Ministry of State Security Warnings Against Economic Pessimism Cast a Pall

A recent trio of pronouncements by China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) warning against expressions of pessimism about the Chinese economy have sparked worries among businesspeople, economists, and analysts who fear that normal economic discourse and research may now be punishable under the guise of “national economic security.”

SCMP’s Frank Chen reported on the content and tenor of the MSS attempt to control the narrative about China’s economic landscape:

The economic domain has become a “battlefield” of superpower rivalry, and dealing with various clichés denigrating China’s economy has become an external challenge, the ministry said on its WeChat account.

“Talk concerning China’s decline is in essence an intention to create a ‘narrative trap’ or a ‘cognitive distortion’,” it said.

“It aims to doubt or deny China’s socialist system and attempts to strategically contain China’s development.

“There are some people with ulterior motives. They are fabricating a China threat again … with the intention to disrupt market expectations and economic growth momentum.” [Source]

Writing for Nikkei Asia, Katsuji Nakazawa explored the implications of China’s spy agency’s increasing involvement in controlling—and potentially punishing—economic discourse:

Chinese private companies and foreign companies operating in the country have no choice but to mind the recent moves by the country’s powerful national security organizations, especially the Ministry of State Security’s hinting of possible crackdowns. Now, conducting business and economic research could carry legal risks.

If economic analyses and sharp opinions related to business are to be subject to a crackdown, companies operating in China will feel intimidated to the point of inaction. This would be detrimental to institutions whose mission is to turn a profit. To succeed, having access to accurate information is everything.

One elderly Chinese intellectual laments the current situation. “For the past few decades, protecting a stable security environment to firmly maintain China’s ‘reform and opening-up’ system and the growth of its economy was the role assigned to the People’s Liberation Army,” the intellectual said. But now, “the role of national security organizations has become to crack down on China-is-deteriorating speeches in the name of economic security.” [Source]

There has also been an uptick in online censorship of economic analysis and articles, including the deletion of “Ten Questions About the Private Economy” and the closure of several of economist Liu Jipeng’s social media accounts.

CDT editors have archived some critical and satirical online responses, at least one of which has been censored, to the MSS pronouncements. A satirical short essay from the WeChat public account 古史夜谭 (gǔshǐ yètán), which covers current events, was recently deleted. The essay concludes with this faux-laudatory paean to the powerful national security apparatus:

China’s current economic outlook is excellent, but for some reason there are always people with ulterior motives who want to destroy these bright economic prospects by wantonly badmouthing the Chinese economy—for example, by saying that China is letting “security supercede economic development”, or is “squeezing out foreign investment,” or is “suppressing private enterprise.” To counter this, for three consecutive days, China’s Ministry of State Security has issued proclamations focusing on the economy. This is no joke: a key aspect of the MSS’s future work will be cracking down on online remarks that are harmful to China’s economy. Anyone who dares to badmouth China’s economy will be severely punished, and anyone who dares to make irresponsible declarations about economic issues will certainly be severely dealt with by the MSS.

We believe that with the powerful intervention of the national security apparatus, positive coverage of China’s bright economic prospects will surely prevail, China’s soaring economic momentum will continue, foreign trade will further expand, foreign investment will pour into China, and employment will be robust. In short, with the powerful intervention of the national security apparatus behind it, China’s economy will surely attain new heights of greatness. [Chinese]

Another essay in a similar vein, from WeChat public account 笑面风雨 (xiàomiàn fēngyǔ), notes that the last time China’s security apparatus got this involved in economic policy was during the Shanghai stock exchange crash of 2015. (Online discussion of that financial crash was heavily controlled at the time, and was the subject of several leaked censorship directives.) The essay notes that the arrests that followed the 2015 crash were made by the Ministry of Public Security, China’s domestic security apparatus:

This is the second time that China’s powerful security apparatus has taken to the economic field to display its mastery!

The last time was eight years ago, during the June 2015 stock market crash.

[…] In response to the stock market crisis, a large number of officers from the Ministry of Public Security were dispatched to the China Securities Regulatory Commission to thoroughly investigate the troublemakers. Nationwide, the police and public security apparatus was mobilized to deal with the financial war set off by so-called “malicious international short-sellers.”

[…] The fact that, even now, the [Shanghai Composite Index] never falls below the floor of 3000 points, is largely thanks to the hard work of the public security apparatus all those years ago.

No wonder that when many of us recall the “classic scenes” of the 2015 Shanghai stock market crash, the first image that comes to mind is the Ministry of Public Security arresting people. [Chinese]


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