Patriotic chest-thumping over the weekend in India gave way to embarrassment and bitterness as the government made a very public U-turn on issuing a visa to Uighur dissident Dolkun Isa, The Washington Post reports:
He is the executive committee chairman of the World Uighur Congress, an organization that represents a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in China’s far-west, and has been labeled a terrorist by the Chinese government. China issued a “red corner notice” to the international policing agency Interpol seeking his arrest more than a decade ago, but other governments have refused to act on the request.
The episode is further proof that China is experiencing what one observer calls the most sustained domestic political crackdown since Tiananmen Square.
Much attention has been devoted to the increasing state repression being directed at lawyers, journalists and civil society activists. But there is a separate and more fundamental concern, Fordham Law School’s Carl Minzner writes for The National Interest:
The authoritarian rules of the game that have held sway since the beginning of the modern reform era are steadily breaking down. For all of the problems associated with China’s existing system of authoritarianism, worse consequences will emerge as these rules give way.
Not since the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution — the tumultuous 1966-76 political movement marked by ideological fervor — has the Chinese public seen so much leader-worshipping in state media, including daily stories exalting Xi’s wisdom and achievements as well as elaborate songs and dances dedicated to him on national television, notes analyst Steven Chiang.
“It’s an overstatement to say Xi’s becoming the next Mao — what we do see is a leader who wants to centralize power… and his formative experiences lay in the Cultural Revolution era,” said Orville Schell, a prominent American scholar who has been visiting China since the Mao years and now heads the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York.
“It’s not surprising when he reaches into his toolbox, he comes up with many tools that harken back to that period when Mao was alive: control, propaganda, discipline,” he added. “But I don’t think it’s possible for Chinese society to regress… to that degree of self-isolation and total indoctrination.”
The actual mechanisms by which the central state exerts power are also steadily sliding towards deinstitutionalized channels, notes Minzner:
Once more, these mechanisms represent a break with post-1978 practices. They include: cultivation of a budding cult of personality around Xi and a steady ideological pivot away from the Communist Party’s revolutionary socialist origins in favour of the ‘China Dream’, a revival of an ethno-nationalist ideology rooted in imperial history, tradition and Confucianism, and a revival of Maoist-era tactics of ‘rule by fear’ including televised confessions and unannounced disappearances of state officials and civil society activists alike.
Fear, tradition and personal charisma do not amount to institutional governance. As Max Weber pointed out, these are actually the antithesis of institutionalised and bureaucratic rule.
“The Party-state’s reform-era efforts to build more institutionalised systems of governance are being steadily eroded,” he adds. “Beijing’s failure to deepen political reform when Party authorities had the opportunity to do so is now leading the system to cannibalize itself.”
At Reuters, Engen Tham and Matthew Miller report efforts by China’s State Council Information Office to recruit a Western PR firm to help promote China’s image abroad. Hill+Knowlton, Ketchum, Ogilvy, FleishmanHillard, and Edelman are all said to have auditioned for the role. None would comment, notes China Digital Times, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy:
China’s President Xi Jinping, who has called for Beijing to take a bigger role in a global governance system, has cranked up the state machinery to project China’s “soft power” and better communicate China’s message to the world since taking power in November 2012.
China’s leadership recognizes it needs to communicate more effectively to Western audiences, said an executive at one of the agencies that made presentations.
[…] The SCIO asked the public relations firms to give presentations, in separate meetings, on China’s most pressing image problems and demonstrate their expertise on managing new forms of media, according to an internal email and sources.
[…] At the SCIO presentations in February, government officials showed more interest than in previous engagements with foreign PR agencies, said one executive familiar with the meetings. He did not elaborate. [Source]
The meetings appear to have roughly coincided with Xi Jinping’s call for state media to better tell China’s story to the world and build “flagship media with strong international influence” while acting as the Party’s “throat and tongue” at home. Twitter’s new managing director for Greater China sparked near panic among the service’s Chinese users this month when she appeared to offer help in this global mission.