By Michael Sainsbury
July 9 marks the third anniversary of what is now know in China as 709, the crackdown by President Xi Jinping’s ruling Communist Party on one of the bravest groups of lawyers anywhere: China’s weiquan or human rights lawyers.
On July 9, 2015, hence 709, about 300 lawyers, legal assistants and activists from across China were rounded up. Most were interrogated and released but about 40 were taken into custody. Several said they were tortured, beaten, shackled and given electric shocks, while others said they were deprived of sleep, forced to take medication and held in painful positions.
The group has since been a target for the party, particularly during the three-year crackdown following the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre when at least 1,000 people were killed.
Many have been incarcerated in recent decades but under Xi’s rule, now in its sixth year, the process of eliminating enemies and suspected enemies has stepped up several notches, and for the first time since Mao Zedong’s rule, Xi has introduced a systemic program of religious persecution.
Local religions Buddhism and Daoism are being targeted for their commercialization — some temples have been charging tourists to enter — but the key targets are the “foreign religions” of Christianity and Islam.
Yet no one who knows anything about China’s Communist Party and its history should be surprised by Xi’s moves, nor their intensity.
Under Mao, life was much simpler: you played up, you got banished, chucked in jail or shot, depending on how much he thought he may need you in the future. When his own power was threatened, he introduced the concept of permanent revolution with the hideously destructive Cultural Revolution in 1966 that only officially ended with his death a decade later.
But the economic destruction it wrought saw Mao bring back Deng Xiaoping, a man he had banished a couple of times, because he knew that he was very smart and deeply loyal to the party.
Once Deng finally grabbed the top job, his program was introduced with a bang. He reconciled his capitalist order tendency with his Marxist-Leninist heart with the famous aphorism that neatly reconciled capitalism in a socialist state: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.”
Deng was determined to try new types of senior cadres, like-minded men who were looking at changing the face of China. The first, Hu Yaobang, a long-time colleague of Deng, was sacked after five years at the top after the first wave of student protests in 1986 and 1987 gave party hardliners the ammunition to have him ousted.
Hu’s successor Zhang Zemin, cut from similar cloth, lasted just two years before he was removed for effectively allowing the Tiananmen Square protests and then entering the square to implore people to leave. All the time Xi Jinping was observing the intensifying backroom party battles as he rose up the ranks.
By June 4, 1989, Deng had sided with the hardliners and called in military units from about a dozen provinces to ensure any sympathies for protesters among the Beijing units of the military would be overcome.
Until the massacre, the West thought it was dealing with a new peaceful, cuddly Chinese protocapitalist until Deng bared his revolutionary teeth.
Jiang Zemin, party chief in Shanghai, was moved to Beijing as a neutral, stop-gap appointment but he soon demonstrated his own political skills, seizing control of the army and remaining in the top job until 2002. After Deng’s death in 1997, he ruthlessly dispatched opponents.
By 2000, socialism with Chinese characteristics (making lots of money) saw private enterprises surpass state-owned companies in GDP share for the first time. Jiang realized this new class of ideology-free, entrepreneurial multimillionaires was multiplying fast and creating a new threat to the party.
In 2001, Jiang’s stroke of genius was to co-opt these people to the warm bosom of the Communist Party, appointing them to the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress (NPC) and its even more toothless advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee.
It worked like a charm and today people like the big three tech billionaires — Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Tencent’s Ma Huateng and Baidu’s Robin Li — are among more than 100 business people on the 300-person NPC.
The downside was that the move allowed crony capitalism between business people and top cadres to flourish unchecked.
On his ascension to the top job on 2012, Xi Jinping, who had gained the reputation as a competent plodder, moved swiftly to move his chief lieutenant Wang Qishan to chief of the party’s Central Discipline Committee, reshaping it as something of a Praetorian Guard weeding out the corrupt to please the masses and Xi’s enemies to smash the factions.
Xi’s commitment was to become something of a new Mao Zedong with less capriciousness and a real plan. He has dispensed with traditions set up by Deng such as an at least nominally collective leadership by installing himself as the head of the all-important party “leading groups” that set policy and create a raft of new ones. And he has moved to smash internal factions (for the meantime), with the view that it will assist him forcing through policy, but it has also significantly weakened internal debate within the 90-million-strong party. This is all in the name of reasserting the primacy of the party to strengthen its grip, but that could be a double-edged sword. We shall see over the longer term.
Instead of “killing the chicken to scare the monkeys,” Xi is killing entire barnyards to make sure the monkeys go away and don’t come back. Everyone thought the two-year cross removal campaign in Zhejiang province was a one-off until its creator was promoted. Xi has since dissolved the old State Administration for Religious Affairs and handed its duties to the increasingly powerful United Front Work Department.
Xi’s first words as he stepped onto the podium after being introduced as the party’s new chief in November 2012 were about the “Chinese dream.”
We are starting to see what that may look like, and it’s more like a nightmare for the rest of the world. What we thought were immutable international norms have been flouted in the same way that Xi ignored those of the party.
Some like Cambodia’s canny and ruthless old dictator Hun Sen have fallen at the feet of Emperor Xi and been rewarded. He is unlikely to be the last.