Discipline Through Paranoia: The Uses of a Crackdown

Writing in the last two issues of China Brief, Andrew Chubb raised an important analytical question about reading Chinese official sources: how much sense can we make of them without thinking about the audiences expected to read them? Chubb focused on the hawkish rhetoric of a group of Chinese military analysts, arguing that in reading it China watchers are not listening in on the policy debates of the PLA, but consuming a brand of propaganda partly intended to influence foreign analysis of China’s military intentions (China Brief, August 9, 25).  A similar question is worth asking about articles in the ideological media of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) describing liberal ideas, especially “constitutionalism” (xianzheng) as a foreign-inspired plot to subvert the Party’s rule. When we read articles like these, are we listening to the Party speak frankly to itself about what it perceives as the greatest threats to its own survival, or to internal propaganda campaign intended to promote the “sense of urgency at all levels” President Xi Jinping called for in a June 18 speech about the mass line campaign (People’s Daily Online, June 19; for more on the mass line campaign see “Xi’s Mass Line Campaign: Realigning Party Politics to New Realities,” China Brief, August 9)? Is the goal of these articles to suppress liberal ideas, or to raise awareness about them among cadres who have become complacent about the regime’s survival?

Of course, these goals are not exclusive. The Party’s repressive apparatus seems to have begun a crackdown on liberal-leaning intellectuals, rights lawyers and netizens who have participated in “human flesh search engine” campaigns against corrupt officials, and discussion of even quite moderate political liberalization appears to have been placed out of bounds. However, this interpretation suggests that this crackdown is not an odd mismatch with the Xi-Li administration’s advocacy of economic reform and anti-corruption efforts, but a key part of Xi’s effort to mobilize junior officials to improve work styles and resist corruption.

At the start of Xi’s administration, constitutionalism appeared to be a promising avenue for reform advocates. Xi appeared to be interested in the concept, making a speech shortly after taking office calling for “strictly enforcing the constitution” (Xinhua, December 12). An editorial pushing constitutionalism sparked the high-profile Southern Weekend strike in January, a rare case of public conflict over the freedom of speech in China, which appeared to end in a qualified victory for the paper (“How the Southern Weekend Protests Moved the Bar on Press Control,” China Brief, February 1). However, a few weeks ago Seeking Truth (Qiushi), the Party’s premier ideological journal, published a lengthy diatribe against the paper by Yin Guoming, a leftist online personality known for attacking the liberal author Li Chengpeng at a Beijing bookstore (Qiushi, August 8).

Looking at the archives of Seeking Truth (which includes articles with an ideological angle from four other top-level Party publications), it appears that the turn against “constitutionalism,” perhaps better translated as “constitutional government,” came on quite abruptly. As recently as the beginning of April, it was possible to cover the issue with a bland roundup page suggesting introductory readings on the topic. The article was careful to draw a distinction between “capitalist constitutional government” and a model compatible with China’s socialist system, but helpfully pointed out that “It is not forbidden to bring up constitutionalism, as long as in doing so one carefully considers China’s national conditions” (Qiushi Theory Online, April 3). This was followed by six weeks of silence on the issue, broken at last by a lengthy article in Red Flag (Hongqi) that roundly condemned the idea as a Western threat, analyzing it at length with quotes from Montesquieu and the Federalist Papers, identifying it with “bourgeois hegemony,” “religious freedom, primarily for Christianity,” military interventionism and the loss of Party control over the army (for more on the importance of this issue, see “Army Day Coverage Stresses PLA Contributions and Party Control,” China Brief, August 17, 2012); and concluding that “The people’s democratic system must never be described as ‘socialist constitutional government’ “ (Red Flag, May 21).  This set an ideological line which has been repeated and expanded in recent months in articles with headlines like “The Essence of Constitutionalism is Capitalism” and “Constitutionalism is a Weapon for Public Opinion Warfare” and “American Constitutionalism Not Worthy of the Name” (Qiushi May 28; People’s Daily Overseas Edition, August 5, 7).

The emergence of details about  “Document No. 9” this week, a version of which was obtained and excerpted by the New York Times (and, with less clear sourcing, printed by the émigré magazine Mingjing), both explains the sudden shift on constitutionalism in April, and draws a clear connection between this ideological issue and the crackdown on grassroots reform advocates. The document, used as the basis for a secret educational campaign in April, lists threats to the Party, including constitutionalism, liberalism, “universal values,” as well as grassroots activists who “have stirred up trouble about disclosing officials’ assets, using the Internet to fight corruption, media controls and other sensitive topics, to provoke discontent with the party and government” (New York Times, August 19; Mingjing, August 19).

While these efforts clearly represent policy decisions, the available documents are not direct evidence about high-level deliberation. Rather, they are the results of this deliberation, templates for information campaigns directed at petty officials in every corner of China. The two known vectors of the anti-constitutionalism drive are both part of the cadre education system, a close cousin of the propaganda system with responsibility for indoctrinating Party members. Study sessions, such as those at which Document No. 9 was used as the basis for warnings about liberal subversion, are the main means through which ideological campaigns like the mass line are carried out, while Seeking Truth is a publication of the Central Party School. It is clear that cadre education, in addition to fulfilling a training function, is understood as part of the propaganda system. The 1992 Encyclopedia on the Building of the CCP 1921-1991 (Zhongguo Gongchandang jianshe dazidian 1921-1991) lists cadre education as a means of propaganda, along with newspapers, entertainment, and university education, and at present they are more tightly connected than ever—Liu Yunshan, the Politburo Standing Committee member with responsibility for the propaganda system, is simultaneously serving as president of the Central Party School (Encyclopedia quoted in“China’s Propaganda System: Institutions, Processes and Efficacy,” David Shambaugh, The China Journal, January 2007; Xinhua January 4; People’s Daily Online January 15).

As Chubb demonstrated, Chinese propagandists are capable of thinking in quite sophisticated terms about the construction of narratives that benefit their goals. It is therefore worth thinking carefully about the purpose of the implicit story told by the anti-constitutionalism drive: that of a Party beset on all sides by the iniquities of domestic opposition and the tyranny of Western hegemony. It is a narrative that he has made reference to in promoting the mass line campaign, calling it a matter of life and death for the party and calling for officials to develop “a sense of responsibility and urgency” (Qiushi, August 26; Xinhua, July 15). An article in Seeking Truth drew out this topic further, arguing that the China dream requires that officials have a “sense of danger”: “To strengthen the awareness of hardships, to fear danger in times of peace, is to drive forward the project of building socialism with Chinese characteristics, to achieve the inevitable requirements of the dream of the great revival of the Chinese people” (Qiushi, August 22).

Xi has declared ambitious plans to alter the workings of China’s political economy, which will require the compliance of millions of local officials.  It looks as though the crackdown may be a central part of his plans to persuade them to cooperate. By hyping threats to the Party’s survival, the education campaigns likely aim to create a “sense of urgency” about reform that will scare cadres straight.  If you don’t listen to me, this argument goes, you’ll be left to face the mob. Meanwhile, by authoritatively describing grassroots anti-corruption activists as part of an international conspiracy, the document gives local officials patriotic cover to defend themselves from the more personal threat of having pictures of them with their mistresses or ill-gotten wealth made public. The target of the crackdown may thus not be activists being thrown in prison, but the officials putting them there—the dose of paranoia one gets from taking part in a witch-hunt may be just what Xi thinks they need.