Through the wild swings of Chinese history since its Communist revolution in 1949, there has been one constant: Outsiders have rarely understood what was happening while it was happening.
During the Great Leap Forward, from 1958 to 1961, 30 million people or more starved to death in a Mao-created famine. The West had little clue.
During the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, millions of people were tortured, internally exiled, unjustly imprisoned and otherwise abused in what Paul Hollander, in his invaluable book “Political Pilgrims,” called “a destructive and bloody rampage.” But at the time, most visitors to China had no understanding of what was taking place.
The columnist James Reston, for example, was shown a few of the people who had been pried from their families and homes into rural servitude — part of what we have come to know as one of the largest, darkest experiments in forced labor in human history. Reston thought the young people considered themselves to be on “an escape from the city and an outing in the countryside.”
Today we believe once again that we know what the Chinese leadership is up to: fighting corruption, tightening political controls in order to promote economic reform, gradually strengthening the rule of law while bolstering national defenses so China can take its rightful place as one of the world’s great powers.
Might we be wrong again? Could President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crusade, for instance, be primarily a Stalinist purge of opposing factions in the Communist Party intended to strengthen his own hand?
China is far more open to outsiders than in Reston’s time, and Chinese themselves freer to observe and comment on their lives, so maybe grand miscalculations are no longer possible. But the workings of the party remain so opaque, the media so controlled and our record as observers so imperfect that caution is in order.
As is a rigorous effort to examine what is happening rather than what we think or hope should happen — which is why a new Freedom House report, “The Politburo’s Predicament,” is particularly valuable.
The report, to be published Tuesday, is written by Sarah Cook, the author of a groundbreaking study last year on Chinese efforts to censor and control how overseas media report about China. A shocking reminder of those efforts came last week with the story of China arresting three brothers of a Washington-based reporter for Radio Free Asia.
Cook’s latest report, based on official documents as well as interviews and reports by human rights groups and others, comes to three fundamental conclusions.
First, repression has increased markedly since Xi came to power two years ago.
Second, a prominent feature of the clampdown is a return to Maoist methods of intimidation, indoctrination and thought control.
But, third, the crackdown may not be working. “In spite of the heightened repression,” the report concludes, “fear of the regime appears to be diminishing.”
The increased repression is pretty much across the board: Academics, entrepreneurs, lawyers, grass-roots activists and others have all found less scope for their activities and less freedom to express unorthodox views.
The budget for internal security surpassed that for external defense a couple of years ago, the report notes, a trend that accelerated into 2013 — at which point the government stopped reporting, for the first time in more than a decade, the total for internal security.
The attention to detail can be astonishing. “At 0:49 in the music video for Deserts Chang’s song ‘Rose-Colored You,’ the person in the ambulance is holding a ‘Free Tibet’ kerchief,” an official directive noted in April. “Please delete this video.”
Along with traditional methods, including imprisonment and torture, the regime has embraced public confessions, indoctrination and the kind of intense peer pressure that had fallen out of favor after the Cultural Revolution. “Peace managers” keep track of every household in some villages, and people suspected of wayward views have to file weekly “thought reports” and take part in “legal education” sessions, “often a euphemism for political indoctrination or forced conversion,” Freedom House notes. Journalists face “a new ideological exam . . . based on a minimum 18-hour training course on topics like ‘Marxist-news values,’ with a 700-page manual.”
The report notes a heavy cost from this repression: “On an almost daily basis, injuries are suffered, families are shattered, and lives are lost.”
But it questions the efficacy. Ironically, censorship — including about the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 — has left many young people unaware of the party’s record of brutality and so less afraid than they might be. In addition, as the clampdown on social media makes more people aware of censorship, they are more likely to question the party’s legitimacy — in turn increasing the need for more censorship. “Each act of repression generates the need for more repression,” the report argues.
The report does not pretend to know where this “volatile combination” of repression and resentment may lead. “It could produce anything from a more radical dictatorship or violent upheaval to a successful popular movement for greater freedom,” the report says.