Saturday, 19 August 2017

Cambridge Stands For Complicity

Chinese authorities have every right to censor content of any sort coming into the country.

Cambridge University Press--the publisher of the academic journal China Quarterly--seems intent on helping them do that.

It’s an interesting and telling story. Sometime in recent weeks, China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT, 国家广播电影电视总局), through the division that oversees the printed imports asked (or demanded or requested—it’s not clear which) Cambridge University Press to remove certain articles and book reviews covering sensitive subjects about China appearing in the academic journal China Quarterly—over 300 in all from the website that the latter maintains in China.[1]

The decision to do so, according to an explanation from the Press, allowed Cambridge to “ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market.”

That’s what everyone says.

It’s what Google thought when they entered into an agreement with Beijing about restricting search terms, only to end up, after years of caving into an escalating set of demands from authorities, finally shutting down its search engine here and ceasing most operations.[2]

And it’s what other foreign institutions—from companies to nongovernmental organizations to universities--believe will happen: Cooperate a little; be patient and show good faith; and eventually—eventually—Beijing will come around and let you carry on as if China’s just another country.

But China isn’t another country. It’s run from the top-down, a sort of soft totalitarianism in some respects; markedly better at centralizing and controlling than it had been for centuries; and the culture, ethics, morality and methods of operation in China are different. So many people here in PostModern China don’t compete to cooperate, but to conquer.

Chinese officials expect that when any foreign institution cooperates a little that it’s acknowledging that Beijing has a point—a sharp one—and its power and authority will be obeyed. Authorities here believe that when foreigners comply with demands or cooperate with requests, they understand who holds the whip-hand. Bowing down doesn’t set the stage for true friendship, only deeper frustration—and further demands down the road.

That’s probably why so many foreigners think about changing China. 

The naïve ones believe it can be done, usually by them. They don't last long, dashing away when their flight is called, their contract ends, the last call for alcohol is rung.

The smarter and more experienced recognize that the only way to change China is for China to change itself. 

And China is changing itself, of course—but in a deeply conservative direction, with some screeching that the nation is under siege from foreign forces at the very same time it enjoys more and more success. Democracy is a dead letter.

There’s of course the argument made by Cambridge University Press as well as the editor of China Quarterly (who really may want to think of resigning if he really believes what he’s saying is true) that they do believe in the sanctity of intellectual inquiry but need to stifle it because—well, they have no choice.

But they do have choices. And they’re just as good and maybe a lot better than the one they’ve made. More on that further down.

Those who think that Cambridge University Press made the right move have no way of knowing what’s next. For example, what happens when the next article deemed sensitive by SARFT appears in China Quarterly? The Press assures everyone that they “do not, and will not, proactively censor our content,” but they immediately add that they “will only consider blocking individual items (when requested to do so) when the wider availability of content is at risk.”

In other words, they’ve provided SARFT with a seat on their Board of Directors, and a place on the editorial staff of China Quarterly.

And surely SARFT knows that. There are politics at work here in China, with officials vying to be the hardest of the hardliners, now that that’s the Party line for what seems to be some time to come (barring some upheaval at the 19th Party Congress). SARFT’s move didn’t come out of nowhere; many of these articles have been around for some time. SARFT wants to play an even larger role during President Xi Jinping’s second term, as their moves in recent months have shown, supporting the more general tightening that’s been transpiring.

It’s also possible that SARFT wanted to be part of the recent campaign being pursued by some here to build a social science with Chinese characteristics—that is, by blocking foreign content deemed sensitive, scholars and researchers concentrate on spreading the narrative that Beijing promulgates. As Dr. Mike Gow has pointed out on Twitter, if the new focus is on core socialist values [社会主义核心价值观], then it only makes sense to stiff-arm information from other sources.

In any event, no one gets strong in China these days by being soft. Stifling foreign sources of information and entertainment are an easy way for SARFT to display fealty with the Party leadership and Xi's harder-than-iron line.

And hardly anyone here in China’s provinces will know what happened, or care all that much if they've heard. If there's resistance and anger, it won't be in the streets. More than a few local residents are pleased with the vast improvement in speed and services with the country’s internet, and praise the government’s interest and oversight in containing scams, regulating pornography, and other supervision. If word gets out to the masses what SARFT has done, the narrative will be presented so that many here will applaud and assume it’s all for the good of the nation. There's no hypocrisy locally: Chinese authorities who confronted Cambridge are being straightforward and very smart. It's Others Far Away who are being far less so.

Still it would have been interesting to see Cambridge University Press to take another tack—any other one save the usual obeisance that Beijing has come to expect.

Suppose Cambridge University Press had refused to pull the China Quarterly articles: Would SARFT really have moved to block all of the content Cambridge University Press offer here in China? Or was this bluff—SARFT playing tough, hoping Cambridge would cave so they could then go to work on other publishers? After all, this had to be SARFT and the agents and agencies it works with; this wasn't some monolith with the moniker "China".

Suppose SARFT went ahead and did move to block content after Cambridge refused. What would China’s many professionals and educated have done, especially if the Press had retaliated, sought to ban Chinese scholars (many of whom enjoy extensive State support) from publishing with it? Might other agencies and officials in Beijing, less pleased with the current political situation and eager for some easing, have pushed back at SARFT? Insurrections take many forms, sometimes low-level and from institutions.

After all, what Cambridge has done is to undercut crusaders for change within the system all the more. Imagine how reformers in China feel when they don't even get lip service from foreigners, but see the latter kiss up to Party conservatives here.

And suppose the Press ended its participation in the highly circumscribed Beijing Book Fair, and sought to mobilize academics and officials outside China to express their dismay—and (perish the thought apparently) actually defend and stand with them?

We’ll never know, because none of that had happened. 

Instead, Cambridge University Press defaulted, as so many before them, becoming complicit instead of confrontational. 

And Cambridge won't reap any rewards from this end of the ocean. It won't take long for SARFT to be emboldened and move to strike out at other foreign publishers who will--as others will undoubtedly do at the forthcoming Beijing Book Fair--seek to talk about cooperating with Chinese authorities for some greater, vacuous good, while their own publications and books are taken down from the display racks. Why should SARFT seek to play nice when being nasty got them what they wanted.

Maybe one day it will be possible to know what the world and China will look like when someone says that Beijing has every legal right to censor content and seek to control social space within their national boundaries—but that they, the foreign firm in question, won’t be helping in that effort.

Perhaps one day. But not today. Today, hardliners in Beijing won, as they always do these days, only this time with more help than usual. They may want to send flowers to England to express their appreciation.

[1] Moreover, in another move less well-publicized, the Press removed more than 1,000 e-books from its site which were apparently also deemed too sensitive by Chinese authorities. Little if anything is known about that decision.

[2] It’s bizarre that many people think that Google pulled out of China because of censorship. That’s not what occurred: Google’s search engine was censored from the beginning—by Google when Beijing asked—and authorities here expanded and increased their supervision and control in the ensuing years. Google pulled out of China, of course--but only after years of acquiescence, when censorship, a shrinking market share here and a political shift within the company, became too much. 

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

You Don’t Need A Discipline Inspector To Tell You Which Way The Winds Blow

It might seem that Beijing’s anticorruption struggle is finally starting to wind down.

There’s been a steep falloff in news coverage of that campaign in China lately. Many spaces in the State media that previously focused on Xi Jinping’s crusade to clean up cadre behavior are now filled with admonitions about other issues. Moreover, Xi’s major speech of July 26th, which laid out his agenda and the Communist Party’s current priorities, put the fight against graft near the very bottom.

But some here aren't so convinced the campaign can now be put aside. Indeed, at least a few are sure that corruption is creeping back in.

An extensive account in recent days that appeared in Nanjing Daily [南京日报] spoke of the need to “persevere, and take strict precautions against a resurgence of the “Four Winds” [锲而不舍,严防四风反弹回潮]” of “formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism and waste”—a typology first formally mooted by Xi in 2013 and repeated many times since. These winds are bad breezes, blowing the Party in the wrong direction.

The article stated that while “a new social atmosphere had been created in Nanjing and the political direction of these winds turned about,” local authorities were still confronting corruption as a “stubborn problem, and addressing it involves unremitting efforts [挖山不止].”

Just how stubborn of a problem recently became clear after the city's Discipline Inspection and Supervision investigators, according to the report, received 840 complaints, looked into 364 of them, identified 292 suspects and handed out punishment to 118 officials—with cases against another 135 people still pending.

Inspections discovered 6 characteristic problems of government malfeasance still resident in Nanjing:
  • Officials using public funds to eat and drink, or accepting meals or gifts from management;
  • Officials having membership in private clubs;
  • Officials spending public monies to buy tobacco, alcohol, designer gifts;
  • Officials accepting transport from private parties, purchasing a private car with public funds, or using a government vehicle for private purposes;
  • Officials employing public funds to participate in high-end entertainment and other activities;
  • Officials seeking to avoid supervision by authorities by using another name and identification.

One cadre confessed that

a small number of party members are beset by inertia in their thinking, that the old concept, the old practice [老做法行事] of accepting invitations of all sorts isn’t only a consistent practice [something necessary] but something reasonable. These officials don't have enough of an understanding of the new requirements; they’re neither self-reflective nor self-conscious enough.

According to the article, “a new pathogen should lead to a new prescription” [新病源开出新药方], and so more reminders and warnings to cadres, better discipline supervision, and enlisting the masses to alert inspection agencies to problems are the remedies required.

But others disagree.

The very next day, Nanjing Daily noted a different measure being taken: The enlistment of third-party accounting firms to audit the finances of the Yuhuatai [雨花台] District and examine reimbursement certificates, business receipts, meal and office supplies vouchers, and other invoices—items which are often used by corrupt officials to claim expenses that they actually didn't incur.

In this view, the problem isn’t educational—that is, officials not taking discipline seriously—it’s institutional. New approaches are needed—more professional, more creative, more interventionist, and working from the outside in.

Then, less than a week later, Nanjing Daily itself pivoted, and presented a more optimistic view of the city’s new effort [扎实推进] in fighting corruption, going in far more detail about the myriad number of cases discovered in the first half of the year. The paper cited instances of graft and malfeasance in areas such as poverty alleviation, construction bids, purchase and distribution of vaccines, and greening projects. Instead of supporting the previous line of reminding and re-educating cadres about their responsibilities, the article spoke of stricter supervision and control, as well as a wide-ranging reassessment of why corruption persists.

What’s going on here?

Politics and policymaking here in China, especially at the local level, is never simple.

It may be that there’s a struggle going on in Beijing, between those who want the anticorruption campaign to continue and those who wish to see it closed down. Those concerned on each side may be using local officials in Nanjing (and elsewhere) as proxies in that contest.

It may also be that Nanjing authorities have realized that they have a very local problem on their hands, and that their performance thus far doesn’t put the city of them in a good light—especially during the annual meetings in Beidaihe and in the run-up to the 19th Party Congress. Publicizing their shortcomings is the sort of self-criticism that might save some from deeper trouble.

It’s also possible that this set of recent articles is meant to demonstrate the limitations of what Beijing has insisted lower levels of officialdom do—rid their localities of graft first and foremost. To announce these ongoing problems in Nanjing party media could well be an attack on that strategy, and perhaps even the leadership that drew it up.

This could all just be a local squall, but it’s more likely a signal of stronger storms to come.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Xi Has Enough Authority, It's His Agenda That Needs Support

“It is the primary political task of our current and future period to study and implement the important speech delivered by General Secretary Xi Jinping on July 26.”

So implores an editorial on the front page of Nanjing Daily this past Friday.

There’s a lot more of this sentiment appearing in local political media these days, and for good reason.

While Chinese senior leaders meet up in Beidaihe, provincial-level and lower officials have been exhorting the Communist party rank-and-file to support Party chairman Xi’s agenda.

They’re doing so because that agenda isn't being met with universal acclaim. No political agenda in China ever is--and Xi's is especially profound.

That there are differences of opinion in the Party ranks here shouldn’t be surprising, given the issues at stakes in the upcoming 19th Party Congress—issues about what sorts of policies get pursued.

Xi’s July 26th speech spelled out those policies, as it focused on the achievements under his leadership and where he and his allies want the Party to go.

Xi stated as his primary accomplishment that he and his comrades “have comprehensively strengthened the party's leadership, greatly enhanced the party's cohesion, combat effectiveness and leadership, and its appeal.”

Those are code words for rejuvenating the Communist party, which is what Xi has been emphasizing every since he assumed leadership. Xi doesn’t see that task as nearly done.

Xi also claimed credit for a new approach to development, “towards higher quality, something more efficient, more equitable and with a more sustainable direction.” Development, in other words, that goes beyond just economic growth and embraces qualitative measures. That’s not new, but it now has Xi’s express imprimatur. But more than a few local officials feel fettered by Beijing’s strict oversight of how they pursue growth, and want more latitude. So Xi's appealing to those who already like his approach of targeting certain provinces for special support, such as innovation in Jiangsu.

Along with those achievements, Xi argued that the leadership had “unswervingly and comprehensively deepened reforms, pushed forward all-around reforms to attain deeper breakthroughs and to produce a new situation.”

That’s Xi signaling that those accomplishments were goals he guided the Party to, and that the process isn’t done yet, in part because “reform” has a different meaning to various political and local interests. Reform in China's Beltways is different than in China's Rust Belt.

And in a realm that’s more important than many analysts recognize, Xi’s speech noted that “we’ve strengthened the party's leadership in ideological work and consolidated the unity of the Party and its unity with society”.

This is Xi making the case that what they’ve done is begin to construct a new political approach for the Communist Party, returning to its mission of being close to the masses, more relevant to a society which doesn’t see the Party as illegitimate but just largely uninterested.

That focus truly distinguishes what Xi’s doing from his predecessors, who largely saw the Party as looking to run the economy better, and keeping social stability.

But that departure also makes Xi’s agenda vulnerable.

Xi has run into resistance before, even opposition in some realms. But he’s always handled it. He wouldn’t have moved against Zhou Yongkang and his clique unless he saw them as anti-reformists, representing policies Xi viewed as inimical to the rejuvenation of the Party. Zhou and his conspirators were a throwback to warlordism, looking to establishing political fiefdoms instead of making policy for the modern era.

Nor would Xi have sought to gain stronger control over State media if he believed that his messages were being broadcast loud and clear and in a timely manner. They weren’t, and so he and his allies acted.

There should be no mistaking Xi's strategy as anything but bold and often quite brilliant. Of course, Xi and his supporters are on a constant lookout for those out to undermine him—but it’s about his agenda, not his authority. Politics in China is so much more about seeing plans accepted and implemented, not about whose guys are in what place. That’s necessary stuff, but insufficient to get an agenda sold.

And Party Congresses are about agendas—not about power struggles, but policy questions. When Congresses work well for the leader in place, they help secure policies, as they did for Deng Xiaoping in 1978 with the Party’s move away from Maoism and towards economic reform. Every Congress since Mao's time has been about pushing a particular sort of change, or reforms that continue or are kickstarted.

To realise his agenda at this Congress, Xi knows that he needs his supporters to speak up and to speak out; that he has enormous support, but it’s still incomplete. That’s why there are meetings at Beidaihe to hammer out agreements, and why there’s a Party Congress, the dates of which have yet to be announced. If Xi had everything lined up to go his way, why aren’t the actual times of the start and end of the Party Congress public by now? He doesn’t—at least not quite yet. and he and his allies know that they need to work for it.

Which is why there’s so much attention in recent weeks to phrases such as “Unify thinking into a cohesive force” [一思想 凝聚力量], and “highlight the actions of the core leadership” [彰显领导核心作用]. Words are actions in Chinese politics, and these statements (and other coverage) are exhortations for Party officials to line up behind Xi, his goals and strategy. It’s Xi, assembling his political troops locally, because without their backing, he fears his agenda will flounder.

Xi knows that the coming weeks are about securing his agenda, not struggling for power. He’s got a lot of the latter; to get the former, he needs local officials to show their clear and strong support for his plans.

Xi realizes that, even if many analysts don’t. 

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Nanjing Cracks Down On Share-Bikes--And Finds A Larger Problem

This past weekend, Nanjing authorities announced that the city was stopping any more share-bike companies from setting up operations, and that it would be ratcheting up supervision of those already in place.

This latest decision comes after many months of deliberation and solicitation of public opinion, as well as growing consternation about the proliferation of those firms—and despite efforts by city officials to coordinate with those companies about who’s responsible for parking, payments, and traffic regulations.

Nanjing wasn’t the only city that declared a pause in the share-bike situation during the past weekend. Even central government authorities weighed in, issuing a guidance directive imploring relevant agencies to better regulate and manage the industry [关于引导和规范互联网租赁自行车发展的意见].

But Nanjing had been ahead of the curve where bike-sharing was concerned. It was one of the first cities to set up its own public bike system and, early on, recognized when share-bike companies started appearing that coordinating government agencies would be crucial for making better public policy. Instead of being heavy-handed with these firms and trying to dictate the terms of trade, Nanjing officials worked to cooperate with them—at least for a time, and the model seemed to be working well enough.

But this announcement is more than an adjustment, for now there are signs of disagreement within Nanjing government circles about what the real problem with the share-bike system actually is.

For example, in announcing the recent decision, Nanjing’s major public newspaper Yangtze Evening Post [扬子晚报] cited the 450,000 shared bikes in the city that created “disorderly parking” [无序停放] as the major problem.

According to the newspaper, its reporter had learned [者了解到] there was little chance of a technological solution in the near future, implying that the sheer number of these bikes were causing “numerous troubles” [不少“麻烦”] with pedestrian traffic, especially at local tourist sites. The problem of quantity, the article asserted, had prompted the city’s announcement of a freeze. There are just too many bikes in Nanjing, not enough space. It’s a physical problem, the newspaper insists.

But the local Party newspaper Nanjing Daily [南京日报] gave a very different reason the very next day. It claimed the actual problem had to do with bike-share companies themselves—that the shortcoming wasn’t physical but fiscal. Some bike-share enterprises were of dubious financial quality, the article stated, inattentive to the needs of customers and more focused on market share and raising revenue. More than a thousand users of one firm in particular, the article noted, still hadn’t received deposits they made to use bikes back in March. “The problem of deposit refunds is a long-standing one” [长期存在押金退款难问题], the paper argued, and should now be seen as financial fraud. Officials, the article in Nanjing Daily notes, are telling residents who have yet to receive refunds to contact local law enforcement.

Those are strong words, and they echo what President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping said in late April—that containing financial risk was crucial to economic work and social stability. Suddenly, what had been presented as a local problem of parking and traffic management is being cast by at least some officials in Nanjing as something potentially more onerous.

Whether Nanjing Daily’s contention is an explanation or a self-criticism--or an appeal for some assistance from the central government—it’s not comforting. That’s because Nanjing officials have been able to persuade Beijing that local challenges are best met locally, solved in-house by the Nanjing government. That's not been an easy argument to make in these days of Xi and hyper-centralisation.

But it’s going to be an impossible argument if the house itself is divided.