Zhang Ming on local power and China’s internal “war of information control”

By David Bandurski — In an article posted earlier this week at QQ.com’s select blog column, “Views” (腾讯评论), People’s University of China professor and former CMP fellow Zhang Ming (张鸣) discusses two recent cases in which Chinese citizens were jailed for criticizing local officials.

A number of Chinese commentators have related the recent Wang Shuai (王帅) and Wu Baoquan (吴保全) cases to the imperial practice of wenziyu (文字狱), or “incurring guilt by one’s words,” about which we have written previously.

But in the course of discussing these recent cases, Zhang Ming brings out their points of difference with the traditional notion of wenziyu, and makes the case for deeper political reforms to allow the monitoring of power from three levels, “the system, the public and the media.”

In his closing remarks, Zhang also relates the problem of monitoring local power to the question of how China can achieve the goals it has laid out in its Human Rights Action Plan.

‘Opposing Defamation’ Means Covering Up and Protecting Your Official Post
By Zhang Ming (张鸣)

After reading about Henan’s Wang Shuai (王帅) case and Inner Mongolia’s Wu Baoquan (吴保全) case (both were accused of crimes after criticizing the government), my initial response was that these were classic cases of wenziyu (文字狱), [or being jailed for one's words]. But when I thought more carefully about it, these cases are a bit different from ancient cases of wenziyu [in China]. Ancient cases of wenziyu were generally initiated on the behalf of rulers at the highest level [such as the emperor], and the goal was to strive for uniformity of thought and opinion. Clearly, those who pursued and persecuted Wang Shuai and Wu Baoquan did not have such lofty priorities. What they wanted, first and foremost, was to ensure that information did not leak out, and secondly, that the dignity of the [local] ruler was preserved . . . We have every indication that this first priority was the most pressing of all.

We must admit that some of our local officials have made progress, and if the people, having had a bit too much to drink, criticize those who govern them, most will be spared revenge so long as they don’t publicly shake a finger at a leader’s nose. And there are even those [leaders] who might hear [the insults] but pretend not to. But when [local officials] mobilize police strength to conduct a manhunt for Wang Shuai over vast distances, when they direct the courts to sentence Wang Baoquan, answering his subsequent legal appeal by upping the severity of his sentence, when they march to war, when they break a butterfly on the wheel — this, certainly, is about expending every possible effort in the shortest space of time to keep a lid on information. It is about silencing the crowd with a single act of violence, so that they think twice before following the example.

I has to be said that some of our officials are rather incapable of hearing other opinions, particularly when these opinions are expressed in public forums. Their faces grow ruddy, their hearts race, and before long their anger is insatiable. If the opinions come from outside [their jurisdiction], from the media, their anger can only simmer. There are those bold enough to go after journalists [in other jurisdictions], but this is still rather risky. Therefore, most officials expend their energies on strengthening preventive measures. Just as one protects against the contingencies of fire and theft, they protect against reporters — they raise barriers, stop up holes, surround and harass invaders (防火防盗防记者,防、堵、围、缠). They stop at nothing. In some local areas, it is said, they have comprehensive response plans in place to deal with reporters [from the outside]. As soon as something major happens, the plan rolls into action, a complete three-dimensional defense system ensuring that all violating journalists go home empty-handed.

If the attitude [of these officials] to outsiders is one of resignation and impotent fury, just imagine the ulcerous, teeth-grinding hatred they must feel for those people under their hand who step out and expose things. The consensus among some officials is that internal matters must be handled internally, and those things that cannot be handled internally simply have to wait for internal resolution. Exposing problems to the outside is blasphemous, an act of betrayal, and these betrayals naturally have to be cleared away, however heavy a hand it takes. [Given this unspoken principle at work], to fall afoul of one leader is to fall afoul of them all.

American scholar Philip Kuhn wrote in his book Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China that under the imperial system in China the relationship of the center to the localities was in fact a relationship premised on information control. The emperor wished to know all, but local officials expended every effort to ensure the emperor did not know everything. It is not difficult to imagine the upshot of this worry and paranoia at the top and beguilement below . . . This war of information control is not necessarily behind us today. In an administrative system in which only the higher-ups can promise blessing or misfortune, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done so long as you can conceal it from your superiors, so it’s as though nothing ever happened. Bureaucratic organs are by nature bottom-loaded pyramidal structures, so there is ample room for deceiving those above. And if someone exposes information to the outside, you need only handle the situation quickly so things don’t get out of control . . .

In this sort of system, the proverb that says a straight foot is not afraid of a crooked shoe has no currency . . . If we really want to achieve openness in government affairs, we must first reform this system, in which [officials] are only responsible to their superiors. We must achieve monitoring at three levels — the system, the public and the media. We must start with institutional reform, enabling our Human Rights Action Plan to be implemented truly. Otherwise, stories like those of Wang Shuai and Wu Baoquan will be replayed over and over again.

[Posted by David Bandurski, April 30, 2009, 12:01pm HK]

3 Comments to “Zhang Ming on local power and China’s internal “war of information control””

  1. [...] information control (信息控制) in today’s China. The article is available in Chinese and in English. (If you can’t access it, let me know in the comments or by e-mail, I can send it to you.) [...]

  2. siweiluozi says:

    Thanks for translating this, David. But note that the Kuhn book referenced is Soulstealers, not Rebellion and its Enemies

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