The list of internet search words banned by China’s censors betray where the regime’s vulnerabilities lie, much as samizdat satires did for the former Soviet Union. This week’s list was particularly revealing because the censored terms related to a monumental event: Beijing’s plan to scrap the longstanding two-term limit for Chinese presidents, effectively setting up Xi Jinping, the incumbent, to be “president for life”.
Some of the banned searches showed only what anyone in authority knows: parody can kill prestige. All references to Winnie the Pooh, to whom in body shape at least Mr Xi bears some resemblance, were excised from Chinese cyber space. Vigilance against the teddy bear rose after internet users posted a picture of Winnie hugging a pot of honey and saying: “Find the thing you love and stick with it.”
But most numerous among the prohibited searches, as well as the most suggestive of where Beijing’s political frailties may lie, were echoes from China’s own history, according to a list compiled by China Digital Times, a California-based website which monitors Chinese censorship. “The emperor’s dream”, “the wheel of history” and “Dream of Returning to the Great Qing (dynasty)” were among dozens of culled phrases.
It is often said that the weight of Chinese history rests heavily on the modern psyche, but satirical parallels from the past are particularly pernicious to Mr Xi, whose signature “ China Dream” vision aims to revitalise his country by recapturing atavistic glories.
Perhaps more importantly, though, Mr Xi needs history on his side as Beijing joins a battle for the moral high ground between two competing political systems — the capitalist democracy of the west and China’s market authoritarianism. Flushed with the success of four decades of “reform and opening”, China’s ideologues are not holding back on their criticism of the west as they extol the decisiveness of Beijing’s top-down polity and its vaunted ability to deliver developmental progress.
“Disorder in the west has become a major source of global insecurity and instability [and] the western model now faces grave challenges,” wrote Zhang Weiwei in the official Communist party journal, Qiushi.
“In contrast is China’s good order,” he added. “In just a few decades, China has used the model the west refuses to recognise to achieve its rapid rise.”
Powerful evidence reinforces his view. Not only has China lifted more than 800m people out of poverty in the past 40 years, according to the World Bank. It is also on track to create a cohort of middle-class consumers 550m strong by 2022, according to the consultancy McKinsey. Much of this success has come because of the ability of the Communist party to mobilise resources and build infrastructure at a pace that puts the rest of the world in the shade.
By contrast, the west has in some ways struggled. The global financial crisis of 2008, compounded by a welfare crisis in the US and some European countries, contributed to a stagnation or decline in living standards for many people, while the wealthiest one per cent grew richer. The growth of populism and anti-globalisation sentiment, meanwhile, emboldens rightwing political groups. The dislocations of Brexit have challenged the cohesion of the European project and created an uncertain future for the UK.
Mr Zhang traces one root of the west’s problems to a failure to check the overwhelming power of capital, citing the US failure to limit political campaign contributions. “This has helped put capital into a dominant position in politics, resulting in a lack of independence and neutrality,” he wrote. In other parts of the west, political parties are prevented from pursuing long-range reform by the constant pressure to win votes.
This sense of a superior Chinese approach comes from Mr Xi himself. He said last year that China’s experience “offers a new option to other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence”. Since then a host of lesser officials have begun to talk about China’s example to the world, while insisting that Beijing will never force its “model” on other countries.
In this context, the plan to scrap presidential term limits may exacerbate the clash of political systems. “Xi’s actions will only play into rising fears about China among Americans, who will further conflate China’s leadership with that of other authoritarian regimes like Russia and Turkey,” said Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution think-tank.
Chinese history shows that the fate of those who grab absolute power is often cruel. Only just over half of the country’s 282 emperors died a natural death while still occupying the Dragon Throne. Seventy-six more were done in by the elites chosen to tend to them, via murder or forced abdication or suicide, according to scholars at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center.
Perhaps this is the reason for the assiduous censoring of historical terms. China’s greatest vulnerability lurks in the shadows of its past.
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