As the Chinese government’s clampdown on human rights lawyers and activists in China intensifies, with 233 of them taken into custody since July 10, the international indignation has been countered by apologists of the regime in Beijing who are quite ready to speak on behalf of the 1.3 billion Chinese.
Their response usually consists of a variation on the following theme: “Article X on the intensifying repression across China is ‘interesting,’ but the topic is meaningless to most Chinese people because President Xi Jinping’s campaign against corruption, and his effort to expand China’s international influence, have won a wide support, especially among the grassroots.”
Besides turning criticism of Beijing’s mechanism of repression into a mere object of curiosity (“interesting”), this stance presumes to “know” what ordinary Chinese think of the matter. It is surely not by accident that their views tend to align perfectly with whatever campaign the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has embarked upon. According to this version of the “truth,” the 1.3 billion Chinese are perfectly fine with their freedom of expression being further curtailed, their access to the Internet increasingly limited, bloggers being silenced, magazines being censored or shut down, instant messaging (e.g., WeChat) coming under greater scrutiny, and lawyers and activists being arrested, disappeared, and possibly subjected to harsh interrogation—as long as Xi fights corruption and expands China’s presence internationally.
This maximalist view of what the Chinese people think excludes all other alternatives, such as the possibility that the state could fight corruption without turning the campaign into an instrument by which Xi can rid himself of every possible competitor, real or imagined. Or that China could become more influential abroad without having to limit the space of its citizens via crackdowns, the reinforcement of old Marxist-Leninist-Maoist doctrines at school and in the workplace, and the passage of hugely restrictive (and conveniently vague) national security laws.
Remarkably, the CCP “knows” what the people think without even needing to ask them. The Party is both paternalistic and omniscient—and in that order, most conveniently. It and only it decides what is in the best interest of the Chinese people, and then imposes this over the people’s will. The people want economic growth and a strong China, and only an authoritarian CCP can deliver it; ergo, authoritarianism must continue. The irony behind that logic, of course, is that under the current political environment, anyone who disagrees with the CCP or who crosses Xi tends to end up in jail or to see his or her business interests become the subject of a corruption probe.
This is especially the case when “core interests” (e.g., the integrity of China’s claimed territory) are concerned, a list of preoccupations that the CCP alone gets to define and which is constantly changing. Thus, every single of the 1.3 billion Chinese “believes” that Taiwan is part of China, or that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets in the East China Sea have since time immemorial been part of Chinese territory. Of course they all say that (not that they are asked) because to say otherwise would, under the new National Security Law, constitute a “crime” against the integrity of the state!
This reminds me of a survey conducted a few years ago by the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, which at the time was facing pressure to rationalize the cancellation of VOA radio and TV broadcasts to China. In its survey, the BBG asked ordinary Chinese which sources of information they relied on most to access foreign broadcasts. Needless to say, and given the likelihood that what they said would be found out by the authorities, the Chinese respondents may not have been entirely honest in the answers they provided, as pinpointing which medium was most popular would have pointed a neon-lit arrow for the Chinese censors to focus on.
Therefore, what the CCP and its apologists are telling us isn’t what ordinary Chinese think, but rather what they will say publicly, which are two very different things. One is free will, which under Xi has tended to be caged, while the other is survival and necessary avoidance. Unless the Chinese are a completely different breed of human beings, it is difficult to imagine that they want to live in a country where one is constantly subjected to arbitrary laws that limit people’s ability to express both their hopes and discontent. In fact, the intensifying crackdown and the growing population of those who find themselves behind bars is indicative of a population that, while undoubtedly proud citizens who overwhelmingly welcome the idea of a powerful China, nonetheless desires greater freedoms and more say in how the country runs its affairs.
In his novel Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler described what Soviet authoritarianism did to individual will. The Hungarian author could just as well have been writing about China today. The state, he wrote, “denied [the individual the] capacity to choose between two alternatives—and at the same time it demanded that he should constantly choose the right one. It denied his power to distinguish good and evil—and at the same time spoke pathetically of guilt and treachery.”
Maybe the CCP and its supporters are right, and maybe its repressive policies are widely supported by the Chinese people who will embrace authoritarianism as long as China continues to prosper. But we simply cannot know. What we do know, however, is that if previous authoritarian regimes are any indication, what the state tells us about what its citizens think often says more about its own fears. Until Beijing allows ordinary Chinese to speak freely and without the risk of state retaliation, we should treat its claims about what the Chinese want with a high dose of skepticism.
The author is an employee of the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, a think tank launched by Tsai Ing-wen in 2012. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the institutions with which he is affiliated.