China’s public security apparatus and all its friends in the propaganda and censorship departments must be exhausted – I know that I am exhausted just trying to keep up with them. Within the past month, they’ve had to figure out what to do about a blind political activist who escaped from illegal house arrest and traveled hundreds of miles to Beijing to take refuge in the American Embassy. They’ve had to keep an eye on 300 million Chinese micro-bloggers to determine who might have crossed a line here or there as the weibosphere has gone nuts over tales of leadership corruption and Chen Guangcheng’s harrowing journey. And they have had to keep watch over all those pesky foreign journalists who have had the temerity to practice actual journalism. Then, of course, there is the 800 pound gorilla – mapping out a strategy for managing the investigation and subsequent trials of former Politburo member Bo Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai, who have been charged with “serious disciplinary infractions” and murder respectively.
But with all of this effort, what have they really achieved? No doubt those whose job it is to block and stop have a lot of resources at their disposal – chief among them is an internal security budget that exceeds the country’s defense budget. When they tell China’s Internet providers to shut down a micro-blog or two, the servers do it. One popular micro-blogger, whose account was blocked in recent weeks, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post [paywall], “The closure was not carried out by Sina.com voluntarily…but I am not shocked by the decision, given that anything can happen in the country.” Whatever the intention behind closing down his blog, clearly he hasn’t been deterred from speaking out.
The security apparatus also helped take care of one foreign journalist, Melissa Chan, by blocking the renewal of her visa; it’s not clear whether this came as a result of her work or the reporting by some of her Al-Jazeera colleagues. Whatever the case, China pays a stiff price for this kind of behavior. It’s tough to promote your soft power when you don’t let people into your country to write about you.
The toughest nut, however, has yet to be cracked: how to be transparent about the extraordinary situation surrounding Bo and his family, to contain the situation so there isn’t further fallout within the leadership, and to persuade everyone in and outside China that the transition to the next generation is proceeding as planned. So far, the only whisper of a strategy is proclaiming the Bo case a triumph of the rule of law in China and rumors that the Party Congress is going to be delayed by several months. (These rumors, themselves, however, have been proclaimed by Chinese news outlets to be without merit and the work of “overseas hostile elements” with “ulterior motives” who want “publicity.”)
A job maintaining control in China isn’t for the faint of heart. And it seems that even with all the time, money, and effort they expend to keep the dam from breaking, they are like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke. The pressure behind the Great Wall just keeps mounting. All those people, all their interests, and all their voices just won’t stop coming.
Elizabeth C. Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations and author of the award-winning book, 'The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future.' She blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.