Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 22 October 2022

No, Capitalism and the Internet Will Not Free China’s People

By Ai Weiwei

Mr. Ai is an artist and author who was imprisoned by the Chinese government.

Communist Party rule of China has been punctuated by one mass public campaign after another, each designed to commandeer Chinese minds in service of the state.

There was the Great Leap Forward, the industrial reform campaign begun in 1958 that precipitated a devastating famine; the political witch hunts of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, which nearly tore China apart; and many more, some more damaging than others, and each targeting some political, social or economic imperative of the day. Their cumulative effect is one of the Communist Party’s greatest achievements: a near-perfect symbiosis between dictatorial government and subservient population.

The government’s nearly three-year-old zero-Covid campaign may be the worst of all.

It’s an affront to science and common sense, yet — reminiscent of the mindlessness of the Cultural Revolution — officials and citizens around the country go to ridiculous lengths to execute it. Entire cities are shut down even for small outbreaks, and coronavirus tests are conducted on fish and other food products, cars, even construction materials. It has brought chaos and suffering for China’s people, who have been repeatedly locked down, been detained for missing coronavirus tests and lost jobs or businesses. When Chengdu, a city of 21 million people, was locked down in September, residents were blocked from leaving their flats even when an earthquake struck.

Past campaigns of mass control have come and gone, but this one will have lasting consequences thanks to its most insidious aspect: the surveillance technology rolled out nationwide to suppress Covid but which allows citizens to be tracked by authorities, their movements circumscribed. Government officials used this system to restrict the movements of people who wanted to take part in a protest in central China in June. Those officials were later punished, but the fact remains that the government now has a system that Mao Zedong could only have dreamed of, powered by data and algorithms, to monitor and control the people.

The West has been wrong about China. It was long assumed that capitalism, the emergence of a middle class and the internet would cause China to eventually adopt Western political ideas. But these ideas cannot even begin to take root because the Communist Party has never allowed the intellectual soil needed for them to germinate. And it never will.

Chinese minds have in fact never truly been free. China has been a largely united, centralized state for most of the past 2,000 years, and similar ethics and a similar relationship between ruler and ruled have endured throughout. No fundamental change is possible; China’s lowly people are expected to merely obey.

When the Communist Party seized state power in 1949, hope for a new era flickered briefly. My father, Ai Qing, then one of China’s leading poets, had already enthusiastically joined the party. But Mao shrewdly capitalized on China’s ancient power dynamic, enshrining the party as the new unquestioned ruler. Like many intellectuals, my father soon came under attack during Mao’s repeated political campaigns to root out those who dared think independently. China’s spiritual, intellectual and cultural life withered.

In 1957 — the year I was born — Mao launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign. My father was branded a rightist, subjected to fierce public attacks, and we were driven to internal exile in a bleak corner of the remote Xinjiang region. Some of his peers committed suicide.

He came under attack yet again during the Cultural Revolution, paraded through the streets in a dunce cap to public gatherings where abuse was hurled at him. He came home one night, exhausted, his face black after someone at a political rally dumped a pot of ink over his head. In an example of the helplessness and resignation of China’s people, he suggested that we just imagine that grim place had always been our home, accept our lot in life and get on with it. China’s people still live under this mentality of surrender today.

When I ran afoul of authorities in 2011 after criticizing the government, the police threatened me with an “ugly death” and said they would tell all of China about the absurd allegations they leveled, like tax evasion, to discredit me. I asked if China’s people would believe their lies. Ninety percent will, an officer told me. In China, where all “truth” comes from the party, he may have been right. Three years later, at an art exhibition in Shanghai, pressure from local government officials led to the abrupt removal of my name from a list of exhibitors. Not one of the Chinese artists whose work was on display, many of whom knew me well, came forward to defend me.

Things have only worsened in the past decade. Authorities have smothered remaining traces of independent thought, decimated Chinese civil society and cast a chill over academia, media, culture and business.

To be fair, individual thought and expression are constrained in Western democracies, too. Political correctness forces people to hold in what they truly believe and parrot empty slogans to superficially comply with prevailing narratives. And Western engagement with China has been driven by the pursuit of profit rather than values. Western leaders criticize Communist Party violations of human rights, free speech and spiritual freedom, but long have continued to do business with Beijing. U.S. hypocrisy about independent thought is evident in its approach to the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who stands for freedom of information but whom the U.S. government is prosecuting.

Millions of Chinese take pride in modern China’s growing wealth and power. But this feeling of well-being is a mirage conjured by superficial material gain, constant propaganda about the decline of the West and suppression of intellectual freedom. China is in fact decaying morally under the influence of the party. In 2011, a 2-year-old girl was run over by two vehicles in southern China and left bleeding in a street. Eighteen people passed by without doing anything, some even swerving aside to avoid her. Don’t think, don’t get involved, just keep walking. The girl later died.

Freedom relies on courage and sustained risk-taking. But a vast majority of China’s people feel that resistance, even at the philosophical level, is impossible, and that personal survival depends on compliance. They are reduced to an anxious servility, lining up like sheep in long lines for their coronavirus tests, or scrambling for food before sudden lockdowns.

Freedom and individuality can never be completely suppressed. And no country, no matter how strong it appears, can truly prosper without diversity of opinion. But there is no hope for fundamental change in my country while the Communist Party is in power.

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