Strategic dissent in the PRC

Yale's Chris Blattman, whose blog on development and violence is one of the more fun academic blogs out there, points to an excellent interview in the New York Review of Books with Yang Jisheng, the author of recent book called Tombstone about China's Great Famine, a.k.a. the three years of hunger and deprivation caused by the Great Leap Forward. The book is noteworthy for the fact that Yang basically went around gathering a variety of records about how horrific the famine was under the pretense of doing agricultural work. If it strikes you as odd that the notoriously secretive Chinese government kept files on things like cannibalism, well:
Ian Johnson: I wondered when reading Tombstone why officials didn’t destroy the files. Why did they preserve all this evidence?

Yang Jisheng: Destroying files isn’t up to one person. As long as a file or document has made it into the archives you can’t so easily destroy it. Before it is in the archives, it can be destroyed, but afterwards, only a directive from a high-ranking official can cause it to be destroyed. I found that on the Great Famine the documentation is basically is intact—how many people died of hunger, cannibalism, the grain situation; all of this was recorded and still exists.
That potentially very embarrassing records don't generally get destroyed once they're in the system (a) makes one wonder what else is in there and (b) gives hope that at some point (hopefully in the not-too-distant future) some bright young researcher will get a nice fat chunk of data out of those records and be able to write some very cool papers.

That said, what I find even more compelling is this: given the notoriously repressive regime, how does Yang operate? He runs a "reform-oriented" journal Annals of the Yellow Emperor and not only keeps it from getting shut down, but manages to publish a very controversial (enough to be subsequently banned) book. How?
Why do you think your magazine seems to enjoy more leeway than other Chinese publications?

Because we know the boundaries. We don’t touch current leaders. And issues that are extremely sensitive, like 6-4 [the June 4th Tiananmen Square massacre], we don’t talk about. The Tibet issue, Xinjiang, we don’t write about them. Current issues related to Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin and their family members’ corruption, we don’t talk about. If we talk just about the past, the pressure is smaller.

Now, as a total non-sinologist, and probably falling too much into the classic economic style of reasoning, I read this in two ways:
  • The first is that there's a reputational cost associated with stifling dissent (of course), and it's one that I suspect is increasing in the apparent harmlessness of the dissenter. For all the noise other governments make about human rights, everyone knows that China censors its internal critics and to a certain real-politik extent accepts it. But if China is seen as being unnecessarily repressive ("why are you going after this guy? He's writing about events that happened two generations ago") then it undermines their censoring practices in general, and they don't want that.
  • The second hews more closely to the limited amount of work I've read on how the Chinese elite views change, which is to say that many are in favor of making China less repressive but think it needs to be done piecemeal lest the country fly apart. In this light, and ignoring those in power who are more interested in elite-capture (which may, admittedly, be a dumb thing to do), people like Yang are actually *very* valuable to the ruling class. They allow a slower, more controlled and more co-optable approach towards reform. Looking at how long it takes even democratic governments to admit prior mistakes and wrong doing (Japan and WWII atrocities; the US's treatment of indigenous peoples) this seems to make a lot of sense. For China to up and say "you're right, we shouldn't have cracked down so hard at Tiananmen" would be hugely disruptive and likely terrifying for those in power, but admitting that their forebears made deadly policy mistakes much less so while still moving the country further towards openness and democracy.
In either event, the interaction displays strategic behavior on both sides: Yang recognizes there are certain subjects about which he'd like to write that he ignores because the costs are too great, and the regime recognizes that some types of dissent are either too valuable or too costly to repress. Something to keep in mind when one thinks about authoritarian rule, its limits, and their drivers, especially in places like Russia where allowable dissent seems even more circumscribed than in China.


  1. I'd like to see a scatter plot of all the stories written by this magazine in some sort of "subject space". Any holes in the plot might reflect "forbidden topics".

    What strikes me as odd about this is that anybody can figure out what issues are forbidden based on what isn't covered in the controlled media. If everybody knows X is corrupt and X is never discussed in the news, why should that matter? In games, revealing that common knowledge is common knowledge doesn't really change anything about the game. This reminds me of john stuarts critique that wikileaks doesn't teach us anything we don't already know.

    Maybe we need a theory of why gov'ts repress the media when the repression reveals the sensitive topics based on the fact that they are repressed.

  2. I think the model you're using of how people understand history and current events is too generous. People (a lot of people) in the US disagree about things as simple as "has the government been torturing people" when the documentary evidence is clear. There's even more disagreement about historical events like, say, what happened in Vietnam.

    So perhaps a better way of putting it is anyone can figure out something is "off" with a specific topic, but that might be interpreted as spin from a rival interest group, or obfuscation, or a smear campaign. Actually producing the evidence under those circumstances (e.g., Abu Ghraib photos) then becomes very important.


    > I'd like to see a scatter plot of all the stories written by this magazine in some sort of "subject space".

    Ok, but you have to come up with the axes.