For a country that has accumulated great power and stupendous wealth in recent years, and whose “meritocratic” political system is supposedly leaving democracies in the dust, China’s behavior has been rather odd of late, its regime acting more like a fearful government than an in-group that has the situation well under control. Highly paranoiac and increasingly retributive, President Xi Jinping’s Beijing doesn’t inspire confidence—not among the Chinese people, and not among those who live on China’s “peripheries,” who have taken note of the erosion of liberties that has accompanied this slow descent.
Given its accomplishments over the years, from a booming economy that has lifted millions of people out of poverty to Beijing’s emergence as an indispensable player in global affairs, we’d have assumed that China would have become more self-confident and therefore more willing to accommodate different voices within its society. After all, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has performed rather well on most of the issues that presumably contribute to the legitimization of the party in the eyes of the Chinese people: economy, prestige, and respect.
A more self-assured party that has earned the respect of its people would perhaps even have considered taking the first steps toward political liberalization, a gradual opening up that, while not allowing for pluralism (which remains anathema to the party), could nevertheless have created more space for dissent, civil rights, and the free dissemination of information across society.
But it wasn’t meant to be. Instead, the world’s No. 2 economy has turned in the other direction and threatens to take the country back to an era that most Chinese believed had been buried. Consequently, China is looking increasingly like a police state. Mr. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, while initially welcomed by the public, has acquired the flavor of a witch hunt in which potential opponents of Mr. Xi, real or imagined, are targeted for various “violations” of discipline and law. Given the often contradictory and certainly arbitrary nature of China’s legal system and tax code, the CCP has dirt on practically anyone and can use this pervasive ambiguity to take would-be opponents out of the game.
Whether the campaign has slipped from Mr. Xi’s control and taken on a life of its own, or was indeed designed to eliminate all his opponents, is the object of debate among China watchers. What is certain, however, is that the current environment, in which one can be part of the in-group one day and targeted for various crimes the next, has echoes of Mao’s China or the Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Even more worrying are signs of a hardening against society itself, as exemplified by the new draft Cyber Security Law, a crackdown on bloggers, and the just-passed new National Security Law, whose broad and vague definition of national security promises further restrictions on free speech and even engages in extraterritoriality by imposing “responsibilities” on the people of Taiwan, a country that has its own national security laws.
The recent detention and disappearance of more than 100 human rights activists and lawyers in a nationwide crackdown against what the authorities described as a “major criminal organization” also signals a marked escalation in state repression of civil society. The move, as well as the death of Tenzin Gelek Rinpoche in a Chinese prison, where he was reportedly denied medical treatment for his heart condition, sparked global condemnation. Along with the arrests, his death has sparked protests against various Chinese diplomatic missions overseas, among them the Chinese consulates in New York City and San Francisco.
All of this—the new stricter laws, the crackdown on non-governmental organizations, lawyers, bloggers, web sites, and journalists—is indicative of a government that does not have the situation under control, a situation that is unlikely to be helped by the recent stock market crash. Rarely is authoritarianism a signal of strength; instead, it stems from fear, paranoia, and panic—hardly the “meritocracy” whose merits Daniel A. Bell vaunts in his new, and not uncontroversial, new book The China Model.