Most repressive regimes use the total authority they possess like a hammer—midnight arrests, curfews, executions, and the like. While China also utilizes these methods to a large degree, they tend to wield their power more like a scalpel, carefully calibrated to the offender and the offense.
The key to this proportional response comes from the government’s ability to apply direct and indirect pressure on offenders. They use a variety of enforcement methods to ensure cooperation from the subject.
The concept in China is called ruanjian (“soft prison”), perhaps roughly corresponding to house arrest in English. However, ruanjian is far more nuanced than simple house arrest. It can be as simple as an athletic young man in a crew-cut following you wherever you go and sitting in a car outside your house at night, to full-on imprisonment in a small rural cottage, surrounded by bright floodlights and blaring speakers, with no phones or visitors.
The first and most obvious feature of how Chinese government maintains order is through censorship. The Great Firewall of China, Xinhua News, and the censorship of books and publications is merely the most blunt instrument they have in their hands, but far from the only one.
By controlling the flow of information, they possess a strong ability to control the narrative of a given story. While it is not especially difficult to get around the Great Firewall, the question that most Chinese people ask themselves is: “Why bother?” China has successfully cast the media narrative as an “us vs them” situation, where foreign sources are automatically biased against China. The average Chinese person feels little incentive to seek out foreign sources of news for a different point of view. Similarly, despite there being almost no barriers to access, not many Americans actively seek out Al-Jazeera for a second opinon on world affairs.
Most Western media reports focus on the most basic of censorship methods—like blocked searches for sensitive keywords, deletion of blog posts, or media blackouts on certain news items. However, far more insidious than that is the censorship that editors impose upon themselves.
With the Libyan Revolution seemingly nearing its end, it’s worth taking a step back to look at authoritarian regimes around the world. It brings us to the unique question of why some authoritarian regimes can maintain stability for so long, and some collapse.
The maintenance of stability in the Middle East and other countries, such as Russia or Venezuela, depends heavily on one thing: petrodollars. Generous government subsidies funded by oil or gas reserves help keep the population sedated—up to a point, as we can see from the Arab Spring. Others, like Cuba, depend heavily on a cult of personality built around the leader himself. But the largest authoritarian country in the world has neither vast natural resources nor a hypnotically charismatic leader. In fact, the opposite—China is resource poor, and its leaders are famously wooden-faced and stiff.
So how, then, do they maintain social order? Is it through the justness of their social policies? Is it through strong institutions? Or is it though respect for and commitment to their citizens? Anyone at all familiar with China knows that this is not the case.
Niels Bohr once said, “Some subjects are so serious that one can only joke about them.” Certainly, humor is one way in which the Chinese public have chosen to deal with the Wenzhou train collision. I recently wrote an article for ChinaGeeks about the dual catchphrases uttered by ministry of railways spokesman Wang Yongping at a press conference after the Wenzhou train collision. His two phrases—”This is a miracle,” and, “Whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it.”—have been co-opted by the Chinese public and raised to the apotheosis of humor: the Internet meme. But these Internet memes do more than poke fun at the governement—they prolong the public memory of the incident and undermine the government’s credibility.
Yesterday was the seventh day after the Wenzhou railway crash that claimed dozens of lives and rocked the Weibo micro-blogging universe. The seventh day after a death in China is called touqi (头七) and is an important milestone of mourning. All across China, instead of paying respects to the lives lost on July 23, netizens were venting their fury at a system hellbent on burying all the facts under a mountain of oppression and obfuscation.
Back in the 1990s, China stopped publishing official annual statistics on mental illness and suicide. The escalating numbers were too disheartening. This year, the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that 100 million Chinese are living with some form of debilitating mental illness, and that some 287,000 will commit suicide this year alone.
It seems that the seeds of the Jasmine Flower, the symbol of the Tunisian Revolution, have spread beyond the borders of the Middle East, wafting through the air and touching down in the Far East.
In Beijing on Sunday anonymous calls for protest sent across social media and micro-blogging sites resulted in a demonstration outside a McDonalds in the busy downtown shopping district of Wangfujing. By 2PM hundreds of police were on scene. 25-year-old Liu Xiaobai was apprehended for placing a jasmine flower in a planter in front of the McDonalds but was released after the commotion drew attention from photographers and journalists.
The world portrayed in China’s official media has a certain disconnect to reality. Hence the joke from ordinary Chinese: “When can my life resemble the one on CCTV”? Recently President Hu visited a woman in Beijing who said that she paid just 77 yuan in rent per month for low-income housing. Netizens immediately smelled foul play. They postulated that she was a public servant and had gotten the apartment through political connections. In all likelihood the woman really did qualify for low-income housing but the story shows how little credibility official media has among the tech-savvy middle class and how harshly the utopian world it portrays deviates from the daily life of most Chinese.
The day after Ai Weiwei’s Shanghai studio was demolished, my morning mobile phone newspaper opened with the following piece entitled “National Public Relations”:
Yesterday morning in Kunming, two buses exploded, killing two people and injuring fourteen. The attacks occurred on the same bus route, spaced sixty-five minutes apart, at 7:05 and 8:10 a.m. What’s clear is that the attacks were planned; what’s unclear is by whom and to what end.