Failures of Civility and Social Capital in China Now no generalized trust means no loyalty and no moral authority
This is the eighth post in the series on civil society in China now
In the west, the lack of an active civil society is politically worrisome. Civil society is the home of organized disagreement with government but also a home of innovative ideas and the force for change. Without it, democracy is politically adrift.
Rulers can never be certain of the quality of information they get. People lose the sense of community that comes with civility and social capital. There are information and emotional holes in society.
What does a society look like without civility? China is a good example.
Sections following –
Trust and loyalty
Lying- yes to loyalty, but also deceiving for the sake of the task
government run by fear and loyalty
Control the media
Control the students and teachers
Don’t Dare Help Those in Need
Protect doctors against violence, kids against theft
Lying in construction inspection and contractor installation
Lying, cheating, lack of civility
We don’t trust nobody nobody sent
When government can’t trust citizens with moral freedom
Parsing the conundrum
We don’t need no stinking civil society
DeTocqueville saw an immense gap between the family and the government as a source of excessive violence when the French revolution did come. Local problems got sent up the chain to the government, and people lost the ability to solve problems for themselves. People had lost the experience of moderation, of compromise, that necessarily comes from self- governing and self-regulation.
Ci Jiwei makes a similar comment about relations in China in Moral China in the Age of Reform. When government is the primary actor outside the family, then solutions to problems default to something coming from government. Many things then become the government’s problem. Chinese, he says, do not have a sense of freedom as a means to solve problems. If government loses credibility with too many people … well, there be dragons. The Mandate of Heaven is lost.
As Lucian Pye told us, basic civility among strangers and social capital – the ability to trust at a distance – are prerequisites to civil society. What do those failures of trust, of civility and social capital look like now?
Chinese elites are wondering about that. Lack of social trust in modern China could lead to excessive behavior if the police and the army and the chengguan can no longer contain the anger.
Chengguan are the thugs informally employed by governments to intimidate, beat up, and occasionally murder protesters.
The question - could Xi’s dramatic increase in centralization and information control lead to a crisis that would imperil China just as greater centralization brought about the downfall of the French monarchy?
Trust and loyalty
This is fundamentally a question about trust – do people trust the government to generally do the right thing? In the US, we may not trust government but we rely on being able to change it in two years or four. In China, there is no such relief valve.
Trust in China is hard to come by unless you have relationship – why a relationship with someone in government is prized.
Even so, trust remains particular and local. And lying has little meaning outside the circle of trust. Richard Madsen on a different perspective on cheating, or disloyalty -
There are words in Chinese—gong and si—that translate as “public” and “private,” but in the logic of Confucian discourse the distinction between them is completely relative. Once again, according to Fei Xiaotong:
Sacrificing one’s family for oneself, sacrificing one’s clan for one’s family— this formula is an actual fact. Under such a formula what would someone say if you called him si [acting in his private interest]? He would not be able to see it that way, because when he sacrificed his clan, he might have done it for his family, and the way he looks at it, his family is gong [the public interest]. When he sacrificed the nation for the benefit of his small group in the struggle for power, he was also doing it for the public interest [ gong], the public interest of his small group. . . . Gong and si are relative terms; anything within the circle in which one is standing can be called gong.
Richard Madsen. Confucian Conceptions of Civil Society. Chapter 1 in Daniel A. Bell, ed., Confucian Political Ethics, Princeton University Press, 2007. Available at http://assets.press.princeton.edu/chapters/s8573.pdf
Lying- yes to loyalty, but also deceiving for the sake of the task
Plato’s separation of guardians from traders was not simply convenient. The incentives are different and the kinds of lies that are acceptable are different. I discussed this briefly in the previous section Lack of Trust and Lack of Communication. In her book Systems of Survival Jane Jacobs updated and clarified Plato’s separation for modern times.
Commercial morality is distinct from government morality. In commercial life, dissent for the sake of the task is a definition of science and engineering - being innovative. It is the seeking of truth rather than power. Dissent can lead to innovation and starting new businesses.
Being innovative and taking risks is acceptable for traders, less so for guardians. When government guardians become traders, or the practice become widespread, it is impossible to know when someone is telling the truth and when they are deceiving for the sake of their own personal benefit. All of society pays the cost of loss of ability to trust. In China, one need look no further than the well-established lying over GDP data. In 2007 Li Keqiang, now prime minister, noted that official GDP numbers were not to be trusted and he developed his own unofficial index.
Some lies are obviously more critical than others. There are different kinds or levels of lying. John Mearsheimer discusses domestic and international lying in Why Leaders Lie. He first distinguishes truth telling and deception. Under deception he finds lying, spinning, and concealment.
Lying means saying something that the speaker knows to be not true, or intentionally leading a listener to a false conclusion. Concealment is simply not telling certain relevant facts. Spinning is giving facts the most positive spin, downplaying any negative.
All governments deceive their people from time to time. A population develops some expertise in ferreting how much deception and lying and truth telling there is in any one communication.
At some point governments lie to themselves, as with the Chinese GDP data. This lying to oneself is the worst, and it becomes more prevalent with constraints on information and even more prevalent with hubis. It becomes like an ant trying to topple a giant tree – an ancient Chinese saying. One ridiculously overrates one’s own strength.
In the last twenty years dishonesty and concomitant lack of trust are increasingly a problem as China moves beyond village society into a modern economy. With Confucian virtue ethics demoted and CCP become a corrupt oligarchy, there has been no guidepost to morality. So we have judges who base decisions on Party guidance or payoffs, poisonous baby food and restaurant food, factory or construction workers who work for six months and then don’t get paid. Name a violation of trust and one can find it here easily. Xi Jinping has been put in place to correct some of these excesses – to purify CCP and the Chinese people. It is a tough gig.
Following are some examples of how dishonesty, lack of trust and civility leads to the sort of generalized social mistrust feared by CCP.
Item – erasing history You know discussion of some topics is forbidden. The best known are the three T’s – Tian’anmen, Tibet, Taiwan. You can add Hong Kong, Xinjiang, discussion of political difficulties (like purges of CCP officials or the “Three Years of Natural Disasters” that the rest of the world knows as the Great Famine). An old (2013) NYT summary is at On China's State-Sponsored Amnesia. In my own experience, Chinese undergrads know virtually nothing of murders of landlords in the 1950s, the Famine, the Cultural Revolution, Tian’anmen, the Chinese war with Vietnam, or … well, anything that CCP desires to keep hidden. From the summary –
In China, memory deletion is turning the younger generation into selective-memory automatons. Memories of history and the present, yesterday and today are all going through this uniform process of deletion and are being lost without trace.
In 2021, it is the work and physical presence of those movie stars and entertainers who have displeased CCP who have disappeared. Out of sight, out of mind really does work pretty well, as long as one can keep the lid on.
government run by fear and loyalty
Item - You know some of the Great Famine story. In 1959 Mao proclaimed the Great Leap Forward to start industrializing and catch up with the west. A few years of extra effort and China would be on the good socialist path, and farmers and crops were supposed to do their share. Crop predictions were therefore high, even as real production had fallen. Local officials were encouraged by their superiors to promise big crop yields to please Mao. No local official wanted to be seen as disloyal, so reported harvest yields were grossly inflated to meet the predictions. Phantom yields justified paying back loans from the USSR in real grain. No one dared report the truth and 40 to 50 million starved or were killed, easily beating out the USSR’s Holodomor for greatest human-caused mass starvation. This was a problem of lying, more than anything else, lying in fear of Mao. Peng Dehuai, fierce Mao loyalist, modestly questioned the value of the Great Leap Forward at the Lushan Conference in 1959. He was purged, tortured, and died in prison in 1974.
Item – Problems with data continued after the Great Famine. Thomas Rawski and others reported on extraordinarily fanciful GDP statistics in the late 1990s. GDP targets came down from Beijing to province, province to city, city to county and district. At the time, and continuing to about 2010, local and provincial officials were evaluated on the strength of meeting or exceeding the GDP growth targets during their five-year term. If a leader can’t meet GDP goals – well, then he shouldn’t be promoted. This of course made for lying about growth and justified some of the real estate and infrastructure growth in that period. For years the national GDP was less than the sum of GDP as reported by the provinces.
In 2007, Li Keqiang noted that no one believes Chinese GDP data. There is no other comprehensive source of data other than government data. This is more than a publicity problem. It speaks to standardized pattern of lying that makes it difficult to forecast business growth or plan investments. Telling the inconvenient truth is certainly a requirement of civil society, and again, that just doesn’t happen even at the highest levels.
(This is not to say that no data from the government can be trusted. The Chinese Household Income Program (CHIP) does detailed surveys akin to those by the Census Bureau in the US, are comparable over time and no methodology issues seem to have been raised in the literature. Researchers trust this data even as GDP data from the National Bureau of Statistics was – and still is - not trusted.)
Item – Corruption is a byproduct of government run through fear and loyalty. China has always been a relationship society, in which laws and regulations can be treated as guidelines rather than requirements.
The word used for Chinese rule in most of history is Legalism – strict enforcement of clear rules for peasants but personal morality of leaders is irrelevant as long as they serve the state well. People are selfish; ordering the state requires punishment – “To prevent wrongdoings and stop transgressions, nothing is better than making punishments heavy….” (The Book of Lord Shang 17:101c) and “When the people are weak, the state is strong; hence the state that possesses the Way strives to weaken the people” (Shang jun shu 20: 121).
Leaders, however, were understood to have greater comprehension of what is good for the emperor or CCP, and could be given a pass on corrupt behavior. That is part of the reason that CCP maintains its own internal discipline function, completely outside that of the government police and judicial system. There was always understanding that some behavior – payments for access, payments for contracts or a favorable ruling or just … relationship … was not kosher. Nevertheless, it was common and expected. It was how governance was done. It also put people in potentially dangerous positions if a higher level determined that the payments were to be called illegal in this case. There was always the fear known to criminals – that if one of us is found out, we all could be liable. Along with getting projects done there was personal profit – and bonding.
Item - Corruption of investment priorities There are heavy perquisites for CCP members above a certain midlevel position – the best health care, the best schools for kids, food grown on special farms to be free of pesticides or chemical poisons, even filtered air so as to not breathe polluted air in Beijing.
But these individual advantages for a few thousand people are not the corruption that is really a problem.
The overemphasis on the built environment – excess construction of expressway, rail lines, ports, and residential real estate is waste of investment that affects all. Much of the investment from the 2008 stimulus has no chance of payback. Best guesses are there are sixty million empty apartments in China, not decorated and not rentable.
All governments waste considerable money, but the scale of waste in China is astounding. I am less concerned with the stories of “ghost cities” which can be made to be occupied if the government wishes it. I am more concerned with the second, third, and fifth apartments of ordinary Chinese who saw these as investments which would always increase in value. That era is over too, and a large part of consumer wealth – perhaps 80% - is trapped in apartments that will be difficult to sell at a reasonable profit in the next decade. That investment was pushed by local leaders whose performance evaluation had GDP target goals. Its not hard to meet such goals if one simply pushes construction. But that is a corruption of investment priorities, and again, is a form of lying.
Most of the real estate development in China in the last twenty years has been on land taken from farmers. In many deals farmers were given a pittance compared with the value of the land as residential or shopping mall or factory. Farmers did protest – there were tens of thousands of protest incidents each year – but they had little other recourse.
Item – Michael Pettis has long made the argument that GDP data is overstated by the amount of the investment that cannot deliver a return. See his What is GDP in China? and The GDP of Bridges to Nowhere. It is a loss to GDP that goes unrecognized as long as loans are rolled over, changed from loans to bonds, sold to the “bad bank” asset management companies to salvage. In enterprise accounting in the US a loss would be written off and deducted from profits. The loss is recognized at the enterprise scale.
But government spending that produces no return is a loss as well. Those losses to GDP must be as real as the increment to GDP when projects were built. Good examples are the high speed rail lines. Most run at significant operating losses. Expressways are all built as tollways. They can still make operating losses, and many do just that. Those losses just never get recognized. At some point the bank loans for expressways and ports will have to be written off or the Ministry of Finance will have to inject money to pay off the loans. This is in process now – the loans get rolled over again and again – but someday the wheel stops turning.
Related to Pettis’ analysis is the current collapse of confidence in real estate as a store of value. At this point in the market, most purchases are of second or third apartments, which are never occupied and meant as a means of savings. Market analyses and my own observations indicate that roughly a third of apartments are unfinished and unoccupied. In 2014, I discussed the vacancy rate with the China representative of an expensive Italian men’s shoe manufacturer. When he considers putting a store in a shopping mall, what share of the nearby residences are assumed to be occupied by people who might buy his shoes? His answer was 60 to 65% occupancy.
The more dangerous loss is the good share of the 60,000,000 empty apartments that will have to be written off as having no return on investment. Those losses will accrue to individual owners. Roughly 80% of Chinese household wealth is in real estate – right now.
About 30% of Chinese GDP is related to residential construction. That is a very high national share – the US share is about 12%. If the government is going to force a slowdown in residential construction, which is absolutely necessary, it will have a tough time replacing that spending in the economy. As always, that is not just a GDP issue – it is a jobs issue for millions of people. This is clearly a big factor to watch in the next couple of years.
Item – Widespread corruption in society and government is unavoidable in a guanxi culture without rule of law. This is the fundamental flaw of the Xi Jinping anti-corruption campaign. While necessary and popular among people, it fails to address the fundamental causal problems. He is seeking to change a cultural system that has been in place for thousands of years that has operated not only within government, but in every aspect of society.
The cultural system of bribery has its own informal rules. Ling Li writes about a lawyer with grossly inappropriate understanding of the rules in Performing Bribery in China: Guanxi Practice - Corruption with a Human Face.
Good corruption usually involves a warm-up phase before the big gift. The gift should be something for which there could be plausible deniability as to its value or intent. Of course there is always the old standby, of losing at a card game or game of chance like mahjiong. An official who cultivates expertise in calligraphy can always sell a copy of his work. I know of such officials. And of course there are shopping gift cards for the harried briber without time to think of a more personal gift. Sometimes a bribe must be accepted or the briber will claim to lose face, and that would be bad. With Mr. Xi's anti-corruption campaign, sales of luxury products have fallen in China.
Item – In 2006 the Party chief of Shanghai and several others were detained for having misappropriated about $500 million dollars of the Shanghai government pension fund to invest in infrastructure and real estate. That was about one-third of the total assets of the fund at the time. Could this happen in places with a free media and sufficient checks and balances about investing funds? This is a form of institutional lying about the trustworthiness of officials.
It is common for primary school parents to offer inducements to teachers for special attention for their child – an Apple, rather than an apple.
In my own experience, I worked on several urban planning projects in different provinces. I was always surprised at the large size of the consulting fees for planning work. The owners of the consultancy did not seem particularly well-off. I later discovered that about half of the fees were never received, but were siphoned off to the “broker” who procured the contract – guanxi in action.
Item - While Chinese cities could benefit greatly from a property tax, efforts to implement a property tax system have always stalled. A major reason is that too many officials own too many properties which cost could not be justified on a government salary. A New York Times article discussing the wealth of three of the top four CCP leaders, including Xi Jinping is here. Their families have purchases Hong Kong real estate worth more than $51 million in recent years.
One of the reports by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists exposing offshore bank accounts is here. There are many more such stories. And of course, the billion dollar family wealth of Xi Jinping, leader of the anti-corruption campaign. What was that line again? Oh, yes. Luke 4:23 - Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’” Mr. Xi needs some bible instruction.
Item – Intimidate, erase, and disappear The disappearance, erasure and silencing of tennis star Peng Shuai is the news of pre-Beijing Olympic world – though there is no news of her erasure in China. Use of these tactics by CCP to control the population are neither new nor surprising anymore. They are the “lather, rinse, repeat” of stability maintenance. Peng Shuai is not the only woman to be censored and silenced for failure to respect the morality of CCP. A Los Angeles Time article makes the point - They helped Chinese women, workers, the forgotten and dying. Then they disappeared. Wang Jianbing visited dying construction workers. Sophia Huang Xueqin investigated China’s earliest #MeToo cases. Fang Ran wanted to empower factory workers in the south. This year, all three disappeared. By the way, “disappeared” is the term used in China. The formal term is “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location” (RSDL) under which people can be help indefinitely – or disappeared completely while under such surveillance, with no access to family or attorney.
In 2021 it seems the love affair of some Americans and Europeans with CCP is ended. It is still important to hammer home the fundamental difference – CCP remains a Marxist-Leninist oligarchy willing to use any means to remain in power and eliminate dissent. A roundtable discussion with Geremie Barme, the most outstanding China scholar now working, points out how we need to keep in mind the horrifying acts of CCP over the generations. The 90-minute video is well worth watching. (Turn the volume down when China scholar Jerome Cohen from the Council on Foreign Relations asks questions). The scores of millions dead in landlord purges, the Famine, the Cultural Revolution and the ongoing oppression in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and on the streets generally is such common knowledge to us now that we forget the reality. Chinese know little or nothing of these events.
The US is not free of its own terrible history. But “what-aboutism” is no excuse for CCP behavior now. It is not China’s turn to intimidate, erase, and disappear.
There are plenty of other erasure stories, as noted in this piece on control of the MeToo movement. One of the original MeToo stories is from 2015, when five young women activists were detained for weeks for protesting subway harassment in Beijing. Their release provided that they would be monitored for a year. No doubt longer, and we can surmise a similar period of observation now attaches to Peng Shuai. A few other recent prominent disappearances or prison terms are listed here here, including Jack Man and Zhao Wei.
The Council on Foreign Relations has a short post on China's Disappeared: How Beijing Silences Critics. This is a short list of rights lawyers, artists and entrepreneurs – even Zhao Ziyang, former Premier – who were disappeared, some to emerge weeks, months or years later. Some never.
As an aside, there is no better analysis of CCP and China than The China Story at the Australian Center on China in the World at Australian National University. The blog, podcasts, seminars, speaker events and analyses consistently run rings around most American think-tank work.
Control the media
Media control is imperative for any authoritarian state. There can only be one voice of truth, and that comes from the leader. Any other source is to be eliminated. It is untrustworthy. You know about blocking of Google, Bloomberg, YouTube, New York Times, and other western media. (Google, the Times and Bloomberg were blocked in 2012, Google for refusing to turn over names of Hong Kong social media posters to CCP, the Times for exposing the enormous family wealth of prime minister Wen Jiabao, Bloomberg for reporting on the enormous family wealth of Xi Jinping). How Do officials afford those fabulous houses on Causeway Bay on a government salary?
Item – Desmond Shum has roiled CCP with his book Red Roulette: An Insider's Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption and Vengeance in Today's China. For our purposes the story is not the inside scoop on high level corruption, it is the disappearance of Shum’s ex-wife, Whitney Duan in 2017. She was never charged with any crime; the government never acknowledged that they had her. Their 12 year old son had not heard from his mother in four years. Duan telephoned right before the book was scheduled to be published. She had been told to implore Shum to withdraw publication. The NPR interview with Shum is here.
There are many more such disappearance stories – in fact, the media word in China for such events is that someone has been disappeared.
Item - There are tens of thousands of people employed to censor, scrub, and otherwise maintain the Great Firewall from western news. CCP cannot trust the Chinese people with such information.
Every day hundreds of messages go out from the Propaganda Ministry to news editors and website editors across China telling them what to report, what not, what emphasis to give. Perry Link provides an example at ChinaFile -
“Report on the new provincial budget tomorrow, but do not feature it on the front page, make no comparisons to earlier budgets, list no links, and say nothing that might raise questions”; “Downplay stories on Kim Jung-un’s facelift”; and “Allow stories on Deputy Mayor Zhang’s embezzlement but omit the comment boxes.”
(Please note that about ten years ago the translation of xuanchuanbu was changed to “Publicity Department,” a piece of propaganda itself). The lying is in telling people what the news will be, rather than what people think might be important. The best American up to date news on censorship and CCP online media obfuscation is at China Digital Times.
Item – It is useful to get some real idea of the harassment of those seeking the truth. This story was originally in ChinaFile in 2014, updated in Huffington Post in 2017 - This Family Nightmare is the Price of Political Expression in China. This is really worth reading.
Item – The financial troubles of real estate developer Evergrande have shaken markets in China and some trust in CCP as regulator. This is a major problem across China and across many industries, and Chinese are eager for news since much information has been banned. Now ubiquitous messaging system wechat is blocking message groups of people owed money by Evergrande. The intent is to block users from organizing protests and discussing claims. Police have visited some users. The Reuters story is here. “Out of sight, out of mind” will probably work against Chinese citizens as a temporary measure, which is what CCP wants.
Item – In related developments in September 2021, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) announced a joint plan with eight other departments to set up governance rules and a system for information and shopping algorithms in the next three years, to avoid the risk of abuses such as interference in public opinion, attacks on business rivals and harm to netizens' rights and interests.
At the same time algorithm innovation will be encouraged, according to the CAC. "The autonomous and controllable capability of algorithms and intellectual property protection should be promoted," it said.
This is further control of information online, which would be good if it got rid of fake product reviews or unwanted traffic steering mechanisms.
Item – Blogs and social media are often the only way to find out about company personnel changes, regulatory investigations or disappearances.
In October 2021 websites and social media accounts of financial bloggers have been blocked, censored, and removed. This was done to keep information about the Chinese economy from the general public. An extreme energy shortage, coupled with crackdowns on businesses and the failure of real estate companies has shaken business confidence in China, among Chinese and foreigners. Of course the problem of censorship is that lack of information leads to the kind of speculation that the censorship was meant to prevent. In this way, the censorship is a form of lying and another self-licking ice cream cone. From the Financial Times - Financial blogger crackdown leaves China investors scrabbling for data -
One veteran analyst of China’s markets, who asked not to be named, said a lack of information about the country was “absolutely” creating an environment in which miscalculation and misjudgment would become more prevalent.
Item - In April, 2018 CCP announced consolidation of media supervision in a new Voice of China bureau, which is monitored by the xuanchuanbu, the Propaganda Office. All private media, always at least nominally under the thumb of the CCP, is legally now under the fist. These efforts are fundamentally about defeating civil society, any voice other than CCP.
"In order to strengthen the party’s centralized and unified leadership in public opinion work by the media, strengthen the management of publishing activities and develop a prosperous, socialist publishing industry with Chinese characteristics, the responsibilities of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) will be reassigned to the Central Propaganda Department," the party's central committee said in a directive published in state media this week…. Beijing rights activist Hu Jia said the station has been set up with the aim of exporting China's ideology beyond its borders.
"The Voice of China is under the control of the Central Propaganda Department," Hu said. "This is an important tactic on Xi Jinping's part, and a huge weapon in his hands to change the world's opinion of this dictator and his autocratic one-party rule."
Radio Free Asia. China's Central Propaganda Department Takes Over Regulation of All Media, 2018-03-21. At https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/china-propaganda-03212018140841.html
These new rules will ban non-state news, media, and live broadcast sources from reporting on activities and events about politics, the economy, military, diplomacy, and major social issues.
There is speculation that Xi is taking this action directed at both Jack Ma, whose Alibaba now owns the South China Morning Post, and Hu Shuli, founder and publisher of Caixin. Both are private media, and both, particularly Hu, have been critical of senior CCP officials including Xi. Part of the speculation is that Xi has had a fallout with Wang Qishan, possibly over regulation of the finance industry in China. Wang has been Hu’s protector within CCP. Hu Shuli has made vague references to a downfall of Xi and Xi wants vengeance.
Private media activities now banned –
… non-public capital shall not invest in the establishment and operation of news organizations, including but not limited to news agencies, newspapers and periodicals publishing units, radio and television broadcasters, radio and television stations, and Internet news information editing and publishing service agencies; Non-public capital shall not operate the layout, frequency, channels, columns and public accounts of news organizations; Non-public capital shall not engage in live broadcast of activities and events involving politics, economy, military affairs, diplomacy, major society, culture, science and technology, health, education, sports and other relations with political direction, public opinion orientation and value orientation.…. non-public capital may not introduce news released by overseas entities; Non-public capital shall not hold forum summits and awards in the field of news and public opinion.
Seems pretty thorough.
Item – My own experience, not quite news, but informative – In 2015 I had dinner with two groups of my government students from Chicago. They had been back in China for four or five years. At that time it was still possible to have frank one on one conversations with a foreigner – me – but individual expression in a group was always circumspect. Not at this dinner. I was, honestly, shocked at the openness with which these thirty or so midlevels – some of them with quite good positions, from many different departments in Hangzhou and Zhejiang – expressed dissatisfaction with Mr. Xi and his program. It was agreed that a new Cultural Revolution was in the offing.
Now in 2021, it seems they were right. Xi could hardly do better at crushing any semblance of social capital within CCP and within the society. In Xi’s plan to become prima inter pares with Mao and Deng, he seems to be invoking the days before Deng, when Mao was moving toward becoming god-like. Read this description from the time preceding the Cultural Revolution and compare with recent events under Mr. Xi. From Yang Jisheng’s The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution -
Monopolizing Thought and Truth – Newspapers, broadcasting, and news services were all mouthpieces of the CCP Central Committee. Ordinary people were not allowed to learn of events outside China, or any negative news from inside China. Party officials ensured that social science research explained and expounded on official viewpoints and defended official error. Books that diverged from the CCP Central Committee’s views were removed from library shelves, and culture and art became the “cogs and screws” of the great revolutionary apparatus, deifying and extolling the Great Leader and creating a simulacrum of peace and prosperity. Repeated political campaigns forced China’s greatest minds to relinquish their freedom of thought and independent characters. Mao was China’s sole thinker, and Mao Zedong Thought was the guiding ideology of all China’s people. Conditioned to blindly follow directives without understanding the rationale behind them, China’s people became politically ignorant.
Everything old is new again.
Today, the government touts business associations and chambers of commerce as non-profit groups, even though the groups are supported directly by the government. I have friends who work for chambers of commerce in significant provinces and cities. These are substantial organizations, with well-paid staff and outreach to business groups around the world, sponsoring trade missions and conferences. These government NGO, as they are called, do provide services of a sort to members. But the leaders of the organizations don’t know who their members are, or the characteristics of the businesses they represent, beyond some generalities. These are NGO in the general Chinese sense – only that they are businesses that do not directly sell a product to customers. They are units of government in any other sense.
You’ve read about severe constraints on the after school tutoring industry. In education-obsessed China this can only be understood as a tone deaf move by Xi to alleviate the burdens of child rearing by … eliminating after school care?
Item – philanthropy by threat suddenly in this past year several very wealthy individuals have decided to make contributions to charity. Zhang Yiming, founder of TikTok, Colin Huang, founder of online retailer Pinduoduo, Lei Jun, CEO of Xiaomi, and Pony Ma, founder of Tencent have all made large donations. Jack Ma and Alibaba donated 3.2 billion dollars in 2020. All individuals and companies face scrutiny not for illegalities but for their size and business power. CCP cannot tolerate business with too much power locally. More detailed information is in a Forbes article here. This is philanthropy designed to show agreement with CCP priorities. All donors hope the billions will not prove to be empty gestures.
It is important that CCP officials maintain the appearance of probity. This is a part of stability maintenance, since it is not good for power and wealth to be so intimately aligned. More information about the Xi family wealth, now estimated to be valued over one billion dollars, is here .
Control the students and teachers
Control of student thinking and action is not new. The tuanwei Communist Youth League has a mission to educate and mold future CCP members, which it accomplishes by watching and then recommending provisional CCP members. The CYL is comprised of students who are now tasked with monitoring students and teachers for signs of disloyal words or deeds. The negative role of reporting now overshadows the positive role.
Item – Indirect control of students is through the army of internet trolls as described in detail at this Jamestown piece -
A Different Kind of Army: The Militarization of China's Internet Trolls. There are hundreds of thousands of internet commenters in each province in eastern China. these are volunteer positions, but the volunteers are earnest and militant.
Item – I have three accounts of faculty punished for their speech in class – all second hand accounts, but each from faculty within the departments where the offense occurred. Two in Wuhan, at Wuhan University, one of the leading schools in China, and one in Tianjin, at the Business and Financial University. All three were relayed to me at dinners, with only family present.
All three involve a teacher having made relatively innocuous (to us) comments approving of the US or critical of China. In all three cases a student or a planted tuan wei youth league observer reported on something a teacher said in class and the school jiwei discipline inspection officials threatened the teacher. Two lost their jobs; one retained his after pleading on his knees.
The government cannot trust what teachers might say in class.
Many young Chinese – I would not venture to say a majority, but many of those who those who have gone “outside” – understand what is lost. Some of these young Chinese weigh the costs and benefits of thinking for themselves, and find the cost of potential lost opportunities too great. And, of course, foreigners pay little attention. From Yifu Dong, a young writer and recent Yale graduate -
The challenges for Chinese propaganda only get tougher abroad. While Beijing has been effective in mobilizing overseas patriots and networks to quell inharmonious, feeling-hurting voices worldwide, Chinese propaganda itself has had trouble winning over hearts and minds. One reason is that foreigners are not eligible for enlightenment and reeducation in Chinese prisons. Another reason might be that since Chinese propaganda involves Chinese nationalism, foreigners in their right minds will not buy into it because, well, unfortunately they are not Chinese.
Yifu Dong. Reply in China’s Communist Party Takes (Even More) Control of the Media. A ChinaFile Conversation. April 11, 2018. Available at http://www.chinafile.com/conversation/chinas-communist-party-takes-even-more-control-of-media
The environment for freedom has steadily gotten worse since Xi became general Secretary. I mentioned Document No. 9 from 2013 and the Yuan Guiren directives from 2015 and the (apparently serious) admonition to Chinese women to beware of foreign spies.
Do young Chinese find these changes depressing, dangerous, and threatening? Some do. Most are completely unaware of any change in their lives. Baidu, wechat, alipay and didi all still work fine. Chinese students who have been outside now receive repeated “patriotic education” when they return. The appropriate domestic attitude is “What, me worry?” Some of my Chinese students asked me what happened at Tian’anmen. I gave them the three hour video The Gate of Heavenly Peace. But for most Chinese, the picture below would have more relevance than the original. Everyone would ask why there are tanks in the picture, but only very few students in China would have any answer.
Michela Buttignol/New York Times
Still, CCP has lost its moral authority among many ordinary Chinese. Few will openly oppose the regime; the general attitude of many modern Chinese is to simply ignore the CCP, as much as possible. But some modern Chinese know why the New York Times and Bloomberg are blocked in China.
Of course as of October 2021 we’ve seen about 70,000 Hong Kongers fleeing to England or another safe place. For some, the loss of freedoms is too much to bear. I wondered why this photograph, of police removing sitting legislators from the Leg Co (legislative chambers) for promoting democracy did not become iconic.
Item - Minxi Pei China scholar Minxin Pei sees a reason for under-the-radar troubling developments for the CCP, the dramatic changes that makes the CCP vulnerable to its own economic successes.
But repression is yielding diminishing returns for the Party, owing to a third revolutionary development: the dramatic decline in the cost of collective action. Autocracies stay in power if they can divide the population and prevent organized opposition activities. Although the CCP faces no organized opposition today, it confronts virtually organized protest activities on a daily basis.
Minxin Pei. China’s Troubled Bourbons. Project Syndicate Published Wednesday, October 31, 2012. Available at https://uhrp.org/commentary/china%E2%80%99s-troubled-bourbons
Certainly it is more difficult to control the populace now than it was thirty or forty years ago. But I think Minxin Pei doth protest too much. His comments suggest a decline the cost of collective communication. He forgets that there is a dramatic rise in collective monitoring of speech and thought online, and in any case, collective communication is not the same as collective action. The police have clubs and guns and tactics. The people in the street have none of those.
Item – detentions and arrests for bribery This is too common a story to spend much time on. There is a news story almost every day about some government official or bank ceo or large company executive being taken away for his role in bribery.
The 2018 story of Sun Zhengcai is not uncommon. He was a Politburo member and CCP chief in Chongqing. He was found guilty of taking more than 26 million dollars in bribes. This is a Bernie Madoff-type story, but actually a pretty typical story in China now. One of the more egregious stories is here. This is the story of Li Wei and Li Tong, both from the Harbin Electricity Bureau. They accumulated assets worth more than a billion yuan. At one time it may have been good to be the king. Now it can be good to be a corrupt CCP official.
The real question is how he, or anyone, could have gotten away with such bribery for many years with no news investigations, no social media hints, no whistle blower from above or below. A second question is with the sheer prevalence of this sort of activity in China, why does Xi think that his anti-corruption campaign is going to purify CCP? One might think that corruption is built in to the system, and one would be right.
Mr. Xi is trying to sort of bring rule of law to a system that has had a relationship culture for thousands of years in a Party-state that cannot tolerate being subject to rule of law. One might ask Mr. Xi to take some time to reflect on his priorities.
The story for September 24, 2021 is that both the chairman and the CEO of HNA were taken away. HNA has become a giant company, in 2017 ranked 170 on the Fortune 500. In 2021 it declared bankruptcy. One can get an idea of the range of HNA interests from this. In the era of American conglomerates there was usually an attempt at some overall plan, some greater concept that tied diverse businesses together. For HNA, as for many Chinese companies, there is no discernable concept other than the whim of making money, whether for the company or directly for the major individual stockholders.
Control any source of power or authority not CCP
The definition of civil society is that it allows for people to organize to propose alternatives to government policy. We know that CCP will not permit any organization – defined as meetings of four or more people – that do not conform to or agree with CCP policies. You know religion is outlawed unless it is controlled by CCP. It was a shocking development in 2018 that the Pope agreed to let CCP have prior approval of Catholic bishops in China. But there it is. In the same year, Shaolin monks agreed to raise the Chinese flag
for the first time in 1500 years, no doubt under similar pressure.
Don’t Dare Help Those in Need
No wonder, then, that many people in China are dismayed by on the street failures that result in the kinds of stories recounted by Adam Minter in this article: "In China, Don't Dare Help the Elderly." The problem is, at base, the rampant materialism of contemporary Chinese society that has led some people, elderly included, to extort "good Samaritans." Here is an infamous case:
This phenomenon essentially began Nov. 20, 2006, when Xu Shuolan, a 65-year-old woman, fell and broke her hip while attempting to board a bus in Nanjing. Peng Yu, a 26-year-old, was the first to help her. He gave her 200 reminbi and escorted her to the hospital, staying with her until her family arrived. In thanks, Xu sued Peng for 136,419 reminbi, or $18,000, claiming that he was the one who knocked her down.
In one of the best-known, most important Chinese judicial rulings of the last decade, a court decided that Peng owed Xu 45,000 reminbi, or $6,076. The court didn't have any evidence that Peng committed the crime of which he was accused by Xu. But the court, controversially, used the “daily life experience to analyze things” standard and claimed that the aid Peng gave to Xu was sufficient evidence of guilt. It wasn't, as many outraged Chinese at the time felt, a simple act of decency.
That court case has proved to be morally corrosive, creating an incentive for fraud. The judge's presumption, essentially, is that only a guilty person would "help" someone in trouble; aid is an indication of guilt. Thus, if a fraudster can induce a person to come to his or her aid, there is a chance for a payoff. Perverse, to say the least.
Sam Crane. The Continuing Decline of Filiality. Useless Tree blog, at http://uselesstree.typepad.com/useless_tree/2011/09/the-continuing-decline-of-filiality.html SEPTEMBER 09, 2011
Chinese anthropologist Yan Yunxiang has more at The Good Samaritan's new trouble: A study of the changing moral landscape in contemporary China
Confucian reciprocity requires that individuals take others into account. But this concept is under constant threat in China now. There are plenty of similar instances of the “unbearable coldness of being Chinese” as recounted at the Chublic opinion blog –
In 2011, eighteen passers-by turned a blind eye to a dying toddler lying in the middle of the street hemorrhaging after being run over by a van.
Protect doctors against violence, kids against theft
There are many stories of judges, doctors, and nurses subjected to violence for adverse rulings and poor outcomes of treatment.
In one of the more frightening developments in China, it is customary for kindergartens – kids from 3 to 6 years old – to be guarded like prisons against forced entry. There is a wall surrounding the school, perhaps seven feet high. This is not so unusual. But on top of the wall – not always, but I have seen this enough – are four strands of wire – an electric fence. At the main entrance to the school – this is kindergarten, remember – are armed guards with body armor helmets, truncheons, and plastic crowd control shields at the ready.
So one asks, forced entry by whom? The fear is of abducted children. Not by parents embroiled in a divorce, although that happens, but by criminals looking to kidnap children and sell them – not for ransom – the parents are never contacted – but sell them for other purposes. Chinese parents are very protective of their kid even while all are walking down the street.
So kindergartens – at least the government ones - have security like prisons. This fear is on the street in Hangzhou, a major modern city and capital of Zhejiang Province, one of the three or four wealthiest provinces in China; and in Jingzhou, a small city in Hubei Province, in central China. Middle class parents will not let their kids out of their sight, for fear of abduction. In many ways, Chinese feel no safer in their homes or work spaces than Americans do. Nearly every apartment building has bars on windows, up to the third and even fourth floor. Entry doors to apartments are thick, solid slabs of steel; and locks are of a “double locking” type that are impossible to pick and with three point deadbolts – top, side, bottom.
The concept of neighbor watching neighbor can be well developed. Xi is heavily promoting the Fengqiao Experience, a Mao-era terror of neighbor surveillance and accusation. Chinese are as alone in their apartments as any Americans in a high rise building, but now, once outside, they are watched.
The legendary aunties in Chaoyang.
Henry Gao @henrysgao
At the risk of becoming stale, here are a host of incidents that speak to a loss of civility or social capital that is traceable to an inability to trust.
Item – Wang Jianlin is chairman of Dalian Wanda, one of the premier real estate development companies in China. There are Wanda Plaza shopping malls in every city of any consequence. The quality of the malls is high, the stores are not top-tier, but close enough, and perfect for nearly all Chinese shoppers. Wanda recently bought AMC cinemas in the US. The only way to get superb shopping mall locations in every city is to have very good relations with both national and local officials. Zoning problems are not a Wanda problem.
In 2015, Wang gave a short talk at Harvard Business School, about ten minutes. During the talk, he waxed eloquent on his achievements, along the “I built that” line on the way to becoming China’s richest man. This apparently proved to be too much show of hubris, even in a foreign country speaking in English. But more damaging than that were answers to questions. Wang made three mistakes, as far as I can tell. First, he was clear that Wanda had made the money, that he and his staff had worked very hard – and that he therefore would determine where in the world he would invest, whether inside China or out. This flies against the understanding that CCP should always be credited with having provided good policies for investment; and the realpolitik understanding that if the government can make you, it can also break you. Second, he failed to comment negatively on the ability of a small group to delay or defeat an attempt to build in Madrid – Wang failed to comment negatively on the power of free speech and the power of citizen power. Third, and possibly most damaging, was a question about an investment in a Wanda subsidiary from Xi Jinping’s brother in law. The brother in law sold stock in the subsidiary just before it was bought by another company, and the brother in law would have made a lot of money. Most likely, Xi put a lot of pressure on the brother in law to sell early. But the problem for Wang was in admitting that a Xi family member had been an investor at all. It’s not nice to know anything about the dealing of senior CCP family members.
The talk was available on YouTube. Now, Dalian Wanda bank loans have been called in, Wang has been forced to sell properties at huge losses. The long reach of the xuanchuanbu, the Propaganda Office, and the jiwei, the discipline inspection bureau, somehow saw the video. And commerce is still under the thumb of the government, not so different from Ming times.
If you can’t trust the government, who can you trust?
Item – a business friend from Guangzhou delivered a talk in Taiwan, where he made mention of the Cultural Revolution. When he returned to the mainland, he was detained and questioned. He was able to go home, but the long reach of the jiwei office was demonstrated again. No one knows who heard his talk, or what got said to whom. Whom do you trust in business or travel?
Item – It was once common for individual Chinese to talk openly with individual trusted foreigners. Views could be shared that could not be shared in a group setting or in public. Those days are over. The feeling among Chinese is that every communication venue – wechat, weibo, email, certainly speech in restaurants – might be monitored. Chinese are aware of the Wang video, and they are aware of the monitoring done by Offices of Overseas Chinese Affairs of students in the US. They are aware of the kidnappings of Chinese – in some cases, Chinese with foreign passports – to return them to China for interrogation or discipline. They are aware of the threats to family members in China if cooperation is not forthcoming. It is the sound of silence. It is not love it or leave it. It is express your love or perhaps never leave it. Of course you cannot trust a conversation with a foreigner. Someone is listening.
Item – In 2014, Christopher Balding, an economics professor at the Shenzhen branch of Tsinghua, raised significant concerns about what appears to be the murder of Shane Todd, a young American materials scientist working in Singapore, who objected to being forced to illegally transfer technology to Huawei, the Chinese communications company.
After expressing concerns to his family in the US about the illegal use of his work, and with a flight back to the US planned for the next day, Todd was found dead in his apartment. Suicide was given as the cause, but circumstances suggest a struggle and hanging, and the investigation was only perfunctory. Suspicions raised by his family and girlfriend were not resolved.
Item - In 2014, Balding wrote about his own scary experiences after writing negative research on a very large Chinese company.
I can unequivocally state that all this is true and more. Within the past year my office has been broken into, I strongly believe my home has been broken into, there is every indication my phone calls are all listened to, and my computer has been hacked or at the very least targeted.
It began when I wrote a blog post, which has since been taken down due to threats against my personal safety, in which I mentioned some of the activities of a large, powerful, and very influential Chinese company.
In my own very minor case, beginning in December, 2014, one of my personal computers was blocked from internet access completely – no access whatsoever, even in Chinese – for three months, after my online searches for some materials unfavorable to the CCP. This blocking was directed at me personally, since it carried over to other cities. Balding had a similar experience. Balding was told by his university – the Shenzhen campus of Tsinghua, far more prestigious than my own – that the administration would do nothing to protect him from attack by thugs unknown, after lawyers from Beijing and a person from the company flew to Shenzhen to demand Balding’s firing or silence. Of course the government cannot trust foreigners with their notion of the truth.
Item – Revolutions need heroes, real or mythic.
One expects political founding documents to create some sense of Us and some sense of the Other, or else why differentiate one political party from another? One expects some soaring platitudes and lofty ideals.
In the constitution of the Chinese Communist Party, one is struck by a different tone. The historical references are to a China that is oppressed, backward, and under siege from forces internal and external.
For the CCP, which always feels the stresses of foreign intrigue, foreign encirclement, and domestic insurrection, it is necessary to use nationalism as a refuge. Nationalism needs heroes to need to model good behavior for the people, and neither Mao nor any of the current crop of standing committee members are convenient role models right now.
For comparison, the US Declaration of Independence railed against actions by Parliament and King George in the prior few years. As heroes we use George Washington and Lincoln and Patton, and maybe Davy Crockett. None of them get official government promotion like Lei Feng in China.
The CCP has been promoting the short adventures of Lei Feng, a hapless soldier from the 1950s and early 1960s, who is now said to have happily and selflessly performed all his duties and more, in furtherance of China and the Chinese people. Students are exhorted to “Learn from Lei Feng” and March 5 is his national annual commemoration day. Mr. Lei probably did exist, although the evidence for his good deeds is suspect. There are numerous high quality and capture-the-moment photos of the everyday life of Lei Feng, an otherwise unremarkable Chinese soldier from 1955. Mr. Lei is promoted as a combination boy scout and loyal soldier and worker for the people. The Lei Feng museum fails to mention the manner of Mr. Lei’s death. He died when a truck - that he was directing in backing up - hit a telephone pole, which then fell on Mr. Lei. The Lei Feng campaign is a matter of derision among young Chinese. Except for the Lei Feng condoms. Still going strong. Just don’t ask the sperm to back up.
Chinese television generates its own mythic heroes and deeds. A fair proportion of the daily fare on the various CCTV channels consists of historic dramas, covering periods from the Song Dynasty on. Among the most offered are stories about the War of Resistance Against Japan and the simultaneous civil war against the guomindang. There is invariably a cute and well-coiffed young CCP female soldier who undertakes dangerous missions, in full makeup, and occasionally makes the ultimate sacrifice for the people. One cannot trust artists to project a correct notion of the truth. Best to make them state employees or state funded or at least, state censored.
Item - In 2011, the president of Microsoft China admitted to purchasing a PhD for $3,000. It is relatively easy for CCP members in some places to buy university degrees, usually a PhD.
I know a couple of these scholars. They were smart, dedicated students of mine in Chicago. I applauded their pursuit of a PhD when they returned to China. But the circumstances of their Chinese coursework and dissertation were odd. They worked full time, which meant trips around China and sometimes outside, and had kids and parents to take care of as well. And it didn’t seem to take very long to get the degree.
Item - There is a Chinese government agency which confirms the completion of a foreign course of university study. This is used by Chinese companies. The government agency has been found to provide approval stamps for a fee.
Item – In my experience, classroom cheating is more prevalent in China than in the US. I taught three years of students in civil engineering at my school in Hangzhou. Cheating in classwork and exams was well known. I worked hard to control the cheating, with some interesting results detailed elsewhere.
I undertook a project with my business school students to determine just how prevalent the cheating was, and whether it was common at other universities nearby. (One should understand that no Chinese faculty member would dare to undertake such a project. Cheating in school is quite clearly a don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t report, don’t investigate phenomenon. I was able to do this as the foreign expert.) My students did a pretty thorough investigation – interviews with current and past students, interviews with faculty members, interviews of civil engineering students and faculty at other schools. Results were sadly uniform – that not only was cheating prevalent, but faculty chose not to notice, and this was the case at other schools as well. We repeated the project in a second year to see if promised departmental changes were observable. They were not.
Item – Is it fair to cheat the cheaters in the big exam? Some would say Its Not Fair.
One of the biblical commandments, thou shalt not steal, applies to taking what is not properly yours, whether it is money or answers to a test. Cheating is a form of theft, and theft is basically a lie.
Chinese understand these ideas. But the pressures of Chinese life, in business and in school, are akin to survival pressures. Confucian values are abandoned to necessity.
Students go into exams, and business owners go into negotiations, with all the weight of 5000 years of Chinese history, and responsibility to family and ancestors, on the line. To get into the best school possible is the family responsibility of every student. To make the most money and honor for the family is the responsibility of every business owner. You remember Chicago 1968, and “the whole world is watching.” Here, the whole family, the whole village, the whole clan, is watching.
So, it’s not really cheating if it advances the interests of the family. After all, where do one’s loyalties lie? There has to be some loyalty among thieves.
You know the extreme pressure high school students experience in their last year. The entire year is spent in intense studying for the gaokao, truly day and night and weekends. In the zeitgeist, the score on the gaokao determines a kid’s entire future, and the respectability of the family.
In 2013 with stories for years of excessive cheating on the gaokao, a school in Hubei pulled a switch. The test proctors were usually regular classroom teachers of the students in the test. But other teachers were brought in at the last moment, spoiling the ability of some students to cheat with the cooperation or at least complicity of their regular teachers.
Apparently this was unique in Hubei. After the test there was a near riot outside, with parents and students screaming at the gaokao administrators. What were they screaming? “Its not fair. Its not fair if you won't let us cheat.”
Item - Dishonesty shows itself most clearly in plagiarism and theft of intellectual property. Chinese laws, and more important, enforcement of laws, are changing, now that some Chinese companies have their own intellectual property to protect. But in a country that devalues the intangible, intellectual property is near the bottom of what is valued.
A curious IP theft example. Probably the most popular introductory economics textbook in the US is one of the versions of the Gregory Mankiw Principles of Economics. When I was using this book in my classes in China the current version of Principles of Economics retailed in the US for $219.
The publisher licensed a Chinese version, printed in both Chinese and in English, printed in China and with instructor choices about chapters to leave out of the original (American taxation and consumer theory, for example). I used the English version of the 4th edition in my classes in China. This version was a bit dated – nothing on world economic events of 2008 and beyond – but in general this was a good introductory book.
Now the meat. The retail price for the new book was 69 yuan, about $10 at the time. I have no idea what Chinese printing costs would be for hundreds or thousands of newly printed authorized editions; no doubt high speed presses and low labor costs reduce costs significantly. But this was less than 10% of the retail American book price. How to price a book in China?
I noticed something that speaks to the lack of respect for intellectual property in China. There are very few locations in China where one can make photocopies. But there are ways. My university had one student-run copier store, where the price per page for copying was 0.1 yuan per page, the going rate. One could photocopy an entire book without question. The English language version of the authorized textbook, printed by Cengage Learning and licensed in China, was 700 pages.
You do the math. This could be a coincidence. And I dislike quoting Deepak Chopra, but this time it fits - “There are no accidents... there is only some purpose that we haven't yet understood.” As a teacher in China I could trust that few students would actually buy the authorized version of the book. This was standard practice for many other books as well.
Item – construction Visitors cannot fail to be impressed with the durability of buildings and bridges built hundreds of years ago and still in use. That was then and this is now.
Over the years the media inside and outside China have had many stories about construction failures. Some are described in this 2016 Diplomat article The Trouble with Chinese Mega-Projects.
Mega-projects are a concern, but there are many day to day failures. The US has its share of project failures, although these tend to be not design or construction failures but maintenance failures.
Chinese failures tend to be in the construction phase, when inferior materials or lower quality standards are easy to hide. A good short summary is here -
I discuss this more in a later section.
Possibly everyone’s favorite image of failure is this collapse of a building under construction in Shanghai –
There are bridge failures, road failures, the Wenzhou high speed train derailment, ocean sand instead of river sand in high rise construction … these stories are common. Some residential building issues are shown here and others are shown here.
Item - In 2011 two high speed trains collided in Wenzhou. Forty people were killed and almost 200 injured. This terrible accident was the result of human error, but that is not what I want to mention here. It is the government lying that was the source of much citizen outrage. First the government claimed the accident was due to a lightning strike – the accident was an “act of God.” That was quickly shown to be false. Quickly following the accident, government construction excavators were brought to the site attempting to bury the six rail cars, bodies and all, that had fallen off the track by way of covering up evidence. Hard to find a more blatant example of lying and disrespect for the people.
Issues are mostly not in design or engineering. Issues are mostly due to contractor failure, and this can be poor materials, poor workmanship or poor supervision, all aided by failures in construction inspection by an owner, a municipality or an owner’s representative. Notice how few failures there seem to be on satellite launches, high speed rail car production, or high end western hotels. All have tight supervision of work.
Construction inspection, the process that should help ensure quality in materials and processes for buildings and infrastructure, is replete with corruption, either non-inspection, falsified reports, or failure to address problems when noted.
I have some direct information on this. My wife’s brother-in-law and nephew both have been involved in construction inspection for decades. A government inspector must be careful in China, since negative reports on a project favored by a powerful contractor or developer or investor or official could be detrimental to the inspector’s career. The solution is to outsource most inspection to private inspectors, hired by the developer. Reports prepared by the private inspector are then submitted to the developer, who is paying the inspector directly. The conflict of interest is intended. Private inspection reports might be reviewed at some future time by a government inspector, but usually long after the work is advanced. The developer is free to accept, ignore, or demand changes in the private report. Caveat emptor.
In my own experience, I worked in a twelve story high rise building designed for service by four elevators, but the developer chose to save some money and only installed two. The pileups at work startup times, leaving, and lunch time were memorable.
Or sewer lines laid with reverse slope. Or university buildings about fifteen years old with significant structural cracks in walls and foundation settlement (my old university in Hangzhou). No inspection there, or, if so, not of much value. And no warranties or poor workmanship lawsuits.
Items – food, clothing, cosmetics For Chinese, how to know what to buy? Not about Prada bags on the street, but milk and meat and shoes and clothes and automobile tires? One answer, the answer that American libertarians will like, is that Chinese become sharp shoppers. Caveat emptor, all the time. I was puzzled when my Chinese government students in Chicago would go to the grocery store, and spend ten minutes looking at which bottle of milk to buy. Was it a language problem? Not likely. Confusion about fat free, and 1%, and 2%, and whole, and organic? No, those categories are all available in China. And brands and chocolate and soy and yogurt? Possibly. But mostly, the delay and label reading and then comparison of labels was to garner some information, some sense of trust, from the labels and the package. One cannot be too careful. This was necessary in China in 2003, and it is necessary in 2021.
One indicator that Chinese use in grocery stores and housewares stores is odor. I would just never think to try to smell milk, or cheese, or meat in the grocery store. And smelling furniture or clothes seems a bit … unusual. But to the trained nose, smell can convey information about quality and trust. Ultimately, one has to buy. Chinese try to minimize the potential damage.
Another way to minimize damage is to buy foreign brands. For years, I would return to China with a suitcase full of women’s cosmetics, hair products, and vitamins, all special ordered. The same product, at least with the same label, would be available in stores in China, and many of the products were in fact probably legally made in China and shipped to the US. But the purchase in the US was partly economic – still cheaper to buy the product in the US than in China – and partly the lack of fear that comes with products sold in the US. Multiple sources of potential quality assurance, themselves trusted, are the way civil society supports private business in the US. Not to mention the FDA or CPSC, which are civil society organizations even if run by government. There is no Consumer Reports magazine or Kelly’s Green Book in China and certainly no product liability attorneys.
Lying in construction inspection and contractor installation
Item - This is a story about a new university campus development. My school in Hangzhou was building a new campus in Anji, a small city about an hour away from our school. I walked the campus grounds before any work was begun. This was hilly ground, with a couple of small streams and extensive plantings. Very pretty, but needing to be leveled for construction of a score or more university buildings. Anji was very anxious to get the school to locate there, and offered quite a deal. Not only would the land be transferred for free, but Anji would fund all construction with local contractors. Who could turn down a free campus?
When I walked the rolling hills the plans were to have students occupy the buildings nine months later. There were no problems of course with plan approval or permits.
You know about speed in Chinese construction. There are several reasons for how this can work. First, workers live in dorms on the site, are only paid at the end of the project or maybe twice a year, and work six or seven days a week. Second, crews can work through much or all of the night, with or without light. Third, often the contractor is the developer, so changes to plan can be approved quickly. Fourth, some parts of construction that take a long time in the US – particularly HVAC piping and ductwork and fire sprinklers – are seldom part of the work. Fifth, the intense pressure on doing work quickly means not only do workers take shortcuts but no supervisor or inspector is usually able to see what was done before it is covered up.
Completing the campus in nine months would be difficult. To my mind, it would require shortcuts. An excellent way to get a jump on the schedule would be in site preparation. All those hills would need to be leveled and plantings would need to be removed. Excavated trees and bushes take up a lot of room. Where to put them? Foundations need prep work before one can install forms for concrete. One absolutely does not want organics at the bottom of foundation footings. There should be sand or gravel at the bottom, tamped and settled, so the footings and foundations have solid material on which to rest. Since this work must be completed before anything else can be done, it is a good time to take liberties with good construction practice. Tamped sand or gravel at the bottom of the footings? Maybe. Remove all those shrubs and trees and dispose? Maybe some can go into foundations. Pour footings and wait 72 hours for concrete to cure before starting walls and superstructure? That really takes too long. Chinese construction is go, go, go.
Anji was doing all this work for the school for free. Anji is a small city with few building department inspectors and usually they would not be around for this part of the work in any case. Often inspectors are hired privately by the developer and inspectors then submit reports to the local government. That is a good way to speed up construction. Our university did not have any owner’s representative scheduled to come even once a week to the job site to do cursory inspections.
This campus was supposed to be home to a large contingent of German engineering students and their German teachers. We all know the quality of German engineering, and the university would lose face if the campus built for the Germans performed poorly. We knew the quality of our existing university campus construction, and the quality of similar work done at “Chinese speed.”
Question I posed to our university president – is there any incentive whatsoever for Anji to ensure quality of the construction on this project? Anji is bearing all the cost, hiring all the contractors, and taking responsibility for the nine-month schedule.
To pose such a question was impertinence of high order – if I were a Chinese member of the faculty. In my role, I could get away with more. I can’t claim that my letter – circulated among the university administration and Party representatives – had any impact whatsoever. But after my letter, the chairman of the school civil engineering department was assigned to be at Anji every day to do inspections. Six years later, there do not appear to be any structural cracks in floors, walls, or foundations.
Item - Free media is disloyal media to an ideology. In spring of 2021, in one of the more ironic moves by CCP, the Cyberspace Administration released a list of ten stories of “historical nihilism” that should be fought by media, censors, and the police. Essentially this is a list of stories not to report on. The list does not contain terribly important CCP stories, so one can resist a Chico Marx comparison.
But CCP is fierce about controlling its own narrative. Chinese have gone to extraordinary means to commemorate the Tian’anmen massacre of June 4th, 1989. Censors work feverishly to block words and phrases each year around June 4th. China Digital Times has a list of concocted terms blocked in response.
I have a suggestion for Tian’anmen observers – on June 4th, post nothing online. Perhaps announce that nothing is being posted. I wonder how that will be censored. Thousands and thousands of people not saying anything. Talk about disloyalty.
Lying, cheating, lack of civility
On lying and cheating and demonstrating lack of civility there are far too many stories, with new ones every day. A YouTube video on fake products is here. A few other items to consider -
Item - news reporters extort businesses in exchange for not writing negative stories
I have a problem with this one. Why would you trust the reporter to not still write the story?
Item – the familiar melamine added to baby formula from 2008 and after. Thousands of babies sickened, some dead. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Chinese_milk_scandal
Item – used restaurant gutter oil repackaged and sold as new. Who’s going to know, really? https://www.businessinsider.com/chinese-street-vendors-use-gutter-oil-2013-10
Item – fake degrees from Chinese and American universities. Again, who is going to check on that?
Item - fake or plagiarized academic research. Too many examples to list, but here is one -
https://www.codastory.com/waronscience/china-fake-scientific-research/ Might take years to be discovered, if at all.
Item - plagiarized research. Again, many examples -
https://wenr.wes.org/2018/04/the-economy-of-fraud-in-academic-publishing-in-china Again, who is going to find out?
And IP theft is such a non-issue.
Item - fake medicines -
https://supchina.com/2021/03/16/chinese-pharmas-big-problem-counterfeits-fakes-quality-issues/ Sometimes placebos work.
Item - fake traditional Chinese medicine –
Item - fake beauty products –
https://eldivia.com/blogs/anti-aging/chinese-makeup-fake-cosmetics Again on the placebos.
Item – fake or unregulated beauty treatments –
To all of these the government mostly says caveat emptor.
MIT political psychologist Lucian Pye said that modernization shifts the balance of power in favor of society and a sense of freedom, over government and a sense of order. This is a particular problem for CCP and a China exposed continually to ideas of freedom from outside.
Perhaps the only place that feels no need to parse this challenge is North Korea – all property and all lives still belong to the state. But the modern need to achieve both freedom and order is a problem in Chinese society, a problem for which a solution is found in the west in the ability to find dignity in freedom of expression.
Anyone moderately familiar with China and the US can observe the remarkably wide swath of daily life that is absolutely unconnected to politics in the US, and the corresponding intense connection in China. This is particularly an issue now, when Xi Jinping has declared CCP to be at the core of every industry, every teaching, every entertainment.
The party inserts itself at will to preserve a version of order it likes, denying agency – the ability to control one’s life – to individuals.
Item - Recently, the daughter of a friend completed her PhD in history, highly ranked in her top rated school, and applied for a teaching position at a nearby university. In the interviews, and in the rankings, she was ranked number one of the three candidates. By all accounts, she was a lock for the position - academically. In the final ranking, done in a secret process by the university dean and two associates, she came in third. By every available account, this was the fault of the woman – in relying on her excellence and her list of publications, she failed to bribe the dean to secure the job. This was clearly a failure due to corruption – but one also understands this a failure of moral freedom, the freedom to do what is clearly right in favor of an outcome dictated by the higher-up leader. At least two of the final voters in the rankings were simply following the leader, who was taking his instructions from political leaders. The voters did not need to be told what to do. They had already intued the wishes of the leader, and would not deviate, whatever their own views and an objective reality.
More examples in the book section Mystery and Struggle. One involves a student of mine, a highly competent urban planner selected by her colleagues to head a department in Anshan, Liaoning. She was approved and prepared to start her new job when she was cut out by the local party leader, who decided to put his own son into the job. There is no recourse for her. The loss of face in China is shameful.
At my own school in Hangzhou the dean of the business school was arrested, put in jail for seven years in a revenge move by a former party leader now at a different school. By all accounts of the faculty, the charges were a complete fabrication. But once charged, the conviction rate is about 99%.
CCP preserves general order at cost to individuals. In every case the individual loses any agency, any control over their own fate, regardless of circumstance.
There are the innumerable instances of people being “invited to tea,” or arrested or disappeared and the police inviting the detainee to confess. “You know what you did, just tell us.” It is nothing but Kafkaesque. In the case of the dean of our school, selected faculty members were interviewed by the jiwei, the discipline inspection department. Each was given a prepared statement of what the dean was accused of, and all were invited to sign on to the complaint and embellish if they chose. All refused.
We don’t trust nobody nobody sent
This is variation on the old Chicago political rule for someone applying for a job without political connections. A local supervisor didn’t want anyone for a job who had not already been cleared by the alderman or some other political official. Machine politics was something of an honor society. Who do you know, who sent you becomes the first question in an interview. This is a guanxi problem. I think it is not coincidence and not even racist to note that the old Chicago term for one’s political clout, the guy who can make things happen for you, is your Chinaman.
Debin Ma on the application to Chinese governance today -
Even in the contemporary era of reform and open-up, institutional features strikingly reminiscent of a centralized and authoritarian administrative system in traditional Chinese political order - the central appointment of officials, rotating system of bureaucratic posts or decentralized fiscal discretion– are remarkably resilient and even hailed as the institutional foundation behind China’s economic miracle of the last three decades.
Debin Ma. Political Institutions and Long Run Economic Trajectory: Some Lessons from Two Millennia of Chinese Civilization. Center for Economic Policy Research, Discussion Paper Series No. 8791. January, 2012, Page 20. www.cepr.org/pubs/dps/DP8791.asp
Item – Mao on political power, updated
The greatest failure of civil society in China is the authoritarian nature of governance. Civil society is organized opposition, and this cannot be tolerated. Opposition does not come so much from the peasants – they can be held in check. But any leader like Xi has powerful factional opponents. Those opponents constitute the threat to Xi’s rule, and there is no way to legally remove them from office except through criminal charges.
The struggle to retain power is constant. Xi has been very successful at eliminating enemies, but there are always more. Jude Blanchette summarized the future for Xi and China in 2019 - Foreign Policy - 5 Bad Things in China's Future. Blanchette opined that the future could get very dark, and in the resulting two years, that has borne out. Xi deposed security czar Zhou Yongkang in 2015. Prior to that, Zhou opined publicly that maintaining internal stability was extremely onerous. In his last news conference before stepping down in 2012 former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao noted that … We must press ahead with both economic structural reform and political structural reform, in particular reform in the leadership system of our party and country. … (Otherwise) the gains we have made in this area will be lost, new problems that have cropped up in China’s society will not be fundamentally resolved and such a historic tragedy as the Cultural Revolution may happen again.
Wen is seeming prescient too.
Such opposition can be placated, sometimes, but uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, as it is said. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has been welcomed by the people, but he has made many enemies in the process. Per the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (jiwei) from 2012 to May 2021 there have been 3.7 million disciplinary and political sanctions of CCP officials have been punished or imprisoned. A colleague in Tianjin reported on two foiled attempts on Xi’s life prior to 2016. Other attempts are assumed, but one was reported in Chinese online media in September of 2021, in Nanjing in December 2017. Xi has changed the Zhongnanhai security chief three times, which is very unusual.
But in late February and early March, two remarkable documents emerged from China. The first was the essay titled “A Thousand Yes-Men Cannot Equal One Honest Advisor” — available here in Chinese and translated here into English — which appeared on the website of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), China’s powerful anti-corruption watchdog. The essay invoked lessons from Chinese history to warn that without trusted advisors to offer criticism, leaders can make grave mistakes. The second document was an open letter calling for Xi’s resignation, penned by a group describing themselves as “loyal party members.” Chinese police have detained a Chinese journalist connected to the letter. In this ChinaFile conversation, experts discuss the significance of these documents, and what they portend both for Xi’s future and for China.
It appears that Xi will get his third term in 2022 and become president for life, as he wishes. Having made as many enemies as he has, it behooves Xi to remain in power as long as he can. Would you rather be the current leader with enemies or the retired leader with enemies? Willy Lam examined the prospects in a late 2021 Jamestown Foundation article Factional Strife Intensifies as Xi Strives to Consolidate Power. In particular, there seems tension between Xi and current Vice President Wang Qishan. Wang has been the protector of several Shanghai faction officials and most notably Hu Shuli, founder of Caixin.
It is pointed out that as of December, 2021, Xi has not left the country for nearly two years, and the virus may not be the only reason.
Item - In August, 2021, Zhao Wei disappeared. We are accustomed to stories of Chinese disappearing, only to be found months later in prison without ability to contact anyone outside. Zhao Wei is one of China’s best known actresses. Not only did she vanish, but all mentions of her - social media pages, fan pages, searches for films on which she worked, online discussions mentioning her name – all censored. She has been erased as part of Xi’s efforts to purify the Chinese people, along with boy bands deemed too effeminate for Mr. Xi’s muscular authoritarian nationalism and any other cultural attributes of the decadent west. She may have been disappeared because of her association with the Jiang (Zemin) faction within CCP, and Xi is engaged in a most serious power struggle with Zeng Qinghong, leader of that informal group. One can see a rationale for the tax evasion charge against Microsoft in 2014, the Glaxo Smith Klein corruption fine, the humiliation of Jack Ma, the fine of Alibaba, the crackdown on financial businesses and Didi, and the new private media law that may eliminate Caixin as part of this enormous internal political struggle. Lei's Real Talk makes the point – made by many others - that the struggle for power in China is not about winning or losing. It is about life or death, and inevitably Xi has become a dictator for his own survival.
We don’t need no stinking civil society
Like the bandits in Treasure of the Sierra Madre who derided the need for badges, Chinese society has prospered in the absence of – one might say, refusal to – make use of civil society concepts. The question is whether the prosperity can continue in a more modern global world.
Hong Kong is a test case. In 2021, thousands of individuals have fled Hong Kong in the wake of mainland seizure of the institutions of law and government. Businesses have relocated. The independent Apple Daily newspaper was strangled into non-existence. Many civil society organizations, such as labor unions, human rights groups and the Hong Kong Journalists Association, have been forced to disband. Police have used the new national security law to force group leaders to disclose membership and sources of funding. Threats from the police are to personal safety and that of members families.
Will the brain drain and exodus of professionals affect business in Hong Kong? Most foreign businesses seem to be staying at least for now although a survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in May 2021 found about 40% of respondents considering or planning a move.
Robert Neville, the self-described Boston Confucian, comments on this lack of moral freedom. Within Chinese society, within CCP, there are obviously signs of friendship and good government. But Neville sees these as surface form and not substance. There is always the possibility of another agenda. The signs are there, but the meaning behind the signs is ambiguous. When China dams the Mekong River, controlling the flow through Viet Nam and Laos, it is argued that this is done for the good of those foreign friends – the dams will reduce flooding and destruction of river banks. The damming also provides China with an ability to control politics in those countries, by turning the lifeline spigot on or off. So, too, is the argument for government censorship and blocking of internet and news. It is only for the good of society, the children, and harmony.
Robert Cummings Neville. Confucianism as a World Philosophy. Presidential Address for the 8th International Conference on Chinese Philosophy, Beijing, 1993. Journal of Chinese Philosophy 21:1, March, 1994. Available at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1540-6253.1994.tb00454.x
One sees this on the street, and in daily life in China. Chinese are fiercely protective of their personal freedom with strangers, because it is so valuable in an unfamiliar context. Even CCP members are quite cognizant of what is their private affair and what is not.
The result is an aggressiveness that looks like excessive individualism, the pushing and jumping in place and cutthroat competition over meaningless places in line. At the same time, social order is prized. This is a Chinese variation on the schizophrenic American views on speeding in traffic – we want speeders to be caught and punished, but in our own situation, the extenuating circumstances should be accounted for. The contention goes, Americans resolve that tension more easily, because the quantity and quality of moral freedom is not in question. Chinese want to keep the two virtues –freedom and order – separate, as if to preserve the quantity of each in its own dimension. Political domination has been the norm in China for thousands of years. People are accustomed to giving up that freedom, that element of agency, in favor of order. And the conflict is still resolved that way in China now. The grand political bargain proposed, figuratively, by CCP in the 1980s – we will let you get rich, you let us govern – is a reflection of that separation. Individual agency is one thing; social order is another. And ordinary Chinese are unconcerned, unengaged, uninformed about politics and governance. They put it aside as irrelevant. No good can come from engaging with it. Personal freedom is sufficient. Freedom to trust, outside the network, does not exist, and cannot, as long as China remains an honor society. Lenin said that trust is good, but control is better.
Chinese understand this, in government and in business. Outside of a family network or a guanxi network, in the absence of rule of law or moral freedom, control is a necessity. You understand the need to become at least drinking buddies - on more than one occasion - before being able to do business with foreigners.
It is of critical importance to understand that this system, while oppressive of some and depriving all of some moral responsibility, is nevertheless a system that Chinese have put up with for a very long time, particularly since the Enlightenment. To posit that Chinese are itching, waiting, yearning for some spark to burn through imperial occupation, whether by CCP or another dynastic leadership, is to misunderstand fundamentally.
Isaiah Berlin, in Two Concepts of Liberty –
In the end, men choose between ultimate values; they choose as they do, because their life and thought are determined by fundamental moral categories and concepts that are, at any rate over large stretches of time and space, a part of their being and thought and sense of their own identity; part of what make them human.
Isaiah Berlin. Two Concepts of Liberty. Reprinted from Four Essays on Liberty by permission of Oxford University Press, 1959. Available at https://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/tcl/
Chinese culture is more than three thousand years old. Popular elections and freedoms of speech and assembly and press that are expressions of human rights and moral freedom are less than three hundred.
I don’t have a grand conclusion to give you about Chinese civil society under modern authoritarian rule. In the middle of Xi Jinping’s rule, the situation is more fluid than at any time in the last twenty years – CCP destroys entire industries, cracks down on media and real estate, fosters a dangerous nationalism and ham-handedly promotes a three-child policy to help alleviate damage done from forty years of a one-child policy. Even with the firewalls and new media controls, modern Chinese get some news of their own country from outside. And of course there are the disappearances, show trials, murders, extortions, threats and beatings for those who transgress. The dean of our business school has just been released from a seven year prison sentence on a completely trumped up charge. All faculty knew the charges were manufactured by a political opponent who wanted revenge. There is no real defense to government charges. The conviction rate is roughly 99% - a whole new meaning to justice is blind.
In the midst of all, journalist Zhang Zhan is near death on a hunger strike. She was imprisoned in May 2020 for her reporting on early Wuhan mishandling of the coronavirus. From the article –
Like Zhang, at least 10 other press freedom defenders languishing in China’s prisons are at risk of death. These include investigative reporter and RSF World Press Freedom award-winner Huang Qi, Swedish publisher Gui Minhai and Uyghur journalist and Václav Havel Prize and Sakharov Prize recipient Ilham Tohti.
In February 2021, Kunchok Jinpa, a leading source of information about Tibet for foreign media before his arrest in 2013, succumbed to the ill-treatment and torture he was subjected to during his time in prison.
How anyone manages to retain integrity in law, medicine, journalism, or the arts is quite beyond me. To be modern in China now is a Chinese miracle. A Chinese term is 吃苦 chī kǔ eat bitterness. It is an open question whether modern Chinese will retain a taste for this ancient dish.