Understanding China behind the Headlines |

Understanding China behind the Headlines


It is common today to speak of Xi Jinping’s China as a dominant world power on the rise. But the assertive image China projects may conceal a deepening insecurity as Chinese society transforms rapidly, said journalist and China expert Susan Jakes at a lecture at the NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on Dec 7.

Assessing changes in China

Ms Jakes, who has spent a decade covering China, highlighted several intriguing tensions that confront any foreign journalist trying to report on China. One tension is between two contrasting views of measuring change in China.

The first view, which Ms Jakes called “the eternal and unchanging China”, presents the country as an entity with a long history where change is inspired by deeply-rooted cultural patterns rather than external events. Such thinking is useful to Chinese leaders, noted Ms Jakes. They have employed similar rhetoric in asserting China’s past as an Asian power in disputes over the South China Sea, and in invoking ahistorical values to justify contemporary political decisions.

The other view is the “newsflash” approach, where every development in China is reported as though it were happening for the first time. Ms Jakes said it is important to have both views – and their drawbacks – in mind when assessing change in China.

Shifts in Chinese leadership

The other tension that Ms Jakes focused on concerned the nature of Chinese leadership and how it has changed between 2005 and 2015. She observed that Chinese President Xi Jinping has been more successful at capturing the popular imagination and headlines than his immediate predecessors.

Xi, or “Xi Dada” (big daddy Xi) as he is sometimes called, has been more adept at affecting the common touch despite his elite princeling background, she added. He has also shown he means business in his crackdowns on corruption, which are treated much more seriously than previous regimes’ anti-corruption campaigns. On the external front, Xi has been the face of China’s dominant image and its expansive attitude to territorial claims.

While these signs could be read as evidence of China’s growing confidence, Ms Jakes said there was nevertheless a “strong undercurrent of insecurity” beneath the “Xi Dada” image. She cited as examples recent events such as the Chinese government’s refusal to grant entry to a Miss Canada World contestant who is a Falun Gong practitioner, and the relocation of a public exhibition on the Magna Carta to a more secluded area.

Post-material aspirations and societal tensions

However, the greatest insecurity of the Chinese government today, as compared to 2005, lies with the media, civil society and the law, said Ms Jakes. The Chinese leaders are grappling with the awakening of post-material aspirations in its people and the accompanying difficult questions that they are starting to ask, such as “What makes life worth living?” and “What do I want to believe?”, she added.

In 2005, while there was a sense that the regime was tightening its hold, there were also hints that liberalisation was on its way. The courts and the media became more professional and independent, and there were no restrictions on what professors could teach in the universities.

However, Ms Jakes said the “hopeful moment” in 2005 has since receded. When she visited China in early December, many Chinese friends told her that they were trying to leave the country or were happy that their children had managed to leave.

Prominent civil rights activists like Xu Zhiyong and Pu Zhiqiang are in jail while another activist, Zhou Dan, has left China for the United States. Attributing the hardening attitude of the Xi regime in part to the Hong Kong protests in 2014, Ms Jakes said she has heard reports of professors having to submit syllabuses and foreign publications for approval, while online censorship and restricted Internet access have also intensified.

In the subsequent question-and-answer session moderated by Professor Kanti Prasad Bajpai of the LKYSPP, Ms Jakes spoke about a variety of issues ranging from President Xi’s control over the military to the effect of China’s slowing economy on the government’s tightening hold on dissent, and the priorities and ideology of the Xi regime.


Click here to view the recorded lecture.

On 7 December 2015, journalist Susan Jakes gave a talk titled “China Behind the Headlines” at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. The talk was the first of the LKY School-US embassy speaker series. Ms Jakes is the founding editor of ChinaFile, an English-language online magazine which publishes both original and syndicated writing, photography and film content on China. She is also Senior Fellow of the Asia Society’s Center on US-China relations. Prior to joining the Asia Society, Ms Jakes was a Ph.D. student in modern Chinese history at Yale University. Before commencing her graduate programme, she spent seven years reporting on China for Time magazine, breaking the story of the Chinese government’s cover-up of the SARS epidemic in Beijing in 2003. She is a frequent commentator on China for US print and broadcast media.

Written by the External Affairs department.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

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