Letter from China: An ideology of control reeling out of control

Howard W. French – Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Published: June 14, 2006
SHANGHAI Quick, what’s the biggest problem China faces? A) Whether or not to allow
films like “Mission: Impossible III” or “The Da Vinci Code” to be shown in theaters here?
B) Deciding who should lead Catholic dioceses around the country?
C) Intervening in property markets in Shanghai and other eastern cities to limit the emerging real estate bubble?
Most would guess C, because the other choices seem trivial. The correct answer, though, is that there is no correct answer. All three of these issues are tied up with what may well be the central dilemma of the Chinese state.
In a society that is growing freer by the day, China’s leadership remains obsessed with control. Control doesn’t merely mean keeping a tight grip on politics or affairs of state. Here, the ideology of control is itself out of control.
The state determines “correct” versions of history, which despite the official state sanction, or perhaps because of it, can be counted on to be fake. The state determines what kind of language is appropriate, filtering the Internet to weed out anything that does not accord with its dictates.
The state determines how many children each family can have, and even how widely they must be spaced, for those lucky enough to be granted permission for more than one.
The state regulates internal migration, controlling who can live where, and under what conditions. Although it is a function of most states, China even takes the management of time to absurd lengths, deeming that an entire country whose dimensions are roughly similar to the United States should live in one time zone, under what is announced at the top of every hour on radio stations throughout China as “Beijing Time.”
Sometimes, this preoccupation with minutiae renders the state blind to real problems that call for serious intervention. Censors busy themselves purging the Internet of pornography, while a world-class prostitution industry thrives. Industrial policy seeks to favor national champions and promote innovation amid rampant intellectual property theft. Drug dealers are executed, but fake pharmaceuticals are sold everywhere.
“Wait a minute,” you object, as many Chinese people have with me. “Isn’t it necessary in a country as large and complex as China to have a strong state that is capable of making important decisions on key matters, like population policy, or on housing?”
How glad I am that you have asked.
These two issues, which may strike readers as truly critical issues of public policy, also happen to be areas where the state, while maintaining unrelenting control, has made monumental mistakes.
With population, if it is true that China’s “one child policy,” introduced a generation ago, has spared the country an additional 392 million people, in addition to the 1.3 billion it already has, the policy has also left the country saddled with a demographic time bomb. In the space of a couple of decades, this society will age faster than European societies have in a century. Few here seem seized with the coming consequences today, but one day they stand likely to bring about a radical reappraisal of “one child’s” success.
The urban redevelopment taking place across China on a historic scale would seem to be another area for reconsideration. It is all fine and well for the government to talk about cooling excessive speculation in housing, but it is deemed improper – and in the Shanghai media banned outright – to discuss the manipulation of that market by officials working in collusion with developers and state-controlled banks, keeping prices high amid a glut and evicting millions of poor people from city centers in eastern China.
Hu Shuli, editor of the Chinese magazine Caijing, put it best when she wrote recently: “All of China’s successful economic reforms since 1978 can be summed up in one simple statement: ‘Reduce direct government intervention and increase the reign of the market.’ A profit-driven local government cannot ensure the stable development of the sector; instead it becomes an accomplice pushing up housing prices.”
But it is through the recent handling of big Hollywood hits that one can see China’s control problem most clearly, and it also in areas like this that the consequences could play themselves out earliest in frankly political ways.
The government recently recalled the latest installment of “Mission: Impossible,” offended, it is said, by depictions of the Shanghai police as slow to respond to a crime, and by images of this city, the new Asian Oz, that showed laundry hanging out to dry.
The movie is now being shown in a sanitized version, free of the kinds of scenes that are among the most normal sights of everyday life here. For “The Da Vinci Code,” the contortions grew even more absurd. For reasons that have still not been convincingly explained, the government suddenly withdrew a film that was well on its way to becoming one of the highest grossing ever here.
“We made a purely commercial decision,” said Weng Li, deputy manager of the distribution arm of the China Film Group Corp. who has clearly not mastered the Abraham Lincoln bit about the impossibility of fooling all of the people all of the time.
The issue, though, is when will enough Chinese people, zooming ahead by the minute in terms of their sophistication and thirst for real information, as opposed to newspeak, reach the limits of weariness with a bureaucracy that makes decisions for them, decisions that often involve their most private choices?
Personal freedoms are already on the rise here and cannot be stopped. How well the party and government learn how to get out of the way is the key to China’s future, and the key to their survival as well.
E-mail: pagetwo@iht.com

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