For China observers, especially those in Taiwan, the past decade has brought awareness of an increasing obsession by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with control. It seeks to control not simply national policy, but all aspects of its citizens’ lives.
Not a week passes without some new aspect of Chinese life being brought under CCP control. This forces obvious questions: Why this obsession? And what is driving it?
When any one-party state, which already controls government, yet seeks to expand and tighten that control, it bodes ill. With a country the size of China, it bodes ill for Taiwan, Asia and the world.
The cause has to be more than the wish to simply look good this year, the CCP’s centennial year, and it has to be more than that the winter Olympics are to be held in Beijing in February. The cause lies rather in that the CCP’s 20th Party Congress that is to be held in October next year. It is then that the CCP will decide on whether Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) will be confirmed for an unprecedented third five-year term.
These harsh efforts at control were first seen in the way it has treated Hong Kong. Hong Kong had been promised complete democracy by 2017 — 20 years after the 1997 handover from Britain. Hong Kong would then enjoy full democratic freedom under the “one country, two systems” rule until 2047. After that it would revert to become a fully functioning part of China.
That never happened; after 2017, things got worse. Other changes also happened: In March 2018, Xi began his second five-year term as president, along with the lifting of the nation’s limit of two terms.
The CCP’s grip continued to tighten, especially for Hong Kong, which was questioning why it did not get its promised freedom. The world saw the jailing of many dissidents and even the closing of bookstores. Store owners were harassed, some were jailed and others pursued into Taiwan.
More restrictions followed. Hong Kong had been the only place in China that had been allowed to commemorate the “massacre and deaths at Tiananmen Square,” but that permission had been revoked. The CCP began rewriting history as if Tiananmen Square never happened.
Religion was another aspect that had always been controlled by the CCP; it holds the Panchen Lama captive and is only waiting for the Dalai Lama to die so it can appoint his successor. Catholic bishops need Beijing’s approval and now the Muslim Uighurs have become the next in line to feel the rebranding of their religion.
However, the wish to control spread beyond religion. Xi continued unveiling his idea of what the future would be in China and what Chinese should be like. In addition to religious influence on citizen’s minds, China will no longer tolerate “sissy” or effeminate boys or men. A similar intolerance holds for young people “lying flat” (躺平) who wish to drop out of China’s rat race with its heavy demands on time.
Any success outside the CCP must bow to the party’s wishes. Media celebrities such as Zheng Shuang (鄭爽) and actress Zhao Wei (趙薇) have felt the pressure; Nicholas Tse (謝霆鋒) has given up his Canadian citizenship lest he be thought “unpatriotic.” Maria Cordero (瑪俐亞) publicly agrees with the State Administration of Radio and Television demands to work in China. The only idols that the CCP allows apparently will be Xi and of course the past helmsman Mao Zedong (毛澤東).
Wealth redistribution in countries is normally handled by appropriate taxation; but China is going after entrepreneurs in the form of a gangster shakedown; all this is done in the guise of being patriotic. Billionaire Jack Ma (馬雲), Alibaba and its affiliate Ant Group are asked “to pledge” to alleviate poverty. The Tencent technology conglomerate has also promised to “give to the nation.”
Unfortunately, without media transparency, in China, the citizens never really know how much and where all this cash is going. Rule of law continues to bow to party leadership.
From a broader perspective, the struggle in China is over which form of government is best: one-party state dictatorship or democracy. Ideology is gone; it is simply a struggle for power.
With no heir to pass his office to, Xi has decided to change the rules of the game in a similar way that Russian President Vladmir Putin has done to ensure greater control.
This raises the obvious question of leadership talent: Why in a country the size of China with a population of more than 1.4 billion people could the CCP in the span of five to 10 years not find another suitable candidate capable of leading the nation?
One could call it hubris, but in reality it boils down to the wish to maintain power. Schools in China now must teach the principles of absolute party leadership. This is reminiscent of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, but the party favors it nonetheless.
The issue is not lost on Japan, Taiwan’s democratic neighbor to the north. Former Japanese minister of foreign affairs Fumio Kishida, who is running for prime minister, sees Taiwan as being on the “front line” in the struggle for democracy in Asia.
What does democratic Taiwan offer to the world? What does it have that China lacks? It obviously has much.
For starters it has the “been there, done that, no thanks” realistic experience of having been first a Japanese colony, then having to struggle under the one-party state of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and finally winning out to be a democracy. Few nations can boast of such a journey, and thanks to that, Taiwan provides the perfect antidote to China.
Taiwan has four times experienced transfer of power between its two major parties. and managed not only to keep on an even keel, but also continued to prosper.
It has the transparency provided by a free press; China has none of this. Taiwan’s democratic courts add to the checks and balances that are not found in a one-party state.
There is tolerance for diversity, especially with regards to religion. The Falun Gong are not a threat; there are no indoctrination camps for Muslims; Taiwan does not want to appoint Catholic bishops or successors to Tibetan Lamas. It even aims to be a bilingual nation.
Media personalities and actors are given free space, and dual citizenship is not only not a problem for foreigners, it is encouraged for people who can contribute to the nation.
In the world arena, Taiwan makes no demands on other countries on how they trade with other nations.
One wonders if Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙) would be turning in his grave if he could witness the one-party state controls that Xi wields in China.
Xi’s actions bring back memories to Taiwanese of when the KMT one-party state was beginning to lose its grip on power and became desperate to control its citizens more, even to the extent of murdering them. Are such fears driving the actions in China? Is the CCP losing its favor and appeal? Will Chinese wake up? Only time will tell, but other nations should take heed.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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