Wednesday 27 April 2011

China in Night and Fog

In December 1941 Hitler issued one of his most sinister directives. Even the name still carries frightful overtones: Nacht und Nebel – Night and Fog. This allowed for the complete disappearance of anyone in Nazi-occupied territory judged to be a danger to the regime. Relatives would be given no information at all, not even if the people they were inquiring about were alive or not. There was no official record whatsoever, no trial and no appeal. It was as if some malevolent god had suddenly plucked random individuals out of existence, gone for ever into the night and the fog.

Night and fog has come to China. Earlier this month Ai Weiwei, a prominent artist and political dissident, was detained at Beijing airport. Nothing has been heard of him since. His family don’t even know if he is receiving the drugs he needs for a heart condition.

“According to the relevant law, the search results will not be shown”, is the message displayed to users of China’s micro-blogging sites, trying to learn something of his fate. Attempting to get over this Chinese Wall of Silence, bloggers started to use an invented name, Ai Weilai, as a forum for discussion. In retaliation all foreign websites petitioning for Ai’s release have been knocked out. So, if you are Chinese and living in China the chances are you will never read this.

The night and the fog have not just embraced Ai. The latest crackdown has seen others ‘disappeared’, so far more than a hundred bloggers, lawyers and activists for villagers’ rights. On Easter Sunday Christians in Beijing, people who refuse to recognise the officially-sanctioned state church, were rounded up and bussed off after they gathered to attend their own service, this in the face of a constitutional right to freedom of worship. Public places have been occupied by police and thugs in plain clothes, ready to descend on people ‘strolling’ as a veiled form of protest. Yes, one can be beaten up for taking a group walk, yet another face of modern China.

Through history Chinese governments have been notorious for their inscrutability, but the Communists have perfected the practice. Relative liberalisation at one moment can quickly be replaced by repression at the next, with no obvious explanation for the change of direction. The suggestion is that the so-called Jasmine Revolution in the Arab world, brought on in part by internet networking, has resulted in heightened sensitivity, a reasonable conjecture, though impossible to prove with any certainty. The authorities were never that liberal when it came to communication on the internet, a form of free expression they would really rather do without.

Information is power, so to be without information is to be powerlessness. Ignorance is Strength, is the Orwellian motto that governs official thinking in Beijing. Almost anything can trigger a new wave of repression, not just calls for greater freedom. If Japan’s tsunami had hit China instead I can guarantee that only a fraction of the news would have been reported, and almost certainly nothing about stricken nuclear plants. Ai’s first big run-in with the state, after all, came not over his brilliantly unconventional art, or his politics, but his attempt to account for all of the schoolchildren killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. There are uncomfortable questions here, you see, over the exact relationship between the authorities and companies who erected buildings not fit for purpose let alone natural disasters.

Night and fog is a measure of the political paranoia which grips China, the fear that besets the government, the fear of the state of its own people. The Communist Party here is no more than an organised conspiracy against the population. Secure in their forbidden cities, and their hidden villas, the apparatchiks look across the nation in a mood of fearfulness, seeing conspiracy around every corner, dissension in every tweet, a threat in every artist.


  1. My knowledge of Chinese history is limited, but I do not think the current regime differs markedly from those that preceded it back to Emperor Chin. Remote, arbitrary authoritarianism executed by corrupt local officialdom seems to be the traditional Chinese pattern.

    Western democracy is the anomaly - especially the US-style rational republican variety created from the genius of the Enlightenment that blended antique Greek and Roman principles with humanist philosophy and science, Protestant ethics, English Common Law, and Adam Smith's insights into trade and economics.

    Other cultures wish to emulate the success of Western societies without adhering to the original recipe. It's hardly surprising that their souffles fall flat.

  2. Thanks for sharing this Ana.
    "Relative liberalisation at one moment can quickly be replaced by repression at the next, ..." Exactly. Now having support from riches, Chinese government will do even worse than before. My post about Ai Weiwei in my Chinese website was disappeared in a few minutes after I posted it. It was unbelievable!

  3. Calvin, all very true, which is precisely why I think Francis Fukuyama is a fraud, with little understanding of history and none of politics.

  4. Yn Yi, but not surprising! The government employes an army of internet watch-dogs, ready to bite unwelcome opinions.

  5. Religious fanatics are a dangerous element.

  6. Hello Ana. John Lennon imagined a world without religion. He thought it would be a better world.

    The truth of the matter is that it would be worse. It would be Orwellian. It would be China.

    China has the most polluted cities on earth. If a government cannot provide the people with fresh air to breathe what is the point of them?

    But this is good:

  7. I always smile when I read that China is to overtake the USA in 2015 or 2050 or somewhen. I was going to say that the whole Chinese state is built on sand, but I suppose that is the Arab states. Mud perhaps.

  8. Calvin my thoughts. -“Ai Weiwei-Freedom” 自由, 艾未未. Art, animated gif. Love the Future.

  9. Anthony, any kind of fanaticism is dangerous.

  10. Nobby, absolutely. Check out this if you have not laready seen it, a piece I posted on 4 July of last year.

  11. Michael, castles made of sand, and mud, slip into the sea eventually.

  12. C and T, thanks. I'll have a look at your link.

  13. And if we don't stop the Leftists in Europe & America, in 5 or 10 years, we'll be the ones disappearing...

  14. I remember this when it was happening. I was in HK and the news was plastered everywhere and when I arrived in China no one really knew that Ai Wei Wei had disappeared. There were rumors on the internet, but nothing concrete.

    It's a scary government for sure, but at the same time, it is doing a lot for its people that other governments never even come close to conceiving. A lot of people who think China is built on quick sand are deluding themselves. This is a great country with great minds and an incredible thirst to regain the power of the lost empire centuries ago.

    It has been able to get at least 200 million people out of poverty and has poured money into infrastructure that will help the people, especially in the hinterlands. That's no small feat. So yah, they have human rights issues- who doesn't? The US and the UK are not exempt from disappearing people as with a lot of other countries.

    Sure, China is unrepentant about its terrible human rights record- but believe you me that it has done much more than for example, Greece, with all its democracy, has done for its people.

    1. IH, thanks. I know something of Chinese history and I have never doubted for a moment that it is a great country with a great tradition. I also agree that in relative terms it is probably better to be Chinese at the present than Greek. But a great country deserves more than a paranoid government, entrenched corruption, rapacious forms of greed by the rich and neglect of the poor unseen since the high noon of Victorian capitalism, and a ruling party that caused so much suffering and death in the not so distant past. It still lauds one of the greatest monsters of the twentieth century.