Lessons from the black box of Chinese politics

Lessons from the black box of Chinese politics

Frederick Teiwes, a respected expert on the history and inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party, has observed that:

The dominant contemporary Western scholarly assessments of Chinese Communist Party elite politics in almost every period of the history of the People’s Republic of China have been either dramatically wrong, or a very mixed bag, or in critical respects speculation that cannot be verified on existing evidence. Moreover, in some important cases erroneous findings have remained conventional wisdom even as new information and analysis has appeared, supporting alternative interpretations.

Teiwes also noted that the black box of Chinese politics “is largely opaque not only to outsiders, but even to highly positioned members of the elite itself.”

For decades, “virtually all detailed, apparently reliable information on contemporary conflicts inside the ‘black box’ ” has been hard to obtain and “[a]nalysts have been reduced to assessing personnel and procedural patterns and open statements of policy issues from the edges of the ‘box’ – an honorable and necessary undertaking – and to trying to sort out sometimes wild and generally unverifiable claims, including those of purported insiders, concerning who was doing what to whom within the elite.”

The following essay is a translation of a piece originally published by VOA by Wú Guóguāng 吴国光, a Communist Party insider turned American academic. It was inspired by a recent article by the Nikkei journalist Katsuji Nakazawa 中澤勝二 which offered explosive revelations about the inner workings of Xí Jìnpíng’s 习近平 secretive government. Wu does not so much take Nakazawa to task for his controversial claims as suggest better ways to interpret China’s political rumor-mill.

When Xi Jinping was appointed Party General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in late 2012, independent commentators in Beijing declared that the new leader would remain in the shadow cast by his two predecessors, Jiāng Zémín 江泽民 and Hú Jǐntāo 胡锦涛. The arrangement was referred to as being one in which “the two palaces will rule from behind a bamboo curtain” 两宫垂帘 liǎng gōng chuí lián. The expression was a reference to the 1860s when, during the minority of Zàichún 载淳, the Tóngzhì Emperor 同治, the “two palaces” — the empresses Cí’ān 慈安 and Cíxī 慈禧 (Zaichun’s mother) — literally ruled from behind the throne as regents. During official audiences the dual dowagers guided the business of the court at a discrete distance, separated from the young emperor’s dragon throne by a bamboo curtain.

It was during the Tongzhi era that foreign embassies were established in the Celestial Capital of the Manchu-Qing dynasty for the first time. Despite their unprecedented proximity to the seat of power, diplomats, traders, and foreign observers alike had to rely on unreliable sources to ascertain the inner workings of the palace. Rumors became a valued currency. Later, in the dying years of the dynasty, The Jingshan Diary 景善日记 was the most celebrated account of the inner workings of the Forbidden City politics among China watchers. “[W]orth its weight in brilliants,” wrote a reviewer at the time:

Once immersed in illuminating revelations the reader loses his own insight, or to speak more correctly, his own foreign obliquity of vision respecting things native, to gain that of a high-placed Manchu official, the Pepys of Peking.

Presented as an insider’s account of the lead up to the calamitous Boxer Rebellion of 1900, The Jingshan Diary was the centerpiece of China Under the Empress Dowager, a book co-authored by J.O.P. Bland and Edmund Backhouse and published in 1910. A reviewer writing for Hong Kong Daily Express the following year declared that “No library of works on China can be regarded as complete without this most valuable and informing book.” As the historian Lo Hui-min 駱慧敏 (Luò Huìmǐn) noted in his study of the diary, the book “soon became an essential addition to the shelves even of fusty libraries in small, out-of-the-way towns in the English-speaking world, and a prescribed text as well as a work of reference for university students.”

The appearance of Fu Manchu, the fictitious oriental mastermind introduced by Sax Rohmer in his short story “The Zayat Kiss” in 1912, the year after the publication of China Under the Empress Dowager, only helped to reinforce popular tropes associated with the Empress Dowager, from the capriciousness of Chinese autocracy to the seductive genius of the country’s shadowy schemers.

It was not until the late 1930s that J.J.L. Duyvendak, a noted Dutch Sinologist, and William Lewisohn, a British army officer turned journalist, demonstrated conclusively that Jingshan’s “diary” was as much of a fiction as Rohmer’s oriental supervillain.

A confabulation passed off as documentary fact by China-watching journalists, The Jingshan Diary forgery married the talents of court gossips, wily local informants, educated scribes and end-of-dynasty scamps. The resulting confection added to Cixi’s imperial luster and provided something of a model to future fabulists. The Tiananmen Papers (2001) bookended a century of tall tales about the political heart of China, just as best-sellers like Did Marco Polo Go to China? (1995) and 1421: The Year China Discovered America (2005) with their risible arguments contributed to the small but influential library of China balderdash.

From its earliest days of the People’s Republic in the 1950s, a new “bamboo curtain” obscured the workings of China’s rulers once more. Mao’s first cultural purge, which focused on the film Sorrows of the Forbidden City (清宫秘史 qīnggōng mìshǐ, 1948), even revived old controversies surrounding the Empress Dowager and the Boxer Rebellion. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the language of the long-defunct Qing autocracy also enjoyed renewed currency.

The Lake Palaces at Zhōngnánhǎi (中南海), in central Beijing, formerly used as a leisure garden by Cixi, became the seat of the party-state. Adjacent to the Forbidden City, it was referred to as “The Great Within” (大內 dà nèi), a dynastic term for the Inner Court, just as Beijing, the capital of socialist New China, was “the Imperial Capital” (帝都 dì dū). Today, Xi Jinping is spoken of (tongue-in-cheek) as “The Sacred Presence” (圣上 shèngshàng), and he has been crowned with numerous sobriquets featuring the word “emperor” (帝 dì). One of the most popular is “Emperor Dumpling” (包帝 bāo dì), a title inspired by a meal of steamed dumplings that Xi had at a Beijing eatery in December 2013 hyped at the time by the official media as evidence of his unassuming frugality. The most damning criticism of Xi is not that he’s an “autocrat” (君主 jūnzhǔ), but that ”attainments and moral authority are not equal to his lofty office” (德不配位 dé bù pèi wèi). Imperial metaphors are hardly limited to online scuttlebut. In 2018, Xi Jinping’s own supporters hailed his role as being that of the decisive vessel” or “ultimate authority” (定於一尊 dìng yú yī zūn) — an ancient epithet famously used to describe the unchallenged power of Yíng Zhèng (嬴政, 259-210 BCE), First Emperor of the Qin dynasty.

The chasm between the Party and the masses is cháoyě 朝野, a classical shorthand, literally “the court and the unregulated wilds.” Descendants of the original Party elite who used their connections to enrich themselves were dubbed “aristocratic wastrels” (纨绔子弟 wán kù zǐ dì), while corrupt cadres were labeled with the old formulation “avaricious officials and defiled bureaucrats” (贪官污吏 tānguān wūlì). Similarly, for decades people have spoken about (and written) “memorials to the throne” (上书 shàng shū), described purges as “indictments of bureaucratic enemies” (弹劾 tán hé) that were the upshot of “court infighting” (宫斗 gōng doù) which might, to use a modern loanword, result in a 苦跌打, kǔdiēdǎ, or “coup d’état.” Even recent rumors that retired members of the Party nomenklatura had attempted to oustXi Jinping is spoken of as “intimidating the palace [so as to force an abdication]” (逼宫 bī gōng). From the 1990s, popular period dramas introduced the language of court intrigue to younger generations, one of the reasons why the authorities have issued bans on them during politically sensitive periods.

Since the language of China’s autocratic tradition suffuses contemporary political discourse, it behooves both students and would-be China Watchers alike to familiarize themselves with this living lexicon. Of particular relevance to the rumor-mongering environment of recent months are such expressions as “capricious unpredictability” (波谲云诡 bō jué yún guǐ), “unfounded rumors,” (流言蜚语 liú yán fēi yǔ), “following the winds of gossip while grasping at shadows” (捕风捉影 bǔ fēng zhuō yǐng), and “making spurious assertions on the basis of conjecture and unrelated evidence” (牵强附会 qiān qiǎng fù huì).

A recent addition to the list of rumor-related expressions is “master of under-the-bed eavesdropping” (听床师 tīngchuángshī). Popularized on the Chinese internet in the lead up to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party in October 2022, both tīngchuángshī 听床师 and Zhōngnánhǎi tīngchuángshī 中南海听床师 gained further currency as analysts struggled to explain the whys and wherefores of former Party Secretary General Hu Jintao’s unceremonious departure from the final session of the meeting. “Listening to political gossip in Zhongnanhai as though one is under the leader’s bed” is a novel twist on the old expression “reds under the bed.”

When reading the imaginative political speculation of the kind advanced by analysts like Nakazawa Katsuji, and commented on here by Wu Guoguang, another hoary saying comes to mind. It relates to Jiāng Tàigōng 姜太公, an ancient strategist famed for his wiles. As a master of persuasion and entrapment, his legendary skill is summed up in a saying that is still in common use: “When Jiang Taigong goes fishing he knows that if he is patient, fish will be lured onto his hook of their volition” (姜太公钓鱼,愿者上钩 tài gōng diào yú, yuàn zhě shàng gōu). Jiang famously ensnared fish even when there was no bait on his hook.

China’s party-state is a patient angler that knows all too well that hungry shoals of fish are just waiting for it to cast a line.

Wu Guoguang writes a regular column on Chinese politics for VOA. His insightful essays reflect both insightful nous and a puckish sense of humor.

Like Eating Watermelon with Wu Guoguang, an essay on the disappearance of China’s foreign minister Qín Gāng 秦刚 also published by The China Project, the following is an “interpretive translation.” That is to say, rather than cluttering the translation with notes and bracketed explanations, I have, for the most part, incorporated them in the text. I am grateful to Guoguang for indulging me.

As I was putting the finishing touches to this essay, I read Nakazawa Katsuji’s latest peek into the black box of Chinese politics. Titled Military elder put silent pressure on Xi at Beidaihe and published by Nikkei on September 21, 2023, Nakazawa offered yet another delicious example of “ultra China watching,” one in which he focused on Chí Hàotián 迟浩田, a retired PLA grandee known as one of “the butchers of Beijing” for his role in June Fourth. Referring to the Communist Party’s summer conclave, Nakazawa noted that Chi:“traveled to Beidaihe along with Zeng [Zēng Qìnghóng 曾庆红] and sat next to the former vice president. But the military elder did not say a word, the sources say. His silence remains interesting.”

The author’s fanciful speculation revolved entirely around this supposedly portentous silence and it recalled a line in Ballad of the Lute (琵琶行 pípá xíng), the celebrated Tang-era poem by Bái Jūyì 白居易, that is sometimes used both to mock fatuous interpretations of Chinese politics and to caution their champions:

“At this point silence speaks louder than words” 此时无声胜有声 cǐ shí wú shēng shèng yǒu shēng.

My thanks to Samuel George for bringing the latest example of Nakazanity to my attention.

Open your ears; for which of you will stop

The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?

I, from the orient to the drooping west,

Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold

The acts commenced on this ball of earth:

Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,

The which in every language I pronounce,

Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.

— from a soliloquy by “Rumour” in Henry IV Part II, by William Shakespeare.

Wu Guoguang Delves into the black box of Chinese politics

An interpretive translation by Geremie R. Barmé

Author’s Note: The following was inspired by an analysis of the inner workings of Chinese politics recently published by Nikkei. In offering these observations, however, I hope that readers will look beyond the narrow purview of that analysis and join me to consider the wider operating environment of the “black box” of Chinese politics.

In Xi reprimanded by elders at Beidaihe over direction of nation, published by Nikkei on September 5, 2023, Katsuji Nakazawa, an analyst of Chinese politics, claimed that:

… at this year’s gathering [at Beidaihe, the summer capital of the Communist Party], a group of retired party elders reprimanded the top leader in ways they had not until now. Xi later expressed his frustration to his closest aides, according to the information gathered. …

Sources said that ahead of Beidaihe, party elders convened their own meeting to summarize their opinions before conveying them to the current leaders. The meeting was likely held in the suburbs of Beijing. …

The gist of the message was that if the political, economic and social turmoil continues without any effective countermeasures being taken, the party could lose public support, posing a threat to its rule.

We cannot have more turmoil, the elders pointed out. The central figure of the elders was Zeng Qinghong, a former vice president and one of the closest aides to the late former President Jiang.

[Translator’s addition: Nakazawa went on to say that:

The butterfly effect of Chinese politics never ceases to amaze. On Thursday, days after the Beidaihe meeting is thought to have closed, former Premier Li Keqiang made his first public appearance since being forced to retire in March.

The former No. 2 was smiling broadly when he appeared at the World Heritage Mogao Caves, also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, along the ancient Silk Road in Gansu province.

He was greeted by fans who chanted “Ni hao [hello], premier! Ni hao!”

[Although] Lǐ Qiáng 李强 has since taken over as premier and will be heading to the G20 summit in India in Xi’s stead. But for the people at the caves, Li Keqiang was still very much their premier.

The video of Li Keqiang’s appearance was widely dispersed on Chinese social media before being deleted by authorities.

It was a symbolic event. Li Keqiang is still a popular politician, and the cheers for him at the World Heritage site were not fake.

Now retired, Li Keqiang certainly was at the gathering of elders before the Beidaihe meeting.

Xi, the man who pushed Li into retirement, was absent from public view for many days this summer, busy having to address the harsh reprimand from the elders.]

Nakazawa’s report had an explosive impact internationally and, although most sober analysts were quick to declare that the scenario he limned was far fetched, it ensorcelled a clutch of “instant Sinologists” — the kind of pundits Simon Leys was referring to when he said: “What a successful China Expert needs, first and foremost, is not so much China expertise as expertise at being an Expert.” But here I’m not as interested in the reported incident or its veracity, as I am in how the rumor mill of Chinese politics has had its way once more.

The black box and China’s information desert

Readers may recall the rumors about the tug of war between Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang that circulated around this same time last year. In Chinese, this supposed power-struggle was summed up in the shorthand “Xi goes down as Li rises” (习下李上 Xí xià Lǐ sháng). Independent Chinese commentators made much of the drama, something added to by speculation published by the Wall Street Journal, an authoritative Western media outlet. Commentators who latched on to the narrative confidently predicted that Xi Jinping, who was up for re-selection as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party at the Twentieth Party Congress in October, would be replaced by Premier Li Keqiang. Despite the fact that the inner workings of Zhongnanhai remained as inscrutable as ever, media reports were quick to offer evidence of the struggle.

When during a visit to Shenzhen in August, Li made a clichéd observation that “Just as the waters of the Yellow or Yangtze rivers will never flow in reverse, so our policies of economic reform and the open door will continue unabated” (改革开放不会停顿,长江黄河不会倒流) this was seen as further proof of his contest with Xi Jinping, who at best is regarded as a reluctant reformer. In this case, too, Nakazawa was quick to affirm the more dramatic reading of the situation adding his reporterly weight to widespread conjecture that Party elders were playing a role in the unfolding power struggle. In that earlier case, instead of Zeng Qinghong, the leading protagonist was Sòng Píng 宋平, a 106 year-old retired former Politburo member who’d kept a low profile for decades. Despite his frailty and a reputation for steering clear of controversy, Song was now said to be playing a key role in an attempt to oust, or at least sideline, Xi.

How reliable did all of that feverish speculation prove to be? Well, subsequent events, including the elevation of Xi’s hand-picked Politburo lineup, pretty much scotched all the idle chatter. Here I would hasten to add that my point is not to castigate the limitations of journalists and social media commentators in retrospect. It’s simply unreasonable to expect them to come up with verified or reliable information on the machinations within the Communist Party’s leadership. How could it be otherwise? After all: Chinese politics is indeed a black box and the power plays of the elite are shrouded in layers of obfuscation. It is well nigh impossible to get any reliable information of what is actually going on. In fact, it has been demonstrated time and again that unsubstantiated and misleading media reports are actually the direct outcome of the manmade information famine created and curated by the Communist Party itself.

In early September this year, Reporters Without Borders sponsored an event with Circle 19, an independent freedom of information advocacy group, in Paris that focussed on the “right to information” 知情權 zhī qíng quán in China and the dangers posed by the no information and disinformation environment that results from Beijing’s political black box. As Christophe Deloire, Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders, said at that event:

In its frantic race for social control, the Beijing regime deprives the Chinese public of its legitimate right to information by invoking a so-called “relativity” of cultures which denies the universality of human rights. The Circle 19 initiative should demonstrate through unassailable arguments that the right to information is a central element of Chinese culture and that its implementation has been, and remains to this day, a constant demand of the Chinese people. A strategy of naming and shaming is not enough. As Liú Xiǎobō 刘晓波, press freedom defender and Nobel Peace Prize winner, said, change in China will come from inside.

In an era of information overload, it is anomalous that both people in China as well as the international media are denied access to even the most basic information about what is going on in China and why. Particularly egregious is the dearth of concrete news about the nation’s decision-makers as well as the bureaucrats at all levels who control the fate of everyday people. In and of itself this amply demonstrates the absurdity of Chinese political life and is yet further evidence of the irresponsible nature of the party-state.

Not only does the Communist Party embargo information about its inner workings, it also avails itself of the means to generate false and misleading data. Propaganda disguised as news is churned out in industrial quantities by a system dedicated to wooing hearts and befuddling minds. Its aim is to create a distortion field that warps reality and rewrites history. Take, for example, the three-years of the COVID pandemic. In the end, how many people actually died from the virus? How exactly did the Chinese state formulate and implement its COVID response? And, what has been the ongoing impact of these policies on the society as a whole? The Chinese authorities not only refuse to release reliable statistics in relation to any of these questions, they have actually concocted false statistics with the express aim of deceiving their own population and confounding the international community. Since the default setting of the party-state is to treat issues of basic public interest in such a manner, it is hardly surprising that anyone who tries to assess information about elite politics finds themselves in the equivalent of a hall of mirrors.

Furthermore, the willingness of the Chinese state to intentionally disseminate fake news means that the system engages in wholesale and blatant rumor-mongering. My research into the Communist Party’s use and abuse of political information has taught me that the party-state is by nature a massive rumor-mill. One of their well-known early “masterpieces” of disinformation relates to the alleged rape of Shěn Chóng 沈崇, a female university student in Beiping [later Beijing], by an American marine in 1946 which led to nationwide anti-American protests and a crisis for the Nationalist government at the beginning of the Civil War. Another is the lie that, on June 3 1989, rioters in Tiananmen Square had killed PLA soldiers, something that was then offered as a pretext for the June Fourth Massacre. In countless other cases, the Communist Party has used targeted rumors to discredit and disarm their enemies. It is not too fanciful to say that the Party uses leaks and rumors strategically to spread disinformation about the inner workings of Zhongnanhai.

[Translator’s note: I first met Shen Chong, who long ago changed her name to Shěn Jùn 沈峻, in 1977 and I was friendly with her and Dīng Cōng 丁聪, her artist husband, until they passed away. Although conjecture surrounding the “Shen Chong case” continues, I have always believed my friend’s account of the incident. However, the rape may have been real, but it was used by Communist Party as a political tool without care for Shen’s wellbeing or the facts of the matter.]

How the Communist Party benefits from the black box

I am not suggesting that journalists who report political rumors, as in the case of the Nakazawa article cited above, are all simply duped by the Party’s disinformation strategy. Things are more complicated than that and I could give any number of examples of how the Communists have manipulated outsiders in their endeavor to get their message across. The crucial point is that, if there weren’t “insiders” working to leak information in the first place, “outsiders” wouldn’t necessarily be willing or able to concoct things out of thin air.

By maintaining control over the narrative in this way, the Communist Party is the main beneficiary of the machinations generated by its own black box and it knows full well that the slightest hint of leaked intel will be gobbled up hungrily by the outside world. Since there is no way of verifying information that circulates in this fashion, the Party is in a position to massage its messages at will. After a round of rumor-mongering has run its course and has duly been debunked, modified, updated, and refined, versions of an old story may well reappear in a new guise. This is how the Party maintains control over how, when and where it tells its story.

In practical terms, there are at least two obvious advantages to the Party spreading “insider intel” regardless of whether it is about political tensions within the elite, rumors about the old guard’s criticisms of Xi Jinping, or the story that Xi will be forced out of power.

The first is that explosive political gossip like this can distract people from the far more pressing everyday crises or issues that by all rights should be of immediate concern to them. We repeatedly see evidence of a strategy of “disinformation as distraction,” in particular in the wake of a natural disaster or when an instance of outrageous official malfeasance or corruption is suddenly revealed. Diversion is even more important when the public gets wind of examples of gross economic mismanagement in real time. In recent years, we have often seen instances when, at a time of potential political embarrassment for the party-state, the media suddenly takes to reporting on some scandal involving a popular entertainer. Indeed, celebrities are often served up as an unwitting sacrifice on the altar of political expediency.

Generally speaking, the main impact of scandals involving celebrities is limited to China, or at most to the Chinese diaspora. After all, revelations about the excessive earnings or outlandish misbehavior of some Chinese starlet or performer are at best of limited interest to overseas audiences. The real drawcard is insider gossip about politics. Once a rumor gains traction overseas and is re-imported to China, it can really take off, in no small part due to the fact that there’s a long and hallowed Chinese tradition of gossiping about court politics. By trading rumors about the goings on in what is still often referred to as “The Great Within” 大內 dà nèi, a commoner who in the normal course of events has no way of actually participating in the political life of the nation can at least enjoy the delights of “vicarious participation.”

Secondly, and paradoxically, political rumors can often give people some hope in the future of the Party. The overall tenor of the rumors discussed above is that shadowy forces within the elite might actually confront the political stagnation of the system and, in so doing, even offer a way forward. The actual politics of these shadowy figures is less important. That’s why people eagerly fantasized about Li Keqiang and Song Ping last year, and it’s also why they were willing to put their hopes in Zeng Qinghong more recently.

At various points in the past, speculation focussed on figures like [the disgraced and jailed Party secretary of Chongqing] Bó Xīlái 薄熙来 and Líu Yàzhōu 刘亚洲 [ a well-connected and outspoken military man purged in 2022]. Such Party leaders acquire a kind of spiritual mana as people come to believe, for a time at least, that they may step in “to save the nation and salvage the Party” [just as they had hoped of Mao in the 1960s and, truth be told, of Xi Jinping in the 2010s].

In the past, the Gang of Four was regarded as being the ultimate cause of China’s problems; now although Xi Jinping is the bastard responsible for everything, ultimately that path to salvation will still depend on the Party. And, when people still place their hopes in the Party elite, they feel less pressure to focus on their own predicament and the decidedly unromantic reality that they really should do something about things themselves.

Political rumors about the inner workings of China’s political black box offer people a cheap fiction that, since someone like Song Ping or Zeng Qinghong is on the case, we don’t really need to offer any resistance or do anything for ourselves. After all, “Our Party” really does have a history of course correction and a proven ability to right itself. However, when you belatedly wake up to the fact that Li Keqiang did not shunt Xi Jinping aside but got the boot himself, you really should have come to the conclusion that you’re a mug for having believed any of those tall tales in the first place.

Okay, so that was then and this is now. Recently, “people in the know” have been constructing a new chimera — let’s call him “Zēng Kèqiáng” 曾克强. Hopium springs eternal and rumors are addictive hopioids. As for the Party: it continues on its merry way, its Red Mountains and Red Rivers promising to reign supreme for ever and ever.


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