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Global Viewpoint

Will China's Communist Party prove James Madison wrong? Unlikely.

Ruling in China used to be like hammering a nail into wood. Now it is much more like balancing on a slippery egg. Whether the authorities can sustain their present balancing act seems doubtful.

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What are we to make of these tactics of repressive tolerance? Do they defy Madison’s warning that no government can be considered popular unless it allows open public communication?

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Looking from the top down, likening the Chinese authorities to skilled doctors of the body politic, some wax eloquent about the new surveillance tactics of “continuous tuning” (tiao). The simile understates the ways in which the labyrinthine system of coordinated do’s and don’ts is backed by pre-digital methods: fear served with cups of tea in the company of censors; sackings and sideways promotions; early-morning swoops by plain-clothed police known as “interceptors”; illegal detentions; violent beatings by unidentified thugs.

Proponents of the Party’s Web-monitoring tactics are silent about such violence. They also overstate the efficiency, effectiveness, and legitimacy of the China labyrinth. They ignore the banana skins – and the popular resentments sparked by a regulatory system that treats more than a few subjects as ticklish, or taboo.

The Party authorities are dead opposed to monitory democracy (jiandushi minzhu), in the richest sense of free and fair general elections combined with ongoing public monitoring of its power by independent watchdogs. Public criticism of the leading role of the Party and its leading figures is not permitted. The subject of Taiwan-style free and fair elections is taboo. So also is fair-minded analysis of “sensitive” regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang, or “sensitive” topics, such as religion and the past crimes committed by the Party. Behind closed doors, it is said they stir up trouble and spread infections through the body politic.

Such restrictions breed public resentment and resistance. In the past, Chinese people were often compared (unflatteringly) to a “dish of sand.” Yet with the overall size of Internet traffic doubling every 5.32 years, digital media usage now routinely nurtures the spirit of monitory democracy. The range and depth of resistance to unaccountable power are often astonishing. The regime comes wrapped in surveillance, but counter-publics flourish.

Helped by sophisticated proxies and other methods of avoiding censorship, salacious tales of official malfeasance circulate fast, and in huge numbers, fueled by online jokes, songs, satire, mockery, code words, and mascots, such as the “grass-mud horse.” Digital media users commonly re-tweet their posts (a practice nicknamed “knitting,” the word for which sounds like “weibo”).

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