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Western news about China depends on intrepid Chinese ‘news assistants’ (qz.com)
91 points by sohkamyung 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 74 comments

China under Xi Jinping has effectively turned into a dicatatorship, and so with a dictatorship, censorship and blackouts naturally comes along with it. That's the reason why Beijing has recently cracked down on VPN, sent many of the young, brave democratic protestors in Hong Kong to prison, silenced many of its Xi critics, etc.

Will China suffer from the censorship and blackouts? As discussed heavily on HN, probably. Then again, it is most likely that China is already suffering through its own turbulence. Its economy is standing perilously on shadow debt (its going through its own 2007 real estate bubble deflation), while it engages in heavy protectionism - it recently disallowed South Korean companies from moving its assets out of the country, and its citizens, suffering from massive inflation in food and real estate, pollution, dirty water and food, are suffering.

> China under Xi Jinping has effectively turned into a dicatatorship

How was it not one before Xi Jinping?

Previously it was a sort of vaguely Maoist gerontocracy; power was concentrated in some central committees, not just the premier.

What difference does it make to the common people, or to political activists, that power is spread out among the leaders of dozen CCP committees, versus a single man?

The police will continue to repress, the press committees will continue to censor...

Dictators tend to collapse along with the stability of their countries. The more distributed power is, the more stable it is. China was already a huge country with massively centralized power. Now it’s still huge, but the power is concentrated in just one man, and thats even more unstable. So... worse crackdowns, even less freedom, and a much worse and less potentially flexible long term trajectory.

Edit: to be clear I am not endorsing either system, just describing them as accurately as possible.

There's a case to be made that a government by a large number of committees and other institutions tends to be more benevolent.

Many of the worst actions of repressive regimes have usually been motivated by emotions, not expediency. As more people get involved, the chance of any single personal obsession resulting in crass harm to, for example, a certain group of citizen is lowered.

Competition for power among people and/or these institutions also results in a sort of crude "checks and balances". There are too many people with considerable power that it becomes impossible for all of them to move billions to Switzerland, and if only a few do so, they risk being taken down by others who get jealous.

Of course, as China shows, this is still far below the standards set by real rule of law. But compare China with the half-bit dictators (Qaddafi, Barack Hussein) and it's hard to deny that it's not quite that bad.

Sure, when you've got an incredibly paranoid sociopath like Stalin, who sees traitors and enemies of the revolution in every shadow, you're going to have serious problems. Xi does not strike me as one. (But I could, of course, be proven wrong.)

How about the guy after Xi? After that? The power, once concentrated tends to remain so, and eventually you roll a Hoxha, Stalin, or Pol Pot.

Given that the Maoist gerontocracy managed to produce a dictatorship by Xi, it doesn't seem that it actually protects people from despotism. Eventually, someone wins the power struggle, and consolidates power under themselves.

Comrade Stalin didn't become Vozjd because the Bolshevik party wanted to instill an all-powerful dictator. Like Xi, he decisively won a power struggle in a government which was originally composed of a number of powerful committees.

The revolution had ~30 fathers - yet, 13 years after Lenin's death, all but one of them - Stalin - were dead, in a GULAG, or in exile (And soon to be dead).

The only way to protect against despotism is to have relatively frequent turnover in government. If US presidents and congresscritters were elected for 20 year terms, the US would have long ago become a dictatorship.

The secret is to continue raising the standard of living of the people as fast as it's been raising in the past 2 decades.

I thought the problem with that is that it is literally impossible to continue the trajectory.

It might be a better time to say this when the strategy start to fail but this seems like american wishful thinking as China keeps growing strongly.

You mean party secretary. The premier is Li Keqiang, who is pretty powerless, at least compared to Wen Jiabao.

You’re right, my bad!

Xi is a strongish leader, almost as strong as Jiang zemin. Compared to Hu Jintao, he is much stronger, but this is mostly a return to normalcy.

> That's the reason why Beijing has recently cracked down on VPN.

This is completely unrelated to Xi's reign. The point is to keep the population "harmonious" before the Communist Party congress that starts next week.

> sent many of the young, brave democratic protestors in Hong Kong to prison, silenced many of its Xi critics, etc.

The crackdown on black people and BLM is very similar, but a lot more violent.

I'd say that has more to do with societal norms and biases, not political strategy.

From a commoner standpoint, for sure.

This is what you can't say in America - that the "democracy" is not so democratic.

> This is what you can't say in America

Yes you can. You just did. It’s a stupid thing to say, in the same vein as likening the Civil Rights Movement to contemporaneous protests under Diem’s regime in Vietnam or the Cultural Revolution in China. But we have the First Amendment and courts to defend it. It’s not perfect, but it’s miles apart from a full security crackdown.

No, you can't say it because it is heresy and a social faux pas. Additionally, just see what happens when you actually stand up to the American political power - the fates of MLK and Malcolm X, and in more recent times Manning etc.

And on HN, you get massively downvoted so your post disappears.

You’re equating downvotes with getting thrown in jail and exfiltraring conventional military secrets (video from a military aircraft, i.e. Manning) with expressing politically unpopular views in a public, civilian forum. Keep in mind, too, that we actually got civil rights laws passed and enforced, irrespective of what happened to MLK or Malcom X. That isn’t the case in repressive regimes.

Downvotes (or name and shame) is censorship the same way or even worse than governmental censorship because it is socially accepted.

Oh, in that case, I'm all for people getting thrown in jail instead of down-voted when they claim the US is run by a vast conspiracy no better than China.

And I won't accept it, even socially, I promise.

People are been throw in jail, you know? Some of them when they are lucky to not be killed before getting there.

From my perspective, it looked like China will overtake the world and maybe prove that democracy is optional for economic prosperity, a blow to Western values and ideal.

But how true is that? I hear a lot about corruption and crackdown, and wonder how much does that impact their economy.

How critical is good information about the world? Do Western Media do a good job of it, or at least a better one than those in less democratic societies?

They might take over the world (I think it's unlikely), but in my opinion, the main reason isn't their political system: it's human capital (1/7 of the world population) and homogeneity (very cohesive culture due to China's history). Western countries lack the former, India and others lack the latter.

I think you're vastly overestimating China's cultural homogeneity. 30% of the population (so, a greater number than the population of the U.S.) doesn't even speak Mandarin. Just like in India, regional loyalties are very strong despite modern attempts to unify; see the continuing efforts to wipe out Cantonese, a language with 60 million speakers in China and that is mutually unintelligible with Mandarin: http://www.businessinsider.com/china-is-forcing-its-biggest-... . And this isn't happening in some backwater part of the country; in addition to Cantonese being the official language of Hong Kong, Canton (a.k.a. Guangdong) is the most populous province in the country, and the location of Shenzhen itself.

> Cantonese, a language with 60 million speakers in China

Most of cantonese speakers can speak mandarin as well.

That doesn't refute my point; most French Canadians can also speak English, and yet French Canadian retains its own distinct subculture, so distinct that Quebec has repeatedly voted to secede from Canada. Language is merely one very obvious indicator of cultural heterogeneity, and the point remains that China is not nearly as culturally unified as the typical Westerner understands (which should not be so hard to believe; it's a country with a freaking billion people!).

> Quebec has repeatedly voted to secede from Canada.

I believe your point may be refuted by the fact that you state outright lies like this whopper here.

seriously? it took me 1 second to google and confirm its truth. or is 1995 too long ago for kids these days?

also, refuting one argument does not shoot down unrelated arguments.


They did not vote to succeed and there was only one referendum.

I understood the GP argument as "having voted on the issue", not "having voted to leave". The former implies that a significant portion of the population want independence.

and i'm not sure i understand you correctly, but the very first sentence in the wikipedia link says that the 1995 referendum was the second one... this [1] was the first.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quebec_referendum,_1980

Your point is completely refuted. You never had one since it was based on made up facts.

Feel free to cite a source and enlighten me, then. :)

>> I think you're vastly overestimating China's cultural homogeneity. 30% of the population (so, a greater number than the population of the U.S.) doesn't even speak Mandarin.

Mandarin is basically the Han dialect of Chinese. The Han people are 92% of the population. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Han_Chinese

In addition, Mandarin is the standard language used in most or all public schools. I volunteered multiple times in an area where the majority of people are the Yi minority group (location: Zhaojue in southern Sichuan). The Yi people's language doesn't even share the same characters as Chinese. When I first heard their language, I swear it sounded like it was from Africa, a lot of similar phonemes. But even there, they used Mandarin in the public schools.

>> And this isn't happening in some backwater part of the country; in addition to Cantonese being the official language of Hong Kong, Canton (a.k.a. Guangdong) is the most populous province in the country, and the location of Shenzhen itself.

Shenzhen is a city built on top of a fishing village in the 80s that had very few incumbent people. Most of the people who live in Shenzhen come from outside of Shenzhen and never spoke Cantonese. As such, they have no choice but to speak Mandarin to each other, as that's the only common language out of all the people who come from all the other provinces. The fact of the matter is that I cannot remember the last time I heard Cantonese in Shenzhen. Guangzhou has a lot of Cantonese, but that's because there were a lot of Cantonese people in Guangzhou from the beginning, as Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong (the Canton province). Shenzhen's economy is forecast to outpace Hong Kong's economy, though Hong Kong will by no means become insignificant. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-05/as-shenzh...

If Cantonese is dying, it's a natural death brought on by social and economic factors, not a forced death. Mandarin has been the standard language used in public schools since the days of the Republic of China, China's attempt at democracy, in 1912. This is not some kind of new malicious strategy brought on by the modern Communist government. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Modern_Standard_Chi...

So many factors are making it a natural death for Cantonese. My Cantonese speaking friends agree with this.

Source: I live in Shenzhen

edit: formatting

well I live in Shenzhen too (live and work in Nanshan) and I hear Cantonese and Teochew on the streets daily. You can hear people speaking Cantonese all over the place: in markets, in office building elevators, restaurants, etc. In certain areas you can hear tons of Teochew being spoken as well (most electronics markets and wet markets seem to be run by people from Chaoshan), which is another regional culture with a strong identity that's strongly resisting getting wiped out.

Mandarin is _NOT_ the Han dialect of Chinese. Each region has its own dialect and while they are not taught in school (mostly due to central government's policy), regional dialects are often spoken at home.

Source: I grew up in Hong Kong and have relatives in mainland China

Sorry, to be clear, I said that Mandarin is basically the Han dialect. It is true that a lot of people interchange the names Hanyu, Guoyu, and Putonghua, though they are not exactly the same thing. Just asked my co-worker about this to be sure, he said a lot of people consider Hanyu to be Putonghua even though it's not.

It's like me telling a Chinese person that Canadian English is basically American English, even though it isn't.

It's closer to saying "English is the European dialect of Indo-European". Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese are all languages spoken primarily by Han people, they are all Han dialects. Of course Mandarin has a priviledged position among them, but that priviledged position has not much to do with the Han people, since it shares that with all the others.

EDIT: it may well be the case that people use "Hanyu" (literally, Han language) as a synonym for "Guoyu" (lit. national language, the Taiwanese version of Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM]) or "Putonghua" (lit. common speech, the PRC version of MSM). "Han language" is a poor English translation for "Hanyu" if that's what you mean.

Shenzhen speaks Mandarin, not Cantonese. Cantonese is more common in Guangzhou but everyone there also speaks Mandarin. Mandarin is as much the first language of China as English is in the US.

I believe the 60 millions of so cantonese speakers includes the chinese over the world where many of them are from Canton

I understand that Cantonese is exceedingly popular among the Chinese diaspora, particularly in the US, but some quick searching implies that the number of worldwide speakers is closer to 70 million. The article that I linked specifically qualifies their 60 million figure with "in China", though they don't state what their source is.

It's more of forced homogeneity than something driven by their history. They ban anything remotely resembling a different opinion.

Human capital doesn't automatically indicate economic prowess; you have to remember there's around 700M in China that still lives in rural areas with under $1 a day, and they can't get the jobs in urban cities because those jobs are going away due to moving to cheaper SE asia countries, robots, and lack of skillsets.

But it does indicate potential for economic growth... South Korea is a good example of an economy that has outgrown the available human capital.

The current statistics in 2017 is around 600 million in rural area. Their monthly income is 3300 yuan or around 500 USD, more than $15 a day. According to World Bank, a country with $6000 USD a year is upper-middle income.

If you count their rural areas as a nation, its GDP is $3.6 trillion around the same size as Germany, 4th largest in the world.

Yes, but among many poor students there can be plenty of very smart and talented ones. When you have 1.4 billion people, you got a lot of chances. The prospect of a better life and the parenting culture geared towards education are powerful motivators as well.

From Word Bank: "According to China’s current poverty standard (per capita rural net income of RMB 2,300 per year in 2010 constant prices), there were 55 million poor in rural areas in 2015."

Your statement "there's around 700M in China that still lives in rural areas with under $1 a day" is simply wrong.

[1] http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/china/overview

You shouldn't overstate the homogeneity.

We're probably more homogeneous here in European Union. Granted, China is a log bigger.

The biggest industrial centers (like Guangdong or even Shanghai) don't even use Mandarin on a daily basis.

Yes, alas, the thing that makes this whole thing going is the central government.

All metropolitan areas use Mandarin mainly.

Judging from the populism happening in the US and various European countries, it seems that Western countries currently lack the latter too. See Trump's base, anger leading to Brexit, anger in Greece, etc.

Anger fueled by fake news that Russian extraterritorial propaganda department happily spreads with three help of their army of professorial trolls.

That's why they have all those knife attacks and bombings and hundreds of young Tibetans self-immolating in protest. All that 'Chinese homogenity' and 'harmonious society.'

I'm curious to know the ratio of these crimes to population, as compared to Western countries. Harmonious != 100% peaceful.

100% this. Violent incidents in China pale in comparison to the US in terms of both scale and frequency. Take into consideration proportion of population? No comparison at all.

There's no comparison because the data isn't there, not because the news report on something or not.

The Muslims have both, they're sure taking over the world.

No, we are actually not homogenous at all. Even Arabs are pretty culturally divided, especially the Middle East vs. North Africa. We do have a sizable population though.

I would argue that the main barrier between Arabs and unity is authoritarianism.

Muslims are actually very diverse group. Not only Sunni / Shia rift which is major one but also differences between African/Middle Eastern/Asian Muslims. I think Indians and Chinese are much more culturally homogenous and more likely to take over world.

Islam is not a homogeneous culture. Totally different.

> prove that democracy is optional for economic prosperity

But it's always been optional. China showed it. But Singapore showed it best. It's undoubtedly prosperous, but not considered too democratic (it is on paper of course).

The West usually sells the idea of liberalization with the promise that Democracy will eventually follow. It goes something like "let us come in overthrow the government, start a war, install some dictator, bring some big multinational corporations to run things, etc. But don't worry, eventually democracy will arrive". But it seems it doesn't always.

Slavoj Žižek, hate him or like him, likes to call this Capitalism with Asian Values

He explains himself what that means here:


(Be prepared for silly jokes, and endless diversions)

Singapore is often shown as proof that China's model will work. But look at it from the perspective of China.

To be like Singapore they would need to have a much more regular and neutral justice system and expose their politicians to much more democratic oversight (though still not to western levels). They would have to engage in a much more subtle and limited form of censorship.

If they do become like Singapore, then what do they get? They get to be about as rich as western democracies.

Wasn't it Mao's tongue in cheek assessment of the American democracy experiment that it's "too early to tell"? The same can certainly be said of Chinese current state. They're a remarkable success on a scale unlike anything else in the world's history but lets wait a little longer...

That was Zhou Enlai to Nixon about the legacy of the French Revolution.

> democracy is optional for economic prosperity

This is quite obvious. We've had economically prosperous countries for ages now. Even in feudal times.

Doesn't mean the average citizen is going to prosper.

> maybe prove that democracy is optional for economic prosperity

That was never in question. It's been known since at least Tocqueville and certainly long before that.

"I admit that, in a democratic State thus constituted, society will not be stationary; but the impulses of the social body may be regulated and directed forwards; if there be less splendor than in the halls of an aristocracy, the contrast of misery will be less frequent also; the pleasures of enjoyment may be less excessive, but those of comfort will be more general; the sciences may be less perfectly cultivated, but ignorance will be less common; the impetuosity of the feelings will be repressed, and the habits of the nation softened; there will be more vices and fewer crimes. In the absence of enthusiasm and of an ardent faith, great sacrifices may be obtained from the members of a commonwealth by an appeal to their understandings and their experience; each individual will feel the same necessity for uniting with his fellow-citizens to protect his own weakness; and as he knows that if they are to assist he must co-operate, he will readily perceive that his personal interest is identified with the interest of the community. The nation, taken as a whole, will be less brilliant, less glorious, and perhaps less strong; but the majority of the citizens will enjoy a greater degree of prosperity, and the people will remain quiet, not because it despairs of amelioration, but because it is conscious of the advantages of its condition. If all the consequences of this state of things were not good or useful, society would at least have appropriated all such as were useful and good; and having once and for ever renounced the social advantages of aristocracy, mankind would enter into possession of all the benefits which democracy can afford."

"How critical is good information about the world?"

Of course it is critical but the access to good information is not entirely dependent on whether there is censorship:

For long form reporting a lot is dependent on budget resources. When newspapers here lose revenue they inevitably cut back on investigative reporting and resort to more editorialization. In China newspapers may have fared slightly better on the revenue side so far (https://www.statista.com/statistics/498028/newspaper-publish...) but the future is uncertain.

Outbound tourism has been steadily growing, reaching 126 million trips in 2016. https://www.travelchinaguide.com/tourism/2016statistics/outb...

There is a large Chinese diaspora connected through social networking.

There are also websites such as Zhihu that is a real force in dispersal of knowledge but is barely discussed here on HN due to the language barrier. Weibo (which is like Twitter), where a celebrity could generate millions of comments, gets more attention from the general public and the government. But if you are after good information Zhihu often provides surprisingly in-depth answers.

> democracy is optional for economic prosperity

You might want to look at the history of US external economic relations, especially the United Fruit Company (which created the "banana republics").

> maybe prove that democracy is optional for economic prosperity, a blow to Western values and ideal.

Huh? It was never about pure economic prosperity. The point is the human being that any prosperity is useless without.

Also, I had to think of this:

> You can have a lot of political 'change' in the United States, but will it really change that much? Will it change the amount of money in someone’s bank account? Will it change contracts? Will it void contracts that already exist? And contracts on contracts? And contracts on contracts on contracts? Not really.

> So I say that free speech in many Western places is free not as a result of liberal circumstances but rather as a result of such intense fiscalization that it doesn’t matter what you say. The dominant elite doesn’t have to be scared of what people think, because a change in political view is not going to change whether they own their company or not; it is not going to change whether they own a piece of land or not. But China is still a political society, although it is rapidly heading toward a fiscalized society. And other societies, like Egypt, are still heavily politicized. Their rulers really do need to be concerned about what people think, so they expend proportionate efforts on controlling freedom of speech.

-- Julian Assange

So yeah, "democracy". Freedom of speech. We can call Bush a war criminal, fine. Yay for us! But are others yearning for the right to speak about grievances and take part in normalizing them, or about correcting them, for good?

What would be the functional difference between capitalism in which one company provides all products and jobs and any other strictly top-down hierarchy? Flavor? And while I do not mean to say "oh it's all the same", and think it would be insane to demean the liberties we (still) have instead of really using them -- just take this:


Just some random quotes describe what I mean:

> They make hardware that we can't control, there's no real alternative to buy, and now we gotta rely on volunteers and wiki pages to give instructions that might work but who knows you might brick it.

> Unfortunately for consumers, there's no way to escape this as even AMD has their own IME.

"Unfortunate". You know, like it's the weather. And now consider at all the double think spouted at other, more minor occasions. Oh, free market this personal choice that. But that stops when it comes to a whole lot of things that matter a whole lot.

In a sane world with people who have their dignity intact, it would be "unfortunate" for AMD and Intel, and companies that engage in war profiteering and a whole mess of other things. We are not living in that world and we are not those people. We could and should be.

Your information is old; China is the most indebted country in the world, and its growth in debt is scaring alot of economists.

It is? I thought it was the USA.

Here's just the wikipeida link:


If you have a better source, please link it so that I can read through it. Thanks.

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