Monday, May 10, 2010


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

Westernstyle democracy?'"

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".

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