Touchy Regimes And Religious Instincts: China’s Crack Down On Renowned Economists Who Question Zero-COVID

Touchy Regimes And Religious Instincts: China’s Crack Down On Renowned Economists Who Question Zero-COVID

by Sagar Kar Debroy - Friday, May 6, 2022 08:05 PM IST
Touchy Regimes And Religious Instincts: China’s Crack Down On Renowned Economists Who Question Zero-COVIDChina
  • Stifling voices of disagreement

    Double edged sword of nationalism

    Rejecting reality: the bane of manichaean divisions

Hao Hong is one of China’s most prominent market analysts. His name isn't alien to those who observe the Chinese economy. Until a few days ago, he worked at one of the largest state-owned banks. He served as the head of research at BoCom International Holdings, a brokerage subsidiary of the state bank.

Hao Hong's USP was explaining the weakness and strengths of China’s economy (in his assessment) whilst not hesitating to flag the inconsistencies in China’s official statistics. Hang was quite popular on Chinese social media platforms. He had around 3 million followers on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform.

On Saturday (April 30th), his social media account disappeared. He no longer works at BoCom International holdings. His WeChat account too was blocked because he “violated the platform’s rules”.

Hong had a presence on Twitter too. He sometimes disseminated his views there. One of his most recent posts was, “Shanghai: zero movement, zero GDP”.

The regime in China, as with all authoritarian systems, has developed an immune response to criticism. Any criticism is viewed as an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Even the slightest dissenting opinion is considered sacrilege. The CCP, an admittedly atheist party, depicts behaviour not that different from religious orthodoxies.

This shines forth light on a significant hurdle. Authoritarianism is a problem but it is an issue that belongs to the domain of political philosophy. The psychological issue is the deeper one, and the more challenging hurdle. The deep-rooted religious instinct, is present in almost all ideologies and social groups. Whether they are religious (in the traditional sense) or secular, is hardly consequential.

It is easy and somewhat convenient to fall into the cynical trap and view the actions of the Chinese regime as mere attempts to silence those who criticise them. In reality, it is more than that. China isn’t a black box. Like several societies, it is a society where nationalism is a significantly potent ideology.

Nationalism has the potential of being an elixir and a poison. If it encourages a system with closed-loop characteristics, it is an elixir. If it encourages a system with open-loop characteristics, well, certainly not an elixir.

There is a significant section of Chinese society, which, genuinely believes that questioning the regime’s zero-Covid policy, is disloyalty. Disagreement with the government’s policy isn’t viewed as a genuine good faith policy disagreement but a disagreement with mala fide intentions lurking in the background. The mala fide intention, in this case, is - “an attempt to undermine the ascendancy of Han civilisation.”

Sadly, the religious instinct is present not just in religious societies or societies susceptible to authoritarianism but also in ‘secular’ societies. Dogmas are what define the presence of a religious instinct, not the self-declared identity.

Consider the policy debate surrounding the Russo-Ukrainian war in the US. A secular issue. In reality, is it? People who argue that America must not arm Ukrainians and prolong the conflict, are not viewed as people who disagree on a specific policy but rather as people who are challenging a 'sacred' dogma. Malice is almost always attributed, that too within minutes.

Questions about the morality of affirmative action in America (and India too for that matter) are in essence questions that challenge 'secular' dogmas. Hence, the somewhat capricious reaction.

These are challenges that several societies face on the road to formulating proper pragmatic policies. The technical specificities of policies are seldom the most meaningful divides. More often than not, the meaningful divide is - is the policy oriented towards a crucial/realistic/ethical goal or improper/unrealistic/unethical goal. Having this debate is crucial. In reality, it seldom occurs.

As for Mr. Hong, he has company. Fu Peng, chief economist at Northeast Securities; Wu Yuefeng, fund manager at Funding Capital, Beijing; Dan Bin, chairman at Shenzhen Oriental Harbour Investment, and many more have had their accounts from social media platforms suspended, which takes away from them the ability to disseminate their disagreements and criticisms.

Even Wang Sicong (son of China’s formerly richest man Wang Jianlin), had his social media accounts censored. What did he do to make Beijing feel cross? In other words, what was his sin? Well, attacking another dogma, that’s it.

Sicong criticised the use of Chinese medicine to treat Covid-19, claiming that there is no proof that these treatments are effective. He went on to add that all these medicines do is line up the pockets of local health officials.

The zero-Covid strategy implemented with a heavy hand by Beijing is becoming increasingly costly to China. Most financial institutions have lowered their forecasts for 2022 growth to between 4% and 4.5%, far from the official target of 5.5% set in early March.

The SAC (Securities Association of China, which functions under the stock exchange regulator), released a statement. "As public figures, securities analysts' words and deeds are widely regarded”, it reads. It issues a warning against “inappropriate” comments. What is “inappropriate”? Anything against the dogma.

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