Weibo Essay Comparing Party-State’s Economic Policy to Gangsterism Censored

Weibo censors deleted an essay blaming China’s stagnating economic growth on “a failure of political reform” that also compared the Party-state to gangsters and “underworld bosses.” The essay by popular blogger “Mr. Liu Dake” (@刘大可先生, @Liú Dàkě Xiānsheng) was an uncanny echo of an opinion piece by Hong Kong columnist Lew Mon-hung in the Singaporean outlet Lianhe Zaobao that caused a stir—and was censored—in August of last year. Lew’s piece laid the blame squarely on Xi Jinping and offered a “simple prescription” for high-quality economic growth: political reform. Liu’s piece, too, traced the roots of China’s economic malaise to vested bureaucratic interests unwilling to cede power and capital to experts in order to spur economic growth, i.e. “a failure of political reform.” The Party-state, Liu wrote, is unwilling to cede control of its private fiefdom, like gangsters who deal in “prostitution, gambling, and drugs” rather than set up legitimate businesses.

The erasure of the somewhat hyperbolic essay is but the latest example of censorship of economic-themed online content. In recent months, suggestions that minor political reforms might lead to economic growth have been repeatedly censored—most recently in the case of a Tsinghua University professor who suggested that “effective rule of law, limitations on the exercise of power, and the functioning of a ‘normal’ society” might have salutary benefits for the Chinese economy.

The relentless online censorship of economic content conflicts with messaging from Chinese government officials who continue to promise meaningful economic reforms. Just today, Xi Jinping told an audience of visiting American businesspeople and scholars, “We are planning and implementing a series of significant measures to comprehensively deepen reform, continuously build a first-class business environment characterized by marketization, rule of law, and internationalization, and provide broader development opportunities for enterprises from various countries.” And yet the silencing of meaningful online debate about economic reforms continues unabated.

CDT has translated Liu Dake’s now-deleted Weibo essay in full

Many are under the impression that “the middle income trap” is about backwards countries that see their technological progress hindered and are thus unable to progress to the next stage of industrial development. 

This is simply not the case. 

The “middle income trap” is, in fact “a failure of political reform.”  

This is because technological progress requires the large-scale reallocation of societal resources. 

The societal resources required to establish an R&D facility for manufacturing computer chips are utterly different from those required to establish a production line for making blue jeans. The government’s role in each is worlds apart. 

This means that technological advancement requires the large-scale reallocation of power in society, as well. Bureaucratic cliques must hand over an enormous amount of human resources- and financial–decision-making power to technical experts. 

Therein lies the problem: during the low-to-middle income stages, the bureaucratic cliques that won out in the power struggle have devolved into vested interests that feast on the benefits of [China’s] demographic dividend. Any financial or personnel reforms instituted by technical experts would cut into the bureaucrats’ “private fiefdoms.” 

At present, how willing are these vested bureaucratic interests to give up their place at the feast—even if it is in the best interests of the nation and the well-being of the common people?

The answer is obvious: they are not willing. 

Moreover, when facing a common enemy, vested bureaucratic interests will band together to throttle the political activity of technical experts and prevent precious social resources from being siphoned off into the hungry maw of technological R&D. 

Even if an academic fraud swindles a few hundred million from the bureaucracy, as long as the fraudster is “one of their own,” then the loss stays “within the family” and isn’t a complete waste. But paying actual salaries to researchers, purchasing lab equipment for professors, and upgrading university laboratories—bureaucrats see those expenditures as a complete waste of money. 

Here’s an extreme example. Why do gangsters all across the world, no matter how much territory they control, only engage in “dirty businesses” such as prostitution, gambling, and drugs? Why don’t they just set up a factory and make an honest living?

Because a factory requires a great deal of labor and capital, which have to be managed. And what underworld boss would be willing to cede such crucial control to mere managers?

Page through the history books and you’ll find that every country that has made the leap, that has escaped the middle income trap, has also experienced a concomitant period of bloodshed.

What’s more, during the era that other countries were escaping the middle-income trap, even the light bulb hadn’t been invented yet, and the resources required for moving to the next phase of industrial development were quite limited, indeed. 

So what are prospects for moving on to the next phase of industrial development in this era, given the complex web of conflicting societal interests? [Chinese]


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