Gao Yu, and power in China

The jailing of a veteran journalist for leaking a party document is an instructive moment for those studying the mind of authority in China.

Kerry Brown
22 April 2015

The great French philosopher Blaise Pascal divided people into two groups, the dogmatists and the sceptics, with open war being waged between them. Everyone is obliged to take sides in this war, he stated, because "anyone who imagines he can stay neutral is a sceptic par excellence."

Pascal may have been talking of weighty religious themes, but those that deal with the modern People’s Republic of China, commenting on and trying to understand the country’s political progress and vision, might be forgiven for having the same feeling that the world divides into dogmatists - true believers in its mission - and those who are sceptical. No one who strays into this territory (and increasingly, almost everyone does) can avoid taking sides no matter how strenuously they try to maintain neutrality.

A powerful example of how impossible it is to avoid either being a China dogmatist or sceptic was offered on Friday 17 April 2015. A court in Beijing that day jailed the veteran journalist Gao Yu for seven years on the charge of leaking state secrets. In most countries, Gao would be at a stage in her career where she would be recognised as a distinguished contributor to public life, someone who has written courageously about political issues for decades. The judges of her case, the system they represent, and the Communist Party they undoubtedly have to report to all look diminished by this outcome.

For those who strenuously try to preserve neutrality about political issues in China, being neither opponents nor supporters but engaged and interested observers, this sort of case is the hardest to cope with. Utter neutrality would recognise that judicial sovereignty is something that needs to be respected, and that legal process in any country is something only the foolhardy from outside might venture to comment on boldly. Legislation about preserving state security is a sensitive issue anywhere, let alone China which - something evident in the statements of its own leaders - is beset by perceptions of domestic and international threats. Those with a basic knowledge of China’s current situation will know how tough is the set of challenges - environmental, economica, and political - it is trying to face. Understanding this context within which Chinese leaders work is important, rather than criticising them by default because of the one-party system they operate in.

But the treatment of Gao Yu, even for the most entrenched sympathiser of the leadership of the PRC, is hard to comprehend. Her crime was reportedly to have leaked a document, simply titled "Document Number 9", in early 2014, aimed in particular at Chinese university teachers. It had a number of statements and prescriptions about the sorts of ideological issues they could raise in classes, and in particular warned them, when teaching students, of the need to be vigilant against western universalism, multi-party democracy, and bicameral legislative systems. None of these warnings was earth-shattering news. Similar solemn lists had appeared in 2009 in a book called The 'Six Why’s'. The only difference this time was that this was a formal party document, not something by an outside entity.

There is nothing in Document Number 9 that might have even remotely passed the usual security tests that usually apply when prosecution of leakers happens. There was no threat to national security, or to citizens' lives. The only collateral was that the document was evidently embarrassing for whoever in the party machinery authorised it and released it. Gao’s treatment and sentencing seems like a brutal, demeaning act of spite and revenge.

If the authorities in Beijing had simply ignored the leak, there is little doubt that Document Number 9 would not have been the big news it has become. It's now possible to be pretty confident that the document not only reflects some thinking in the party, but that it is also a side of their thinking that they regard as a source of shame, meriting cover-ups, not pride or opening-up. Jailing the reputed source of the leak is profoundly revealing. It shows that the party is evidently way more fearful and vulnerable than the dogmatists, inside and outside China, might be willing to think.

Again, it is important to try to avoid the position of criticising Chinese leaders by default. It is necessary to try to understand at least how the world looks from where they sit. And painting the country they lead as some unreconstructed Maoist-era hell is simply not tenable or useful. But the treatment of Gao Yu means that scepticism has to be the only sensible position to occupy. For all the respect for different cultural and political standards incumbent on any onlooker and analyst, and the need to be open-minded, some things need to be labeled as objective and non-negotiable. Jailing Gao Yu in this way has done more damage to the Chinese authorities' reputation than any malign behaviour or attacks from people outside the country. It is wrong. It is unjust. Whatever else it proves, the events of 17 April show that scepticism rather than dogmatism remains the safest current place from which to observe China.

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