Saturday, March 05, 2005

Censorship and Social Harmony

Two interesting and tangentially related China stories in the New York Times the other day. The first deals with China's rapidly growing gulf between the rich and the poor, and the new Chinese administration's emphasis on the problem. President Hu Jintao has made "building a harmonious society through scientific development" the ideological centerpiece of his policies:
The ideological campaign emphasizes the need to reduce social conflict and take a step back from the pro-growth orientation of previous leadership.
All of this will no doubt be the major topic of discussion at the 2005 National People's Conference, which opens in Beijing this weekend.
"At past meetings, the stress was on fast growth - how many bridges were built, how tall the new buildings are," said Hu Jinguang, a legal scholar at People's University in Beijing who follows the workings of the legislature. "Now the main emphasis is on social well-being and spreading the wealth."

...Delegates will also discuss changing land development laws to make it harder for local governments to seize farmland to build factories, offices, hotels or shopping malls. China now has millions of landless peasants, and their circumstances and growing discontent are not entirely unlike the conditions the Communists exploited to rise to power in 1949.
Questions remain, however, as to whether the proposed changes will occur at the structural level necessary to fundamentally improve the lives of the rural poor and those otherwise left behind in China's booming economy.
"This new leadership is much more concerned with disadvantaged groups," said Hu Xingdou, a management expert at the Beijing Institute of Technology and an outspoken critic of the government. "But they have to consider institutionalizing this stream of thought so it is not just the idea of a benevolent leader."
Moreover, since becoming Party chief, Hu has clamped down on public discourse about such issues, increasing media censorship. Which brings us to story number two, about the ongoing battle between Chinese censors and Chinese internet users.
For many China watchers, the holding of a National People's Congress beginning this weekend is an ideal occasion for gleaning the inner workings of this country's closed political system. For specialists in China's Internet controls, though, the gathering of legislators and top political leaders offers a chance to measure the state of the art of Web censorship.

The authorities set the tone earlier this week, summoning the managers of the country's main Internet providers, major portals and Internet cafe chains and warning them against allowing "subversive content" to appear online.
China's "Great Firewall" is the most sophisticated systems of internet control and censorship in the world. But of course, users will find their way around practically anything.
"What they are doing is a little bit like sticking fingers into the dike," said Stephen Hsu, a physicist at the University of Oregon who formerly developed technologies for allowing ordinary Chinese to avoid government censorship. "Beijing is investing heavily in keeping the lid on, and they've been pretty successful at controlling what appears. But there is always going to be uncontrolled activity around the edges."
The article reports on how the government's efforts to control internet discourse seemed to have paid off after the death of Zhao Ziyang, with little overt discussion on media websites and web forums. Underneath that, however, web surfers used euphemism, mispellings, encryption and so on, to divert government censors. On college campuses, "University bulletin boards lit up with heavy traffic just after Mr. Zhao's death was announced. But for all of the hits on the news item related to his death, virtually no comments were posted, creating a false impression of lack of interest."

It's hard to understand through what logic President Hu arrived at the conclusion that restricting public discussion of problems will somehow lead to greater social harmony - if we don't talk about it, then it doesn't exist, maybe? But Hu has acknowledged these problems exist; addressing these inequalities has been one of the biggest distinctions between his administration and that of and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Does the government fear that if too many of the left-behind are able to give public voice to their discontent, this will somehow lead to greater unrest and chaos? Or, worse: that they will find each other and organize, demand their own power rather than count on a system that has failed them?

Some in China are publicly questioning this logic, advocating that the government stop internet censorship.
"All of the big mistakes made in China since 1949 have had to do with a lack of information," said Guo Liang, an Internet expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "Lower levels of government have come to understand this, and I believe that since the SARS epidemic, upper levels may be beginning to understand this, too."
This, at least, is a reason for optimism in my book: that in today's China, there are "experts" like Guo Liang and Hu Xingdou who feel compelled to speak out and seem unafraid to do so. Twenty or thirty years ago, such frank discussion was pretty much unheard of. Now, as squeamish as the government might be of the notion of "public intellectuals," it seems the intellectuals are helping to create a true "public" discourse, a real dialog between the rulers and the ruled. Maybe, someday soon, the masses will have a voice in this conversation as well.


Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa,

I just came across the following interesting news today. I am not familiar with the sources, either USnewswire or "the leading private intelligence service"~ STRATFOR. What do you think about the below report? I found it inaccurate regarding the current state of China's economy. "Looking ahead, the STRATFOR Decade Forecast for the period 2005-2015 sees China's economic growth continuing to decline" They use the word continuing to decline there shows that they are either biased or plain wrong on their previous 10 years prediction.

"China's Economic Bubble about to Collapse, Experts Warn

3/7/2005 7:01:00 AM


To: National Desk, Business Reporter

Contact: Jason Deal, 512-744-4309, for Stratfor

WASHINGTON, March 7 /U.S. Newswire/ -- China's furious economic growth in recent years has created a bubble economy that is on the verge of collapse, according to Strategic Forecasting Inc. (STRATFOR), a leading private intelligence service.

In its latest Decade Forecast report, STRATFOR says China's economy is already on life support - with an estimated $500 billion in bad debts threatening its banking system, rapidly rising unemployment, rampant government corruption and mismanagement, and foreign investment dwindling.

"Capital flight by Western investors has already begun," the 2005-2015 Decade Forecast notes. Asian investors have been stepping in to fill the gap, "but they will be unable to sustain adequate levels of investment for very long."

The rush of foreign investment in recent years masked the Chinese economy's underlying weaknesses, STRATFOR states, but this will not last. "Already there is dissent forming in the international community and the need for quicker profits is driving companies and investors to look elsewhere."

Looking ahead, the STRATFOR Decade Forecast for the period 2005-2015 sees China's economic growth continuing to decline, leading to an increase in internal tensions, social upheaval and violence, which the central government in Beijing may be unable to control after 2008.

For media inquiries, interview requests, or to receive a media copy of the 2005-2015 Decade Forecast, contact Jason Deal at 512- 744-4309 or via For all other inquiries, including purchase of the Decade Forecast and other special reports, please visit:


/© 2005 U.S. Newswire 202-347-2770/"

Other Lisa said...

Dear JR,

I'm not familiar with STRATFOR, and I would guess from this article that USnewswire is a public relations firm and that this is a press release from STRATFOR.

I'm far from an expert in this area. What I've read is that the Chinese government is very concerned about too rapid growth and that the Chinese economy could be a "bubble" economy that might burst at some point (somewhat like the LA real estate market :) ). 9% plus growth is thought to be unsustainable. So the Chinese government's strategy has been to try and slow the economy deliberately and promote a "soft landing" that will not be terribly disruptive. Certainly there are a lot of documented concerns about the state of the Chinese banking system, and there are scenarios whereby the Chinese economy experiences a "hard landing," which could be extremely disruptive and lead to the kind of unrest mentioned here. I believe the consensus is that the Chinese government is very much aware of this possibility and is working to prevent it.

For a more optimistic take, way down the page somewhere (the post is called "FutureWorld for Dummies") I linked to a CIA-sponsored report about the world in 2020. One of its main points is that both China and India will be huge forces in the global economy and have tremendous political influence that would rival the U.S.

But there are many variables that could affect either of these forecasts - the Chinese government's ability to reform for one. I tend to be somewhat of an optimist, but things like a weakened US economy - the dollar crisis - could also have a huge negative impact on the Chinese economy. We're all in this together, something I wish the current U.S. regime would attempt to grasp...

Anonymous said...


I agree we are in it together. Hopefully mutual beneficial trading and business relationships between countries will prevail. Thru international trade, we are interdependent on each others nowadays in a positive way. An altercation or war between China, Taiwan, Japan and US will be devastating to all countries.

I want to remain optimisitic, but currently there are two opposing groups of conservative thinking right now. One group represents the corporate interests, who prefers engaging China thru trade. The other group is the neocons. To them, business with China ranks low on their priority list. When time is ripe, they want a direct confrontation and conflicts with China. Did you read the article "cornering the dragon"? It was just about that.

Other Lisa said...

Dear JR,

Not sure if I've read "cornering the dragon." Do you have a link?

I think the Neocons have had as much influence as they've had with Bush in part because their agenda does not butt heads all that much with Corporate America (though there are some real fears in corporate America that if Bush continues to alienate people in the rest of the world that this might have a truly negative impact on "Brand America" and corporate profits). Also if the Neocons have a corporate base, it's in oil and defense contractors. So you can sell a war in Iraq to a certain extent.

I think if the Neocons go looking for trouble with China, they are going to run straight into the wall of larger American corporate interests. It's a much harder sell with much greater risks. The economies are so intertwined that turning this into an openly competitive, hostile relationship would seem to me awfully difficult to do.

I'd worry about it if China does something foolish like invade Taiwan, however. That could create a really bad chain of events.

Other Lisa said...

as a p.s., I think another wild card here is the global competition for oil. But I'm hoping for a restoration of common sense in the next American presidential election...