Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

China and its transition imperatives 15: Xi Jinping’s emerging resolution to the challenge of leadership 3

Posted in macroeconomics by Timothy Platt on February 7, 2015

This is my 17th installment to a new series on China and its recent Party and government leadership transition, looking back over the past two years and more since that formally and officially took place and to now and China’s current situation, and forward. See Macroeconomics and Business, postings 154 and loosely following for Parts 1-12 and for a supplemental posting: Part 12.5. And see Page 2 to that directory for a second, continuation supplement Part 12.6 and for Parts 13 and 14.)

China and its one ruling Party and government see their peoples in all of their diversity and in all of their vast numbers as their greatest source of strength. As a simple and I add obvious point in that regard, the most senior leadership of China as embodied in their Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee have used the offer of opening up the largest single managed marketplace in the world to outside businesses and to the governments of countries that they are based in, but only if those businesses and their governments make specific and far reaching concessions as to technology transfer into China, and in developing China-based production of foreign-designed products. These businesses and their governments have agreed to those terms in exchange for promised access to these markets, with all of the consumer demand and buying power that this would give them access to. Whether or not Chinese governmental and legal systems have honored the terms of these agreements and in the manner that their foreign business partners would expect and understand to be in place, and on the basis of contracts formally entered into is another matter. But for purposes of this discussion, the prospect of being able to market and sell to this vast new marketplace has been compellingly powerful and the leadership of China knows that. And they know where the impetus that drives opportunity for China on its side of these agreements, comes from – their teaming masses.

China and its one ruling Party and government see their peoples in all of their diversity and in all of their vast numbers as their greatest source of danger and risk, and with this more cautionary side to how they view their population, arising from multiple directions. They have squeezed hard to keep everyone in line and to mask and tamp down any signs, no matter how faint of dissent. And the more they do so, the more they see need to do so. I have written about this many times in the course of assembling this blog, as for example when I write of how their one-child policy has created friction and threat of dissent – and how Party and government have responded to this. That policy is now, as of this writing officially gone. But unrest and distrust in government and Party policy and its implementation, and in the lack of fairness and equality in how policy is set and carried out have created potential for unrest and even open protest on multiple issues. An obvious example there, comes from the levels of environmental pollution that China faces and both in its urban and rural settings with undeniable degradation to water and air quality and across so much of the country. When drinking water and the water that is needed for local agriculture is so polluted that people are afraid to use it, even as they are forced to do so for lack of alternatives, And when the air itself, and even in Beijing is so polluted that on even a (relatively speaking) lower air pollution day, for measured parts per million levels of contaminants, visibility is markedly reduced as if with fog, that cannot be hidden by slogans or censorship. The growing have and have-not divides within China with their favored super-rich and all else has to be at least mentioned here too. And I have only touched in this on a few of the key touch point issues that China’s leadership see as causes for public unrest and for challenge to them.

China’s leadership sees their people as their greatest strength, but they at least as strongly see those same people as their greatest threat too. And the key to tipping the balance towards stability and control in this is in managing and controlling information and who can know what. As long as the people of individual communities see themselves as alone and even unique in having problems and challenges, they cannot act in concert, and for their perceived aloneness in this they are that much less likely to speak out at all, let alone act out. But even there, there is always unrest and the potential for unrest boiling just below the surface, and whether this means discord and a sense of injustice coming from local Party officials as they apply the law to meet their own personal ends, or unrest over unequitable and unjust land seizure to enrich the politically connected, or unrest over pollution or population control policies and how they are unevenly applied that I write of here. As a quick example of the later, even when the one child policy was fully in force, at least according to the letter of the law a family could have a second child if their first died young. But local Party officials generally denied this and enforced the administration of unwanted abortions when the family involved was a member of a religious organization or any other group that was seen as challenging absolute Party control – or the personal will of those locally in Party-backed control.

The key to limiting this risk and particularly as the Chinese people have become more widely connected through the internet and cell phones, has been their Golden Shield Project, or Great Firewall of China as it is more commonly known in the West (see in particular my series: The China Conundrum and its Implications for International Cyber-Security at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time, postings 69 and loosely following for Parts 1-23 for a more in-depth discussion of this.)

And as I have discussed in some detail, this firewall against the sharing and exchange of information within China has traditionally been very porous and in multiple ways:

• The proliferation of cell phones and particularly of smart phones that can take pictures and sound recordings and upload them to the internet, and the equally explosive proliferation of social media use in China, and by both urban and rural peoples,
• Means that when someone sees something, and particularly something that would catch wider interest (e.g. the misdoings of the politically connected and rich, or overt consequences of environmental pollution that would harm the general public of a village area but that is allowed to continue unabated by local party officials because of who is causing it),
• They can and do post that online.
• And because everyone in China knows of the Golden Shield Project censors, they know that this type of content will be identified as politically threatening and taken off-line very quickly so they share it as rapidly as they can through their social media networks, making what the Party would see as dangerous news go viral, and if only briefly for any one story, then widely and persistently as old and deleted is replaced with new and yet to be deleted.
• And with that in mind, I turn to consider the Golden Shield Project system of censors and censorship itself as a perhaps fatal source of porosity to this system, and certainly long-term. This system is incredibly labor-intensive with hundreds of thousands of people scanning, evaluating, and blocking or permitting online content, and of all sorts. That means hundreds of thousands of primarily younger people who are highly computer and internet literate looking for and seeing as much politically threatening news content as they can find, and both as this arrives from the outside through foreign news sources, and from foreign social media and other general-public content. And this means those same hundreds of thousands of bright young minds seeing the full flood of potentially and actively politically threatening news and information that arises from inside of China too, and that their own people see as so compelling that they would take the risk to actively seek to bring it to wider attention. Quite simply, the more successful this project is in finding news and opinions that are potentially threatening to China’s one Party system and their political order, the more these bright young minds see and absorb and remember that could sway and even radicalize them.
• The Golden Shield Project can perhaps best be seen as a short-term information and news containment effort,
• That can only have longer-term destabilizing consequences from all of the people in it
• Who learn more systematically than anyone else in China could ever have opportunity to, of the fuller story that all of this censored news and social media sharing has to say.

And this brings me to Xi Jinping’s recent systematic efforts to strengthen this Great Firewall and to further limit and control the flow of news, opinion and insight that reaches his country’s people and both from the outside, and perhaps even more importantly from within China and from his own people. The number of Golden Shield Project censors has been increased and the level of control and oversight that they work under on this has been increased. The rules as to what can and cannot be allowed online for public consumption within China have been tightened. And a great deal of effort has been made to shorten the time that disallowed information that gets online, can stay visible there before it is taken down. Penalties for posting what Party and state would see as inappropriate online postings have been increased and have been more actively applied with more rapid and vigorous prosecutions of those deemed to be offenders there. Xi Jinping and his Party and government are squeezing that much harder. And as unrest in smaller communities and among challenged minorities (e.g. the Uyghurs and ethnic Tibetans) and now in Hong Kong show that the people of China can and at times do push back (see Part 12.5 and Part 12.6 of this series for a discussion of recent, as of this writing events in Hong Kong).

I am going to continue this with a discussion of how China seeks to influence and even control the outside conversation and what is said about China and its one Party system, in a next series installment. And I will then discuss in that context, how foreign news organizations and at least by outward appearance foreign governments see Xi as following more of a “next in standard succession” approach to supreme leadership in China, missing how he in fact seeks to break and replace that seemingly cookie-cutter standardized mold. Then after that I will reconsider how wide-ranging and far-reaching Deng’s reforms actually were, in opening up China and in creating a climate where private enterprise can survive and thrive – and how his short-term oriented reforms built a foundation for long-term and system-threatening reform pressures to come. And in that context I raise here and will discuss in some detail, the specter of a new generation of young and upcoming entrepreneurs from throughout China who are on a collision course with the old top-down authoritarian vision of power that Xi seems to be following as a continuation of China’s past. And on a more macro-scale I will also discuss the unavoidable implications and consequences of China’s burgeoning economic enterprise zone cities. With these topic threads I very definitely will address the “and forward” clause of my lead-in text at the start of my installments to this series.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Macroeconomics and Business and its Page 2 continuation. (And given the fast-paced transition phase change going on in China now, I note here that I have written this posting on November 16, 2014 to go live in early February so emerging events might overtake parts of it.)

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