Online speech in China seems more restricted than ever after the social media purge of Ren Zhiqiang, the businessman-turned-Weibo-celebrity who asked last month why state media should speak for the Chinese Communist Party instead of the people. Yet political critique can still be found online, like the metaphorical essay below on the demise of dictatorship, written by Li Mingtao and posted to sociologist Yu Jianrong’s public WeChat account in December and still uncensored. (Li’s own WeChat accounts, including Si’erzai [@思而在] and Jiusi’erzai [@九思而在], have been removed.)
The essay speaks broadly about the role of humor in ending dictatorship, with examples from the former Soviet Union rather than contemporary China. But the CCP is particularly wary of repeating the same patterns that brought down the Iron Curtain. In a leaked speech from December 2012, President Xi Jinping warned that no one in Moscow had been “man enough” to resist Mikhail Gorbachev. While the Eastern Bloc liberalized, China cracked down—on the same day that Poland held its first elections in 61 years, the People’s Liberation Army put a violent end to protests in Tiananmen Square. Without any mention of Beijing, this essay sends a message of hope for a peaceful end to CCP rule.
Why They Say Autocratic Regimes Are Laughed to Death
I. Autocratic Regimes Are Joke Machines
1. Autocracies strangle ability. For example, a major reason for the Soviets’ abject defeat by Nazi Germany, as Khrushchev revealed in his memoirs, was that 70 percent of the Red Army’s commanding officers had been executed in Stalin’s “Great Purge” of the 1930s.
2. Autocracies only need good slaves, not good brains. So the emperor surrounds himself with the physically castrated (eunuchs) and the spiritually castrated (lackeys). With these people helping to make policy, you can just imagine the quality of their work.
3. It’s impossible to get the truth in an autocracy. Information is the foundation of policymaking. Autocrats think highly of themselves and like to brag. They are especially concerned with their reputation and only like to hear praise. Since “what the superior loves, those below adore,” the subordinates, out of fear of punishment or desire to take credit, will only report good things to their superiors. They will even hide problems and fabricate happy news. With this information as the basis, you can guess what kind of policies come out of it.
4. When you cut the common people off from information, the equal and opposite reaction to this results in the ruling bloc’s informational isolation. Because what the ruler needs to know isn’t the information itself, but the people’s attitude toward that information. When information is blocked and the people therefore have no reaction to it, the ruler’s information gathering apparatus breaks down. The policies made on these ground are no different than if they were made in a vacuum.
5. One of the clearest characteristics of an autocracy that’s coming to the end is this: left is wrong, right is wrong, every direction is wrong! For instance, it’s obviously wrong not to support scientific and technological innovation. But supporting innovation is also wrong. Because supportive policies will not fulfill any of their anticipated function. They will only put the state’s funds in the hands of corrupt officials and the business people who bribe them. (Only businesses that collude with officials will get financial support and tax breaks, while real high-tech innovators will get nothing.)
In short, the governance of an autocracy is full of “hilarious” tragedies. Especially in its later stages, the jokes come daily. The regime is a veritable river of punchlines.
II. How are Autocracies Laughed to Death?
1. Exposing Lies
The altar to the imperium is built between superstition and lies. When the innocent child first sees through the emperor’s new clothes, the crowd rushes to cover the child’s mouth; but after the adults exchange subtle glances, they “know but do not speak,” and they chuckle in mutual understanding. The people have already awakened from illusion.
2. The Focus of Attention
The concentration of ferocious laughter indicates that the commoners have arrived from disorderly doubt to the source of the problem. The dictator is carried out from his palace. He is out of place in the public square and has nowhere to hide. Look!
3. Overcoming Fear
Violence and lies are the two banks of the river of despotism. In the final days, the rulers’ theories go bankrupt, their credit goes bankrupt, their image goes bankrupt. Hardly anyone believes their lies. The only power they have left is the military. The people living under dictatorship are dead serious. The “staring down without speaking up” of Chinese history and the solemnity of the North Korean revolutionary masses today prove this point.
But the armed forces are only as strong as the people’s fear. When the people are no longer afraid, the military is as formidable as a paper tiger. To laugh is to deride the military. From laughter, the common people overcome their fear of tyranny.
When the people dare to laugh, they take one brick out of the wall of the autocracy. When more and more people can’t help but laugh, the wall gets further taken apart. When everyone is guffawing, the regime is at its end. Ceausescu’s last speech, which started in strength and ended in flight, best reflects this transformation.
4. Speaking Their Minds
Power is dignified by the masses’ obedience. Their ridicule shows that they will not comply. The people have built an unbreakable bond from their inner beings, and they vow never again to serve the dictator. If the opportunity arises, they will use all their might to smash the despot’s throne.
5. Awaiting Opportunity
Amid laughter, they await the final moment. It may be ten or eight years from now. It may be three or five years. It may happen in a single night. All it takes is a light touch, and the people will discover that the fortress has already turned to dust.
III. The Laughter that Brings Down Autocracy
The regime will fortify itself in its final days, becoming ever more brutal. But humanity will progress. Whether the people turn because of the illusion of legitimacy, or international pressure, or economic problems, there will not be another massive, chaotic end. Therefore, I am sure, the so-called armory will not be depleted, and the wall will not be torn to pieces. Laughter is enough to bring it down. [Chinese]