Three Child, Discursive Power, June 4, Lie Down, Yang

4 June 2021

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1. Three Child Policy

We wrote recently about family planning and gender roles, and the latest census. Now the Chinese Government has changed its “Two Child Policy” to “Three Child Policy”. 

Let’s recap. The “One Child Policy” lasted around 25 years from 1980. The “Two Child Policy” was then instituted in 2016 as China faced a possible demographic crisis of having too few children. However, that didn’t do much to lift the fertility rate. As in many other countries, encouraging a high birth rate is very difficult.

So merely five years later, the policy has been changed yet again, to “Three Child Policy”. 

Alongside this change, the Government is likely to announce more policies to encourage birth in the near future. Policymakers would have known by now that relaxing the limit by itself would not increase the fertility rate. The short-lived Two Child Policy illustrates a key point: if the underlying (dis)incentives are not addressed, then people will not want to have more children even if the state allows them to.

Instead of removing birth restrictions altogether, the Government has decided to merely relax the limit to three children, so having more than three is still illegal. This doesn’t seem to make any sense as removing the limit is unlikely to affect the birth rate. One possible reason is that the Chinse Government may be concerned that removing restrictions entirely may lead to the poorer rural population and ethnic minorities having more children. This is the opposite of what the Government wants. The Government wants only well educated, urban (and Han) people to have a higher birth rate, which also happens to be the group that is less likely to want more children.

Policy changes like this conjure up memories of the 1980s and 90s when the One Child Policy was most strictly enforced. Local family planning officials would coerce pregnant women to have abortions, and hospitals would sterilise women without their consent once they have given birth. Some of the common family planning slogans are shown below. One read “induce or abort, just cannot give birth”. Many families also had to pay huge fines or hide their children.

The One Child Policy has resulted in many family tragedies along with social problems such as a skewed sex ratio. It must seem deeply ironic for those that tried to evade the One Child Policy that China is now encouraging birth.

2. External propaganda and discursive power

Xi, at the Politburo collective study session on May 31, called for the improvement of China’s external propaganda and discursive power to match its power and stature, and create a favourable external environment for its continued development. This signals continuity of the current policy.

To achieve this improvement, Xi gave the following directives:

  1. build a “Chinese discursive system”;

  2. publicise “Chinese ideas, wisdom and solutions”;

  3. leverage “friends” (and by implication, delineate them from “enemies”);

  4. incorporate external propaganda ideological work for all party organisations;

The CCP leadership blames its relative lack of discursive power (that is, its ability to persuade through rhetoric) for the difficulties that it has encountered in the arena of international opinion. It does not view its policies as reproachable in and of themselves. For the CCP, both domestic and international political discourse are dimensions in the ceaseless struggle for survival.

But despite the importance it has assigned to discourse, Beijing has been astonishingly ineffective in recent years in promoting China’s image. This is especially striking against the background of China’s increasing international influence and role, and material power (as well as the billions sunk into amplifying its voice internationally).

The combative, condescending, and tone-deaf way that Chinese diplomats and state media have communicated with foreign audiences has been counterproductive diplomatically. Perhaps what it illustrates for us is the competing pressures acting on those doing the official telling of the “China story”. On the one hand, they want to appear tough to a domestic audience, and on the other hand, they want to build a positive image for China internationally.

Beijing sees discourse as a struggle where there are only victors and losers; there are only those who do the convincing, and those who are convinced. Such a philosophy is not the basis for dialogue, it is the basis for conflict and domination.

For those wanting to read Xi’s directive on external propaganda and discursive power, we’ve translated the Xinhua readout of the Politburo study session. It’s well worth a read for an articulation of the “why” and “how” of Beijing’s internationally targeted discursive effort.

3. June 4th and China’s story

Today, June 4, marks 32 years since the Beijing massacre that ended the Tiananmen protest movement in the summer of 1989. In the past, vigils have been held in the Chinese speaking world (Hong Kong and Taiwan). But a crackdown in Hong Kong and COVID has led to a situation where no large public gathering will be held in commemoration.

In this context, it's even more important for us to remember. 

The CCP is working hard to enforce collective amnesia over the killings of civilians on June 4, 1989. But perhaps what is scarier for those in power is the idea that mass protest and civil resistance could occur again. If it happened in 1989, then why not 2029?

The CCP leadership knows that it can’t totally erase the traces of this historical episode. It's still too close in time to the present, and too fresh on the minds of many Chinese people. But it can censor public discussions, crack down on interpretations that stand at odds with the official line, and keep telling the Chinese people that what happened was a “riot”, nothing more.

In the age of increasing geopolitical rivalry, Tandee Wang reminds us that the story of 1989 is an intensely personal one for those involved. Writing about the Tiananmen diaspora:

We too often represent Tiananmen, and the contemporary Chinese diaspora more broadly, as an issue of states and statesmen—a story about nations and their contestations...forgetting the rich dimensions of Chinese migrant lives except as passive recipients of...state beneficence or...state violence.

But the story of the Chinese diaspora caught up in the Tiananmen Square massacre is as much a national one as it is global and transnational, familial and personal. In this respect, we would do well to move beyond Hawke’s Tiananmen tears.

Let’s not forget about the 1989 Tiananmen protests, especially since most of us have already forgotten about the one before, in 1976.

4. Lie down

A new buzzword among Chinese young people is 躺平 (tang ping, meaning to lie down). We think it’s a term that we can really embrace! Standing and sitting are so overrated!

It describes those young people who give up the rat race (such as 996 work culture) and instead just lie down. In an almost zen-like fashion, it refers to those who have low expectations from life, since they know that they cannot “win” at life (as defined by general social expectations).

Young urbanites today are under enormous pressure. Drilled from the beginning (by “Haidian mums”) into believing that they’re in a hyper-competitive world, competition continues after high school, from buying houses to finding spouses. Not surprisingly, under such stress, some are tapping out.

Obviously, the Chinese Government does not like this kind of attitude. People who subscribe to tang ping are less likely to contribute to society.

Of course, this kind of nihilistic attitude is not exactly embraced by governments elsewhere, including governments of more individualistic societies. But rather than blaming the youths, governments and societies need to take a hard look at themselves and examine why they created an environment with pressures that make youths feel so hopeless.

5. Yang Hengjun

Australian citizen Yang Hengjun, in detention in China since early 2019 on allegations of espionage, has finally faced trial. China refused an Australian Government’s request for Australian diplomats to be present at the trial. The Australian Government said that was in breach of China’s treaty obligations. The Foreign Minister called the case “arbitrary detention”.

China is possibly in violation of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations under which it is obligated to allow free communication between Australian consular officers and an Australian citizen held in China.

As China claims it is a national security case, the trial is closed-door with little details released publicly or to the Australian Government. 

Yang is reportedly a former employee of the powerful Ministry of State Security (the intelligence agency of the PRC). After emigrating from China, he became a commentator on China affairs and a spy novelist. 

A day after the trial, Yang told his supporters the authorities did not even tell him who he was allegedly spying for. He has also claimed that he was tortured and forced to confess during the time that he was held.

Ultimately there is very little that the Australian Government can do to ensure a fair trial of Australians in China’s legal system. Whenever national security is invoked, procedural fairness and transparency almost always take a backseat. And with a near 100 per cent conviction rate, Yang will almost certainly be found guilty by the system.

Unfortunately, arbitrary detention is a fact of life for Chinese people that run foul of the system. And now China has become more powerful and less afraid to offend other countries, it is subjecting the same treatment to foreigners living or working in China.