Tea Leaf Nation

What's Wrong With this Chinese Town?

Officials in Sihong County appear out of control, and Chinese media is starting to smell blood.

They worked under cover of night in early June, dumping truckloads of dirt on the new highway and planting fast-growing soybean seeds in the thin soil. Then they erected a sign alerting passersby to the freshly sown crop. This wasn't some ecological initiative like urban roof gardens or solar street lamps; it was an attempt literally to cover up a sprawling highway construction project. Officials in Sihong, a county of about one million people in China's wealthy, coastal Jiangsu province, had built the network of blacktop without a needed green light from provincial land management authorities. (China has strict quotas on how much arable land can be converted for construction projects due to concerns about food security and grain self-sufficiency.) Over the last week, their bumbling efforts to cover their tracks, with a field of beans, have made them the laughing-stock of Chinese state media and the country's Internet.

The liberal Beijing News broke the story on July 25, quoting a local truck driver who said he had been part of the team hired to unload the soil. He claimed the dirt, which came from construction sites, was dumped and bulldozed flat. The article contained photos showing how one need only dig a half-meter hole in the soybean field by hand before hitting asphalt. It didn't take long for the story to spread. In a July 28 editorial, state-run People's Daily called the scene a farce and asked, "How do we bring the curtain down?" That same day, the official Xinhua news service called the Sihong bean caper "preposterous" and said the local government had incurred the "ridicule of everyone."

Media didn't have to search long to dredge up a few precedents. The People's Daily recalled that another county in Jiangsu had paid farmers to lay out straw and corn on a construction site in 2010; another in the eastern province of Hubei laid plastic over a concrete road and planted a vegetable garden in 2011 in order to try to evade remote sensing technology that China has been using since 2000 to ferret out illegal building projects. But as the story percolated, many realized that Sihong was not only the birthplace of the amusing bean fiasco, but also the hometown of a group of seven petitioners who on the morning of July 16 had gathered outside the offices of the China Youth Daily, a state-run paper, in Beijing and swallowed pesticide. The mass suicide attempt was intended as a protest against land seizures by officials back home. The group had tried bringing their grievances to government officers earlier, but to no avail. Here was a story smack at the intersection of awful and the absurd.

The soybean story gave a legitimizing cast to the pesticide protest. Prominent Beijing-based commentator Cao Jingxing took to Weibo, China's largest microblogging platform, to remark, "It does not seem strange when you have a place with a government as extraordinary as this that its people would run to Beijing and drink pesticide on the street." As more details emerged, so too did the terrible logic behind the Sihong petitioner's decision to drink poison. Chinese with grievances at the local government level are allowed to bring their petitions to Beijing for resolution. But the system, based on centuries-old tradition, is hopelessly broken and ends in proper mediation for only a lucky few. The Beijing News reported on July 29 that the group had tried 29 times to petition the government with no result, and that their appearance on July 16 was their third visit to the paper. It said their dispute was linked to another construction project, also in Sihong, that had resulted in the forced demolition of many homes. Villagers told the paper that those who complained or refused to accept the government's compensation deal were kidnapped from their homes and held until they signed demolition agreements.

The picture that began to emerge of Sihong was a place of both bumbling incompetence and vicious thuggery. Wang Xing, a criminal lawyer with the Beijing-based Huicheng Law Firm, noted on his Weibo account that media reports had said the Sihong petitioners had been trying in vain for years to get the central government's and media's attention. He wrote to his nearly 30,000 followers that it took a mass suicide attempt to "grab the attention of a society numb to the point of necrosis." (The post was subsequently deleted.)

The latest act in this bizarre play affords telling insight into the cycle of bad behavior that often happens at the local government level in China. State media said on July 28 that 14 Sihong officials had been punished for mismanaging the construction project that had sent the seven petitioners to Beijing. The People's Daily wrote that Sihong's Communist Party secretary was given a warning; the current and former party secretaries of Xiangyang town in Sihong were both made to listen to "admonishing lectures." Meanwhile, it added, the petitioners, who all survived, were criminally detained on suspicion of "provocation." Live Nanjing, one of the Jiangsu provincial capital's main news channels, posted the news on its website, and readers who commented seemed baffled. One said the story made his head spin. Another said the Chinese legal system has a long way to go. A third said the only reason the officials were "punished" was because they'd failed to keep the peace.

Image: sihong.gov.cn/fair use

Tea Leaf Nation

The 'Anti-Corruption' Campaign That Wasn't

Former security czar Zhou Yongkang was deposed because he lost a power struggle, not because he was corrupt.


What follows is an abridged translation of a personal blog entry originally published in Chinese. --The editors

On July 29, the Chinese central government officially announced that former minister of state security and former member of the elite Politburo Standing Committee Zhou Yongkang was suspected of "serious violations of [Communist Party] discipline," and that the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection would commence a review. Zhou Yongkang is thus far the highest-ranking target claimed by Chinese President Xi Jinping's "anti-corruption movement," which began in January 2013 and continues in earnest. But the so-called corruption crackdown is, at its core, a power struggle under another name. China's palace politics are notoriously opaque; the red walls of Zhongnanhai, the government compound in central Beijing, are thick. But Robert Daly, a scholar at the Washington, DC-based Kissinger Institute on China and the U.S., told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that Zhou is closely associated with fallen Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, and that "Rumors that Zhou would be investigated have been circulating since the Bo scandal broke in early 2012." 

Everyone knows that if Chinese central authorities actually wanted to fight corruption, there would be no shortage of free, unrestricted media and civil society organizations criticizing and tracking official behavior. Instead, over the past few years, authorities have actively prohibited independent and free media from performing their oversight function, while also retaliating against people like Xu Zhiyong, a member of the so-called New Citizens Movement who has demanded an end to corruption and the disclosure of officials' private assets. These actions prove out the hypocrisy underlying the party's anti-corruption efforts.

Although party authorities have gone after some corruption officials, they have been selective. The right to decide whom to prosecute lies in the hands of those with power in the party, and the outcomes aren't dictated by which officials are actually most corrupt. Instead, the anti-corruption move has become a tool to strike at one's political opponents in internecine power struggles. Xi has used this tool to consolidate authority at the center.

If party authorities really wanted to stop corruption, they would not maintain such an adversarial posture towards well-known foreign media operating in the country; instead, they would welcome both domestic and foreign media as watchdogs. The New York Times and Bloomberg news have been providing high-quality news by respected reporters inside China. But because they investigated the massive family wealth of both Xi and then-Premier Wen Jiabao, the websites of both services have been blocked by China's so-called Great Firewall of Censorship. That block, which was erected in July 2012 against Bloomberg and October 2012 against the Times as punishment for the reports on Xi and Wen, continues to this day.

I was once an editor at a major Chinese online portal. During my tenure there, I received a number of internal, confidential communiqués from propaganda authorities, organs that many group together and ironically label the "Ministry of Truth." I believe these directives, taken together, provide the written history of this era of preposterously harsh restrictions on speech.

One order, dated June 29, 2012, coming on the heels of Bloomberg's report on Xi, calls the report "completely vile" and prohibits "every website, without exception," from posting it. It adds that any social media accounts that re-tweet "the article or any related harmful information will be closed without exception."  

In October 2012, after the New York Times report on Wen hit the wires, the Ministry of Truth issued another directive asking "all micro-blogs, blogs, and discussion forums" to delete both the article, which it called "an attack on central leaders," as well as "all related information and comments." On November 25, after the Times' English and Chinese-language sites had already been blocked, the Ministry issued another directive: "Please use the key terms ‘Ping An,' ‘Ping An Insurance,'  ‘Tai Hong' [all companies mentioned in the Times report], ‘Wen family members,' etcetera to perform a domestic search." Those who found "[related] forwards or discussions" were to "report it immediately, then delete the content."

It's clear that the Ministry of Truth rigorously protects central party officials and their families from disadvantageous news. They accomplish this in part by labeling such news "attacks" or "defamation" and requesting "comprehensive" blocking and deletion of the same. That's why, after Jiang Jiemin, then the corrupt chairman of China National Petroleum Corporation, was made director of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, the Ministry issued a March 10 order requiring "comprehensive deletion" of "harmful posts" and the blocking of keywords related to "revelations of massive corruption [by Jiang] and capital flows to Zhou Yongkang." By September 2013, Jiang had been removed from his post and placed under investigation for abuse of power and corruption.

The Ministry of Truth's protection once extended beyond Zhou's circle, to Zhou himself. An October 2013 communiqué asked recipients to "please clean up" any content relating to "a special task force" set up by Xi to investigate Zhou. (Just days earlier, the Twitter account of state broadcaster CCTV had tweeted that a "special unit" had been established to investigate Zhou, even mentioning him by name; CCTV later deleted the post and claimed its account had been hacked.) In December 2013, another order called for a "comprehensive clean up" of information related to Zhou from microblogs, popular mobile chat platform WeChat, online discussion forums including the popular Baidu Tieba, and other interactive platforms. It also asked recipients to keep an eye on "mobile clients" of those platforms, who were to be prevented from spreading related information. Then in early March, just days after a spokesperson for a political advisory body called the CPPCC subtly suggested Zhou was in trouble, a directive wrote, "Higher authorities have notified that all reports, articles, topics, plans, etcetera" about Zhou's son, Zhou Bin and Zhou Bin's "family network" must be "pulled backstage immediately." Violators would be "severely punished" by the National Internet Information Office.

If central party authorities really wanted to fight corruption, the propaganda authorities that it controls would not be protecting officials in a way that creates an institutional environment conducive to corruption and rent-seeking. The crackdown on Zhou is a product of the will to power. When the Ministry of Truth lifted its protection on July 29, it was clear that Zhou had lost the power struggle. 

As of today, China's party authorities continue to prohibit the existence of free and unrestricted media. Criticisms of central officials continue to elicit retaliation. And Xu Zhiyong and other prisoners of conscience continue to sit in jail cells. As long as this is all true, any so-called anti-corruption efforts look like nothing more than a tool to aggregate power and an excuse to strike down political enemies.

Translated by David Wertime. 

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