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China Battens Down the Hatches

The entertaining ruckus over CCTV talk show host Yang Rui’s anti-foreign comments obscures a rather significant trend in Chinese government policy.

It appears that the CCP is winding down its five-year charm offensive meant to bolster its international legitimacy and standing, and is turning inward to focus on pressing domestic social, economic, and political concerns.

Disturbingly, China has a limited number of effective policy levers to deal with these issues.  The few they have are ugly in conception and application—like xenophobia.

China’s economic miracle, typified by the spectacle of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the titanic stimulus program of 2009-2010 (which is credited with forestalling a prolonged global recession), never elicited the Western respect that the Chinese leadership felt was its due.

With the election of President Obama, the West rediscovered the impeccable moral self-regard it had forfeited during the Bush II years and, instead of acknowledging Chinese regional suzerainty, cobbled together an alliance to “pivot” back into Asia and contain China.

International policy toward China is inseparable from criticism of China’s human rights record, its neo-mercantilist economic policies, and its heightened security profile in East Asia, and the hope and expectation that China will fall on its behind before the West (excluding Greece, probably Spain, and perhaps Italy) does.

“Soft power”, in other words, hasn’t won China much breathing space.  As the CCP turns its attention to a fraught leadership transition complicated by smoldering inflation, simmering public discontent, slowing economic growth thanks to the dysfunctional Eurozone, and a spate of opportunistic bitching over uninhabited island groups by its maritime neighbors, perhaps xenophobia is the most effective way for the Party to seize the initiative in the public sphere.

In recent weeks, public opinion has been entertained and inflamed by such diverse exhibition of foreign misbehavior as 1) arrogant Russian cellist putting his feet where they didn’t belong on a Chinese train 2) brain-melted foreign tourist trying to undress a hapless Chinese woman on a busy Beijing street 3) North Korean “pirates” holding Chinese fishermen for ransom.

There was a lot of palaver about what the kidnapping said about the North Koreans and their possible unhappiness with Chinese criticism of their weapons testing. Remarkably, there was very little discussion of why the Chinese media chose to give this event (which, quite possibly, was simply the most recent of many shakedowns by North Korea’s cash-hungry/smuggling-happy coastal security forces) front-page treatment.

The xenophobic piece du resistance, however, was a May 16 Weibo screed by CCTV’s Yang Rui, sneering at “foreign trash”.

One can safely assume that Yang was supporting the party line on pesky foreigners.  It also appears that Yang put a lot of himself, too much, in fact, into his 140-character ramble, including accusations that foreigners were shacking up with Chinese women in order to make maps and send out GPS coordinates to overseas intelligence services (coordinates of what, Yang failed to enlighten his readers).

What caused Yang’s anti-foreign assault to backfire, however, was his use of the term “po fu” to describe Al Jazeera Beijing correspondent Melissa Chan.

Chan, a well-regarded reporter who had aired pieces on black prisons and illegal land grabs that the Chinese government certainly found uncomfortable, was expelled (technically, her request for a visa extension was refused) in early May.

Yang lumped her together with the foreign trash, declaring:

赶走洋泼妇,关闭半岛电视台驻京办,让妖魔化中国的闭嘴滚蛋

We kicked out the foreign po fu, closed down Al Jazeera’s Beijing office, so those who demonize China shut their mouths and beat it.

Global Times translated “po fu” as “crazy”, which is pretty far from the mark.  The Wall Street Journal translated “po fu” as b*tch, which is closer to the truth, if not quite accurate, and helped feed the expressions of quivering outrage by expats in China who tweet.

Yang tried to explain that his insulting characterization actually means “shrew” in English, and he does have a point.  “Po fu” started out as a literary term coined by the Qian Long emperor.  During one of his southern tours he saw two women fighting and said something along the lines of (adjusting for the dense meaning of individual characters in classical Chinese), “when you’re talking about fierce, unreasonable, and incapable of engaging in elevated moral discourse, that’s women.”

In essence, therefore, Yang appears not be saying that Ms. Chan was a b*tch (a bad woman), but the unfortunate but entirely predictable manifestation of female shrewishness in her reporting prevented her from scaling the highest peaks of respectable journalism (already occupied, perhaps, by certain smugly condescending male CCTV presenters).

Sometimes, when you’re in a hole, it’s time to stop digging.

The furor over “po fu” also distracts attention from the more interesting question of why Ms. Chan’s visa was not renewed.

The conclusion of Yang’s Weibo blast (so those who demonize China shut their mouths and beat it) implies that the Chinese government made an example of a free-wheeling reporter at a second-tier news outlet in order to pass the message to top-line media outlets that nettlesome reporting will have consequences for individual reporters and, perhaps, entire news operations (in addition to not renewing Chan’s visa, the Chinese government has so far refused to accept a replacement and the Al Jazeera Beijing bureau is, at least for the time being, defunct).

The impression of Chinese xenophobia was also accentuated by the announcement of a three-month drive to crack down on foreigners residing or working in China without proper documentation.

Needless to say, it is an unpleasant experience to be regarded as potential “foreign trash” and go through the degrading transaction of presenting one’s papers to the local police on demand.  It is also an indication that the security system’s relatively kid-glove treatment of foreigners is the latest victim of China’s growing political and economic uncertainty.

Chinese policies toward improperly documented aliens bear a remarkable resemblance to laws in Arizona and Georgia that have integrated immigration policy into police operations largely in response to xenophobic sentiment and political unease in a deteriorated economic climate.

The real issue may not be the outraged feelings of foreigners today; it may be making the scapegoating of foreign troublemakers, journalists and otherwise, an available option against the day when the political climate inside China worsens for the CCP.

If and when bad times come, the CCP seems to have a decreasing number of tools available to deal with the situation.  In particular, there are sticks available, but not a lot of carrots.

This restricted toolkit apparently applies to dealing with domestic dissatisfaction as well as pesky foreigners.

A remarkable object lesson in the financial and systemic hazards of contemporary Chinese authoritarianism is illustrated by the remarkable extralegal detention of Chen Guangcheng and other dissidents.

It takes a village, apparently, to button up a lawyer-activist in China, and the amounts expended on supervising and harassing Chen—estimated at over 8 million RMB—are a source of wonder.

What is perhaps an even more remarkable source of wonder is the fact that variants of this extravagant system are applied to perhaps 1 million Chinese that no one has ever heard of.

As reported by Charles Hutzler of AP, hundreds of thousands of Chinese activists, dissidents, miscreants, parolees, and suspicious characters are kept under intensive surveillance similar to Chen’s.

The operations are funded by “stability maintenance” funds from the central government, part of the $110 billion the government spends each year on domestic security and order.

The article recounted the case of Yao Lifa, a schoolteacher who ran afoul of the system when he tried to run as an independent for a local political office 25 years ago. The current system of tight surveillance has been in place for a year or so.

Yao told AP how his surveillance is managed, including a significant outsourcing to gym teachers in the school he used to teach at:

Anywhere from 14 to 50 people a day are on the local government payroll for his round-the-clock surveillance — what he calls the “Yao Lifa special squad.” They get 50 yuan, $8, for a day shift and twice that for night work. Often, he said, hotel rooms, transport, meals and cigarettes are thrown in.

The sums add up in Qianjiang, a city of struggling factories and one million people set in the center of the country. Basic pay runs about 1,000 yuan, or $160, a month for an entry-level teacher and goes to three times that amount for a veteran, Yao said.

“This isn’t bad for teachers,” said Yao. “An English teacher probably wouldn’t take it. They can earn extra money giving private tutoring. But gym teachers can’t do the tutoring. Besides, their superiors have told them to do this. They can’t not do it.”

He said he heard the school and education bureau were arguing over $48,000 for his surveillance.
“I have many acquaintances. Some of them work in police stations,” Yao said. “They tell me ‘Really we could use a Yao Lifa. If we had one, we could make more money.'”

According to Hutzler, an article in Caijing reported on a village in south China in which a quarter of the local government personnel were on the stability payroll.

This would appear to be more than “stability maintenance”.  It’s a form of central government support to shore up the finances and legitimacy of the local government i.e. the local Communist apparatus.

Call it CCP welfare, or “workfare”.  Well, maybe call it “goonfare.”

It is, to put it mildly, not a good thing for the CCP when the local face of the party is a crew of musclemen hassling schoolteachers.

To add to the problem, and the perception, for many local officials the temptation to graft off the imperfectly supervised “stability maintenance” funds is reportedly irresistible.

Now that this system is in place, it is difficult to see how the central government can abolish it—unless, in addition to howls of protest from local cadres, it is interested in dealing with a surge of local unrest and disgruntled petitioners, and a legal system that is not up to the task of protecting the rights and serving the aspirations of its citizens.

The fundamental problem is that, contrary to the party’s hopes, breakneck economic growth over the last decade has not translated into an outpouring of gratitude or support for the Chinese Communist Party.  “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” like another triumphant economic system we all know and love, has inequality built into it.

In Western capitalism, the power of the “1%” is diffused, anonymous, entrenched in every institution, and embedded in every political party.  Even after the colossal rich man’s cock-up of the 2008 financial crisis, for instance, 99% Americans were unable to summon up the united political will to confront Wall Street, let alone engage in a satisfying politico-economic jacquerie against the moneyed elite.

However, in China, the political problem is much more severe because inequality clearly benefits party members—and princelings within the party—disproportionately.  Overall GDP growth, that scorecard of economic success that infatuates state planners, foreign businesses, and economists alike is, for China, a two-edged sword, since it ineluctably widens the perceived income and social justice gap.

Therefore, there is a lot of anxiety inside and outside the party about closing the wealth and justice gap ranging from traditional command economy nostrums like subsidized housing to fancy free-market panaceas like reforming the pampered, cash-rich state run corporations through private corporate competition and public wealth sharing through increased stock ownership.

In fact, it would be useful to consider that China is now trying to turn away from macro-economic management of the economy, with its implication of passively waiting for the tide to lift all boats, to politically targeted financial and investment policy meant to selectively grow vulnerable sectors of the economy at the expense of industries and institutions that have emerged as political liabilities.

However, these solutions don’t go very far in addressing the disgruntlement that suffuses Chinese society like a toxic fog: the idea that Chinese wealth creation is primarily an exercise by which the CCP enriches and entrenches itself.

It’s not easy—or perhaps even feasible—to remove the dead hand of the party from economic and political life, or from the consciousness of the Chinese citizenry under the current system.

Things are less than ideal even after—and, to some extent because of—a decade of rampant growth.

Now, of course, China is looking at a period of slowed growth as a matter of policy as well as necessity, one that will presumably leverage even greater perceived economic and social injustice onto the shoulders of the resentful Chinese citizenry.

The West’s faltering effort to free itself of the incubus of its failed economic policies means a Eurozone crisis and bad news for China’s export economy.  At the same time, China is still dealing with the inflation and real estate bubble hangover from its massive 2009-10 stimulus and cannot risk fueling inflation by dumping a lot of money into the economy.

If the CCP finds itself unable to finesse the looming economic and political crisis through a savvy combination of political and economic policies, the alternative—a bout of xenophobia and domestic repression that reveal the party in its least attractive light both to the world and its citizens—is not going to be pretty.

Peter Lee edits China Matters. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org


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Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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