Why you should care
Demonstrations against propaganda posters are forcing local authorities to climb down. But that doesn’t mean the Communist Party is reforming.
The poster installed by the local government in a residential neighborhood of Xiangtan city was ominous. It listed HIV patients, the mentally ill and parents who have lost their only child as “targets for monitoring and supervision.” It was part of a nationwide campaign called “Eliminate the Dark and Evil Forces,” launched by China’s Xi Jinping government in 2018. But the street-corner poster’s offensive suggestions, made in March, drew outrage from locals, and on China’s internet. And a nervous district government offered “sincere apologies” and withdrew the poster.
Billed as an anti-corruption movement, the “Eliminate the Dark and Evil Forces” campaign is a cornerstone of Xi’s efforts to further consolidate his power, after constitutional changes last year allowed him to stay in office indefinitely. Across China, government officials are installing propaganda posters for the campaign on streets and in museums, schools and the subway. Campaign messages play out on cable TV. The drive has drawn comparisons with Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution from commentators, including from renowned Chinese politics scholar Minxin Pei. But unlike during the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party of China (CPC) and its local arms are, over the past few weeks, responding to any public anger the campaign propaganda sparks with apologies, not brutal crackdowns, seemingly desperate to avoid alienating the broad population.
In early April, the local education ministry in Guiyang, Guizhou province, removed a propaganda banner hanging above the front entrance of a kindergarten following public outrage. The red banner, nearly as big as the sign displaying the school’s name, demanded that schools train tiny tots to participate in the government campaign. “Insist on starting early to nip the evil forces in the bud,” the poster said.
Then in mid-April, the party unit and government of Weitang town in Jiangsu province apologized for a pamphlet meant to target gangsters that listed doctors among the “top 10 black-hearted enterprises” in China, following protests from the medical community. And back in Xiangtan, the local government has formed a team to find responsibility for the offensive poster there, which it said was published erroneously by a printing shop that had been hired.
The internal incentive system now emphasizes ‘social stability’ and avoiding unrest for officials to get promoted.
Jonathan Hassid, China specialist, Iowa State University
None of this represents a change of heart within the authoritarian CPC, analysts caution. Instead, they suggest, it points to the growing jitters over public unrest that lurk within the party beneath Xi’s show of strength, at a time the country is witnessing growing labor protests amid its struggle to keep up its once unparalleled economic growth. According to the Hong Kong–based China Labor Bulletin, China had 1,664 labor strikes between April 2018–2019, compared to 277 in the same span between 2011–2012.
“Because the internal incentive system now emphasizes ‘social stability’ and avoiding unrest for officials to get promoted, local officials do seem more responsive to citizen demands in recent years,” says Jonathan Hassid, a China specialist in the department of political science at Iowa State University who researches government responsiveness in China.
To be sure, local governments in China are usually more responsive than is usually assumed in the West, says Hassid. But there’s growing pressure from the central government to maintain social stability. And there’s increasing recognition that ignoring or silencing public anger could lead to a more destabilizing backlash, damaging the careers of government officials and the credibility of the party. Premier Li Keqiang candidly acknowledged at the Boao Forum for Asia in March that “instability and uncertainty are visibly increasing.”
That pressure, in turn, is making local governments search for innovative, untested fixes for public anger, says Christopher Heurlin, a political scientist at Bowdoin College who researches government responsiveness and social unrest in China. “If local leaders can provide some kind of novel ‘model’ policy to tackle a common problem, then this can become an effective means of furthering their own personal reputations and career prospects,” he says.
Responding directly to public outrage as soon as it surfaces online is one such innovation now being used across China. This helps to prevent public protests and limits the scope of a challenge to government authority. “Local governments are very wary of events with ‘crossover potential’ in which online public opinion could potentially be transformed into offline protests,” says Heurlin.
Some experts, like political scientist John Keane from the University of Sydney, have argued that China operates like a “phantom democracy,” where the government’s fear of revolution results in “a style of political management that in many ways mirrors and mimics electoral democracies.” But others suggest it’s a fallacy to think that the recent apologies mean the public has more say than before in local government policies.
“I don’t think there’s much incentive for local officials to change themselves in fundamental ways in response to public complaints,” says Sara Newland, an expert on local politics in China and Taiwan at Smith College. “There isn’t really any meaningful way for citizens to lodge broader complaints about policies or programs, or any evidence that the government would be at all responsive to such complaints.” As President Xi cements his authority, Newland anticipates that government responsiveness will continue to focus on “appeasing disaffected individuals — a kind of ‘squeaky wheel gets the grease’ approach,” instead of meaningful efforts to address the reasons for the underlying unrest.
Still, say experts, the unlikely response of the CPC to the outrage against some posters is the latest evidence of the flexibility that’s a central reason behind the resilience of China’s political system. The CPC’s political dictatorship is never up for debate, but the party is willing to acknowledge and respond to social and economic grievances, says Heurlin. “Adapting to public discontent is a cornerstone of the Chinese government’s staying in power,” he says.