The politics of repression in China
The economy is booming and politics stable. Yet China's leaders seem
"THE forces pulling China towards integration and openness are more
powerful today than ever before," said President Bill Clinton in 1999. China
then, though battered by the Asian financial crisis, was busy dismantling
stateownedenterprises and pushing for admission to the World Trade
Organisation. Today, however, those forces look much weaker.
A spate of recent events, from the heavy jail sentences passed on humanrights
activists to an undiplomatic obduracy at the climatechange
negotiations in Copenhagen last December, invite questions about the
thinking of China's leaders. Has their view of the outside world and dissent
at home changed? Or were the forces detected by Mr Clinton and so many
others after all not pulling so hard in the direction they were expecting?
The early years of what China calls its "reform and opening" after 1978
were marked by cycles of liberalisation and repression. The turningpoints
were usually marked by political crisis: dissent on the streets, leadership struggles,
or both. Now, however, the only big protest movements are repressed ones among
ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang. China's big cities are hardly roiled by political turmoil. By the time Liu Xiaobo, an academic, was sentenced to 11 years in prison in December, dissident debate surrounding the reform manifesto he had issued a year earlier had long subsided. Yet it was the heaviestknown penalty imposed on any activist for "inciting subversion" since such a crime was written into law in 1997. China has so far survived the global economic downturn with hardly any of
the agitation many once feared it might cause among unemployed workers
or jobless university graduates. The economy grew at a very robustsounding
8.7% last year and is predicted by many to be on course for similar growth in 2010.
Sweeping changes are due in the senior leadership in 2012 and 2013,
including the replacement of President Hu Jintao and of the prime minister,
Wen Jiabao. But if a struggle is brewing, signs of it are hard to spot. An
unusually highprofile campaign against organised crime by the party chief
of Chongqing municipality, Bo Xilai, has raised eyebrows. Some speculate
that it is part of a bid by Mr Bo, who is a Politburo member, to whip up
popular support for his promotion to the Politburo's allpowerful
Standing Committee in 2012. But Andrew Nathan of Columbia University in New York does not see this as a challenge to the expected shooin for Xi Jinping, the vice president, as China's next leader, despite Mr Xi's failure last year to garner the
leading military post analysts thought would form part of his grooming. Li
Keqiang, a deputy prime minister, still looks set to take over from Mr Wen
in 2013. Against this backdrop of political stability and economic growth, the most
credible interpretation of the government's recent hard line is that the
forces pushing its leaders towards greater liberalisation at home and
sympathetic engagement with the West are weaker than had been hoped.
Nor is there any sign that the next generation of leaders see their mission
differently. As Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijingbased political analyst, puts
it: "The argument in policymaking circles where reform is concerned is
'how much more authoritarian should we be?' not 'how do we embark on
Tough though the recent sentences of activists have been, they are hardly
out of keeping with the leadership's approach to dissent in recent years.
This has involved giving a bit of leeway to freethinking individuals, but
occasionally punishing those seen as straying too far. Since late last year
two activists have been jailed in an apparent attempt to deter people from
organising the parents of children killed in shoddily built schools during an
earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008.
The coming months are unlikely to see much change. Despite boasting of
their country's resilience in the face of the global economic crisis, China's
leaders still appear jittery. Mr Wen has forecast that 2010 will see "even
greater complexity in the domestic and international situation". China's
security chief, Zhou Yongkang, in a speech published this week said the
task of maintaining social stability "was still extremely onerous".
Some Chinese economists worry out loud that China's massive stimulusspending
might have bought the country only a temporary reprieve.
Bubbles, they fret, are forming in property markets, inflationary pressure
is building up and reforms needed to promote sustained growth (including
measures to promote urbanisation) are not being carried out fast enough.
Occasionally, even the government's worst nightmare is mooted as a
possibility: stagflation. A combination of fastrising
prices and low growth might indeed be enough to send protesters on to the streets.
Abroad, Chinese leaders are struggling to cope with what they feel to be
an accelerated shift in the global balance of power, in China's favour. This
has resulted in what Mr Moses describes as behaviour ranging from
"strutting to outright stumbling". They reacted with oratorical fury in
January, when America announced a $6.4 billion arms deal with Taiwan.
But while pandering to popular nationalism at home, they remain aware of
China's limitations. This week China allowed an American aircraftcarrier
To pay a port call to Hong Kong, just a day before President Obama was due
to defy grim warnings and meet the Dalai Lama in Washington.
Chinese leaders can be confident that the plight of dissidents and the everlouder
grumbles of foreign businessmen over the barriers they face in
China will not keep the world away. From May China will be visited by a
series of foreign leaders going to the World Expo in Shanghai. Among the
first will be France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, much reviled by Chinese
nationalists for his stance on Tibet. China sees the Expo, like the 2008
Beijing Olympics, as a chance to flaunt its strength. But, as Mr Clinton
noted of China in 1999, "a tight grip is actually a sign of a weak hand".