Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What really matters to the Chinese regime -- and the crucial concept of "face"


Remember Bo Xilai, the People's Republic rising superstar-turned-dastardly criminal and his dastardly criminal-murderer wife Gu Kailai, who supposedly acted in cahoots with Bo's police chief, Wang Lijun? Now Jonathan Mirsky writes, "It is clear from the relative lightness of the sentences handed down on Gu and Wang that they were rewarded for voicing exactly what was expected of them when they read from their prepared scripts in the brief glimpses we had of their trials."

by Ken

In April, I wrote a post called "When masters of corruption are also students -- the thrill of the fall of Bo Xilai" about the spectacular fall from grace of Bo Xilai, previously a rising star in the hierarchy of the People's Republic of China, ostensibly for covering up the misdeeds of his wife, Gu Kailai, and our friend me commented:
It seems to be difficult to get a real picture of what happened with Bo Xilai. The shitty American media are reporting it as something along the lines of "the fall of a rising star" but have said almost nothing about what's really going on.

Naturally, there's loads of celebrity news being shoved at me, along with the latest rantings of some conservative kook/asshole.

Who was this guy? Why did he get canned? I mean the real reason, not the corruption. What does this mean for the future of the Chinese government? And for the rest of the world?

The facts and a thoughtful analysis are hard to find.
Whatever their story was, those now closest to being in the know seem persuaded that the official story isn't it. So I was delighted to find an updated glimpse of the case in the course of a January 10 New York Review of Books piece by longtime China-watcher Jonathan Mirsky, "How China Gets Its Way" (of which, unfortunately, only an abstract is available free online to nonsubscribers).

Mirsky is reviewing a book for which he expresses considerable admiration, China’s Search for Security, Andrew J. Nathan of Columbia University and Andrew Scobell of the Rand Institute. Nathan, Mirsky notes, was co-author, with Robert S. Ross, of the 1997 book The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress, in which the authors wrote that China "may join the international regimes that govern trade, human rights, weapons proliferation, and other interactions as much in order to change them as to obey them." Mirsky writes, "This new book explains how that happened," showing us "how the world looks from Beijing." Mirksy stresses how formidable an accomplishment it is to have gotten as close as they have to understanding the inner workings of Chinese governance, meaning the operation of the real seat of power, the seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo, as they have.
One cannot state too clearly how little is known about the Standing Committee members, which explains this book’s bare accounts of their ages, previous posts, and anodyne personalities. Mostly men of a similar age, with dyed black hair, they operate in an atmosphere of secrecy, in which even wives are rarely glimpsed.
Mirsky finds his way to the case of Bo et al. from what he considers a rare slip by Nathan and Scobell, passing along at face value the propaganda image of China's new top dog, Xi Jinping (recently installed as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and expected to become president in March), as a man who is tough but fair and washes his own clothes. "This," writes Mirsky, "is nothing but the Communist 'plain-living' formula traditionally applied to the top leaders: Mao was a man of simple peasant habits; Deng Xiaoping used a spittoon, loved croissants, and was an ardent bridge player never so happy as when he was home with his family." Mirsky goes on to describe "the opposite of plain living": "the occasional vilification of men doomed not to be elevated." Which brings him to --
the fate of Bo Xilai, who, despite being the princeling son of a revolutionary hero, has been denied entrance to the Politburo for reasons involving the kind of corruption that could be attached to many past, present, and future laders. Such blackening is often accompanied by a smear of the disgraced official’s wife, who until that moment has been a high-flier. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, and his former chief of police, Wang Lijun, have confessed to Neil Heywood’s murder in orchestrated show trials that are wholly unconvincing to thousands of sarcastic writers on China’s vast Internet. Wang testified that he had extracted a sliver of Heywood’s body containing traces of the cyanide that Gu confessed she had forced down the man’s throat. No autopsy was performed and the British vice-consul who attended the cremation did not see a body. It is clear from the relative lightness of the sentences handed down on Gu and Wang that they were rewarded for voicing exactly what was expected of them when they read from their prepared scripts in the brief glimpses we had of their trials.

Now Bo Xilai has been expelled from the Party and accused of corruption, sexual misconduct, and perhaps complicity in Heywood’s murder. Among his accusers are new leaders who once loudly praised him. Chief among these is Xi Jinping. Xi is also a princeling, a son of a close ally of Mao. In his first speeches he railed against official corruption, as had then Premier Li Peng years ago when he said that corruption could destroy the Party. These recent speeches of Xi’s have already been derided on the Internet because of recent disclosures by Bloomberg of his family’s enormous wealth. (Similar disclosures were made by The New York Times of the wealth of Premier Wen Jiabao.) Official sources have denounced these allegations, but did not deny them.


The authors' summary of the "main elements of Chinese foreign policy," Mirsky writes, includes some that "sound similar to those of all significant powers" (like concern for largely fraught relationships with the "many close neighbors" along its "thousands of miles of se and land borders"), while "others are sui generis" (like the preoccupation with suppressing, indeed crushing, any challenge to its internal supremacy (think Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and throw in its determination to reclaim Taiwan). Nationalism, say the authors, is both a critical value of the regime and a critical tool for enlisting support at home.

It's extremely important to China, the authors suggest, "to thwart any country wishing to dominate Asia," to which end "Beijing flourishes its economic might, the threats of its military, and diplomatic blandishments." And it "seeks to arrange the international order so that China's policies are given due weight." Its urgent need for energy resources puts it in conflict with other countries hungry for them, notably the U.S., and it is extraordinarily sensitive to criticism of its record on human rights. According to Nathan and Scobell, "China remains vulnerable to international criticism over the regime's violations of human rights, which reveal the illegitimacy of the Chinese political model to many of the country's own people

"[O]ne of the truly brilliant contributions of China’s Search for Security," writes Mirsky, "is the authors’ exploration of 'face.' "
Everyone knows this means "favorable personal recognition." What may surprise readers, even some China specialists, is their discussion of how Beijing deploys face as both a bargaining tool and, if necessary, a weapon in China’s international relations. China uses the concept of face to warn others not to shame it in public, and it has succeeded by persuading both foreign leaders and diplomats and businessmen that China, perhaps uniquely, dislikes public criticism. Of course no one likes to be criticized, but Beijing has somehow inserted into its dealings with foreigners the concept of "quiet diplomacy," if difficult matters cannot be avoided. My own experience revealed that what actually happens is that no discussion occurs while outsiders are assured it took place. In 1991, then Prime Minister John Major assured foreign correspondents in Beijing that he had "banged the table" about human rights with Premier Li Peng. Anson Chan, a senior Hong Kong official who was in the room, informed me that human rights went unmentioned.

Nathan and Scobell point out that the Chinese, ever-sensitive about slights and loss of face, are often blunt in their dealings with others, and can "extract humiliating concessions from a negotiating adversary. Face may be given afterwards as a reward for diplomatic cooperation." This is a well-used weapon. Beijing persuaded seventeen ambassadors in Oslo to stay away from the presentation in absentia of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to the imprisoned Liu Xiaobo. The most recent example is when, after the recent brief and unpublicized meeting between the Dalai Lama and Prime Minister David Cameron in St. Paul’s Cathedral, Beijing proclaimed that it had "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people," and a ministerial visit to London was canceled.

A similar weapon, used to knock Western powers off balance, Nathan and Scobell write, is Beijing’s reference to the 1950s concept of the "Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence." This holds that all nations, large, small, rich, and poor, must be free to operate by their own rules, as opposed to the
American conception of a new world order in which international regimes and institutions would limit the rights of other sovereign states to pursue policies at variance with American interests…against American ambitions to control other countries’ behavior.
Beijing can therefore insist that it never seeks dominance—as it makes clear in its refusal to approve UN sanctions against Syria. This principle, the authors add, permits China to maneuver in relation to the other major powers in their blocs by insisting on the precedence and authority of sovereignty.



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