Around the time the Chinese government abolished presidential term limits, China's control of online discourse reached absurd levels. Beyond usual suspects like “emperor” and “lifetime,” the censors cracked down on the letter “N.” In a case of censorship eating its own, Xi’s name itself was scrubbed from Baidu, the Chinese search engine.

A common line from critics of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is that a free flow of information itself is a threat to the regime. But there is less acknowledgement of a truth that is harder to swallow.

Many Chinese knew that the constitutional reforms eliminating presidential term limits had passed. And the CCP isn’t exactly afraid of the masses knowing the truth, at least about political affairs — consumer safety is another story. If all it took for the masses to rise in revolt was the exposure of the truth, then their controls of online speech would not be sufficient to stop this.

The focus on internet censorship misses the point. Most Chinese people, from college students studying abroad, with full access and freedom to read about events like the Tiananmen Square protests, to the farmers who have never left the village in which they were born, consuming a news diet of Chinese-state media, they all have a general idea of what is true and false. Yet there is no drive to overthrow the government.

The CCP’s internet control is not about fear of the truth being exposed. Their control is more properly understood as a display of power. And what they fear the most is people not believing this power exists.

Mystification of the powerful

Many middle and upper class Chinese are fond of saying that the masses must be kept out of political decision making, as they are prone to being easily mislead, and would bring about national calamity if they were ever let near the corridors of power.


Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

People walk by a giant TV screen broadcasting news of Chinese President Xi Jinping talking to medical workers at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province, at a quiet shopping mall in Beijing, Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Is this the situation in democratic countries? In most democracies, for all their shortcomings, what can at least be said for them is that there’s a general sense that politicians are not above being criticized by regular citizens. Politicians argue with politicians, citizens argue with citizens, and citizens sometimes even argue with politicians. Even if politicians have a lot of power, it's generally permissible for citizens who live in a democratic society to heckle or try to engage politicians in public. There’s less mystification of the powerful.

By contrast, under the Soviet Union, the party and its powerful members were beyond public scrutiny. The Soviet Union sought to establish its authority on Machiavelli’s wisdom that it is better for a leader to be feared than loved. And a key idea behind this, just as it underlies the CCP’s censorship regime, isn’t so much to stifle dissent. It’s to give off the impression that no one out there wants to dissent.

With this kind of intimidation tactics, those under the government’s thumb internalize what can and can’t be said, to the point that they lose the ability to conduct civic discourse. If there is civic discourse it exists among a tiny elite the Bolsheviks liked to call the revolutionary vanguard. The main difference between then and now is that the labor was divided between farmers and intellectuals. Now, we have intellectuals holding court, while workers slave away in the factories producing smartphones.

They fear the people won’t fear them

If we think carefully about why the Chinese government had to ban Falun Gong, a popular movement occupying public space in a manner unseen since the Tiananmen protests, it was merely Falun Gong’s refusal cower in fear before the government. That was enough to be considered an existential threat.

In a sense, they asserted the idea of a fundamental equality between those in government, and those governed. In fact, the CCP themselves rose to power by not believing in the myth of the Kuomintang’s invincibility, by acting in many contexts as if they didn’t exist by building a new state for themselves.

The projection of power is apparent, too, in the way we speak. Why is it taboo for Chinese to refer to Taiwanese as "Taiwanese," but not for Shanghainese, Hunanese, Cantonese, to call themselves Shanghainese, Hunanese, and Cantonese? Every time Taiwanese refer to themselves as Taiwanese, it denies the reality that China attempts to project.

As Taiwanese, we must remember that the Chinese government most fears our not fearing them. If there is one lesson from political theory, it's that authority ultimately depends on the consent of the governed.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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