In China, a trapdoor to hell

Beijing's anti-corruption drive spells icy fear for many officials. Could this form of power yet become an unlikely agent of reform?

Kerry Brown
17 March 2016

In the mid-1990s, I was living in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, at that time a relatively remote part of China. The old city, a reasonably sized quarter of this provincial capital, was however already being encroached on almost daily by new blocks of flats and offices with retail space in their basements.

The Qing-era temple at the heart of this quarter was one building I will always remember. It had striking ceramic portraits on its outer walls of the various levels of existence, from heaven to the depths of hell. There were figures in each small portrait in this tableau, some basking in sun rays, others being tortured by perpetual fire. In terms of what awaits in the afterlife, this Buddhist vision did not look so different to the Christian one.

There was one image in particular that has remained with me: the outer fringes of hell, before the fires started. In this picture, an icy blue empty space was populated by shuddering, isolated figures, almost turned in upon their misery. It was a powerful portrayal of alienation. The blue was inscribed with diamond-like shapes. I remembered, when I looked at it, the lines from TS Eliot: "I can connect / Nothing with nothing." These figures, frozen in a hell of isolation, symbolised just that.

And such isolation would indeed be hell in a society which, as the great Chinese sociologist of the 20th century Fei Xiaotong made clear, was a deeply, intrinsically networked one. Networks make Chinese society: family and business and social networks. Everyone is linking with everyone else. Before LinkedIn – centuries, millennia before – there was Chinese society, with its intricate interconnections and labyrinthine links. Taking someone, anyone, out of this would indeed be to place them in hell. It is the lifeblood and vital force of all Chinese society.

In that context, trying to imagine the impact when the anti-corruption people come, as they have in increasing numbers in China since 2013, becomes even more dramatic. There is a Chinese saying that when an official rises, his family, friends, even his livestock rise with him – and when he falls, so do they. One of the most effective methods used during  the "thought campaigns" of the 1950s and 1960s under Mao Zedong was simply to cut all links between people and the world they had belonged to – to freeze them, as it were, and socially isolate them so that they became like the figures in the Buddhist image referred to above.

In those days, that technique proved terrifying and effective. Only people like the great writer Hu Feng were able to survive – but they had richly courageous and well stocked minds, which provided at least partial defence. For an official in the second decade of the 21st century, the moment when the telephone line goes dead, the doors you are knocking on stay closed, people don’t acknowledge or greet you, and your world suddenly vanishes – is a truly terrifying one. It is no surprise that in the last three years, as the struggle has intensified, quite a few have simply opted for suicide. The choice, as one academic in China told me, was to go the slow road to oblivion, or the fast one. The end point for both was the same.

The plunge

What makes this period unlike any previous one is that the stakes now are so high. Officials are evicted when they are caught in anti-corruption snares from a world which is good for them. They are cosseted, if they are high enough in the system, treated with enormous deference: power flows from their fingertips. Lower officials solicitously busy themselves around them. Drivers wait with nice cars to take them from their grand offices to their state granted appointments. They are privileged, respected contributors to the great project under Xi Jinping of building a rich, strong, modern country.

But all of this can evaporate in a flash. And it happens, all too often, arbitrarily. Suddenly they are caught in the sights of the "innovative regional inspection tours" of the Central Discipline and Inspection Commission. Figures descend from Beijing and take over offices in the local-government buildings. No one knows what is going on. A hundred worries about the many small indiscretions and favours you have been involved in over the years rises up in your conscience. Most officials even at this point just carry on. For some, the threat recedes; the investigation heads in another direction. But for others, the subtle signs that their moment of social annihilation is imminent come thick and fast. The final day when the knock on the door comes and the investigators, invisible to then, stand right in your field of vision with the dreaded dossiers is the true moment of execution. After that, you inhabit the icy blue world of almost complete ostracisation.

It might be that enough officials have been rattled by the latest all-out campaign to start wondering whether there might be logic in setting up enough generic safeguards and rules across society that at least some rights are protected. Ironically, at the end of the day, the Communist Party of China is as savage to those it sees as internal traitors, if not more so, as the myriad of enemies outside – dissidents, rights lawyers, and the like. At least these figures have international and some local sympathy. And they were isolated and living in hardship to start with: their detention and imprisonment just sees an intensification of that.

But for officials, they plunge from heaven to hell in a matter of minutes, with zero preparation and no safeguards. Perhaps in the years ahead, it will be officials with an eye to this terrifying fate that become more resolute in insisting on some kind of protection regime in China. It's even possible to envisage a day when it is within the Communist Party of China itself where the desire, and worry, about human rights is most powerful and convincing. At the moment, however, those that disappear into the anti-corruption struggle remain silent, trapped like the frozen blue figures on the temple tableau I had seen two decades before.  

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