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China’s Great Leap Backward


The Atlantic, December 2016.

What if china is going bad? Since early last year I have been asking people inside and outside China versions of this question. By “bad” I don’t mean morally. Moral and ethical factors obviously matter in foreign policy, but I’m talking about something different.

Nor is the question mainly about economics, although for China the short-term stability and long-term improvement of jobs, wages, and living standards are fundamental to the government’s survival. Under China’s single-party Communist arrangement, sustained economic failure would naturally raise questions about the system as a whole, as it did in the Soviet Union. True, modern China’s economic performance even during its slowdowns is like the Soviet Union’s during its booms. But the absence of a political outlet for dissatisfaction is similar.

Instead the question is whether something basic has changed in the direction of China’s evolution, and whether the United States needs to reconsider its China policy. For the more than 40 years since the historic Nixon-Mao meetings of the early 1970s, that policy has been surprisingly stable. From one administration to the next, it has been built on these same elements: ever greater engagement with China; steady encouragement of its modernization and growth; forthright disagreement where the two countries’ economic interests or political values clash; and a calculation that Cold War–style hostility would be far more damaging than the difficult, imperfect partnership the two countries have maintained.

That policy survived its greatest strain, the brutal Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989. It survived China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 and the enormous increase in China’s trade surpluses with the United States and everywhere else thereafter. It survived the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 (an act assumed to be intentional by every Chinese person I’ve ever discussed it with), periodic presidential decisions to sell arms to Taiwan or meet with the Dalai Lama, and clashes over censorship and human rights.

The eight presidents who have managed U.S. dealings with modern China, Nixon through Obama, have essentially drawn from the same playbook. The situation could be different for the ninth. The China of 2016 is much more controlled and repressive than the China of five years ago, or even 10. I was living there at both of those earlier times—in Shanghai in 2006 and in Beijing five years later—and have seen the change firsthand. Given the chaotic contradictions of modern China, what any one person sees can be an exception. What strikes me is the consistency of evidence showing a country that is cracking down, closing up, and lashing out in ways different from its course in the previous 30-plus years.

The next president, then, will face that great cliché, a challenge that is also an opportunity. The challenge is several years of discouraging developments out of China: internal repression, external truculence, a seeming indifference to the partnership part of the U.S.-China relationship. The opportunity is to set out the terms of a new relationship at the very moment when it is most likely to command China’s attention: at the start of a new administration.

You can tell which issues a new administration takes seriously and considers crucial to its political and substantive success. The president gives a major policy speech; big thinkers write essays; Cabinet departments roll out implementation plans; budget decisions follow. That’s the kind of effort I hope to see early next year. I can report that across the world of China scholars and policy veterans, people are already thinking hard about what should be in such a speech.

Dealing with China is inescapable. It is becoming more difficult, and might get harder still.

Why does china need to be high on the new president’s priority list? Because an important assumption has changed.

In both word and deed, U.S. presidents from Nixon onward have emphasized support for China’s continued economic emergence, on the theory that a getting-richer China is better for all concerned than a staying-poor one, even if this means that the center of the world economy will move toward China. In one of his conversations with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Barack Obama said, “I’ve been very explicit in saying that we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.”

Underlying this strategic assessment was an assumption about the likely direction of China’s development. This was not the simplistic faith that if China became richer, it would turn into a liberal democracy. No one knows whether or when that might occur—or whether China will in fact keep prospering. Instead the assumption was that year by year, the distance between practices in China and those in other developed countries would shrink, and China would become easier rather than harder to deal with. More of its travelers and students and investors and families would have direct connections with the rest of the world. More of its people would have vacationed in France, studied in California, or used the internet outside China, and would come to expect similar latitude of choice at home. Time would be on the world’s side in deepening ties with Chinese institutions.

For a long period, the assumption held. Despite the ups and downs, the China of 2010 was undeniably richer and freer than the China of 2005, which was richer and freer than the China of 2000, and so on.

But that’s no longer true. Here are the areas that together indicate a turn:

Communications. China’s internet, always censored and firewalled, is now even more strictly separated from the rest of the world’s than ever before, and becoming more so. China’s own internet companies (Baidu as a search engine rather than Google, WeChat for Twitter) are more heavily censored. Virtual private networks and other work-arounds, tolerated a decade ago—the academic who invented China’s “Great Firewall” system of censorship even bragged about the six VPNs he used to keep up on foreign developments—are now under governmental assault. When you find a network that works, you dare not mention its name on social media or on a website that could alert the government to its existence. “It’s an endless cat-and-mouse,” the founder of a California-based VPN company, which I’m deliberately not identifying, recently told me. “We figure out a new route or patch, and then they notice that people are using us and they figure out how to block it. Eventually they wear most users down.” On a multiweek visit to China early last year, I switched among three VPNs and was able to reach most international sites using my hotel-room Wi-Fi. On a several-day visit last December, the hassle of making connections was not worth it, and I just did without Western news sources.China’s print and broadcast media have always been state-controlled and pro-government. But a decade ago I heard from academics and party officials that “reasonable” criticism from the press actually had an important safety-valve function, as did online commentary, in alerting the government to emerging problem spots.

The political climate is darkening. “China is experiencing the most sustained domestic political crackdown since Tiananmen Square.”

Those days are gone. Every week or two the Chinese press carries warnings, more and more explicit, by President Xi Jinping and his colleagues that dissent is not permissible and the party’s interests come first. Also this year, the government banned foreign-owned media—that is, all media beyond its direct control—from publishing anything in China without government approval. It cracked down on several publications (notably the business magazine Caixin and the Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekend) that for years had mastered the art of skirting government controls.

This past February The Guardian ran a poignant piece about young journalists in China who had decided that there was no point in even trying to report on their society’s challenges. “Being a journalist has no meaning any more,” a person identified as “a thirtysomething editor from one of China’s leading news organisations” told The Guardian’s Tom Phillips. “My greatest feeling is that in recent years the industry’s freedoms have reached their lowest ebb in history.” A few weeks earlier I had been in Shanghai meeting with a group of 20‑something, still-idealistic Chinese student reformers, talking about their long-term hopes. One student wanted to open legal-aid clinics for migrant workers; another, a muckraking-style news service about urban inequities; another, a center for women’s rights. A few years earlier, I would have been excited to hear such plans. Now I’m fearful—and expect that if those students end up realizing their dreams, they will be doing so in some other country.Repression of civil society. Throughout the Communist era, the Chinese state has suppressed the growth of any form of organization other than the party itself. Religious practice, for instance, is authorized for five officially approved faiths (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism)—but only state-authorized temples, mosques, and churches are allowed. So too for unions (all party-run), NGOs, and any other means through which people might associate.

In the past five years, the screws have been tightened further on all these and other groups. Churches have been bulldozed across the country, allegedly as part of urban-development plans. Many of the country’s public defenders and public-interest lawyers are now in jail. So are prominent feminists and environmental organizers. The April 21 cover of The New York Review of Books this year billed an article by the Asia Society’s Orville Schell, who has written about China since the 1960s, as “The New Terror in China.” “In my lifetime I did not imagine I would see the day when China regressed back closer to its Maoist roots,” Schell told me. “I am fearing that now.”

Extraterritoriality. The recent repression is worse because China’s officials are attempting to extend it beyond China’s borders. Countries have always tried to use economic muscle to advance political or ideological ends. In China’s case, the most obvious example is its ongoing economic punishment of Norway (notably a boycott of its salmon) for the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s insolence in selecting the still-imprisoned writer Liu Xiaobo as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize six years ago. But recently the Chinese government has jailed or harassed the relatives of activists and dissidents who have left the country, and put pressure on foreign companies and organizations to apply China’s censorship standards beyond its borders. Two years ago, the U.S. firm LinkedIn was found to have censored critical posts about China from its worldwide network, even when the posts were written and intended to be read only by people outside Chinese territory. The agreement was a condition of LinkedIn’s operating in China. Twitter is still banned there, but in April it hired an engineer who once worked for China’s military and security services as its managing director for China. In one of her first tweets, she wrote to CCTV, the carefully monitored state-run TV network, saying, “Let’s work together to tell great China story to the world!”Failed reform. The most prominent part of Xi Jinping’s program since he assumed control in November 2012 has been an anticorruption campaign, advertised as a prelude to cleaning up China’s version of crony capitalism. Through most of its boom decades, China featured the form of “efficient corruption” also evident in Japan and South Korea during their postwar growth years. Some favored people got very rich—the head of Japan’s then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party got into trouble when investigators found $50 million worth of gold and other assets in his house—but everyone else was doing well enough to mute complaints. As China’s economy has slowed and news about elite-level fortunes has spread, perception of its corruption from within and without the country has shifted from “necessary evil” to “existential threat.”

“In my lifetime I did not imagine I would see the day when China regressed back closer to its Maoist roots. I am fearing that now.”

A trigger for the latest round of press controls was David Barboza’s 2012 revelation in The New York Times that the family of then-Premier Wen Jiabao had billions of dollars in secret assets. Wen’s reputation at the time was as a kindly social conscience of China; that even his family was on the take suggested no part of the system was immune to rot. Scores of senior officials have been jailed, deposed, or subject to public denunciation for corruption charges, including the longtime director of state security and many senior officials in the People’s Liberation Army. Tens of thousands of lower-level officials have been punished, and across the country millions have been scared. My anecdotal experience matches what I’ve heard consistently from others: The Chinese public is so exasperated by inequality and corruption that they favor this part of Xi’s program. But so far it has been hard to distinguish this effort from a relentless cleaning-out of Xi’s political rivals.

Day by day, life on the streets in the Chinese cities I’ve recently visited seems as free-form and commerce-minded as ever. But national politics matter more than they have in many years, and the political climate is darkening. “China is experiencing the most sustained domestic political crackdown since Tiananmen Square,” Carl Minzner, an expert on Chinese law who teaches at Fordham University’s law school, wrote this year. Almost everyone I spoke with agreed.Anti-foreignism. In April, the Chinese government put out an instructional video that would have been considered crudely propagandistic had it come from some military-information ministry at the height of World War II. It was called “Dangerous Love,” and it warned young Chinese women about falling for sweet talk from foreign students or professors. What if that handsome student is actually a spy?! The same month, Te-Ping Chen of The Wall Street Journal reported that public schools in China were introducing a game called Spot the Spy! designed to help children be alert to subversives within their ranks.

I spoke with the head of a non-Chinese software company that has a 20-year record of sales to Chinese universities and local and provincial governments. He said customers began informing him last year that they were required to switch to Chinese suppliers. (When writing about the United States, I try never to use “blind” quotes. Precisely because of the increased repression I’m describing here, I need to do so when writing about China.) This spring, the Chinese government blocked Apple’s iTunes movie and iBooks services and apps in China. Soon thereafter, Apple reported its first global revenue decline in 13 years, in part due to plummeting income from China, and saw its market capitalization drop by $40 billion. The Chinese government’s motive in cracking down on Apple was probably political rather than crudely commercial. As an analysis in Varietypointed out, the rising popularity of streaming video on iPhones and other devices made the Apple sites important portholes for movies, documentaries, and other material from the outside world. But regardless of rationale, the effect was to damage Apple relative to its Chinese competitors (notably a smartphone company called Xiaomi), much as the politically motivated crackdown on Google damaged it relative to its main Chinese rival, Baidu.

The effect has spread beyond technology. Every year, the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing surveys non-Chinese companies on the business climate within China. In the most recent survey, nearly half of the companies reported flat or falling revenues and toughening business conditions. Three-quarters of them said that “foreign businesses are less welcome than before in China.”The military. This is the most publicized aspect of a changed attitude from China. China has land borders with more than a dozen countries, and is connected by the East and South China Seas to half a dozen more. At the moment, it has territorial disputes with many of those countries, all of them on its maritime frontiers, because of its recent “island building” program and insistence on increased military, fishing, and mineral-exploitation rights in the region. In July, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines, and against China, in a dispute over China’s newly expansionary claims in the South China Sea. Since then, both sides seem to have backed away from ship-to-ship confrontations on the high seas, but underlying disagreements remain. “They have managed to alienate or intimidate many once-friendly neighbors, thereby unnecessarily increasing tensions in the region,” Orville Schell told me. “The only exceptions are Putin and [Rodrigo] Duterte,” the truculent new president of the Philippines.




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