Chinese Communist Party Archives Reveal Contradictions, Confusion, and Corruption in “Reform” Policies

(p. C3) Up until the Covid pandemic, I spent years traversing the country to explore the Chinese Communist Party archives from the reform period. Access was at times surprisingly easy, and my findings were eye-opening.

. . .

The archives suggest that officials were aware of reform’s contradictions from its earliest days. Remnants of the command economy combined with what one economist called “selected, pasteurized, partial, truncated, restricted and disjointed pieces of market and private property policy.” The outcome, said Liu Guoguang, a professor of economics and alternate member of the party’s Central Committee, was “a confused economic system.”

Private ownership of intellectual property had no place in this system, and its theft was actively encouraged throughout the party hierarchy. Two government ministries jointly circulated a directive on counterfeiting in 1983, noting that due to the country’s legal obligations, it was necessary with such goods to “change the name of the product.” As one report noted, “We need a unified approach towards copying” so that “the quality of the copied equipment can be guaranteed.”

The counterfeiting of computer technology assumed particular importance after Zhao Ziyang, the country’s premier from 1980 to 1987, read “The Third Wave,” by the American futurist Alvin Toffler. The book predicted that, in the wake of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, a third revolution would be based on the computer. In October 1983, Zhao proposed skipping the second wave altogether: “Time and tide wait for no one, opportunity knocks but once,” he pronounced. To leap into the digital era, China would need to imitate and reverse engineer foreign products.

But the copying wasn’t limited to computer technology. By 2001, China was awash in fake pharmaceutical products and pirated Hollywood movies on DVD. China’s accession to the WTO that year led to a bonanza of copying, for which few consumers paid more than ordinary Chinese: Electric kettles blew up, brake pads failed. Spices contained paraffin wax, noodles used a red dye that caused cancer, and rice wine was made with cheap industrial-grade alcohol. In 2007, the government estimated that one-fifth of the food and consumer goods it checked were substandard or tainted.

China’s financial system rested on similarly shaky foundations. By the summer of 1988, the pace of growth led to double-digit inflation, and state banks were unable to pay villagers for their contractual deliveries of grain, cotton and other essential products. Protests in 1989, in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere across the country, were as much about economic as political discontent. About a fifth of the files in the party archives deal with debt—lending to solve the debt, further debt due to the lending, more lending to solve an even larger debt.

. . .

The image that emerges from the archives is very different from the impression that many have of today’s China. From a distance, the country’s gleaming cities may resemble an impressively shipshape tanker, with the captain and his lieutenants standing proudly on the bridge, but below deck, sailors are desperately pumping water and plugging holes to keep the vessel afloat.

For the full essay, see:

Frank Dikötter. “China’s Economic Miracle That Wasn’t.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, November 19, 2022): C3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 17, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

The essay quoted above is adapted from Dikötter’s book:

Dikötter, Frank. China after Mao: The Rise of a Superpower. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2022.

Chinese Protestors Seek “Freedom” and “Rule of Law”

(p. A1) BEIJING—Protests are erupting in major cities in China over President Xi Jinping’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19, an unusual show of defiance in the country as the economic and social costs from snap lockdowns and other strict restrictions escalate.

. . .

(p. A8) The protests followed demonstrations on Friday [Nov. 25, 2022] in Urumqi, capital of the remote region of Xinjiang, where a deadly fire enraged residents who had struggled with lockdowns of more than 100 days. Residents flooded social media with comments suggesting that Covid restrictions contributed to a delay in putting out the fire, in which officials said 10 people died.

In Beijing, hundreds of protesters marched on Sunday night. A large police presence pinned protesters near the Liangmahe river, a popular spot for family picnics by day that is close to many foreign embassies. “Freedom,” the protesters shouted in unison.

. . .

Signs that unrest after the deadly fire in Urumqi was spreading beyond Xinjiang became apparent on Saturday [Nov. 26, 2022], when videos circulating on social media showed crowds gathering on a street in central Shanghai calling for a lifting of lockdowns. The videos were verified by Storyful, a social-media research company owned by News Corp, parent company of The Wall Street Journal.

. . .

One middle-aged Shanghai resident said he stopped by on his way home and joined the crowd in singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical “Les Misérables” and the Chinese national anthem. A friend who grew up in Xinjiang began to cry, he said.

“[We in] Shanghai can relate to that, because we had gone through such a long lockdown,” he said, referring to more than two months of iron-fisted Covid controls imposed on the city earlier this year.

The mood intensified. Using expletives and call-and-response chanting, some protesters began to denounce both Mr. Xi and his Covid-control strategy. Another clip from the scene showed demonstrators standing across from lines of police.

The clip showed one man chanting, “The Communist Party.” Others responded, “Step down.”

“Xi Jinping,” the man shouted. “Step down,” others responded.

. . .

On Chinese social-media, users raced against censors to spread images and news of the protests, along with expressions of solidarity. “Long live the people, may the dead rest in peace,” said a message that spread widely. Others posted an image of a blank white sheet of paper—a nod to censorship—with the words “I love you, China. I love you, young people.”

The protests continued Sunday [Nov. 27, 2022], with students gathering around noon on the campus of Tsinghua University, another elite school in Beijing. Some in the crowd carried sheets of paper that were either blank or had an exclamation mark inside a red circle—the symbol that indicates an online post has been deleted—according to witness video footage shared with the Journal. The students sang songs and chanted “Democracy and rule of law!”

For the full story, see:

Lingling Wei, Brian Spegele and Wenxin Fan. “Protests Spread in Challenge To Xi’s Regime.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Nov. 28, 2022): A1 & A8.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed dates, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Nov. 28, 2022, and has the title “Chinese Protests Spread Over Government’s Covid Restrictions.” Where the versions differ, the quotes above follow the more detailed online version.)

Chinese Citizens Tune Out Randomly Linked Nonsense Propaganda Phrases

(p. B1) China is now one of the last places on earth trying to eliminate Covid-19, and the Communist Party has relied heavily on propaganda to justify increasingly long lockdowns and burdensome testing requirements that can sometimes lead to three tests a week.

The barrage of messages — online and on television, loudspeakers and social platforms — has become so overbearing that some citizens say it has drowned out their frustrations, downplayed the reality of the country’s tough coronavirus rules and, occasionally, bordered on the absurd.

. . .

(p. B4) Yang Xiao, a 33-year-old cinematographer in Shanghai who was confined to his apartment for two months during a lockdown this year, had grown tired of them all.

“With the Covid control, propaganda and state power expanded and occupied all aspects of our life,” he said in a phone interview. Day after day, Mr. Yang heard loudspeakers in his neighborhood repeatedly broadcasting a notice for P.C.R. testing. He said the announcements had disturbed his sleep at night and woke him up at dawn.

“Our life was dictated and disciplined by propaganda and state power,” he said.

To communicate his frustrations, Mr. Yang selected 600 common Chinese propaganda phrases, such as “core awareness,” “obey the overall situation” and “the supremacy of nationhood.” He gave each phrase a number and then put the numbers into Google’s Random Generator, a program that scrambles data.

He ended up with senseless phrases such as “detect citizens’ life and death line,” “strictly implement functions” and “specialize overall plans without slack.” Then he used a voice program to read the phrases aloud and played the audio on a loudspeaker in his neighborhood.

No one seemed to notice the five minutes of computer-generated nonsense.

When Mr. Yang uploaded a video of the scene online, however, more than 1.3 million people viewed it. Many praised the way he used government language as satire. Chinese propaganda was “too absurd to be criticized using logic,” Mr. Yang said. “I simulated the discourse like a mirror, reflecting its own absurdity.”

His video was taken down by censors.

. . .

In June [2022], dozens of residents protested against the police and Covid control workers who installed chain-link fences around neighborhood apartments. When a protester was shoved into a police car and taken away, one man shouted: “Freedom! Equality! Justice! Rule of law!” Those words would be familiar to most Chinese citizens: They are commonly cited by state media as core socialist values under Mr. Xi.

For the full story, see:

Zixu Wang. “China’s Covid Propaganda, Often Seen as Absurd, Stirs Rebellion.” The New York Times (Friday, September 30, 2022): B1 & B4.

[Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.]

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 29, 2022, and has the title “China’s ‘Absurd’ Covid Propaganda Stirs Rebellion.”)

Voice of America Taught, by Example, “The Norms and Practices of Western Discourse”

(p. A15) Mention the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to most Americans, and they will give you a blank look.

. . .

. . . it amuses Mark Pomar, an American scholar of Russia who between 1982 and 1986 was assistant director of Radio Liberty (the Russian service of RFE/RL) and director of VOA’s U.S.S.R. division.

In the preface to “Cold War Radio,” his insightful, absorbing account of the remarkable work of these services, Mr. Pomar recalls an incident from 1984, when he traveled to Cavendish, Vt., to interview the exiled author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Checking into his hotel, Mr. Pomar announced that he was from Voice of America, and the clerk asked if that was “a national singing group.”

Today it seems obvious that VOA would interview Solzhenitsyn. Yet in 1984 VOA was still keeping its distance from the famous dissident, because many in the American foreign policy establishment were still committed to détente, the policy that regarded open criticism of the Soviet leadership as a barrier to nuclear-arms control.

To President Ronald Reagan, détente was “a one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to achieve its own aims.” So in that spirit, Mr. Pomar spent three days recording 20 hours of Solzhenitsyn reading from “August 1914,” the first in a cycle of novels about the travails of modern Russia. Despite being nine parts polemic to one part literature, the edited on-air reading was a success, and Solzhenitsyn joined the list of distinguished émigrés whose bonds with Russia, ruptured by repression, were partially mended by America’s “Cold War radios.”

. . .

These people had all been erased (we would say “canceled”) by the regime, so their commentary was implicitly political. But the radios also held explicitly political debates on extremely divisive topics. And no matter how heated these exchanges, the hosts insisted on maintaining “the norms and practices of Western discourse.” Mr. Pomar reminds us (lest we forget) that these norms and practices, so crucial to democracy, were an essential part of the message.

For the full review, see:

Martha Bayles. “BOOKSHELF; Listen and You Shall Hear.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, October 24, 2022): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date October 23, 2022, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Cold War Radio’ Review: Listen and You Shall Hear.”)

The book under review is:

Pomar, Mark G. Cold War Radio: The Russian Broadcasts of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2022.

Communists in Latvia: “Not Liberation, but Occupation”

(p. A8) REZEKNE, Latvia — Deported to Siberia by the Soviet secret police as a child and stranded there for more than a decade, Dr. Juris Vidins has for years cursed the large statue of a Red Army soldier looming over the center of his hometown in eastern Latvia. An inscription at its base honors the Soviet “liberators” who drove out the Nazis in 1944 — and who sent his father to a prison camp and the rest of the family to a frozen wilderness.

“This was not liberation, but occupation,” Dr. Vidins, 84, said, glowering at the statue of a Soviet soldier cradling a machine gun.

“They liberated me from my family, they liberated us from our property and everything we had,” he said. “If that is liberation, I don’t want a monument to it.”

. . .

The war in Ukraine has largely vindicated longstanding warnings by Baltic States that Russia is an aggressive power that cannot be trusted. But it has also blunted its capacity to terrify its neighbors, reducing the willingness of ethnic Russians abroad to rally publicly to Moscow’s side and exposing the weaknesses of its military machine.

For the full story, see:

Andrew Higgins. “Soviet Statues Are Latest Targets of Europe’s Anger.” The New York Times (Monday, September 26, 2022): A8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 25, 2022, and has the title “Soviet Monuments Become Latest Target of Backlash Against War in Ukraine.”)

Weary and Angry with Lockdowns in China, “Everyone Is Scared”

(p. A12) In the hours before the southern Chinese city of Chengdu entered a coronavirus lockdown, Matthew Chen visited four vegetable markets in an attempt to stock up on fresh food. But seemingly the entire city had the same idea, and by the time he got to each place, most of the shelves had been stripped bare, except for hot peppers and fruit, he said.

Mr. Chen, a white-collar worker in his 30s, managed to scavenge enough cherry tomatoes, meat and greens for about one day, and since then has been ordering grocery deliveries to tide him through the lockdown, which began on Friday. But he worries about whether that supply will remain stable, and how much longer he will have to rely on it.

“The longer a lockdown goes, the more problems emerge, and the harder it is to tolerate it,” he said, noting that the Chengdu government had not given a timeline for reopening.

. . .

The challenges in enforcing such extensive controls are daunting, perhaps more so now than at any other point in the pandemic. Nearly three years of on-and-off lockdowns have lashed the economy, sending unemployment soaring, especially among young people. The country is increasingly isolated, as the rest of the world largely abandons Covid restrictions. New subvariants are ever more transmissible. And the seemingly endless restrictions leave more ordinary Chinese people wearier by the day.

. . .

Chengdu officials themselves have already tested residents’ trust, after the authorities last week ordered a man detained for 15 days, accusing him of spreading false rumors on social media about a looming lockdown. Two days later, when the city did actually lock down, social media erupted with support for the man and anger at the government.

“Everyone is scared, scared that the situation will become like Shanghai,” said Mr. Chen, the office worker, who had traveled to Chengdu on business before becoming trapped there by the restrictions.

Still, he saw little alternative but to bear with the situation. “Personally, I’m extremely fed up with and not supportive of these policies. But there’s nothing I can do,” he said. “I can only wait.”

For the full story, see:

Vivian Wang. “As Beijing Imposes More Covid Lockdowns Across China, ‘Everyone Is Scared’.” The New York Times (Tuesday, September 6, 2022): A12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version has the date Sept. 5, 2022, and has the title “As China Imposes More Covid Lockdowns, ‘Everyone Is Scared’.”)

“In the Face of the Sickles, What Can the Wheat Do?”

A low-budget movie depicting a poor couple’s struggle in rural China surprised many with a run at the Chinese box office that dwarfed some blockbusters. Now, many are wondering why they can’t watch it.

“Return to Dust” depicts two outcasts, a woman with a physical disability and a farmer too poor to marry, who get together in a marriage arranged by their families. With a realistic style, Li Ruijun, the director, tells the story of the hardships they face.

The movie, which features mostly locals in China’s western Gansu province rather than professional actors, premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year and started screening in China in July. It quickly gained a following on social media. By early September, daily ticket revenue topped 10 million yuan ($1.4 million), surpassing big-budget movies such as “Minions: The Rise of Gru.”

. . .

The movie’s disappearance came just ahead of a twice-a-decade Communist Party Congress in mid-October, at which President Xi Jinping is expected to secure a third term in power.

Hashtags about the movie and its removal on social-media platform Weibo became unclickable, a sign that the discussion was considered sensitive. Some blog posts on China’s do-everything app, WeChat, that asked why the movie was removed online also disappeared.

Weibo didn’t respond to a request for comment. iQIYI and Huawei Technologies Co., which operate major streaming platforms, didn’t reply to requests for comment. Tencent Holdings Ltd., which owns Tencent Video and WeChat, also didn’t respond to requests for comment.

China’s National Radio and Television Administration, the country’s broadcasting authority, didn’t respond to a faxed request for comment.

. . .

Many social-media discussions centered on how the lives of the couple in the movie were exploited by those in power. For example, in one scene, a wealthy man in the village pressures the husband to donate blood for his sick father.

In a line from the movie widely cited by social media users, the husband says, “In the face of the sickles, what can the wheat do?”

For the full story, see:

Liyan Qi. “?Chinese Fans of Popular Movie ‘Return to Dust’ Wonder What Happened to It.” wsj.com Posted Sunday, October 2, 2022), URL: https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinese-fans-of-popular-movie-return-to-dust-wonder-what-happened-to-it-11664721604?mod=Searchresults_pos1&page=1

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: As of 10/6/22, the article had not appeared in the print version of the WSJ.)

Young Men in Russia Vote with Their Feet Against Putin’s Tyranny

(p. A12) A little more than 12 hours after he heard that Russian civilians could be pressed into military service in the Ukraine war, the tour guide said he bought a plane ticket and a laptop, changed money, wrapped up his business, kissed his crying mother goodbye and boarded a plane out of his country, with no idea when he might return.

. . .

“I was sitting and thinking about what I could die for, and I didn’t see any reason to die for the country,” said the tour guide, 23, who, like others interviewed for this article, declined to give his name for fear of reprisals.

Since President Vladimir V. Putin’s announcement on Wednesday of a new troop call-up, some Russian men who had once thought they were safe from the front lines have fled the country. And they have done so in a rush, lining up at the borders and paying rising prices to catch flights to countries that allow them to enter without visas, such as Armenia, Georgia, Montenegro and Turkey.

. . .

In principle, European Union officials say they stand in solidarity with the men who don’t want to fight. “Russians are voting with their feet, basically, ” said Peter Stano, a spokesman for the European Commission.

. . .

A 26-year-old merchant mariner who gave his name only as Dmitriy said he would wait in Turkey until his next ship job began in December [2022], to ensure that he would not be drafted in the meantime.

. . .

The mariner said that most of his friends had stayed in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, believing the war would not affect them much. He said most were rushing to get out.

“Lots of people want to leave Russia now because they don’t want to fight for the opinion of one person,” he said, dismissing the invasion as a personal project of Mr. Putin.

“It is not about defending your family,” he said.

For the full story, see:

Ben Hubbard. “Fearing a Military Call-Up, Men Rush to Leave Russia.” The New York Times (Friday, September 23, 2022): A12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version has the date Sept. 22, 2022, and has the title “‘A Lot of Panic’: Russian Men, Fearing Ukraine Draft, Seek Refuge Abroad.”)

Russian Soldiers See Free Ukrainians Flourish

(p. A18) In early April [2022] I walked into Andriivka, a village about 40 miles from Kyiv, with my battalion in the Ukrainian territorial defense forces. We were among the first Ukrainian troops to enter the village after a Russian occupation that had lasted about a month. . . .

The Russians killed civilians in Andriivka, and they ransacked and looted houses. The locals told us something else the Russians had done: One day they took mopeds and bicycles out of some of the yards and rode around on them in the street like children, filming one another with their phones and laughing with delight, as if they’d gotten some long-awaited birthday present.

A few days earlier we were in Bucha, a suburb northwest of Kyiv that was subjected to an infamously brutal occupation. The people there told us that when the first Russian convoy entered the town, the troops asked if they were in Kyiv; they could not believe that such idyllic parks and cottages could exist outside a capital. Then they looted the local houses thoroughly. They took money, cheap electronics, alcohol, clothes and watches. But, the locals said, they seemed perplexed by the robotic vacuum cleaners, and they always left those.

One resident, who told me that she was taken hostage by the Russian soldiers in her house, said they could not get over the fact that she had two bathrooms and kept insisting that she must have more people living with her.

This war is Vladimir Putin’s fatal mistake. Not because of economic sanctions and not because of the huge losses of troops and tanks but because Mr. Putin’s soldiers are from some of the poorest and most rural regions of Russia. Before this war, these men were encouraged to believe that Ukrainians lived in poverty and were culturally, economically and politically inferior.

. . .

Ten years ago Ukrainians could drink beer with Russians after the European Championship soccer matches, but we didn’t realize then that Ukraine was moving forward and Russia was moving in the opposite direction. Ukraine was trying to build a path to freedom, and Russia was building a path back to the Soviet Union with Kremlin TV and petrodollars.

For the full commentary see:

Yegor Firsov. “Russian Troops See That Ukrainians Live Better Than They Do.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022): A18.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date August 23, 2022, and has the title “Ukraine’s Russian ‘Liberators’ Are Seeing That We Live Better Than They Do.”)

Those Who Survived Dictatorship Know We Need “More Freedom, More Speech, Not Less”

(p. A19) The left’s reaction to Mr. Trump’s rhetoric was instructive. Anyone who mentioned the lab-leak theory was assailed as pro-Trump. Social-media companies removed posts mentioning it. By January 2021, it was obvious that shutting down debate was the true antiscience position. Invaluable months were lost, time the Chinese Communist Party used to destroy data and spread disinformation about the virus’s origins. We may never know the truth, but we do know there was a coverup.

Increasing numbers of Americans believe their freedom is under attack, and I agree. . . .

Schools are being pressured to remove books and cancel professors for spreading the “wrong” ideas. These sentiments are all too familiar to me, and to anyone who has survived life in a dictatorship. The only answer is more freedom, more speech, not less.

For the full commentary see:

Garry Kasparov. “‘Woke’ Is a Bad Word for a Real Threat to American Democracy.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021): A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date November 17, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.

Young Despairing Chinese Adopt the “Run Philosophy”

(p. B1) “I can’t stand the thought that I will have to die in this place,” said Cheng Xinyu, a 19-year-old writer in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, who is thinking of migrating to foreign countries before the government’s iron fist falls on her.

She can’t imagine having children in China, either.

“I like children, but I don’t dare to have them here because I won’t be able to protect them,” she said, citing concerns like pandemic control workers breaking into apartments to spray disinfectant, killing pets and requiring residents to leave the keys in their apartment door locks.

Ms. Cheng is part of a new trend known as the “run philosophy,” or “runxue,” that preaches running away from China to seek a safer and brighter future. She and millions of others also reposted a video in which a young man pushed back against police officers who warned that his family would be punished for three generations if he refused to go to a quarantine camp. “This will be our last generation,” he told the police.

His response became an online meme that was later censored. Many young people identified with the sentiment, saying they would be reluctant to have children under the increasingly authoritarian government.

. . .

(p. B3) The “run philosophy” and the “last generation” are the rallying cries for many Chinese in their 20s and 30s who despair about their country and their future. They are entering the labor force, getting married and deciding whether to have children in one of the country’s bleakest moments in decades. Censored and politically suppressed, some are considering voting with their feet while others want to protest by not having children.

. . .

Doris Wang, a young professional in Shanghai, said she had never planned to have children in China. Living through the harsh lockdown in the past two months reaffirmed her decision. Children should be playing in nature and with one another, she said, but they’re locked up in apartments, going through rounds of Covid testing, getting yelled at by pandemic control workers and listening to stern announcements from loudspeakers on the street.

“Even adults feel very depressed, desperate and unhealthy, not to mention children,” she said. “They’ll definitely have psychological issues to deal with when they grow up.” She said she planned to migrate to a Western country so she could have a normal life and dignity.

Compounding the frustrations, headlines are full of bad news about jobs. There will be more than 10 million college graduates in China this year, a record. But many businesses are laying off workers or freezing head counts as they try to survive the lockdowns and regulatory crackdowns.

. . .

“When you find that as an individual you have zero ability to fight back the state apparatus, your only way out is to run,” said Ms. Wang, the young professional in Shanghai.

For the full commentary see:

Li Yuan. “The New New World; Young Chinese Feel Suffocated.” The New York Times (Wednesday, May 25, 2022): B1 & B3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 24, 2022, and has the title “The New New World;‘The Last Generation’: The Disillusionment of Young Chinese.”