When it comes to inventing ploys to ensure one's political survival, few are as skilled as Chinese politicians. Over the past 60 years, aside from using deliberately misleading euphemisms for a variety of exploitative programs, the leadership in Beijing has also made a series of announcements that keep promising that better days are just over the horizon.
One example of such a strategy was Chinese President Hu Jintao's (胡錦濤) announcement at the Central Party School on June 25 that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would launch what he called "democracy initiatives." While, as David Shambaugh, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues in a paper titled "China: Let a thousand democracies bloom," these initiatives "do not constitute democratic institutions and procedures as recognized in real democracies," they nevertheless give the illusion that real democracy is just around the corner, an illusion to whose charms Shambaugh himself -- calling it a "democracy wave," -- may have already sadly succumbed.
But in reality, Hu's "inner-party democracy," "extra-party consultative democracy" and "electoral democracy" are nothing more than a means to paper over the fact that Beijing will say or do anything it can to retain its grip on power.
The same applies to the leadership's promise -- before it was awarded the Olympic Games -- that it would relax its regulations on foreign reporters operating in China. Spun properly, these maintain an illusion that Chinese citizens may or may not choose to believe and -- perhaps more importantly -- they feed the desire abroad to see that China is indeed on the road to democratization.
Provided that the international community remains gullible enough to swallow those lies (and there is every indication that it will), the PRC leadership's sleight of hand buys it time as it expands its power.
While there is nothing new in the schemes described above, Beijing upped the ante this week by adopting a strategy that threatens to turn authoritarianism into a mere banality.
Chinese police announced last week that starting yesterday, Manga-like animated police officers would start patrolling about a dozen top Internet portals, appearing every half hour to remind Chinese surfers of the rules they must follow. By the end of this year, every Web site registered with Beijing servers will be visited by the innocuous-looking cartoons.
However amicable the gendarmes may look, what with the oversized brown eyes and creepy perpetual smile, this new development represents a dangerous departure, as it attempts -- and could possibly succeed -- in putting a friendly face on an activity that is nothing but morally reprehensible: the control of information. Hitherto, authoritarian and totalitarian governments that were scrutinizing information accessed by citizens summoned images of the unseen yet chillingly ubiquitous Big Brother, of police crackdowns in the middle of the night and random disappearances.
In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "banality of evil" to describe the phenomenon by which great evil is often committed not by sociopaths but rather individuals who blindly accept the rules imposed by the state and therefore believe that acting in accordance with those rules -- regardless of the outcome -- is normal.
The strange twist in the Chinese Web police scheme, however, is that it does not target the would-be perpetrators of a crime but rather the victims and does so in such a way as to put a friendly face on the wrongdoer. Gone are the shadowy agents; the crowd control police force has traded its intimidating shields and glistening batons for candies and smiling faces, the Brown Shirt officer is now Hello Kitty.
The virtualization of war that we saw in the 1990s, where the computer screen replaced the face of a would-be victim, made killing one's opponent all the more easier.
Now repressive regimes may also have come to understand the tremendous power of virtual reality to further their own interests.
It is a simple transmutation: give evil a welcoming face.
While the intent remains the same -- to control access of information and thereby ensure that dissidents cannot access or distribute material the government deems dangerous to its survival -- the means by which this is accomplished seeks to make the action itself banal. It is not difficult to imagine Chinese children using the Internet actually cheering those police officers on the screen, oblivious to the fact that behind the pixilated cuteness lies an insidious scheme to control their future.
With the Olympic Games approaching and the eyes of the world turned toward it, Beijing may have realized that the overtly repressive tactics adopted by authoritarian regimes of old are not in its interest, and it will adapt appropriately so that it can deflect most of the criticism aimed at it.
But in the end, that world scrutiny will be but a passing moment, and once the Games are over, things will likely revert to normalcy. But if it is to ensure its survival by keeping 1.3 billion people in bondage, the PRC regime must find ways to render banal what would otherwise be construed as an attack on people's freedoms and liberties.
So watch the children, for they will grow up being told that an authoritarian system that drastically limits their opportunities in life, skewers their freedoms and monitors their every move, is cute.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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