Why Civil Society in China Faces an Uphill Battle

Read Time:12 Minute, 49 Second

Chad Higgenbottom

Edited by Max Hahn

Part Three of Three in Discussion with Frank Tsai, HNC ‘03

In the time since part two of this interview was published, China suddenly dismantled the policies that had isolated it from the rest of the world for three years. The sudden, shocking demise of the zero-covid era indicates that China’s state-society relations is a topic of even greater significance than previously imagined.

Earlier installments of this interview with HNC Alumnus Frank Tsai detailed how he created the largest ongoing lecture series in Shanghai and how one can approach an understanding of civil society in China. Drawing upon over a dozen years of leadership within the public square, including his eyewitness account of recent months’ events in Shanghai, Tsai shares in this final installment what room – or lack thereof  – there is for optimism regarding greater political openness in China as borders continue to reopen. 

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity”

You’ve said that your events provide a “window to the world” to locals in Shanghai who attend them, many of whom have lived abroad in democratic societies before.

Are you optimistic? Do you believe that, notwithstanding the Leninist constraints on freedom of association you identified earlier in our conversation, some degree of civil society will persevere in China? Will those among China’s elites – such as some of your attendees – who favor openness and exchange be able to influence China’s political direction over the coming years? 

I’m pessimistic.

When did you start being pessimistic? 

I started being pessimistic the more I learned I couldn’t host certain events. After I hosted one with a senior diplomat at the US Consulate, I was warned indirectly by the authorities not to host the Americans again.

Conventional wisdom, which is sometimes true, holds that Xi Jinping is whipping up nationalism. Millions of young Chinese haven’t been abroad to study because of Covid and greater opposition to the West. This all indicates a tighter leash on the narratives that are allowed in China. 

In terms of evaluating China’s capacity for civil society, I’m an institutionalist. I don’t believe it matters how much individuals are engaged and want to change things if the institutions don’t allow it to any meaningful extent. 

Consider universities. I know a Chinese professor at a great university here who both taught and earned his Ph.D. abroad. He’s a liberal and even a U.K. citizen too. But when I got him in touch with the BBC to give a quote for a story, he gave a totally nationalistic view. If the Chinese talk to global media, they will say something to avoid getting in trouble. Universities especially feel pressure about this.

Here’s another comparison: I can be confident most of the people reading this dislike Trump or dislike people who don’t admit the results of an election. Though the latter is dangerous if empowered, we have institutions that can correct this and, usually, render them harmless. 

I mean, in America, Xi Jinping would be your garden-variety state governor and do what other governors do. He wouldn’t be harmful. Trump in China would be very harmful, much more harmful than Xi. It’s not about the individual but the way the institutions are set up. 

Trump damaged America, but he could do whatever he wanted in China. And he’d be even worse in Russia. As I was trying to say before [in an earlier portion of this interview], there’s even more of a one-man rule set up there since they don’t have institutional constraints as effective as those within China’s ruling Communist Party.

It’s interesting – despite being fairly liberal in his own views, a Chinese historian I spoke to not long ago was resolutely opposed to taking down the “Great Firewall.” He argued that eliminating a centralized, guiding hand from the Chinese internet would give way to such a proliferation of fake news that society would degenerate rather than liberalize, that Chinese commoners in rural areas, especially, would be at each other’s throats. 

Online life has a larger social role in China than in most other countries. Do you believe online discussions here suffice as a primal stage of civil society? Or would you lean towards the historian’s more pessimistic view that nothing of China’s internet culture would likely lead to more democracy or openness on its own accord? 

That’s a difficult question. There are two issues going on. 

Number one, the historian could be right. Is China ready for that kind of pluralistic, argumentative society? They have no history of it so far. Any autocracy may require some critical mass of citizens with pluralistic dispositions before that kind of society can grow, as some in the CCP actually say. I don’t know the answer, honestly. Taiwan does well by that standard.

While so much of this discussion is not about Chinese culture but about the Communist Party of China, one exception is the fear of chaos in Chinese culture. That fear of chaos has often led to too much centralization throughout Chinese history. Taiwan has overcome that fear, of course. On the mainland, conversely, upholding “harmony” – withholding one’s opinion to avoid arguments or altercations – is still predominant. 

You could argue that, in the West, we have more harmonious societies because we’re able to air our views and experience conflict without killing each other. Of course, civil society in the US is getting worse now. A common fear in China is that dispensing the passive tradition of “harmony” in favor of the frequent exchange of diverging opinions would lead to a war of all against all. 

Regarding the internet, more internet discussion means more connections being made. But we all know the internet in China is monitored very heavily. How many WeChat accounts disappear because they posted something about policy? It happens all the time. And that’s part of the brilliance of the Chinese state. They’re implementing Leninist control in an era when surveillance via social media is so easy to implement. They’re in some ways lucky. The Soviet Union didn’t have that kind of technology at its disposal. China does, which may give it more potential for civil society and democracy but, equally so, more potential for control. 

I run a business but do very little outreach and marketing with WeChat. If I did, I would be monitored much more heavily. I don’t have what’s called an “official account” on WeChat precisely because I want to keep doing what I’m doing and not have to worry about monitoring and police visits. 

Speaking of which, you had a recent encounter. 

In the big scheme of things, we have to say that whoever is monitoring me is rather enlightened.  I’ve done so many talks and have had almost no run-ins with police. There’s only one that I’ll talk about.  

After I returned from spending the summer of 2022 abroad, I was called by the district police of my district in Shanghai. This is not the city police, not provincial, or national. These are the police concerned with what foreigners are doing. I guess they had become aware I had returned and said they had not just been talking to me but also to a number of high-profile foreigners who had just returned. 

I had thought they came because I called the police four times during the Shanghai lockdown when my girlfriend had a health emergency. But it wasn’t about that. They just wanted to talk to me, presumably about my organizing. 

Every residential compound in China has a Communist Party apparatus called a “neighborhood committee,” many with a large base of active volunteers, party members, and other officials responsible for us. After they contacted me through that organ, not directly, we had a cordial, open discussion. However, I got the message – don’t exceed the bounds of what can be said in our events. 

They also said they wanted to know if we foreigners were having problems in China; maybe that was a pretext to get me to speak more openly. Since Shanghai is a pretty pro-foreign engagement city, it’s better to be spoken to by the Shanghai police than the national police, though I knew I’d gotten a warning.

It’s interesting how the state runs. I don’t think you’ll ever know about that in America if you’re just watching the international media in China. This party is a subtle thing. Is it an evil party? I’m not prepared to say that. It’s what China does. Does it deny civil liberties? Of course, it does. But do the people support it? Yes, they do. It has wide legitimacy in China. People’s lives are certainly better, at least materially than what they were a couple of decades ago.

Are their politics like what we read about in the Stalin era? No, they’re not. The visit I had with these police officers was more open than you really would expect from this government as portrayed from outside China.

So, it didn’t feel like an interrogation?

I was anxious because I thought it would be one.

Did they like your personality or what you do? Did they seem to find you reasonable and seem reasonable themselves?

Yes, but their job is to look and seem that way because they’re intelligence. This is not uniformed police. They are intelligence officials for my district government of Shanghai, with maybe a million people in the district. Their job is to find out what foreigners in our district are up to.

Are they like the FBI, then?

No, they’re very different. Maybe intelligence is too big a word; they’re the division of the local police responsible for monitoring people. They’re responsible for monitoring foreigners. They’re not the CIA or the FBI. 

Do you think everyone living in Shanghai has somebody monitoring them at some point? Or, if not, at what point will they begin to care what you’re doing as a foreigner in China? 

No, I don’t. This is a very important point. So, again [as stated in an earlier portion of this interview], we have a one-party Leninist state. It’s meant to mobilize society to accomplish what it considers national ends, right or wrong, even including extreme actions like the Great Leap Forward or the ridiculousness of the zero-covid era  –  those are its goals.

Most people in China do not have to worry about monitoring by the state because it’s not important to the state to know what they’re doing.

Most as in, not only foreigners, but as any of the citizens?

This includes the vast majority of citizens and foreigners  –  I’m going to say 98%.

So farmer Wang in Sichuan doesn’t need to worry about her phone lines being tapped.

 Every state has limited resources. Even though this one has 100 million party members in a huge state apparatus, they’re not going to spend time looking at everybody’s social media. 

A one-party Leninist state monopolizes organizational capacity. It does not want other organizations to rise up or try to counter that monopoly it guards. You have to be an important person for someone to monitor you; you have to be either leading or a member of or affiliated with some organization that has a degree of organizational power. You must have the power to convene people. 

There are many examples among NGOs and private companies too. It’s no accident Jack Ma can’t talk in public now. If you’re a capitalist known to be opposed to state policy, you have good reason to fear monitoring or even worse outcomes. 

 If you use this framework, you can understand how anyone who lives here is surprised by how little the state touches them and how it doesn’t feel in any way totalitarian. I don’t think it does because we’re free to do what we want, more or less. But it will control things and pick battles, often with those who threaten its monopoly on organizational power. That’s just the way it works. 

 This has been an eye-opening discussion, Frank; here’s one final question.

Only weeks ago, the great wall of international isolation erected by zero-covid policy finally fell. There was some civil unrest leading up to this shocking reversal, of course. Have recent weeks given you any increased hope that China’s civil society will increase in influence or even mobilize power?

I am pessimistic about tightening controls on civil society. While the protests have been a key factor in the recent tightening, they are not the whole story. Restrictions on my public talks have gradually increased in the last 5 years. Where talks on US-China relations by academics were once seen as “safe” by the government, they are now “sensitive” and entail the risk of being shut down. 2022 only accelerated these trends. From our Shanghai lockdown to the Party Congress and most of all the protests of late November, the party has widened the range of what is now considered “subversive.”

I saw the protests in Shanghai myself. They were a watershed event for China in their boldness and scale and were followed only one week later by the effective end of zero-covid. Whether the party compromised – I believe it did – or had already planned to get rid of zero-covid, the perception that it compromised is dangerous to the party. What this party fears most are the uncontrolled social movements and “color revolutions” that have destabilized other autocracies. Therefore, for the party to signal that protests may have worked and may also work in the future was a bold and risky move.

The party feels embattled by liberal democracies whose ideas hold more sway in China than China’s do in the West. Weighing the risk of this infection against damage to the economy and its public support, the party made a bold choice by opening up only one week after the protests. If I were the party, I might have waited a bit longer to open up to minimize its long-term existential risk. As it turned out, it chose instead to minimize risk to the economy and its public support and was surprisingly “responsive” to the people in a way it isn’t often credited for.

The party fears infection and subversion by the ideas of the West and the concrete actions of the US in particular that may undermine its rule. The Shanghai government was in fact actively looking for foreign instigators of the protests. Rightly or wrongly, controls on civil society ameliorate the party’s fears. The U.S.-China relationship is only deteriorating. From this one fact alone and the logic I have tried to explain, I would not predict any loosening up on civil society any time soon.

While this piece concludes the SAIS Observer’s interview with HNC Alumnus Frank Tsai, interested readers can find more of his insights through his regular posts on LinkedIn and, whenever in Shanghai, through his in-person events.

For more information on China Crossroads and Tsai’s work, including forthcoming talks and a record of every talk ever hosted through each of his lecture series, readers may visit http://www.shanghai-review.org/.

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