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Vicious patterns

January 22, 2001

The Chinese regime’s use of repression and the evolution of its targets


In this article, Marie Holzman examines the evolution and nature of the current political regime in the People’s Republic of China, arguing that while the scope of repression may have diminished, it remains a principal policy tool of the current leadership, employed systematically and for similar purposes as in the past.








China is developing very fast, and its economic progress is indisputable. The country is opening up to the world, as symbolized by its imminent entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The policies of economic reform and the open door have now been in place for more than 20 years. Some observers assume from this that democratization is more or less inevitable.

A look back at the pre-reform history of the PRC and the continuities and changes between then and the past two decades is instructive in testing the truth of this assumption.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in Shanghai in 1921, along the lines of the Soviet Communist Party. From the beginning, one characteristic of the Party was the systematic use of repression, exclusion and fear. Well before coming to power, the Party did not hesitate to repress all forms of opposition. For example, Wang Shiwei, one of the most ill-treated intellectuals in contemporary history, was finally was shot in Yan’an, the CCCP’s wartime revolutionary base area in Shaanxi, just before the communist troops marched off to Beijing in the 1940s. He is just one of the innumerable thinkers and citizens condemned to silence or exile for having expressed their opinions.

Another example is Sima Lu, a historian who has described life within the CCP from 1930 to 1940. He joined the communists in 1933, and was in Yan’an in 1937. He worked in Chongqing as editor-in-chief of the People’s Weekly, a forerunner of the People’s Daily. Sima thought it normal to write and publish articles critical of the CCP, although he was a communist supporter. He thought the Party was still in the process of formation, and therefore hoped to influence its development through constructive criticism. But Sima was criticized and punished for this. In 1949, he decided to leave for Hong Kong. This example illustrates the terrible human loss which the CCP has caused in China. Many such people were active in the construction of the new political, economic and social system, but quickly became disgusted by it. Facing threats ranging from social exclusion to execution, many capable people left their country.

In 1989, this brain drain phenomenon recurred: some of the most brilliant people in China left their country. Many of the great historians, writers, thinkers, artists and political reformers who belonged to the progressive branch of the Party, and who thought they could improve it, had to flee to escape imprisonment. Appalled by the massacre and the repression that followed, they left to be refugees in the West, to live in a world where they could have freedom of thought, and to avoid punishment at home.

So how has the system worked since 1949? Is it one based entirely on repression? Chen Yan, a historian teaching in France, has argued that there is a two-phased cycle, in which a relatively open period with a degree of economic dynamism is followed by a period of political repression, which authorities consider essential to maintain their power when difficulties in economic reforms emerge. A new phase then starts with economic construction, followed by another repressive period.







The summer of 1949 was certainly a turning point in modern Chinese history, setting in motion well-documented upheavals. As early as 1952 the Party launched repressive campaigns such as the “Three Antis,” and later the “Five Antis.” The goal was to repress the upper and middle classes, business owners and people in finance. These movements targeted corruption, tax avoidance, bribery and the disclosure of economic secrets. In fact, the attacks hit all types of officials and people in positions of authority. A high degree of social tension was created, with the whole population mobilized against certain types of individuals. The idea was to create a mood among the people in favor of building socialism so as to strengthen Party support.

A contemporary parallel can be seen in the brutal intensification, since the beginning of 1999, of the long-term campaign against corruption. Interestingly, this contemporary “struggle against corruption” started exactly at the time Deng Xiaoping launched his economic reforms. As early as 1980, he said: “If we don’t find the means to control the corruption problem, especially within the CCP, it will be the death of our Party.” Deng was perfectly right. He understood his country, his compatriots and the communist system admirably. He understood that the great threat to China is the massive dissatisfaction of laid-off workers and the increasingly poor farmers.

Is what we see here a repetition of the 1952 cycle? I believe so, because in 1952, as today, a certain number of people were punished while the roots of the problem were not addressed. Certainly repression has been severe, and is sustained by mobilization of the entire population. The Chinese people have not yet entered the phase of disillusion with this campaign. Therefore we have about a hundred million eyes surveying everyone’s actions, and clearly repression is quick, efficient and expeditious.

In 1980, however, corruption did not represent the same thing as in 1952. In 1952 it was a marginal problem, because it was difficult to be corrupt, especially if one tried to make a little bit more than one was allowed. In the 1980s and 1990s, by contrast, corruption now might involve hundreds of millions of yuan. It is no longer a question of fabricating excuses for repression, the targets are very real, and there are indeed truly corrupt people. Nevertheless, we still find more or less the same response: excuses and punishment, with no one looking for the solution to the problem.







Some months ago, the vice-governor of Jiangxi was executed. This execution was covered extensively in the press as proof that the CCP punished corruption effectively: however high the position of an official, no one is beyond the reach of the law, was the assertion. But comparing crimes of corruption, there have certainly been more serious cases than the offenses of which the vice-governor of Jiangxi was found guilty. The Mayor of Beijing, Chen Xitong, was arrested, tried and sentenced to 16 years of imprisonment for massive corruption, but was later reportedly transferred from prison to “supervised residence” where he enjoys a luxurious lifestyle. The Chen Xitong case is obviously special; Jiang Zemin took care of him to assure his own power, since the former mayor must know all the secrets and the sins of the members of today’s ruling elite.

According to Chinese commentators and observers, the rule is that the high leaders who are executed are those who do not know how to hold their tongues. Given that corruption by nature involves a network, those that threaten to denounce others are the first to be shot. The survivors are therefore those who know how to keep the law of silence.

This phenomenon is also a manifestation of “two weights, two measures,” which characterized the repression of the past. Even if the context is different, it is still a matter of choosing a target. Repression is no longer in “quantity,” the focus is on “quality.” It may be less visible to the majority of society, but remains extremely effective in dealing with those who take the risk of engaging in “dangerous acts”: trade unionists, religious nonconformists and all kinds of “separatists.”

Of course, the objectives are different to those of the past. The goal is no longer political mobilization of the population, but the arsenal of repressive tools remains the same. The government continues to interfere in people’s private lives; even when only one individual is concerned, the whole family is often implicated. An example is the authorities’ attempt to seize the apartment of Lu Wenhe’s father after Lu, a US resident, attempted to take money to Ding Zilin for the Tiananmen Mothers network in December 1999. Some types of repression that theoretically were abolished have been replaced by other types that serve the same purpose. The most obvious case is the crime of “counterrevolution” which was replaced in 1997 with the crime of “endangering state security.” Nowadays it is just as easy to sentence individuals to ten years of imprisonment for “state security” crimes as it was to pass a sentence of “counterrevolution” in the past.

Capital punishment for corruption does not seem to scare the population at large. On the other hand, it appears to be important in the power struggles between the top leaders. The objective is to warn factional opponents that there are always other Party members waiting for the worst to happen to you. This is what counts, and not the fight against corruption. On the other hand, the word in the Beijing alleyways is that there is a tacit understanding among the leaders to avoid executions at the highest levels, since that could stimulate ferocious fighting at the top, and risk wrecking the whole power structure.







The use of repression as a tactic high-ranking leaders used to intimidate each other was established early in the communist regime, in both the economic and intellectual spheres. In 1958, as the Anti-rightist Campaign grew in scope, the specific targets and methods of repression became less important than the movement as a whole, as those singled out were substitutes for those Mao truly wished to intimidate.

The origins of this campaign have been widely studied. Mao Zedong thought he could oust a number of competitors, who had started to balk at his policies, by launching a mass movement The Hundred Flowers. In fact, the movement was never “of the people,” because it especially targeted intellectuals and took place essentially in the universities and different academic institutions. More importantly, the movement completely turned against Mao, something he obviously never expected. To protect his power Mao repressed the Rightists while sending a clear warning to other leaders, like Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.

All ideological campaigns have had similar objectives: to create a very tense social climate, with periods of targeted repression. During these periods, specific types of individuals are targeted, and during the periods of thematic repression - economic crimes, thought crimes - a lot of effort is put into creating a favorable situation for those in power.

During the Cultural Revolution, the pattern became a little more confusing. If the compass pointed north, the panic-stricken populace did the same. But if one carefully dissects this period it is possible to conclude that the pattern still held: Mao Zedong used Kuai Dafu to stimulate the creation of the fervently Maoist Red Guards. Then, when the situation began to spin out of control, Mao arrested Kuai Dafu and found a reason to negate his previous endorsement. The Red Guards had to bear the brunt of this mass strategy, since it involved millions of young people, who were used to attack Mao’s enemies. They were later violently repressed and sent to the countryside for “reeducation by the farmers.”







This episode is comparable to the Beijing Spring of 1978-79, after Deng Xiaoping’s return to power. Deng wanted to push out the leftists who were still in power - Hua Guofeng and his friends, standard-bearers of Maoist thought - and at the same time get his economic reforms accepted. Deng really wanted to set up an economic system which could make China into a modern country. But this desire was mixed up with another one, comparable to Mao’s: to keep the CCP and himself in power. The 1978-79 period can thus be compared to the period of the Hundred Flowers and the repression of the Rightists. Like Mao, Deng needed support from the people. His proposals to them incorporated a rejection of Maoism, a new social system, a working economy and space for intellectual freedom. The response, Democracy Wall, allowed Deng to say to his CCP opponents: “You see, the socio-economic reforms are necessary if we don’t want to see a major social explosion,” while at the same time justifying the continuing use of repression against dissent.

In this way, Deng was one up on Mao: he left a space in the debate to the people. In return, Deng achieved overwhelming support, whereas Mao lost support. In fact, some of the dissidents of the Beijing Spring were very supportive of Deng. The economic and political analyst Wang Juntao, for example, thought that the totalitarian regime would gradually dissolve and a new system would evolve. Even though the political climate was a great improvement over the period before the economic reforms, at the same time it is important to remember that the Beijing Spring was followed by a period of political deep freeze. Dissidents like Wei Jingsheng and Xu Wenli were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. The people were undoubtedly supposed to conclude that, as in earlier times, it was still very dangerous to express oneself openly on political issues, or to make clear demands for political reforms.

However, the repression was narrower in scope than in the past. In the Anti-rightist Campaign, repression was extensive: 700,000 people were labeled “Rightists” and 300,000 were sent to Reeducation Through Labor (RTL). By contrast, in 1979, repression was more limited, more targeted and in a way more efficient: fewer individuals were needed to achieve the same result. In the 1980s, there were a number of ideological campaigns, against “spiritual pollution,” “bourgeois liberalism” and so on. Repression was again used to create an extremely tense social climate. The pattern was always the same: every time the policies of the leadership encountered some set-backs that the conservative left was keen to exploit to stage a return to the political stage, a wave of repression was launched to keep the conservatives quiet by affirming the top leaders’ links to the lineage of Mao Zedong and the Marxist-Leninists.

The use of repression today is even more subtle. But the cover of a recent edition of the dissident magazine Beijing Spring asked: Is a new Anti-rightist Campaign on the way? The question was evidently mostly rhetorical, because the repression in spring 2000 alluded to involved only four or five intellectuals, who had been criticized by name and removed from their positions: an academic in the social sciences and a researcher on the Cultural Revolution, among others. Clearly, when Jiang Zemin has difficulty in maintaining his position at the top of the pyramid, he feels the need to use conspicuous repression to ensure stability.

This is rather typical: attack a specific number of intellectuals, like the editor-in-chief of Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo), a weekly known for detailed investigative articles. For a long time, this paper surprised readers, who wondered how it could continue to exist for so long in a state of quasi-liberty. The response to this question came in January 2000: the editor-in-chief was dismissed from his post, and it was made clear to the editorial staff that they should start to toe the line. Interestingly, Southern Weekend is a supplement to the official communist party organ in Guangdong Province. By allowing its journalists to expose social problems openly, the provincial authorities had carefully groomed their progressive image. In forcing the editor-in-chief to leave his job, Beijing affirmed its renewed control over the rebellious south. A year later, the Southern Weekend still has much of its fighting spirit and life in Guangdong continues much as before, far from the eyes of the emperor!







So has repression in China really changed? Has there been a real evolution, a departure from the previous system? Has “proletarian dictatorship” been relaxed, indicating the creation of a unique Communist Party? The answer appears to be no, even if people believe society is becoming more and more democratic. In China, people are certainly increasingly brave, and less and less afraid, including of being sent to prison. Twenty years ago this made people’s hair stand on end, but today the idea seems almost banal: dissidents know that their actions risk jail. But even if people’s mentality has changed, there has not been a change in the leaders’ minds or in their methods of repression.

As an example, 1999 was the worst year for repression since 1989. Obviously, 1999 did not see the massacre of thousands and the kind of nationwide crackdown of 1989 in which thousands were sent to prison. However, repression in 1999 was the worst in recent years because it struck a number of social sectors. Workers who tried to organize themselves, dissidents and religious nonconformists were all under assault. Workers such as Zhang Shanguang and Yue Tianxiang suffered very heavy sentences - of ten years or more - often on ridiculous pretexts. Zhang Shanguang is said to have revealed state secrets in interviews with Radio Free Asia. Zhang had only described a demonstration of several hundred angry Chinese farmers.

Repression has also hit dissidents: the government wants to prevent the emergence of intellectual personalities who can present comprehensive critiques of their rule. It has taken such action even while it has sought to use an international language acceptable to foreigners. In 1997 the term “counterrevolution” was retired from the criminal law, and replaced with the concept of “endangering state security.” Since 1998, numerous convictions have arisen from this—Xu Wenli is an example. He is in prison today, in very bad conditions, held with common-law prisoners who are rewarded for ill-treating political prisoners.

Established in 1998, the China Democracy Party (CDP) has also been repressed. Practically all its leaders are now in prison. These people openly declared themselves members of a new opposition party. The Falungong is another autonomous group that is now facing extensive repression: in both cases the CCP feels threatened since these groups have created independent structures to which their members profess strong loyalty. The Falungong spiritual movement has assembled some ten million followers. So many people coming together outside official control frightens the government—it is possible that they can attract massive popular support, just as the CDP might do if it had the possibility to develop, or the Chinese workers movement if independent trade union structures started to emerge.

This overview allows one to draw some conclusions concerning the nature of the current regime. The regime does not fundamentally differ from the one in the 1930s and 1940s, or from that at the beginning of the People’s Republic in the 1950s. In other words, Jiang Zemin’s China remains a country ruled by communist ideology that is unlikely to become a pluralistic democracy. The Chinese leaders have learnt their lessons from recent history: the glasnost of Gorbachev, the emergence of an independent trade union like Solidarity, and the existence of a spiritual life sustained by charismatic spiritual leaders are all perceived as potential threats to the longevity of the present regime. Thus the only possible response to such
challenges is the time-honored one: systematic repression.

Marie Holzman is a sinologist resident in Paris, and a board member of HRIC. Since documenting the events of Democracy Wall in the late 1970s, she has been a tireless advocate for the release of political prisoners in China. This article was translated from French by Ingveig Tveranger and Joyce Wan.