The Lies And Limits Of China's Propaganda Machine

Behind the Chinese government's easy shows of strength is a rising sense of insecurity within the regime.

Show of strength in Beijing
Show of strength in Beijing
Gabriel Grésillon

BEIJING â€" It’s perhaps all too perfect. China has demonstrated unparalleled skills in strategic communication. Every message it sends reinforces the same narrative of a nation whose power is in full bloom, where the people only grow richer, even as the authorities’ ultimate goal is mostly about stability and keeping the public calm.

Chinese communication operates on multiple levels. To the outside world, Beijing gets noticed with unprecedented demonstrations of financial largesse. A few billion here to finance the “New Silk Road,” a few billion there to fund development banks for infrastructure and emerging economies â€" shocking the planet with what is ultimately a challenge to the Bretton Woods institutions that seem to be growing brittle in this new century.

At the same time, from within its borders, the public and analysts appear enthralled by the recent economic miracle. The Shanghai Stock exchange has seen 130% growth over the past year, a phenomenon that allows normal people to get richer as if by magic.

For Chinese society, the propaganda machine is always turning. When the Eastern Star passenger boat collapsed with 456 people aboard last week, the incident was (tragically) telling. The authorities ensured that high-level ministers were seen on all fronts, be it at the bedside of a survivor or supervising the rescue. The media shared only tales of heroic rescue. Meanwhile, the loved ones of the 440 casualties are ordered to please pass their grief in silence.

It’s incredible to think that earlier that same week Beijing had published a public document saying they had arrived at a number of “important revelations” regarding human rights. Nevermind that imprisoning journalists, lawyers, and artists is making a decisive comeback.

Nothing seems to be able to hold back the triumphalism of this regime, which seems to be at the height of its powers and in full control of its image. So far the policy seems to be working, and the people appear genuinely enthusiastic about their new president.

But there’s something troubling about these easy shows of strength. For one, it fits poorly with Chinese tradition, going against Sun Tzu’s prescription in The Art of War that one should always appear weaker to one's enemies than one actually is. China’s revolutionary and great reformer Deng Xiaoping always advised China to hide its strength and wait for its hour to come. Has the Chinese government really come to believe that their hour of incontestable domination has arrived?

Economic fantasies

In reality, Beijing’s persistence in showing its power could reveal mounting insecurity. This seems obvious regarding the ferry crash: only a system where the powerful are profoundly unsettled would deploy such energy into locking down the narrative around what is really just simple tragedy.

This applies equally to the economy: on this point, there is little doubt that the country’s trajectory is worrying. The numbers all point to a pronounced slow-down in growth â€" industrial production, real estate, investment, trade, and inflation. Something is clearly jammed in the Chinese machine. As years of over-investment catch up to them, the country should be directing its surplus to reinventing itself. In this context, the irrational exuberance of the Shanghai Stock Exchange might look like an expensive strategy of distraction at the moment when growth is dialing back to a level unseen since 1990.

It can be difficult to verify that Chinese authorities are actually going to implement the economic reforms they’ve been touting. Certainly, they deserve credit for expanding the initiatives to fix their financial system. In time, we can hope to see capital being allocated more effectively in a system that was, to present, inefficient.

At the same time, the policies show that Chinese authorities remain incapable of accepting the inevitable in any economy. As a slowdown becomes clear, the authorities have backed off monetary reforms. Little is being done about the risks of a new surge in credit, nor to confront hypertrophic investment and the persistent weakness of household consumption. The government is backpedaling on brave measures announced just last year. City governments, however dangerously indebted, have been authorized to take out a new round of loans using various middlemen. And â€" even more worrying â€" the banks have been told to keep lending to these groups, even when they are insolvent!

No political system enjoys an economic crisis. But in China, the impossibility of political turnover adds even more anxiety to the situation. If Beijing is putting so much effort into showing their strength, perhaps it’s because they are obliged to reveal, more discretely, one of their deepest weakness. Backed into a corner over the threat of slowdown, the fear of political instability is taking precedent over the need to reform. Meanwhile, the headlong rush into deeper debt continues unabated.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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