Everyone has known for years that Chinese local authorities operate detention centres in Beijing to prevent their citizens from petitioning central government about corruption back in their home counties and towns. Except, apparently, Human Rights Watch, which has only just found out.
Still, better late than never – because President Barack Obama is about to visit China. While there, he will express his horror at the torture, rape and sheer inhumanity of these “black jails” and the injustices around the country that lead desperate working people to go to the capital to seek redress. His host, President Hu Jintao, will reply, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. We are always eager to learn from our foreign friends how we may improve governance in our country. These terrible problems should never have been allowed to happen in the first place, and I will fix them immediately.”
China’s top-down system by which central edicts are enforced by threats passed down through the chain of command goes back centuries. A rough example:
Minister to sub-minister: “Produce result, or your chances of making Politburo will be hurt”
Sub-minister to Province chief: “Produce result, or you won’t be promoted to Beijing”
Province chief to city boss: “Produce result, or we’ll transfer you to a town too poor to pay decent bribes”
City boss to county boss: “Produce result, or you won’t get a bonus at the end of the year”
County boss to township boss: “Produce result, or you’ll lose two months’ salary”
Township boss to cadres and cops: “Produce result, or I’ll fire you and your family will have nothing”
The threat of punishment from above is why vicious fights, even to death, break out between low-level municipal enforcement officials and illegal street vendors: one group will lose its livelihood – it’s just a question of which. It is why Falun Gong practitioners have been murdered by local police. It is why local officials, with strict birth limits to enforce, compel women to have abortions. It is why tens of millions starved and people in Guizhou turned to cannibalism in the early 1960s when officials falsified food production data. It is why SARS killed nearly 300 people in Hong Kong when Guangdong cadres covered up the disease rather than warn us. Higher officials don’t order juniors to fix problems; they just demand that there shall be no word of problems and aren’t interested in how that’s arranged.
This “who needs carrots when you’ve got huge sticks” system is an especially effective way of implementing quotas. In the 1950s, Mao Zedong handed down minimum percentages of the population to be executed as counter-revolutionaries. During the anti-rightist campaign around 1957, work units were given quotas of subversives to expose; managers who failed to produce enough were denounced themselves for hiding fellow rightists.
Is this any way, Obama could ask Hu, to run an emerging superpower? Hu might ask what alternative there is, given that the Chinese people are too immature to exercise accountability over their leaders, or the conditions aren’t ripe, or foreigners are plotting to plunge the nation into chaos, or whatever the reason is these days. Or he could be honest: the system works extremely well in a society where the power-holders have always seen the population as their property.
Speaking of which… Next week: Human Rights Watch organizes an underground railroad to help slaves in Maryland escape to Canada.