Red lines over China

Because authoritarian regimes respect the power of moral persuasion, they invest heavily in trying to impose a master narrative on the population.  Such master narratives come in many variations, but in all of them the rulers play the part of heroic protectors of the nation and the people, while their opponents are cast as traitors and knaves.

Take the case of China.  Grown too fat and flabby to continue as revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat, the Communist Party has lately assumed the role of father in a Confusian family – upholder of national honor, pillar of economic prosperity, care-giver to earthquake victims.  To attack Communist rule, on this account, is to invite disharmony into the family and chaos into the world.

Protection of the master narrative requires the censor’s red lines – an institution which assumes the information reaching the public can be controlled by the state.  That was certainly true in the twentieth century, heyday of mass media and heroic age of totalitarianism.  The question I’d like to pose is about the effectiveness of drawing red lines in an environment characterized by a flood of information and a rebellious public which talks back to authority:  what I have called the fifth wave.

“Red lines” represent the boundaries of what is permissible in public discussion.  Crossing the red lines – raising taboo subjects – invokes punishment, which can range from moral condemnation to physical attacks, imprisonment, even death.

The actual term is a legacy from print media.  It takes for granted a limited volume of information with item-by-item control from the top.  Yet we have just witnessed the web-savvy public in Tunisia and Egypt overwhelm their censors and trample on the red lines, with explosive political results.  And we can be sure every authoritarian on earth is wondering:  how do I avoid the same fate?

No regime has thrown more money or people at defending the red lines than China’s.  The technical reach and sophistication of the Chinese security apparatus is legendary.  It can block Twitter and hack into Google.  It maintains an “internet police” said to number 40,000 – although, to my knowledge, no one has ever lined them up and counted heads.  Directly or indirectly, the ruling elites command all the country’s mass media.  Control is enforced with old-style communist severity:  journalists and bloggers who stray too far from the official narrative are summarily thrown in prison.

Four subjects are permanently behind the red lines in China:  Taiwan or Tibet independence, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the Falun Gong sect.  Also off limits are attacks on the communist system or the central authorities, though local officials can be criticized with impunity.  In addition to these grand taboos, the apparatus issues “Protocols for Covering Breaking News,” in an attempt to deal with a world which doesn’t always conform to the narrative.  Such protocols can suppress volatile information about Uighur rioters, or stage manage the country’s first manned space flight.  (“I feel good,” astronaut Yang Liwei was quoted as saying.  Here’s how he described that feeling in his autobiography:  “All my organs seemed to break into pieces.”)

Breaking news from Tunisia and Egypt made the Chinese authorities skittish.  They mandated the content of the tame news agency, Xinhua, for all domestic reporting on the subject, yet seemed uneasily aware of the futility of the effort.  “It is strictly forbidden to translate foreign media coverage,” stressed a directive from the apparatus.

Then, on 19 February, a US Chinese-language website called for a “Jasmine revolution” in China modeled on the Arab uprising.  The authors were anonymous, and it still isn’t clear to me whether they were serious or saw the whole thing as a joke.  In any case, they have repeated the call, asking for protesters “to stroll” past specific locations in thirteen Chinese cities – including, for example, a McDonald’s in central Beijing.

The response by the security apparatus qualifies as both tragedy and comedy.  Known dissident lawyers and bloggers have been jailed in a savage crackdown.  Some have been charged with “subversion of state power,” a crime carrying a 10-year prison sentence.  Others have simply disappeared into the maw of state security.  Foreign journalists who turned up at the McDonald’s were attacked by enforcers in plainclothes.

In fact, police ringed with barbed wire the district where the McDonald’s is located, and surrounded in force all the “strolling” sites in the country.  To the virtual red lines against information, they imposed physical red lines on the geography of China’s cities.

In Beijing, a crowd gathered, but nothing like a protest took place.  A week after the protest date, however, it was still impossible to get to the forbidden district around the fast-food restaurant.

We asked them why we couldn’t go forward and they knew why, and they knew we knew why, and they knew that we knew they knew why… but they couldn’t say why. [. . .]

“Come back tomorrow.”

“Is there something going on today?”

“Nothing going on today.  Just come back tomorrow.”

“Not today?”

“No.  It’s not convenient.”


“Because tomorrow is more convenient.”

Meanwhile, “jasmine” was added to the list of blocked search terms – a tough call, since the word appears in a popular song, which Hu Jintao, China’s president, can be found singing online.  Chinese microblogging platform Renren included “jasmine,” but also “today” and “tomorrow” on its own list of tainted words.

The question whether the “great firewall of China” can contain the Chinese public is, in my opinion, an easy one to answer.  It can’t.  As in Tunisia and Egypt, only more so, the public in China has too many digital platforms to express its thoughts and desires.  The world is too full of information which can’t be red-lined at the border.  Much of the agitation for a jasmine revolution happened on Twitter, which is supposedly inaccessible in China – yet the public somehow got the message.  Even Tiananmen Square, the ultimate taboo, gets handled roughly online.  The search block on the date of the massacre, for example, has been outwitted by a post titled “The Truth on 35th May.”

The rise of the Chinese public at the expense of the political authorities need not explode into a revolution.  That may not be what the public wants.  The regime, of course, wants a continuation of the status quo – but by the incessant brandishing of red lines betrays a lack of confidence in the future.

I find it difficult to see how the status quo in China can emerge unchanged, even in the near term.

Red lines are a defensive mechanism:  they signal weakness and fear.  Yet, unlike the convulsed Middle East, China is an economic dynamo, which has been able to lift hundreds of millions of its population out of millennial poverty and into the modern world.  It is a rising power, much envied by other nations.  A puzzling question, then, is why the country’s rulers seem “stuck in panic mode” in response to information they find threatening or disagreeable.

Here is a plausible answer:

A key reason for this paradoxical sense of insecurity, as it has been suggested by many already, is the profound and growing incompatibility between China’s rapidly expanding economy and diversifying society and the essentially unchanged political system and governance structure, which breed corruption and injustice, making social conflicts and tensions worse.

Let me restate the same idea from another perspective.  When they consider the downfall of authoritarianism in Egypt, the Communist Party mandarins ruling China ignore the vast disproportion in wealth and power between the two countries, and tremble over the similarity of  their own frayed narrative to that of the decapitated Egyptian regime.  Red lines, they know, can block search terms like “today” and “tomorrow,” but will not stop the flood of contradictory stuff from sweeping away their control with the passage of time.

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