The Chinese Way: Power Of But Never For Or By The People

Brutal evictions of poor migrants in Beijing's outskirts are part of a long history of cynical control of the populace.

On the debris of last month's fire that killed 19 in Xinjian, Daxing.
Simina Mistreanu/DPA via ZUMA

For decades, China has been on everyone's mind, with the country's incredible pace of change and transformation. To my mind, what China is doing can best be described in the words of Italian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: "For things to remain the same, everything must change."

They came with the night. They did not knock, they banged and kicked the door instead. They gave inhabitants little time to pack before they sealed their homes, forcing the people out on the freezing street with most of their belongings inside.

It happened several nights in a row, in the Liqiao township, in Shunyi district, home to about 60,000 people working at Beijing Capital International Airport, according to the South China Morning Post.

Liqiao is not the only Beijing outskirt where these evictions are happening. Beijing authorities are targeting thousands of the city's migrant workers, who live in precarious conditions in the only housing they can afford. The apparent reason for the most recent crackdown, which will last for a month the media reports, is the fire that killed 19 migrant workers in Xinjiancun, in Daxing district, south of the city, near an area that will soon host the biggest airport in the world.

Xinjiancun is another scrappy district that has been planned to disappear soon. And with it "the menial workers who keep the Chinese capital going — cleaners, couriers, factory workers, stall owners — migrants from villages who live on the fringes of the city because of high housing prices and government policies that have been forcing them out of downtown," Chris Buckley reported from Beijing.

They have been forced from downtown to the fringes of the city, and now further and further out, back to where they came from, or to other places that offer job opportunities. The expelled have done their jobs, the city no longer needs them. Less than a week after the fire, cranes, and bulldozers came roaring in, converting the area into a rubble heap, as a video (in Chinese) shows. It's as if the authorities were waiting for the fire to start the campaign, aimed at capping the Beijing population at 23 million, a decision planned some time ago by the country's leadership.

China never changes. Its methods, as they were in the past, are rude. There are reports, for example, "that police often acted most violently and sometimes without warning, officers have mounted raids in areas where many of the city's migrant workers have rented housing, leaving tens of thousands homeless at the start of winter. There have also been multiple reports of water and electricity being cut to force occupants to move out."

Beijing always wanted to be impeccable.

The evictions of the migrants, however, has triggered some protest among the Beijing middle class. It is not often that people show solidarity in such a competitive society like China's. But this time the people who live in relative comfort in the area expressed their fury about the iron-fisted way the eviction campaign has been carried out. This finally forced Beijing Party Chief Cai Qi to address the issue, promising that the evicted would be given time to move out.

We'll never know whether this little promise will come to pass. Still, admittedly, regulating the fast-growing capital of the future empire is a complex issue. Compared to Washington DC, New York, Paris or Rome, Beijing always wanted to be impeccable. It is about the image. I remember when the city was competing for the Olympic games in 2008 and the top delegation of the International Olympic Committee arrived in Beijing to negotiate. It was a cold and grey winter, and yet the hosts, eager to impress the guests with the look of the city, painted green and flowery colors all along the roads the motorcade was driving. A mirage.

Whoever has spent time researching the history of China, or having the privilege to work and live in China, is aware of the many rapid and radical changes the country went through after the fall of the last Qing dynasty. In these last hundred years, China experienced and tested almost every social model known to human history; there was a period of iconoclasm that tried to rid the vestiges of Confucian society, with a strong push to change the traditional outlook and build a fresh identity. Chinese society opened up, as Spain did much later, after the death of Franco. In addition to booming literature, written for the first time in vernacular, the film industry was equal to Hollywood, while the art scene in Shanghai was reaching French existentialist levels of decadence. With its gate newly-opened, Chinese society became a fertile land for socialist ideas and a more just society.

Government workers arrive in the countryside in 1957 during the Great Leap Forward — Wikipedia

Those ideas soon sparked patriotism and triggered the war against colonialism, followed by civil war and the triumph of the organized group of people around Mao, who became the ruling Communist Party. The new regime made a disastrous attempt with the Great Leap Forward, trying to industrialize and modernize the country overnight. But China back then was 99 percent rural, and in the midst of a clash with the Soviet Union, its former brethren in the Communist cause. It was a disaster. The Cultural Revolution, with its invitation to the youth to storm the headquarters, was an effort to correct this mistake and perhaps give the country a new start.

At its very beginning, it was an experiment of direct democracy, but it turned into terror as soon as the party's factions were able to regain some of the control over the movement. They did this with the help of the migrant workers who were brought to the cities in order to compensate. Social experiments like the Shanghai Commune, which was established following the example of the Paris Commune, were dismantled in the similar and efficient way as Beijing suburbs now. Some historians say that stepping on the brakes of the Cultural Revolution was the first opera of the Gang of Four.

Perhaps, but in 1989, a completely different kind of terror, against the growing civil society and against the lesser role of the Communist party, took hold. Tiananmen and the killings on the streets of Beijing were a consequence of the court of intrigue, the plot of the gerontocracy against the young, creative society. The clampdown was terrible and bloody, its reprisal lasting for years. The present Xi Jinping regime is the outcome of that tragedy, the result of the choice of the people in power who in 1989 opted to continue economic reforms with repression, the sacrifice of social reform and people's rights.

The tension between the two social models has run through the brains of many people during the last two decades. For many years, Western China-watchers and economic experts were preaching that with the development of a more complex economy, Chinese society (or better, Chinese Communists) will have to concede to some social reforms. Without those, the experts said, China will break, its economy will collapse. You cannot run a global economy without reforming society, they declared. China did not break. It is marching ahead, gaining new stature daily. What is breaking is the West, its prevailing conservatism trying to hold positions that no longer exist.

Pu Zhiqiang during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest — Wikipedia

The game is not over yet. But the challenge between the two different models of development – the democratic and the authoritarian – continues, despite Donald Trump's arrival on the political scene. The situation is not bright, but not all hope is lost. The Chinese authoritarian system seems to be more efficient, but both of them are almost equally corrupt. If one day China succeeds in liberating its social forces, the world would already be a better place.

For the time being, the reason why China can be considered more efficient is exactly the point where this story starts. What Chinese police are doing these days in Beijing is nothing new. They act not because they are violent, or because they like guns, but because they feel that they are part of the power, that they belong to the cause, embody the national interest. This is the same mindset we see in Imperial, Republican, and Communist China. It reflects the relationship between power and grassroots (laobaixing) on Chinese soil; it may as well stay there when China becomes the world's dominant power. As Mao said when he spoke at the World Communist Representative Meeting in Moscow in November 1957, in his famous speech "American Imperialism Is a Paper Tiger":

I'm not afraid of nuclear war. There are 2.7 billion people in the world; it doesn't matter if some are killed. China has a population of 600 million; even if half of them are killed, there are still 300 million people left. I'm not afraid of anyone.

Xi Jinping uses the same kind of power the emperors Mao and Deng used in the past. Perhaps the public love and adoration for Xi is less than it was for Mao and Deng. But Xi has better tools and more modern means of control. He does not need to be loved, he needs to be feared, knowing that this is the only way to achieve the goal China has demanded of itself. And while the Chinese masses, deprived of any political rights, share the same goal, Xi is safe where he is, sitting on the top of the world. Can anybody claim that this is not Maoism?

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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