One of modern life’s greatest pleasures is watching a bunch of unlovable and despicable rogues run themselves into an increasingly, utterly horrible PR mess. (The classic hilarious example from years ago: McDonalds suing a couple of ragged vegetarians.) Typically, a combination of in-house incompetence and uncontrollable external events combine to expose the Official Truth as self-delusion and/or plain lies, and – to onlookers’ glee – panicky damage-control backfires to compound the disaster.
China’s Communist party-state seems to be starting 2016 in such a sorry situation – wading deeper and deeper into reputational problems as it struggles to reconcile its internal fictional message with internationally recognized facts.
The most pressing image-management ‘contradictions’ obviously involve the economy. With official data on GDP growth, unemployment, inflation, and debt falsified or obscured, no-one really knows what is going on. But some things are observable. We see clumsy stock/currency market mismanagement, suggesting incompetence and panic – which themselves sound like cause and effect of bigger problems buried under the official stats. And there are all the clear direct or indirect signs of over-capacity, capital flight, labour problems and other trouble.
Perversely, the Chinese authorities stick with the clear lie that growth remains at 7% (or 6.9876% or whatever). Such a high growth rate at the same time as the capital flight/labour protests/etc would indicate an economy so grotesquely imbalanced that it is sure to explode. If they were honest and admitted to (say) 2% growth, the problems would be more understandable, and the picture would actually be more reassuring. As it is, most observers are being realistic/charitable and politely ignoring the 7%-growth fiction. But the blatant refusal to admit the obvious does make Beijing’s officials look infantile.
The PR problems get nastier as they get more localized. The big story of the weekend was the victory of Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP in the Taiwan elections. The polling started with news that a Taiwanese K-pop star had been forced to make a groveling filmed ‘confession’ to the PRC after waving an ROC flag in a video. The main villains are the Korean entertainment company (which reaps big bucks from stars’ Mainland commercial deals) and an aging Mainland-domiciled Taiwan star who likes to expose unpatriotic rivals. But the message is clear: Beijing expects and requires humiliation of 16-year-olds for the slightest transgression of its ‘Taiwan doesn’t exist’ fantasy. If you wanted to alienate people whose loyalty you crave, I couldn’t think of a better way.
But wait! I could…
As we all know, in accordance with the regime’s obsession with image-manipulation, Beijing’s security apparatus has been abducting Hong Kong book publishers. After a fifth was grabbed in late December off the streets of Hong Kong itself, this became a big scandal. The Chinese authorities are now looking for a way out. Behold – they are busy making the PR screw-up even bigger.
Following presumably faked communications from Lee Bo, we now get a televised ‘confession’ from Gui Minhai, who disappeared from Thailand. It is standard Stalin-showtrial-with-Chinese-characteristics stuff. But the apparently uninspired spin-doctors still have another three (four, with Lee) accounts of the disappearances and ‘guilt’ to concoct and disseminate. Such contrived stories for all five victims will inevitably come across as a joke. Hong Kong’s officials and Beijing loyalists will be forced to make themselves part of the joke if their masters order them to publicly embrace this crap as the truth. And even then, one day, the five will have to be freed to tell their stories.
This mess started off as an attempt to protect the regime’s image at home, and it has now become one more blight on the country’s international reputation. To the audience in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the world as a whole, China self-mutilates rather than saves face. Yet again.
I could go into the way China’s censors banned ‘Tsai Ing-wen’ from Internet searches for a while on Saturday, then changed their minds. But we could go on and on.
Are we going to have a whole year of this? It will be the most gruesomely entertaining ever.
The overall impression the world gets from Beijing’s frantic attempts to impose the Communist Party’s fiction everywhere is that China’s leaders and political system are simultaneously both child-like and evil. It is a combination (The Exorcist/The Omen/Stephen King/etc) that manages to be creepier than any other type of sinister. Bang goes the cuddly panda bear.