The tension at the heart of China’s Market-Leninism was starkly evident today as censors blocked news of a fall in the Shanghai Composite Index on the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
“In an unlikely coincidence certainly unwelcome to China’s communist rulers, the stock benchmark fell 64.89 points Monday, matching the numbers of the June 4, 1989 crackdown in the heart of Beijing,” AP reports:
In China’s lively microblog world, “Shanghai Composite Index” soon joined the many words blocked by censors. In another odd twist, the index opened Monday at 2,346.98. That is being interpreted as 23rd anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown when read from right to left.
On the popular Sina microblog site, searches using “June 4″, “64.89″, “stock market”, and “benchmark Shanghai Composite Index” were all blocked. Such searches draw the response, “According to law such words cannot be shown.”
Censors also blocked access to “six four”, “23″, “candle” and “never forget,” according to China Digital Times.
The regime’s censorship confirms the elite’s lack of confidence and the brittleness of its performance-based legitimacy, analysts suggest.
“The party has control over millions of police, the secret police, the web police, the informers, so in a material sense its grip is very solid,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of politics and government at Claremont McKenna College. “In a psychological sense, the party’s grip is very tenuous. People say, ‘Wow, its own leaders are both corrupt and insecure, they have no confidence in the long-term survival of the regime itself.’”
Estimates that China’s elites have transferred as much as $150 billion abroad over the past 15 years and are eagerly pursuing emigration opportunities are further indications of the regime’s fragility.
The Tiananmen massacre was “regrettable” and a “tragedy,” according to former hardliner Chen Xitong, Beijing’s mayor at the time of the crackdown. But it will take regime change or a major factional shift before the ruling Communist party is ready to make a similar admission, says a leading expert on the events.
“The Tiananmen Square incident is something the world, both inside and outside China, refuses to forget and at some point in the future the authorities will overturn their verdict,” says Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan, an editor of the Tiananmen Papers, a collection of leaked secret documents detailing decisions of China’s leaders during the events.
“That moment will only come as part of an overhaul of the regime; when the Party is in real trouble because of an economic downturn or factional fighting and they decide they need to democratize then revisiting the events of Tiananmen will be part of that,” said Nathan, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
“Tiananmen is now really shorthand for democratic transition,” Pei said. “It will be impossible for any future leaders to change the official verdict on Tiananmen without at the same time starting China’s own political liberalization. The stakes are very high in how the Chinese government deals with Tiananmen Square.”
The authorities are holding less than a dozen of the thousands detained during the crackdown, according to the Dui Hua Foundation, a prisoner advocacy group. The government had not responded to its queries about what it calls “June Fourth Prisoners” since September 2009, but it lists the names of several activists it believes are still imprisoned.
Some citizens “did manage to beat the censors, and a few pictures of the 1989 protests did find their way on to Weibo,” Reuters reports.
“There can be no social stability if people cannot speak out and must live in terror of punishment,” a microblogger commented on one of the photographs.
“Do foreigners also know about June 4?” a street vendor asked a Reuters reporter in a hushed tone, looking around to make sure nobody heard him. “I think it is important we remember but nobody will talk about it now.”
The regime’s heavy handed censorship highlights the ultimately untenable contradiction between a market economy and closed state, analyst Jonathan Manthorpe observes:
A recent Beijing government study estimated that since the mid-1990s, $150 billion has been illegally siphoned out of the country, but this is undoubtedly a massive under-estimate. Some bankers and others who watch these things say the fleeing money could be as much as $50 billion a year…..
A snapshot of the determination to maintain order is provided by last year’s budget, which shows that more money – the equivalent of $110 billion – was spent on internal security than on the formal defense budget.
“There is a crisis in the legitimacy of China now because of the Bo Xilai incident,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the department of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, said in a phone interview. “They are nervous as they head toward the 18th Party Congress.”
In a commentary last week, Manthorpe notes, …
Hu Shuli, the seemingly bulletproof editor of the often brutally independent Caixin Media online and hard-copy magazines, stopped marginally short of calling for political reform. She argued against further massive injections of cash into the economy, saying these “tend to exacerbate rather than solve the long-term problems of structural imbalance and unsustainable growth.”
“To prevent a hard landing,” she wrote, “China must transform from a low-cost economy to one driven by efficiency and innovation.”
But the Tiananmen legacy has undermined the rule of law required for secure, sustainable investment and innovation, rights groups warned this week.
China is proving to be a test case for economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s assessment of Why Nations Fail, says Manthorpe, as “innovation – or creative destruction, as they call it – is only possible to any useful degree in open and inclusive nations where the state is subject to the will of the people.”
The Dui Hua Foundation and China Digital Times are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.