Faithful to the party line

Jennifer Hewett
The Australian Financial Review, 22 October 2014

I am in my hotel room half-listening to CNN when the tv screen suddenly goes blank. I put it down to a technical glitch. Blame that initial gullibility on early morning vagueness.

When it happens a second time, I realise the blackout coincides exactly with the news out of Hong Kong. At least when the story is anything other than repeating C.Y.Leung’s criticism of the demonstrators. The on again-off again pattern is the same on the BBC news channel. I assume the local stations broadcasting in Mandarin aren‘t even covering the story.

The view from my 33rd floor window in Dalian may be of another ultra-modern Chinese city thrusting forward to be globally competitive in everything it does – and succeeding in many of its ambitions.

But in Xi Jinping’s China, the official limits on modern freedom of ideas remains in force. Despite the inexorable growth of social media and technology routes to sneak past formal bans, the requirement to stick to the party line is stronger than ever.

Not that there’s any sympathy evident – even privately – for the protesters in Hong Kong. They are seen as annoyingly self indulgent at best or, more commonly, as an unwelcome challenge to Chinese authority and much valued stability.

That Western countries sound critical of Hong Kong’s determination to resist demands for greater democracy makes most mainland Chinese feel even more aggravated at what they regard as double standards.

Even the bloody spectacle of the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square seem more distant than a quarter of a century ago. The continuing (and now increasing) political repression of dissidents is only part of the reason. It fits with a bursting national pride in China’s achievements and growing power that extends beyond the remarkable rise in the standard of living, especially for China’s urban population.

It’s also about regaining the international respect seen as China’s due. So the Chinese government’s aggressively nationalistic stance on disputes with some of its neighbours, especially Japan, is broadly popular.

It might not make economic sense to fight over barren islands or to constantly point to the brutality of a Japanese occupation that ended seventy years ago, for example. But for many Chinese, it seems a natural part of China’s sense of itself, now being finally sharpened and re-defined for the West from a position of greater strength.

A friendly, intelligent man in his mid thirties – who recent spent a year doing a master’s of public administration in Chicago – is one of many to earnestly assure me China must claim what belongs to it historically. There is no sense of nuance about right and wrong – or what risks that may lead to. China is in the right. His experience living in the US, he says admiringly, taught him to value flexibility and innovation. But on the need for China to assert its claims, he is resolutely inflexible.

How this all works with China’s focus on economic growth is something the world is watching unfold with considerable apprehension. Over the last few decades, however, the Chinese believe their model of authoritarianism has also proven to be a model of economic exceptionalism. And now the belated crackdown on corruption is supposed to reassure non-party members the system can deliver more fairly for them in other ways. There’s certainly no lack of media coverage about the significance of the central committee’s “rule of law” session in Beijing this week and the importance of Chinese “values” – led, of course, by the party.

The latest figures on China’s growth rates confirm a modest slowdown in China’s economy to annual growth of 7.3 per cent for the September quarter, slightly ahead of market expectations but still the slowest in five years.

Yet despite the cracks in economic momentum, there’s little sign so far of any failing faith in the system’s ability to continue to deliver.

An hour down the freeway from Dalian, we drive though a blighted landscape of vacant land, marked only by wide empty streets, the occasional factory and blue advertising signs. But inside the typically grand municipal offices in the middle of nowhere, we step into what is proudly called the “Dalian Puwan New District Planning Exhibition Hall”. The giant surprise turns out to be a lit-up and elaborate 750-square-metre model of what 400 square kilometres around this same building will look like by 2030. From the mezzanine floor above, the district’s economic director points his green laser light around every aspect of the mini metropolis.

This area is to become a well laid out city of at least one million, with green zones interspersed with office buildings, industrial companies, manufacturers and a new port. And then there’s the appeal of artificial ski slopes in winter and the beach in summer. This plan was approved in July, one often similar new cities for China. Initial infrastructure for Puwan is supposed to cost more than $20 billion.

The lure of moving houses and jobs will come from preferential land and infrastructure deals, tax incentives and all sorts of direct financial subsidies for desired industries.

Deloitte has done a glossy report on it all. No hesitation about picking winners here. And no hesitation about this century’s version of China’s great leap forward. Xi Jinping has to make sure enough of that dream comes true to bend reality to fit.

This article was originally published here.

Jennifer Hewett was in China for the China Australia Journalist Exchange 2014.