What is the New Normal of Xi’s New Era?

What could happen if one talks about the importance of having dignity, integrity and independent thought in the New Era of president Xi Jinping? Zhao Siyun, a professor at Communication University of Zhejiang have it experienced after giving a speech to new students which drew the unwanted attraction of the Big Brother –Chinese Communist Party.

However, what is more bizarre but still true is the subject matter of the talk for which he has been punished or disciplined. So, what he really said to invite the wrath of all loving Big Brother?

I read his speech several times to see if Mr Zhao has said anything politically rebellious or something close to a hate speech which can hurt the sentiment of a particular community in China. There was nothing. In fact, his talk to the students is something that every civilized country and culture can aspire for as the integral basis of a society; to have dignity and integrity in every day life. So what wrong or crime the lecturer committed according to the party?

The official letter issued against him mentioned that he has violated ‘political discipline’ which is specifically unclear. However, going through the language of his speech and that of the party letter gives some idea about the status of freedom of thought and expression in the New Era of Xi. The value or correctness of a thought depends on how closer it aligns with the party line; reason or righteousness of an idea counts much less than it should be otherwise. In such a political environment, his words easily likened to what George Orwell referred as crimethink in his novel 1984.

However, what could have enraged or scared the Big Brother is not merely holding some views on the importance of having dignity and integrity in one’s life, but instilling such ideas in the young students –that each of them are unique individuals with dignity and capable of independent thought and critical attitude. These are principles the Big Brother sees as having the potential impact on students who may poke a finger or two on his face or at least biting his back. He most probably wants nothing of this sort. The idea is to eradicate the human qualities that inspire to question what is wrong and not selling one’s integrity out.

In addition to that, the Big Brother seems to have a problem with term public intellectual or gongzhi in Chinese and how it is defined by Mr. Zhao as somebody with sound knowledge in scholarship or professionalism and having sense of justness and critical thinking. Here is two points that could have disappointed the party; in the first place, it wants party intellectuals but not public intellectuals and second the definition of public intellectual is not correct in the language of the New Era. In Chinese tradition, public intellectuals are highly respected as moral custodians of the society, however this is not the case anymore. As Zhao has admitted, the term public intellectual is stigmatised and in fact the same Chinese term gongzhi has assumed some derogative connotations in today’s China. It can mean unpatriotic, traitor, pro-America and spiritual polluter. The way the connotation of a term changed from being dignified to derogative one has the similar style of Orwell’s 1984 where freedom is substituted for slavery and war for peace.

With Beijing putting the educational institutes on the frontier line of the ideological battle; Zhao is just one among many of educators who have been punished for their ‘abnormal’ views. The rise of president Xi and herald of his New Era saw the mushrooming of new eyes and ears in the classrooms whose function is to report on the teachers for comments and convictions which in any likelihood can upset the Big Brother. In this climate of tight ideological control, anyone branded as politically unreliable also becomes socially untouchable as other colleagues would distance him/her for fear of being seen as having a link with someone disliked by the Big Brother. This social ostracisation can be more depressive than actual jail sentence as one is treated abnormally in a seemingly normal social surrounding. The humiliation will be too harsh yet at the same time one cannot easily leave the job and go somewhere else as nobody want to hire anyone with a red cross in his record book.

Moreover, the political rationality of putting student moles in the classrooms goes beyond catching some teachers and students who may have different views. While this modus of operandi is Maoist in origin, the aim is to create an Orwellian atmosphere where trust can be tragically expensive –and hiding one’s true feelings and opinions is the best way to survive. Nobody possibly wants to be the Winston Smith of 1984.

It is therefore, more likely that the most victims of this political witch hunt could be incidental than intentional as there is no clearly defined line behind which one can stand safely. To leave it in relative ambiguity is also a shrewd tactic as this can increase the chances of self-censorship because no one wants to be caught off guard with a red line underneath them. Therefore, the likelihood is that people may end up drawing a red line for themselves with the worst case scenario in mind, and the limit they put can be more constrained than other wise is permissible. If this is going to be the new normal of the New Era, then what president Xi declared as Chinese Dream may end up as Chinese Nightmare.

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Palden Sonam

Palden Sonam is fellow at the China Research Programme, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi

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