan riots last year.

Abroad, its prestige is as high: some believe China’s economy is about to save the world. Mr Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, has been welcomed at the top table of world leaders. On her first trip to Beijing as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was as blunt as her husband had been a decade earlier, but with a different message: the United States would not let China’s human-rights abuses obstruct the history being made between these two great states.

It is a commonplace that the party’s legitimacy is built on economic growth. Yet China’s leaders have long considered that to be merely the (simplistic) half of it. After the massacre, the Communist Party set about transforming itself. It launched a vast historical investigation into how political parties fall, and how they stay in power. Everyone was scrutinised, from Saddam Hussein to Scandinavian social democrats. The conclusion: adapt or die.

The outcome is a wholesale reinvention of the party, a process accelerated after Mr Hu stepped up as paramount leader in 2004. Shortcomings that were identified included corruption (a chief complaint of the Tiananmen students), lack of accountability in decision-making, no convincing ideology, and an ossified structure. In a recent book (“China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation”), David Shambaugh describes how the 74m-strong party has fired whole armies of time-servers. Bright technocrats and entrepreneurs have been recruited. Retirement rules have been revamped (the Soviet Union’s gerontocracy was noted). Party members have gone back to school: three weeks a year and three months for every three years of mid-career training. More appointments are open to peer scrutiny before they are filled. The Communist Party is vastly more able to govern.

Some in the wishful West will see this as a proto-democratisation of a Leninist state. The opposite is the case. Staying in power is the party’s only credo now that revolution has been jettisoned. It is the sole reason for revamping the mechanisms of power.

China’s other manufacturing industry
A case in point is the Communists’ approach since 1989 to the crucial field of propaganda. With the end of Maoist mobilisation, the party turned to Western techniques of public relations and mass media, manufacturing consent by guiding public opinion in certain directions while barring it from others. In “Marketing Dictatorship”, Anne-Marie Brady sums up the party’s approach as emphasising achievements, not allowing bad news during holiday periods or around sensitive dates (including June 4th), and not raising problems that can’t be solved (unemployment, inequality). It talks up the economy, regularly demonises the United States and uses Orwellian newspeak to shape the debate about certain subjects (“party-state” is banned in public discourse in favour of “the political party in power”). It presents stories in ways that encourage people to take sides. It turns natural disasters into quasi-religious occasions of national solidarity. And always, always repeat after me: “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.”

With this approach, the proliferation of channels for media, information and entertainment offers unbounded scope for the party to get its messages across, abetted by commercial operators. The internet has proven a particular boon, since its users are predominantly young, educated males from the cities—just the kind of groups, the party has noted, behind the colour revolutions in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine. Shaping the online debate while using controls and surveillance to block most of what it does not want surfers to see, the internet is an example of how the party has corralled mainland Chinese into what Ms Brady calls “a virtual mind prison”—though one with plenty of fun and games to keep people entertained. In 2000 Mr Clinton said that trying to control the internet in China was “like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall”. The Communist Party seems to have managed it.

This is little comfort to Westerners projecting their hopes for democratic change on to China. Nor is there any sign that Chinese intellectuals identify with the myriad grievances of their poor countrymen, as they did during the Tiananmen protests. And the growing middle class appears more fearful of the great unwashed than of the depredations of a party that once was at war with the bourgeoisie. So no national movement challenges the party’s monopoly. The state might yet prove unable to meet growing demands for health care and schooling. Leadership splits might threaten the party, as they did in 1989, with China now facing its biggest economic test since then. But for now, the Communist Party glides smoothly upon the tide of history.

Ryan Pyle

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