Of the COVID-19 protest slogans that have emerged across China since last month, the most eye-catching have been “Chinese Communist Party, step down” and “Xi Jinping, step down,” which were chanted by young people in Shanghai. Later, these chants spread all over the world. For the first time, a large number of Chinese protesters collectively chanted slogans requesting the sole ruling party and its top leader resign. Not even 1989, the year of China’s pro-democracy movement, witnessed such influential political appeals, let alone the two decades of mercantilism following the Tiananmen crackdown, or the ensuing decade of renewed ideology after Xi took power.
Given the Chinese government’s severe restrictions on freedom of expression, the emergence of such slogans is surprising, even considering the wide distaste for COVID-19 lockdowns and the strong reaction to the aftermath of the fire in Urumqi. Why are so many Chinese suddenly daring to shout slogans calling for regime change and the ousting of the paramount leader in a society where censorship is deeply rooted?
My answer is this: Xi and his party have fallen into a censorship trap. In a one-man dictatorship that fails to completely block the free flow of information, the more precisely targeted at the dictator an allegedly inflammatory speech is, the less likely the dictator is to hear it. In the process of handling political speech, the censoring authorities need to distinguish dictator-related speech from other forms of subversive speech and withhold the former from the dictator. Thus, the risk of extreme punishment for those making that collective statement is reduced.
In a censorship trap, the information a dictator has access to is censored by his subordinates. It is not new for a dictator to live in – and believe in – a lie woven by those around him. Yuan Shikai, the first president of the Republic of China who made up his mind to proclaim himself emperor in 1916, read fake newspapers every day that were produced by people around him, including his son. All the “news” – including claims that the people all wanted Yuan to be their emperor – were fabricated in order to make him happy. After all, when a dictator is unhappy, the first to suffer are the people around him.
A faint echo of this historical episode reoccurred at the G-20 summit in Indonesia last month. When Xi reprimanded Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the translators around Xi did not dare to communicate Trudeau’s reply concerning information transparency in Canada to Xi. Instead, the translator offered a brief summary. What he conveyed to Xi on behalf of Trudeau sounded like “Okay, I will do it,” when, in fact, the Canadian leader had pushed back on criticism from Xi.
From this point of view, it is doubtful whether Xi can immediately access information such as those protest slogans demanding his resignation. Conveying this message to Xi would mean acknowledging that previous ideological propaganda efforts made by his subordinates, including efforts to legitimize Xi’s prolonged tenure, have largely failed. At a time when Xi is monopolizing power, it’s easy to imagine that his cronies are submissive flatterers, who keep telling him that the Chinese people all endorse his life tenure. Beyond transmitting the protesters’ requests to lift the lockdown, who dares to report to Xi: “the people’s real political demand is that you step down”?
Xi’s subsequent reaction to the protests largely bears this out. He told European Council President Charles Michel that the protests broke out because “students were frustrated.” Such a sympathetic and lenient comment from Xi toward those who demanded his resignation would be incredible if he had really received those messages.
In China’s earlier scenario of collective oligarchy, if protesters put forward a slogan requesting that the Communist Party relinquish power, the top authorities would have immediately known about and responded strongly to this political appeal; ruthless suppression would have been the immediate reaction. However, after Xi eliminated other political factions within the party, the collective ship of the Communist Party has become Xi’s personal boat. When Xi’s subordinates report any emergency to him, they would put themselves on an equal footing with Xi if they still used the approach of “our party.” Instead, they must think and act from a framing of “your party.” However, reporting to Xi explicitly that the people want “your party” to step down would be just as inconceivable as asking Xi himself to step down.
For that reason, Xi cannot always make his own decisions. For example, he cannot decide to impose the most thorough and ruthless suppression of the most “subversive” speech, because that speech is never relayed to him. Although the censorship machine still runs, its direct goal is to try not to offend the highest leader with subversive remarks – because doing so would make Xi doubt the ability of those around him.
This has produced a predicament. For the censorship machine, speech is subversive as long as it is based on independent thinking. For ordinary protesters, however, even a compliment can be subversive. After all, at all the plenary party congresses and people’s congresses in China, only the top leader occupies the longest speaking time in front of the camera. It was clear during these events that everyone else was unhappy. Everyone knows that others are unhappy. Everyone knows that everyone else knows that everyone is unhappy. But no one will say it. When asked to speak, everyone seemed passionate about every tiresome and tiny detail of something that didn’t matter, since all the important decisions bypass formal bodies and are made through non-transparent political means.
In this censorship trap, more people should stand up and support the demands of the Chinese people. Only in this way can the risks of those protesters in China be minimized. Many overseas young Chinese who stood up in support of the protests abandoned their usually detached and sufficiently sophisticated approach. This is because they realized that, in the face of such a post-COVID-19 totalitarian rule, they could no longer remain neutral and stay out of it.
Alexis de Tocqueville, when addressing the French National Assembly in 1848, said: “I believe that we are sleeping on top of a volcano; I am deeply convinced of this.” Although real change in China may not yet be around the corner, China’s historical development is bound to come to a Tocquevillean moment of profound social transition. The dictators’ censorship trap will only hasten the advent of this moment.