‘Rule by Fear?’

A ChinaFile Conversation

In the just over three years since Xi Jinping assumed leadership of China, observers and scholars of the country have increasingly coalesced around the idea that Xi’s term in office has coincided with a shift in the tone, if not the practice, of Chinese politics. Earlier this week, legal scholar Eva Pils, writing for the University of Nottingham, cited televised confessions, abductions, new legislation on national security, changes to criminal procedure, and surveillance of civil society organizations among other developments in the political sphere that to her constitute “the rise of rule by fear.” In an essay last week, political scientist Minxin Pei, used the phrase “rule of fear” to describe a similar list of recent events, including disappearances of business leaders and anxiety among government bureaucrats, in his assessment that China is engaged in a “revival of totalitarian scare tactics.” China, Pei writes, “is once again gripped by fear in a way it has not been since the era of Mao Zedong.”

How apt is this characterization? What does it mean for the prospects of political and economic reform in China? And how, if at all, should it change U.S. policy? —The Editors


In the course of my research on Chinese human rights lawyers over the past several years, I got to hear a lot about the techniques the government allegedly uses to control them. I came to refer to them as “fear techniques.” They included tracking and following; soft detention; “being traveled”; being asked in for “chats”; criminal, administrative, and judicial detention; violent attacks; forced disappearance; torture and—in one or two particularly disturbing instances—brief spells of medically unmotivated, forced psychiatric detention (被精神病). Some of these techniques made some reference to legal rules, but in their actual use of these rules against human rights lawyers, the authorities invariably, and quite often egregiously, broke the law.

Those forcibly “disappeared,” for example, were, in addition to being locked up, reportedly pressured to “confess” and “repent.” They usually also had to promise—in writing as well as in front of a camera recording their statements—that they would stop their work as human rights defenders: stop taking on certain kinds of cases, stop meeting each other, and so on. It did not matter that there were no crimes to confess to and that promises made under duress were not binding. As one lawyer commented in 2011, “Not only did they want to make you say that black was white, you also had to explain why black was white.” The point, he thought, was to show who was master and show that no law—not even that of elementary logic—constrained the power he had tried to resist. The authorities using these fear techniques were intent on stopping the lawyers’ efforts to represent their clients and to challenge power abuses, while dreaming of (if not actually building) a better system.

As the language of reform —according to a dictionary definition, “improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory”—which was so long considered axiomatic for discussions of the Chinese legal system, is now being questioned more widely, I would suggest that rule by fear should be considered as a centrally important element of the “new normal” under Xi Jinping’s party leadership.

Deng Xiaoping’s post-Mao “Reform and Opening” was driven by certain liberal ideas, including the belief that well-enforced laws protecting economic and other liberties were necessary to promote economic growth. The reality was of course more complex. For one thing, some rises in prosperity seemed unhampered by the lack of rights protection and rampant corruption. An example of this is the way land was redistributed during the process of urbanization. The methods for achieving redistribution often violate the basic rights of those being evicted, but the process is quick and effective. Another aspect of this complexity is that, especially after the repression of the 1989 Democracy Spring movement, the idea of reform was de-politicized. It shifted toward hoping for top-down “rule of law reform” and incremental growth of “civil society.” As a result, observers in- and outside China were led to regard certain challenges to the government as too radical. The repression of such efforts, conversely, was dismissed as merely incidental, hence systemically insignificant departures from the (unquestioned) reform path.

In the Xi Jinping era, some changes that had been under way for some time have become more pronounced. As early as in 2013, there was an anti-liberal shift of rhetoric and attitude, for example in Document Number Nine, which, inter alia, dismisses the very idea of universal values. Then in 2014, there was the ominous announcement that “Party Leadership and Socialist Rule of Law are identical.” It heralded legislative changes marking a further anti-liberal re-conception of the legal process. The National Security Law framed the struggle for security as one against foreign and domestic enemies, including perceived “enemy forces” within wider Chinese society as well as those considered disloyal within the Party. The Draft Foreign NGO Management Law followed this trend by treating foreign civil society organizations as, in principle, suspect and potentially subversive.

These changes have allowed rule by fear techniques to play a more and more prominent role, and to be applied in a more and more open manner. The reorganization of the criminal process offers good insights into how rule by fear was developed and how it ties in with a general anti-liberal re-conception of law under Xi. For example, revised Criminal Procedure Law rules on “surveillance in a designated place,” effective since 2013, suspend most protections a suspect ought to have in the ordinary criminal process. Framed as rules applying to cases of suspected state security offences, they create a zone of exception from legality that is ostensibly based on legal rules. They also provide perfect opportunities for torture and terror, of which the recent attacks on human rights and public interest lawyers, journalists, labor activists, women’s rights activists, and so on have made use. In other words, whereas in 2011, the authorities made people disappear stealthily and generally without admitting that this was happening, forced disappearances have now effectively become part of the system, and the authorities carry them out “in accordance with law.”

We could see the results as one after another distraught individual was wheeled out on national television to “confess” to wrongdoing, express repentance, and (in some cases) humbly ask to be given another chance, shortly after being disappeared. The Party-State seems intent on advertising its repression. As was quickly observed, these confessions made very little sense, but then again that was the point. Precisely because they made no sense and offended basic principles of criminal justice such as the presumption of innocence, recorded “confessions” were effective in projecting unlimited, in principle arbitrary, and all the more fearful state power.

In televising and advertising its repression, the Party-State clearly seeks to amplify these fear effects. By detaining foreigners in China and allegedly orchestrating cross-border abductions of Chinese and foreign nationals, as well as submitting the victims of these abductions to the same kinds of measures, it has taken its visual repression even further. It is not only transmitting images across its borders, but also signalling to the world that foreigners may become targets. It is thus exporting rule by fear techniques and making them a transnational phenomenon.

If there are reasons to remain optimistic about China’s trajectory of political-legal change, I think it is in considering the causes of the recent anti-liberal turn. They are likely to be the result of many perceived threats, including, it appears, threats of disloyalty and disobedience from within the Party. But at least in part, they reflect the rise of an increasingly vocal and independent civil society contending for political power. As the post-Mao liberal reform process is being closed down, this might be regarded as “Reform and Opening’s” unintended long-term consequence.

This post was originally published by the University of Nottingham.

I wonder if it is really that useful to speak generally about “fear” or “terror” in China, when the government’s policies have, up to now, been concentrated on some fairly specific groups, arguably none of which an average college-educated Chinese readily identifies with. First and foremost, the anti-corruption campaign against officials does not belong in the same category as the prosecution of rights lawyers, or increased pressures on NGOs. It targets government agents and, in the vast majority of circumstances, actually targets them for activities that the general public would readily recognize as corruption, not free speech or advocacy. Political motivations likely play a much larger role in the investigation and prosecution of more senior officials, but even there, very few, if any, are targeted due to their ideas or beliefs. The same logic applies to Chinese business leaders who have been swept up in corruption investigations: For the most part, the Party-State is targeting these people for their political ties and activities. As a general matter, there is little indication that the anti-corruption campaign per se has had a significant chilling effect on Chinese political discourse. An expansion of government oversight should not automatically trigger knee-jerk accusations of “spreading fear” among the general population.

The clamping down of certain kinds of rights advocacy and NGO activity is a different animal altogether, but one could still question whether it has really “spread fear” among the general intellectual population—or whether it even has the capacity to do so. Human rights lawyers and advocates are, in general, somewhat peripheral players in Chinese society and politics, as are foreign NGOs. One could argue, of course, that this is a lamentable state of affairs, one that is the product of decades of state pressure and conscious marginalization by a conservative and perhaps ideologically apathetic sociopolitical elite (I would not support these assessments wholeheartedly, but they are common) but that does not change that fact that, for example, relatively few legal professionals or scholars can relate to Pu Zhiqiang, Teng Biao, or even Xu Zhiyong. As for the Hong Kong booksellers, I would bet quite a bit of money that the vast majority of the Chinese online population was completely unaware of their recent plight.

This is not to deny that a sizable number of lawyers and scholars do indeed feel threatened by recent government activity, but merely to wonder whether a much larger number simply feel no connection to these events. Quite the opposite, they continue to pursue their own careers, argue about sociopolitical issues—including the economy, democracy, and social values, but in less radical terms—and complain about government policies from time to time. Occasionally, they might openly mock certain government activities (the recent Spring Festival Gala, for example), and they might see their posts deleted, but they will generally move on without much fear or concern, because things have always been like this, and the people who run into trouble belong, for now at least, to fairly distant social circles. Perhaps because government censorship has been fairly effective, perhaps because of the Great Firewall, or perhaps because China’s educated population is considerably more nationalist than the outside world seems to realize, the things that have recently sent many Western observers into a state of alarm likely do not affect their lives. This can easily change, but maybe we should wait until it actually does to declare that China is “once again gripped by fear.”

Fear is part of the arsenal of every state. The difference is in how, and against whom, it is deployed, and how many citizens of a given state have reason to be fearful. In China, in the explicitly totalitarian early 1970s, fear was built in to everyday life. Foreigners had little reason to be fearful for themselves by then, but fear was so generalized in those closing years of the Cultural Revolution and so severe were penalties for unsanctioned connections with the outside world—be it through art, books, music, ideas, or personal ties—that an unexpected, unscheduled encounter with a foreigner could spark visible panic.

The coercive state was evident in the routine enforcement of ideological conformity in the classroom, in the workplace, and in the surveillance built in to everyday life. It was also displayed in the street cabinets containing fuzzy black and white mug shots of executed citizens, red crosses crudely drawn across the faces. The prisons and labor camps were out of sight.

China still executes and imprisons more than many states. But everyday fear faded with the end of that era of all-pervasive, if inconsistent, ideology and new generations have grown up with little understanding of what their elders went through. Fear retreated from the general population to lodge in much smaller and more closely defined pockets of society. Even in the traumatic days following June 4, 1989, back in China again after an absence of some years, the routine levels of fear seemed lower to me than fifteen years before. Emotions were more complex: part shock, part disbelief, part anger, symptoms of rising expectations of great liberty that had been crushed but not eliminated.

The boom brought the confidence of growing affluence, expanding personal freedom, and the expectation the state would leave room for compliant citizens to live a life untroubled by coercion or arbitrary misuse of power. That was especially true if ambitions were confined to the material, but it also applied to those whom Eva Pils describes as reformers, those who worked to improve the system, not to overthrow it—especially those who believed that an evolving body of law could be the foundation of a new contract with the state. As the coercive state had retreated, the hope was that it would evolve into a system in which rules were codified, dependable, and relatively equitable.

The fear never quite vanished, for many who had lived through harder times, men like one eminent academic who, in a confessional moment, admitted to a stab of terror if a car pulled up beside him as he walked along the sidewalk. But there was still a choice to be made—between the Legalist and the Confucian view, between retaining the citizens loyalty through fear or through moral example, and for a period the state appeared to be moving towards the Confucian model.

For now, fear appears to be back in favor, as Eva Pils and Minxin Pei describe. It is the instrument of a Party/state that itself appears increasingly fearful, jumping at faint shadows, crushing butterflies with a sledgehammer. China is in a difficult economic transition and success is not guaranteed. The silence and passivity that a return to fear has produced are unlikely to help.

Under Xi, the crackdown on civil society in general, and on the Internet in particular, is both the Chinese leaders’ acting out of fear, and creating a sphere of fear in Chinese society. This can be described as “rule out of fear” as well as “rule by fear.”

(“Rule out of fear” (of a coup) can also apply to Xi’s “anti-corruption” campaign against high-level political opponents such as Zhou Yongkang, Xu Caihou and Ling Jihua.)

Three years into Xi’s rule, just how effective his “rule by fear” approach is is still an open question. In late 2015 and early 2016, the signs of resistance to this “rule by fear” are everywhere, both within the Party and in the general population. For example, on January 2, 2016, China Digital Times published a leaked propaganda directive which instructed:

“All (media) editors and reporters are kindly asked to take care not to use such negative political terms as ‘Zhao in spirit,’ ‘Honorable Zhao,’ ‘Zhao family member,’ ‘King Zhao,’ ‘your country,’ ‘your party,’ ‘toad worship,’ ‘toad fan,’ ‘my toad,’ ‘keep the toad, destroy the bun,’ ‘Honorable China,’ ‘Explosive Prize,’ ‘China pig,’ ‘Celestial Empire,’ ‘Honorable China pill,’ ‘society-sick-me-medicine,’ ‘big spender,’ ‘your daddy,’ ‘Breathe Spirit-Bottle,’ ‘Tricky Too-Big’ (carelessly altered titles for leaders) etc. (this list is incomplete) on Weibo, WeChat, and other public platforms.”

For those who are familiar with Chinese Internet political expressions, those “banned” terms are already popular memes; most of them cast a very critical light on the regime’s ideological foundation and especially on the political image of Xi Jinping. One of those words is a new nickname of Xi Jinping—“Da Sabi (大撒币).” It can be translated as “big spender,” a play on the literal translation of the words sā bì 撒币 “throw money” and “stupid cunt” (shǎ bī 傻逼). The nickname takes aim at the economic aid Xi has promised to foreign countries; the moniker is so widely used on Chinese social media that the censors’ repressive measures only draw more attention to it, and to the criticism embedded within it.

Such resistance should caution observers from overemphasizing the lasting impact of “rule by fear,” and make us attentive to a potential, even partial, failure of such “rule by fear.” Such a failure can only generate greater fear among top Chinese leaders, especially Xi himself, and lead to more desperate and risky actions in order to maintain his personal power legitimacy, especially while the Chinese economy starts to slow. Since political liberalization is not Xi’s option, he will either need stronger international validation, such as U.S. collaboration and support, or will need to create an external crisis with other countries to consolidate his power position at home. Judging from Xi’s character and performance over the past three years, we can not exclude the the latter scenario at all.

Why should a C.C.P. that has led the P.R.C. to wealth and power since Mao’s death be endangered because it disappears, imprisons, humiliates, and tortures hundreds of good people outside of the C.C.P. who try to help the weak, vulnerable, and tormented? This C.C.P., in an earlier era, when China was poor and isolated, did not fall when 35+ million innocent Chinese were starved to death in the Great Leap era famine or when 100+ million Chinese were innocent victims of vigilante terror during the so-called Cultural Revolution. What is different now that would threaten the C.C.P.’s monopoly of arbitrary power?

For one thing, Mao and his charisma are gone. No matter how much Supreme Leader Xi, treated as similar to an emperor, that is, an institution, not an individual, promotes his cult, Mao-like charisma is gone forever.

In addition, this C.C.P. is at war with itself. Networks of the rich and powerful include within themselves those who seek yet more wealth and power at any price and also those who fear that their family and fortune are threatened by the arbitrary system of power. Some flee or prepare to. Others lie low. Yet others brown-nose and continue to rise.

Still, I do not see how any of this threatens the Party-State, that is, unless the Party or the military splits against itself. My own hunch is that a real split is far from being the most likely future, although not impossible. It seems far more likely, however, that ever more repressive and chauvinistic forces will continue to win.

That is, unless something really bad happens to the economy. That also is not impossible. But it is far from certain. The most knowledgeable and hard-headed specialists differ on how awful the inevitable economic slow-down will be. Some see China growing fast enough that it still is on its way to becoming the world’s leading economic power, while others forecast bubbles bursting and the economy crashing. If the bears are correct and really bad things happen to the economy, then the future could auger a range of unhappy possibilities from chaos to yet deeper repression and xenophobic militarism.

There is no certain way to know the future. I tend to imagine the rise of China as part of the 21st century rise of Asia, similar to the prior rise of Europe. That is, as with France and Germany and others in Europe, so with India and China and others in Asia, I expect ever more dangerous and war-prone rivalries. I also see a China in which the military and militarism are ever weightier, as was the case in Japan during the transition from the Taisho era to the Showa era. It all seems quite worrisome.

I wish I did not have such a difficult time imagining a scenario in which the forces of freedom could respond to the intensifying repression and spreading fear by winning out in some near-term future. I most sincerely hope I am wrong.

Friedman asks why should the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which has led China to “to wealth and power since Mao’s death be endangered because it disappears, imprisons, humiliates and tortures hundreds of good people outside of the CCP who try help the weak, vulnerable and tormented?”

This is a good question—there is likely no correlation between the party’s stability and its revenge against those it fears may destabilize it. And it raises another question: when was the last time China was as stable as it is in 2016? Not the 2000s, under the weak leadership of then Party Secretary Hu Jintao, or the 1990s, as China convulsed post-Tiananmen, or the 1980s, as China, unshackled from the madness of the Mao years, experimented with a liberalizing economy and the then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping purged two general secretaries and conducted countless crackdowns. It is certainly more stable than under the 1949 to 1976 reign of Mao Zedong, who famously boasted “all is chaos under heaven” and oversaw the death of tens of millions of people. It’s more stable than the Chinese Civil War from 1945-1949, the Japanese invasion that preceded it, and the era of warlords and bandits that immediately preceded that. And so on, through China’s century of near-constant upheaval. China is probably more stable today than it’s been at least since the late 19th century, and arguably since before the British pried open the country during the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century.

Yes, revolutions are nearly impossible to predict, and the opacity of elite politics in China makes it difficult to gauge just how tight Xi’s grip is on the reins of power.  Xi could fall in a coup, or be swept out of office by a popular revolution.  

But let’s remember that massive political turmoil was more likely in the past than it is today.

The depressing analyses of Professors Pils and Pei are all too accurate. Many of us have contacts suggesting that things may well be even worse than China’s lack of transparency allows us to know. I write not to embellish our understanding of the situation but to focus on one of its apparent consequences – the arrival in the United States and other free countries of an increasingly large number of talented Chinese who, for shorter or longer periods, hope to escape the fear by working abroad.

It always makes sense, as both Chinese and Westerners agree, to “turn a vice into a virtue.” Even today the U.S. continues to benefit enormously from Hitler’s refugees. I never met Einstein but was privileged to hear lectures by such stimulating figures as Hans Morgenthau, Hans Kohn, Ernst Gombrich and Yale Law School’s beloved Fritz Kessler. Henry Kissinger is still with us.

Xi Jinping is no Hitler, and we should not expect a tidal wave of Chinese intellectuals. Yet they are beginning to show up in greater than normal numbers – to complete undergraduate studies, get advanced academic training, do research, take internships, teach and find jobs in law and other professions. Those of us in the legal profession, journalism and human rights have an especial obligation to help our Chinese counterparts not only survive but flourish. They will enrich our lives and also benefit China when, as it must, the fear recedes.

Fear has been spreading in key segments of Chinese society for at least two years. Journalists, creative types, academics, and think tank experts are more circumspect than they’ve been since 1989. This is the fruit of the anti-corruption campaign and the broad ideological crackdown that the CCP is using to assert its control over Chinese minds and institutions.

At a January Politburo meeting, Xi Jinping said, “the Party leads all affairs—Party, political, military, civil, and academic—east, west, south, north, and center (党政军民学,东西南北中,党是领导一切的). He was boasting about state power and issuing a warning to all who might oppose it. A national propaganda campaign is now amplifying and refining Xi’s declaration with a new slogan: “Resolutely protect General Secretary Xi Jinping as the Core” (坚决维护习近平总书记这个核心).

The Party is all, Xi is the Core of the Party—that’s the formula. It’s not L’état, c’est moi, yet, but it’s getting there. No wonder independent-minded Chinese are nervous.

Zhang Taisu dismisses the Pils/Pei thesis because the victims of Xi’s crackdown are a small minority and most Chinese neither know nor care about prisoners of conscience. Zhang may be right about the attitudes of most Chinese, but he is certainly mistaken in claiming that, “first and foremost, the anti-corruption campaign against officials does not belong in the same category as the prosecution of rights lawyers, or increased pressures on NGOs.” All of Xi’s campaigns are intended to maximize the Party’s control of China. Control is the category that links anti-corruption, imprisonment of lawyers, and suspicion of NGOs. The Party is controlled under the anti-corruption banner, society is controlled through crackdowns on expression and association, culture is controlled through demands that art serve the state, education is controlled though censorship of classroom discussion and enhanced patriotic education.   

Despite Xi’s various campaigns, “rule of fear” doesn’t (yet) capture the prevailing tone in the People’s Republic and the phrase is inapt as a broad analysis of China. Better to say that alarm over the implications of Xi’s governance is growing, even as most Chinese go about their usual business. China’s cities still bristle with ambition and energy: grannies dance, entrepreneurs strike deals, hipsters strike poses, and pride in China’s resurgence abounds. The people—and the Party, as Xiao Qiang helpfully points out—may be fearful, but China’s confidence is real as well.

Pei argues that Xi’s goals and methods “should be triggering alarm bells in the West...With China’s international influence growing by the day, the revival of totalitarian scare tactics there has far-reaching—and deeply unsettling—implications for Asia and the world.” True. The last time China had a domineering, charismatic leader who required bureaucrats and diplomats to embody the belief system of the party-state, China was isolated from the rest of the world and the pain was felt primarily within China’s borders. What are the international implications of a Chinese leadership that views its authority as all-encompassing and self-justifying, but that is deeply engaged with the rest of the world and has the will and ability to influence international norms and to shape global standards for the treatment of individuals and information? 

It’s an urgent question, regardless of whether China is ruled through confidence or fear.     

I want to add two points on the scope of the crackdown under Xi Jinping that I think deserve closer attention.

Zhang Taisu suggests that “the government policies have, up to now, been concentrated on some fairly specific groups, arguably none of which an average college-educated Chinese readily identifies with.” Though Chinese rights activists and lawyers have indeed been on the receiving end of some of the heaviest blows meted out by the Party over the past three years, they are by no means alone when it comes to Xi Jinping’s rule by fear strategy. In fact, one thing that is notable about Xi’s approach to social and political control is the way that he has targeted more moderate voices, most of whom were seen as favoring gradual reforms that would not challenge the Party’s monopoly on political power. 

Take public interest lawyers, for example. They occupy a different political space than human rights, or weiquan, lawyers: the cases they take, though meant to serve the public interest, are usually less politically charged. Indeed, more often than not, Chinese public interest lawyers are looking to do no more than nudge forward better enforcement of China’s own laws. Such lawyers play a vital role in advancing gradual reform in China, one case at a time. 

And yet, many public interest lawyers have told me that they feel that the space that they have to operate is getting ever more narrow. Lawyers working on a range of issues – including disability rights, labor rights, and women’s rights, among other issues – have described being questioned by state security agents, being told by other lawyers that certain cases were off limits, and being warned to be careful about their contacts with international groups. This trend shows no sign of abating anytime soon.

To be sure, there are exceptions to the tightening trend in public interest law: environmental lawyers, for example, seem to have more space to operate, especially in light of reforms to the Environmental Protection Law in April 2014 that made it easier for lawyers to bring environmental public interest lawsuits. The relative protection enjoyed by environmental public interest lawyers – along with many environmental NGOs – is likely due to the fact that the Chinese leadership has recognized the high political price it has paid over its failure to deal with China’s massive environmental crisis. Beijing seems to have concluded that it needs environmental groups to help push local governments to enforce tougher environmental laws. Absent their efforts, China’s air, water, and soil will only get dirtier, and the CCP itself will have to take the blame.

The tightening space for public interest lawyering does not mean that Chinese lawyers have given up on the courts as a potentially effective vehicle for pursuing progressive change. In December 2014, for example, a Beijing court ordered a clinic in Chongqing to pay RMB3500 in compensation to Yang Teng, 30, a gay man who had undergone so-called conversion therapy there. The case was widely viewed as a major step forward for LGBT rights litigation in China. In January 2016, a gay man from Hunan province sued his local civil affairs office when it rejected his application to marry his boyfriend. To the surprise of many, the court in the provincial capital of Changsha actually accepted the case, though no ruling has been issued as yet.

These and other cases show that public interest lawyers can still bring cases to court and win. At the same time, it is also clear that lawyers are thinking twice about political risk before they decide to move forward with a new and innovative case.  

In addition to targeting relative moderates, the Xi administration has pursued a control agenda that is breathtaking in its scope. First and foremost, the Party is attempting to reassert its authority over itself: the anti-corruption campaign is meant to both cleanse the Party in the eyes of the public, and also to ensure that all of the CCP’s 85 million members know who calls the shots. The media and universities, both focal points of liberal reforms as far back as the 1980s, have also been key targets of Xi’s campaign to make all major domestic institutions serve the Party.

Far from falling beneath the notice of the general intellectual population, as Taisu seems to suggest, these trends have been met with growing concern, if not outright alarm. In early February, for example, former People’s Daily editor Zhou Ruijin, himself no stranger to the inner workings of the propaganda apparatus, lamented the increasingly heavy-handed approach of official censors, and called for better protection of the public’s free speech rights. In speaking out, the 76-year-old Zhou was saying publicly what many Chinese journalists have told me privately: that propaganda officials embedded in all Chinese media outlets increasingly see themselves the bosses of media outlets, rather than, as in the past, quasi-regulatory overseers who would give some deference to editors and journalists whose views they respected. 

Taisu is right that the atmosphere in China today cannot be compared to the worst days of the Mao era. Nonetheless, the moves by the Party to reassert its role in virtually every aspect of Chinese life lack any parallel in the reform era, and need to be watched closely.

The politics of fear in China has a peculiar friend, namely moral purity. As Eva Pils writes, it is a common political tactic to force those who have “been disappeared” to publicly “confess” and promise that they will no longer engage in a certain kind of behavior. “It did not matter that there were no crimes to confess to and that promises made under duress were not binding.” Eva points out, “As was quickly observed, these confessions made very little sense, but then again that was the point. Precisely because they made no sense and offended basic principles of criminal justice such as the presumption of innocence, recorded ‘confessions’ were effective in projecting unlimited, in principle arbitrary, and all the more fearful state power.”

Eva’s analysis is quite perceptive, but she leaves out one point: there is a level on which the government technique of public confession is meaningful. That is to say, there are many who because of these public admissions of guilt believe the smears of the government, which leads to complex emotions toward their diminished idols. Worse, former heroes are rejected as cowards, traitors, or opportunists. We’ve seen too many examples of people passing easy judgment against others of great courage, merely because they are thought to have “yielded” under heavy pressure from the authorities. This elicits disappointment, anger, and even strong punitive reactions. It is the same in cases from Wang Gongquan’s “soul-searching” Weibo posts after being held for trial, to the controversy over whether Pu Zhiqiang’s “three years of prison, three years of reprieve” was an indication of a “confession and expression of penitence.”

The expectation that people be paragons of moral virtue has been a longstanding malady in Chinese society, and a “totalitarian rule by intimidation” reinforces it. This craving for virtue, which persecutes brave men and women with its demand for sainthood, is uncompromising and ignores the complexity of human nature, as well as the living conditions in a totalitarian system. This kind of moral self-deceit and hypocrisy are themselves the basis for totalitarianism, leading to fervent participation in politics, but not to the formation of a lasting and resilient political structure.

Quite a few people hold such moralistic views, including many in the intellectual elite. The moral selfishness of contemporary Chinese intellectuals is perfectly evident here: “selfish” because the vast majority of these critics have never dared to get involved in the ventures they pay lip-service to, but instead sit on their sofas passing judgment about whether the “performance” of others is good enough to meet their moral standards. These high moral standards that require others to be “martyrs” simply demonstrate that the people passing judgment are “outsiders.” As Kenzaburō Ōe wrote in Hiroshima Notes, such people “often want to find a sacrificial saint on every corner.”

These moral hypocrites who condemn brave people engaged in a fight against fear go on to become a simplified, lesser form of the object of their condemnation. That is to say, the former are much less spiritually complex than the latter. Spiritually simple people are the most likely to become moral purists. They are likely to overlook the versatility of human nature and exaggerate its brief flashes. Wittingly or unwittingly, they become accessories to the politics of fear.

When I visited Lin Yu in Taipei, he listened to me describe the many ways in which the Chinese courts and media force people to confess to crimes. He became furious and wrote the following note in English, telling me to spread this basic common knowledge in China: “Under duress one does not have legal as well as moral responsibility.” Exactly. Under the force of coercion, no one should assume any legal or moral responsibility.

In the end, this is all a test of human nature, as people cannot become true human beings and can only talk vainly about opposing something. But here’s what I think about opposition: fighting for a principle is much easier than living for a principle.