This piece originally appeared at Asia Times on June 2, 2012
The entertaining ruckus over CCTV talk show host Yang Rui’s
anti-foreign comments obscures a rather significant trend in Chinese government
It appears that the CCP is winding down its five-year charm
offensive meant to bolster its international legitimacy and standing, and is
turning inward to focus on pressing domestic social, economic, and political
Disturbingly, China has a limited number of effective policy
levers to deal with these issues. The
few they have are ugly in conception and application—like xenophobia.
China’s economic miracle, typified by the spectacle of the
2008 Beijing Olympics and the titanic stimulus program of 2009-2010 (which is
credited with forestalling a prolonged global recession), never elicited the
Western respect that the Chinese leadership felt was its due.
With the election of President Obama, the West rediscovered
the impeccable moral self-regard it had forfeited during the Bush II years and,
instead of acknowledging Chinese regional suzerainty, cobbled together an
alliance to “pivot” back into Asia and contain China.
International policy toward China is inseparable from
criticism of China’s human rights record, its neo-mercantilist economic
policies, and its heightened security profile in East Asia, and the hope and
expectation that China will fall on its behind before the West (excluding
Greece, probably Spain, and perhaps Italy) does.
“Soft power”, in other words, hasn’t won China much
breathing space. As the CCP turns its attention
to a fraught leadership transition complicated by smoldering inflation,
simmering public discontent, slowing economic growth thanks to the
dysfunctional Eurozone, and a spate of opportunistic bitching over uninhabited
island groups by its maritime neighbors, perhaps xenophobia is the most
effective way for the Party to seize the initiative in the public sphere.
In recent weeks, public opinion has been entertained and
inflamed by such diverse exhibition of foreign misbehavior as 1) arrogant
Russian cellist putting his feet where they didn’t belong on a Chinese train 2)
brain-melted foreign tourist trying to undress a hapless Chinese woman on a
busy Beijing street 3) North Korean “pirates” holding Chinese fishermen for
There was a lot of palaver about what the kidnapping said
about the North Koreans and their possible unhappiness with Chinese criticism
of their weapons testing. Remarkably,
there was very little discussion of why the Chinese media chose to give this
event (which, quite possibly, was simply the most recent of many shakedowns by
North Korea’s cash-hungry/smuggling-happy coastal security forces) front-page
The xenophobic piece
du resistance, however, was a May 16 Weibo screed by CCTV’s Yang Rui,
sneering at “foreign trash”.
One can safely assume that Yang was supporting the party
line on pesky foreigners.
appears that Yang put a lot of himself, too much, in fact, into his
, including accusations that foreigners were shacking up
with Chinese women in order to make maps and send out GPS coordinates to
overseas intelligence services (coordinates of what, Yang failed to enlighten
What caused Yang’s anti-foreign assault to backfire,
however, was his use of the term “po fu” to describe Al Jazeera Beijing
correspondent Melissa Chan.
Chan,a well-regarded reporter who had aired pieces on black
prisons and illegal land grabs that the Chinese government certainly found
uncomfortable, was expelled (technically, her request for a visa extension was refused)
in early May.
Yang lumped her together with the foreign trash, declaring:
We kicked out the foreign po fu, closed down
Al Jazeera’s Beijing office, so those who demonize China shut their mouths and
Global Times translated “po fu” as
“crazy”, which is pretty far from the mark.
The Wall Street Journal translated “po fu” as b*tch, which is closer to
the truth, if not quite accurate, and helped feed the expressions of quivering outrage
by expats in China who tweet.
Yang tried to explain that his
insulting characterization actually means “shrew” in English, and he does have
a point. “Po fu” started out as a
literary term coined by the Qian Long emperor.
During one of his southern tours he saw two women fighting and said
something along the lines of (adjusting for the dense meaning of individual
characters in classical Chinese), “when you’re talking about fierce,
unreasonable, and incapable of engaging in elevated moral discourse, that’s
In essence, therefore, Yang appears not be saying that Ms. Chan
was a b*tch (a bad woman), but the unfortunate but entirely predictable
manifestation of female shrewishness in her reporting prevented her from
scaling the highest peaks of respectable journalism (already occupied, perhaps,
by certain smugly condescending male CCTV presenters).
Sometimes, when you’re in a hole, it’s time to stop digging.
The furor over “po fu” also distracts attention from the more
interesting question of why Ms. Chan’s visa was not renewed.
The conclusion of Yang’s Weibo blast (so those who demonize China shut their
mouths and beat it) implies that the
Chinese government made an example of a free-wheeling reporter at a second-tier
news outlet in order to pass the message to top-line media outlets that
nettlesome reporting will have consequences for individual reporters and,
perhaps, entire news operations (in addition to not renewing Chan’s visa, the
Chinese government has so far refused to accept a replacement and the Al
Jazeera Beijing bureau is, at least for the time being, defunct).
The impression of Chinese xenophobia
was also accentuated by the announcement of a three-month drive to crack down
on foreigners residing or working in China without proper documentation.
Needless to say, it is an unpleasant
experience to be regarded as potential “foreign trash” and go through the
degrading transaction of presenting one’s papers to the local police on
demand. It is also an indication that
the security system’s relatively kid-glove treatment of foreigners is the
latest victim of China’s growing political and economic uncertainty.
Chinese policies toward improperly
documented aliens bear a remarkable resemblance to laws in Arizona and Georgia
that have integrated immigration policy into police operations largely in
response to xenophobic sentiment and political unease in a deteriorated
The real issue may not be the outraged
feelings of foreigners today; it may be making the scapegoating of foreign
troublemakers, journalists and otherwise, an available option against the day
when the political climate inside China worsens for the CCP.
If and when bad times come, the CCP
seems to have a decreasing number of tools available to deal with the
situation. In particular, there are
sticks available, but not a lot of carrots.
This restricted toolkit apparently
applies to dealing with domestic dissatisfaction as well as pesky foreigners.
A remarkable object lesson in the financial
and systemic hazards of contemporary Chinese authoritarianism is illustrated by
the remarkable extralegal detention of Chen Guangcheng and other dissidents.
It takes a village, apparently, to
button up a lawyer-activist in China, and the amounts expended on supervising
and harassing Chen—estimated at over 8 million RMB—are a source of wonder.
What is perhaps an even more
remarkable source of wonder is the fact that variants of this extravagant
system are applied to perhaps 1 million Chinese that no one has ever heard of.
As reported by Charles Hutzler of AP,
hundreds of thousands of Chinese activists, dissidents, miscreants, parolees,
and suspicious characters are kept under intensive surveillance similar to
The operations are funded by
“stability maintenance” funds from the central government, part of the $110
billion the government spends each year on domestic security and order.
The article recounted the case of Yao
Lifa, a schoolteacher who ran afoul of the system when he tried to run as an
independent for a local political office 25 years ago. The current system of tight surveillance has
been in place for a year or so.
Yao told AP how his surveillance is
managed, including a significant outsourcing to gym teachers in the school he
used to teach at:
Anywhere from 14 to 50 people a day
are on the local government payroll for his round-the-clock surveillance — what
he calls the "Yao Lifa special squad." They get 50 yuan, $8, for a
day shift and twice that for night work. Often, he said, hotel rooms,
transport, meals and cigarettes are thrown in.
The sums add up in Qianjiang, a city of struggling factories and one
million people set in the center of the country. Basic pay runs about 1,000
yuan, or $160, a month for an entry-level teacher and goes to three times that
amount for a veteran, Yao said.
"This isn't bad for
teachers," said Yao. "An English teacher probably wouldn't take it.
They can earn extra money giving private tutoring. But gym teachers can't do
the tutoring. Besides, their superiors have told them to do this. They can't
not do it."
He said he heard the school and
education bureau were arguing over $48,000 for his surveillance.
"I have many acquaintances. Some
of them work in police stations," Yao said. "They tell me 'Really we
could use a Yao Lifa. If we had one, we could make more money.'"
According to Hutzler, an article in
Caijing reported on a village in south China in which a quarter of the local
government personnel were on the stability payroll.
This would appear to be more than
“stability maintenance”. It’s a form of central
government support to shore up the finances and legitimacy of the local government
i.e. the local Communist apparatus.
Call it CCP welfare, or
“workfare”. Well, maybe call it
It is, to put it mildly, not a good
thing for the CCP when the local face of the party is a crew of musclemen
To add to the problem, and the
perception, for many local officials the temptation to graft off the
imperfectly supervised “stability maintenance” funds is reportedly
Now that this system is in place, it
is difficult to see how the central government can abolish it—unless, in
addition to howls of protest from local cadres, it is interested in dealing
with a surge of local unrest and disgruntled petitioners, and a legal system
that is not up to the task of protecting the rights and serving the aspirations
of its citizens.
The fundamental problem is that,
contrary to the party’s hopes, breakneck economic growth over the last decade
has not translated into an outpouring of gratitude or support for the Chinese
Communist Party. “Socialism with Chinese
characteristics” like another triumphant economic system we all know and love,
has inequality built into it.
In Western capitalism, the power of
the “1%” is diffused, anonymous, entrenched in every institution, and embedded
in every political party. Even after the
colossal rich man’s cock-up of the 2008 financial crisis, for instance, 99%
Americans were unable to summon up the united political will to confront Wall
Street, let alone engage in a satisfying politico-economic jacquerie against
the moneyed elite.
However, in China, the political
problem is much more severe because inequality clearly benefits party
members—and princelings within the party—disproportionately. Overall GDP growth, that scorecard of
economic success that infatuates state planners, foreign businesses, and
economists alike is, for China, a two-edged sword, since it ineluctably widens
the perceived income and social justice gap.
Therefore, there is a lot of anxiety
inside and outside the party about closing the wealth and justice gap ranging
from traditional command economy nostrums like subsidized housing to fancy
free-market panaceas like reforming the pampered, cash-rich state run
corporations through private corporate competition and public wealth sharing
through increased stock ownership.
In fact, it would be useful to
consider that China is now trying to turn away from macro-economic management
of the economy, with its implication of passively waiting for the tide to lift
all boats, to politically targeted financial and investment policy meant to
selectively grow vulnerable sectors of the economy at the expense of industries
and institutions that have emerged as political liabilities.
However, these solutions don’t go very
far in addressing the disgruntlement that suffuses Chinese society like a toxic
fog: the idea that Chinese wealth creation is primarily an exercise by which
the CCP enriches and entrenches itself.
It’s not easy—or perhaps even
feasible—to remove the dead hand of the party from economic and political life,
or from the consciousness of the Chinese citizenry under the current system.
Things are less than ideal even
after—and, to some extent because of—a decade of rampant growth.
Now, of course, China is looking at a
period of slowed growth as a matter of policy as well as necessity, one that
will presumably leverage even greater perceived economic and social injustice
onto the shoulders of the resentful Chinese citizenry.
The West’s faltering effort to free
itself of the incubus of its failed economic policies means a Eurozone crisis
and bad news for China’s export economy.
At the same time, China is still dealing with the inflation and real
estate bubble hangover from its massive 2009-10 stimulus and cannot risk
fueling inflation by dumping a lot of money into the economy.
If the CCP finds itself unable to
finesse the looming economic and political crisis through a savvy combination
of political and economic policies, the alternative—a bout of xenophobia and
domestic repression that reveal the party in its least attractive light both to
the world and its citizens—is not going to be pretty.
"Bo Fu" image from nipic.com