People power and order under heaven

The following post by former CMP fellow Zhang Ming was made to his Sina.com blog on February 9, 2015. Zhang’s own follow-up post on Sina Weibo announcing the new blog entry was deleted just a few hours later, according to JMSC’s Weiboscope. Zhang’s piece clearly prompts the reader to make inferences about China’s current politics, in particular the apparently growing power of President Xi Jinping, and a corresponding unwillingness to stomach dissenting voices.

“Those Who Hear Only the Voice of Power” (只听得懂权力声音的人)

Media reported last September about the dumping of waste in the Tenggeli Desert by a chemical enterprise in the Alxa League’s Tenger Industrial Park (阿拉善盟工业园区) in Inner Mongolia. The story was irrefutable, a conspicuous pit of waste there for all to see, and noxious smells wafting across the landscape. And yet local government officials found a hundred different ways to shirk responsibility. Local environmental officials even personally attested that nothing whatsoever had gone wrong.

Fast forward one month. After written instructions from topmost national leaders, the situation changed dramatically. The denials promptly stopped. Authorities in Inner Mongolia called meetings to discuss solutions to what suddenly became a crisis. Everyone sprang so resolutely into action we could only look on tongue-tied. It was subsequently reported that the whole matter had been swept under the carpet four years earlier, after an initial round of press coverage.

The problem of pollution in China is severe. Mass incidents are common. Forced property demolitions proceed unstoppably. Justice is constantly trampled through the court system. But none of the serious local problems looming behind these cases have any hope of resolution in our country unless powerful leadership elites step forward with hand-of-God interventions.

There are those here in China who understand nothing but the voice of power. They may fear exposure by the media, but only as a proxy to the real fear, that leaders above them might find out. Only the latter fear will prompt them to manage a crisis, usually by paying up to ensure the problem disappears.

Since ancient times, those in the circles of power in China have always understood the voice of power best. Because only the voice of power can decide the fate of an official, whether he advances like the tide or sinks like a stone. Power had only one source in ancient China — the emperor. There was no power to speak of aside from imperial power. There was no true law. There was no real public opinion. There were no moral codes or ethical strictures.

In those days, the more forceful administrative power was, the easier it became for officials lower down the chain of command to understand and accede. There was no need for explicit commands. Just a whiff from the center of power, and everyone below would drift in that direction. And naturally, calls and clamors from other quarters were that much easier to ignore.

In any era, to have an officialdom that can act only as a function of fear, that cannot conduct itself in accord with a system of rules and laws — this is a tragedy for emperors, big and small, as well as for the people.

qianlong emperor in court dress
[ABOVE: The Qianlong Emperor(September 25, 1711 to February 7, 1799) depicted in his court attire.]

Imagine that across the breadth of the country, every chess piece played must be played at the pinnacle of power. If, as emperor, you don’t make a concerted move, that piece will move of its own accord. It is you who must be responsible for the outcome of the game, whether there is order or chaos. You must direct the movements of the pieces, not losing sight of a single one. If you tire in the course of the game, or if you let down your guard — well then, emperors big and small will make their own moves on all sides of you. Before long, other voices of power will emerge and hold sway, and then all bets are off.

In our ancient past, those emperors with a bit of wisdom understood that the world under heaven (天下) was for the people under heaven. This being the case, one person could not be expected to take responsibility for all.

When the media and the people are ignored — or in the most egregious case, persecuted — for trying to speak up and take responsibility for the world around them, we can be sure this will lead to chaos.

As the old saying goes, “Responsibility for the rise and fall of a nation rests with the common folk” (天下兴亡,匹夫有责). For centuries now have we shouted these words. But if the common folk are to take responsibility, it follows that they must have power. If they haven’t even the power to demand responsibility, then chaos is in store under heaven.


zhang ming blog

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