Chinese censors must be one of the most efficient and effectively managed state institutions around the world. As soon as posts related to Panama papers began to be circulated, they were at work. According to Baidu, Panama Papers do not exist.
Among the Chinese high-level officials to be implicated in this 2.6TB leak from Mossack Fonseca were 2 members of the 7 Standing Committee of the Politburo, one of them being Liu Yunshan 刘云山, the propaganda chief himself, as well as president Xi Jinping. So the stakes were quite high and the range of censorship equally extensive (the word for “brother-in-law” was reported to be included in the “sensitive” list, or got “404ed” 被404了 since it was the name of Xi Jinping’s brother-in-law, Deng Jiagui 邓家贵.)
Just as the Russian propaganda machine portrayed it as part of an “information war” against Putin, China’s Global Times called it “a new means for ideology-allied Western nations to strike a blow to non-Western political elites”. Besides the “Western plot” card, as the China Digital Times noted, the week that Panama Papers were released coincided with news of assault on a woman at a Beijing hotel and the non-intervention of the bystanders, which for the latter reason attracted a flurry of views and moralizing comments about the state of Chinese society etc. etc.–it was enough to distract. The confidence with which the spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs repeatedly no-commented questions related to Panama was also notable.
However tempting it is to imagine the damage this may have on the legitimacy of Chinese leadership, I would argue it was limited, if not negligible. In 2012, when Bloomberg and NYT reported on the former Premier Wen Jiabao 温家宝’s wealth, there were no uprisings.
To many people in China, as this Economist article rightly points out, high-level corruption is neither news nor a compelling reason to lose faith in the leadership. The Chinese middle class which that widely-quoted study on the relationship between GDP per capita (threshold being USD 6,000) and democratization (and of course the end of history thesis) had hoped would become the next agents of change, were for the large part unmoved. Admittedly, that idea would have appeared more persuasive at the height of American power before 2008 when capitalism and democracy seemed to partner up well.
Of course, calling for an outright regime change or endorsing democratization in public have unequivocally become unpopular since Tiananmen. That is not to say the Chinese middle class has no political consciousness, which would be a grand generalization on a group of more than 100 million people. In fact, the quesiton of how to make China a better place is something almost everyone obsesses about. But, more and more are less convinced by the merits of democracy as an effective mode of governance (Trump). Additionally, some of my Chinese friends (who are mostly the children of the middle class) have lamented how many Chinese millennials are less concerned about such matters than by the latest trend in Korean hair style. Though it’s hard to say without a comprehensive survey, the argument has been made that much of the middle class, in part out of a sense of powerlessness to effect any meaningful change themselves, are more concerned about their daily lives.
There is an interesting comparison to be made with Russia, another authoritarian country whose leader has been a central cast to this episode through the proxy of a cellist called Sergei. Similar to China, not much shit was given in Russia (Andrey Kostin, head of a state bank that allegedly involved” called the idea of Putin’s involvement “bullshit”). “Corruption is seen as a fact of life, and the sense that there’s nothing we can do about it is pervasive,” editor of the journal Counterpoint Maria Lipman told the Economist.
Corruption in China, however, is not a fact of life. In fact, the campaign to rid its system of graft has been one of the most enduring and intense ones to take place since the communist takeover. If you talk to a cab driver in Beijing, my go-to source for the “average Chinese Joe”, many of them will tell you it’s all to settle political scores. Yet the same people also believe the anti-corruption campaign is genuinely having an impact, nevermind whether it will be rooted it out once and for all–the Xi administration remains one of the more popular governments in the world according to a survey. So, it is rather odd that there should be very little reaction to all of this, especially when Xi Jinping’s relative was on the client list of the same law firm that Gu Kailai, the wife of Bo Xilai, Xi’s arch enemy, and the poster child of the bad boys’ club in China.
In this instance, however, I was personally more curious as to how this news would be received at a time when discontent appears to be brewing within Chinese society and the political circle in regards to more oppression of the freedom of speech and media, and the increasing influence of Xi Jinping. But that idea itself, that the oppression of the freedom of speech or the increasing hold on power of Xi can impair Chinese society, has also not gained such wide currency either. Such developments are often taken with a positivist attitude; so people are less judgmental. It seems more apparent that authoritarian politics, not corruption, is taken as a fact of life in China. Due to such circumstances, along with other factors, contradictions of an authoritarian regime in relation to corruption come under less scrutiny, especially if the economy is doing relatively OK.
But we also mustn’t forget the achievements of China’s propaganda apparatus. When such episodes like Panama Papers strike, media blackouts and the forestallments of anything vaguely civil society-esque (remember the five feminists who were arrested for protesting about women’s rights) have obviously played a great role in pre-empting sentiments adverse to the incumbent government. The former gives the impression to the masses that it is not an important issue (or that it doesn’t exist). The latter prevents more active citizens from making it into one. Both have seen an uptick under Mr. Xi, and together with the recent memory of Tiananmen, these make for a powerful propaganda package that keeps potential dissent on the side of caution.
Such control of media and public opinion, I believe, was the main factor behind the extraordinary difference in reaction to the cruise ship sinking in China and South Korea. In both countries, a cruise ship sank, the leading crew members survived but hundreds died. In China, the official pronouncement that it was a natural disaster was taken at face value and discussions were wrapped up within the week. In Korea, it was a to begin a long period of intense political firestorm, and still continues to be one of the major reasons for the strikingly low ratings of the current Park administration.