Booksellers: intentional ineptness in a farce staged by Beijing

January 29, 2016 14:26
The 'intentional ineptness' that Václav Havel (left) wrote about is evident in the way Beijing has handled the aftermath of the abduction of Hong Kong booksellers including Gui Minhai. Photos:, Shanghai TV

From the purported confession on television of Gui Minhai (桂敏海) to Lee Bo’s "I am safe" video clip, the way Beijing has handled the bookseller abduction scandal has been exceedingly crude and inept.

Hongkongers couldn’t be more baffled by the attempts to explain away Lee’s disappearance in broad daylight: the video suggests he took the initiative to sneak into the mainland to assist in an investigation.

This is an outrageous insult to Hongkongers’ intelligence, many say -- but I feel otherwise.

Let’s be clear that Beijing has many imperatives when it comes to taming Hong Kong, but insulting Hongkongers’ intelligence is hardly at the top of its agenda, as it won’t do any good.

The second thing is that the Chinese Communist Party's top cadres are masters at cheating and lying, and it would be a breeze for them to direct and put on a flawless show with an elaborate, watertight script to convince everyone.

So, the question is why Beijing hasn't bothered to stage a well-orchestrated show to end the crisis.

Several Eastern European countries were liberated following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, and Václav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic and a prominent writer, made an up-close examination of the “intentional ineptness” shown by the leaders of post-totalitarian countries in his masterpiece, The Power of the Powerless.

Since the Nikita Khrushchev era, the Soviet Union had become a “post-totalitarian” regime, as Moscow, having ceased its Stalin-style purges and white terror, adopted ideological totalitarianism instead.

In the ensuing three decades, an explicit reign of terror was replaced by something new: tyranny became hidden and indirect and the people were closely monitored through a ubiquitous national security apparatus and mutual denunciations among the ruled.

The dictators' new approach no longer required forcing people to buy the party’s doctrines – it didn’t matter if no one believed the propaganda in toto – as long as they didn’t cross the line in word or deed.

In other words, the party abandoned brainwashing or ideological remolding.

The way to suppress those less obedient could involve some light interrogation, harassment or intimidation, followed by economic measures like curbing their sources of income.

All of these went far enough to deter the majority most of the time.

When all else failed, then the well-trodden way was the laying of criminal charges and imprisonment.

All these steps could be carried out in a rather crude manner, and the party saw no need to make the process a little more plausible in look and feel.

Havel used the “greengrocer parable” to explain this: every day, a shopkeeper would, without much if any conviction, put a placard in his window that read “Workers of the world, unite!” among the onions and carrots for sale.

If he didn’t do that, he would be in trouble.

The party knew only too well that no one believed in catchphrases like these, but it wasn't bothered.

Everyone had to do this because that is the way it had to be: the party wanted submission and allegiance, even if insincere, brought about by the fear of the party’s power, however apparently inept, to suppress or smother.

Beijing could surely make Gui’s confession and Lee’s video appearance more unassailable, but this might have done more harm than good.

People might then think that Beijing is serious about the lip service it pays to the rule of law, political rights or democracy, and they might be encouraged in their desire to have the rights and freedoms these entail.

“Intentional ineptness” in matters concerning the rule of law or human rights is Beijing’s best bet.

It wants you to remain unconvinced. It wants you to know that it’s just a shoddy facade for the party’s thinly veiled coercion and unchecked powers.

So, even if you do not buy it, you can’t do anything to challenge Beijing.

But why bother putting on a show, anyway?

If that greengrocer had been required to place the slogan "I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient”, people would not be nearly as indifferent, as this slogan would be an unequivocal statement of one's own degradation and may thus elicit some resistance.

The party needs to give everyone some usable illusion -- noble, catchy slogans for instance -- for people to hide their fear, shame and self-deception.

Now we know Beijing’s logic behind its handling of its scandals.

And the Hong Kong government is rushing to follow suit, as seen in the clumsy attempts by its officials to play their part in the farce that has followed the abductions.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 28.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Havel was a prominent dissident and writer who became the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic. Photo: internet

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal