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The Economics Behind China's Crackdown On Civil Society


And starting today, China's communist party gathers to choose new leaders who will rule the world's most populous country for the next five years. One of them, President Xi Jinping, is all but assured a second term. There's very little mystery at this event. Xi has spent the last five years consolidating power, ensuring the party maintains control over a society of 1.3 billion people. And one way he has done this is through an unprecedented crackdown on lawyers, activists and civil society. NPR's Rob Schmitz brings us this story of the crackdown and why it's been waged.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: It's been a tense month for Liang Xiaojun.

LIANG XIAOJUN: (Through interpreter) They came on a Tuesday. There were 15 of them - national security police, regular police, justice bureau folks.

SCHMITZ: Liang is a human rights lawyer in Beijing, an endangered species since 2015 when China's government questioned or detained more than 200 of his colleagues. Now he wonders if they're coming for him.

LIANG: (Through interpreter) They told me this was just a preliminary check. Next week, they'll send more police. It's possible they'll arrest me. But I mustn't live in fear.

SCHMITZ: Liang has made a career of defending people charged with subverting the state. He's represented minorities like a Uighur Christian accused of leaking state secrets and a Tibetan charged with separatism after being interviewed by The New York Times. He's also defended other lawyers imprisoned for doing their jobs. Ever since Xi Jinping took power in 2013, China's government has targeted lawyers, activists and organizations advocating civil rights in a campaign aimed at quelling any hint of dissent against Communist Party rule.

ZHENG CHURAN: (Through interpreter) They came for me at night, marched me out of my home, took me to a police station and detained me for 37 days.

SCHMITZ: Twenty-seven-year-old Zheng Churan was detained as she was organizing a protest against sexual harassment on public buses. She was one of what foreign media in China dubbed the Feminist Five, five women all detained the day before International Women's Day in 2015 for organizing rallies advocating gender equality.

ZHENG: (Through interpreter) After I was released, national police continued to check on me. I barely responded because all their warnings lacked logic and legal justification. All they talked about was maintaining social stability.

SCHMITZ: China's Communist Party has become increasingly obsessed with maintaining that social stability in recent years. And when I ask Zheng, an activist and Liang, the lawyer why, neither of them mentions politics or communism. They both have a quick unequivocal response - China's economy.

LIANG: (Through interpreter) It's suffered in recent years. Suppressing whistleblowers and lawyers is their way to maintain stability at a time when the economy is unstable.

SCHMITZ: China's unstable economy has its beginnings not in China but in America - more specifically, on Wall Street nine years ago.


ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: The stock market took a big plunge today. The Dow closed...

SCHMITZ: September 15, 2008 - Lehman Brothers files for bankruptcy, setting off the worst economic crisis in living memory.

ARTHUR KROEBER: And in the year after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, the value of Chinese exports fell by about 20 percent, which is a very big deal.

SCHMITZ: Arthur Kroeber is founding partner of Gavekal Reaganomics and author of "China's Economy: What Everyone Needs To Know." The exports crash he just mentioned, that was the heart of the Chinese economy.

KROBER: And the estimates at the time were that about somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million workers in export-related industries in the coasts lost their jobs and had to return home. So it was a pretty major shock to China.

SCHMITZ: How would a country accustomed to double-digit economic growth cope with millions of workers suddenly without work. China's leaders didn't wait to find out. Within weeks, they passed a historic stimulus package injecting nearly $600 billion into its economy, an amount worth 15 percent of China's entire GDP.

KROBER: It was by far the largest fiscal stimulus in absolute terms or relative to GDP of any economy in the world at that time.

SCHMITZ: And it worked a little too well.


SCHMITZ: Millions of Chinese went back to work building infrastructure projects like China's high-speed rail network, highways, subways. By 2010, China was back into double-digit growth territory again. But all this new money flowing through local governments exposed deep-seated vulnerabilities in China's political system - namely, corruption.

KROBER: It kind of gotten out of control. It was, you know, pretty bad before the financial crisis. And the stimulus, I think, just created more - sort of poured gasoline on the fire of corruption if you will.

SCHMITZ: By 2013, when Xi Jinping became secretary of China's ruling Communist Party, corruption within the party was spiraling out of control. Economic growth was steady. But underneath the numbers, debt was rising and so was wasteful spending. The party, it seemed, had lost control over its highest officials and China's economy.

XI JINPING: (Speaking Chinese).

SCHMITZ: In a speech shortly before coming to power, Xi Jinping vowed to clean up the communist party through an anti-corruption campaign that would net hundreds of thousands of officials from the village level all the way to the highest members of China's ruling elite. But he didn't stop there. Willy Wo-Lop Lam, author of "Chinese Politics In The Era Of Xi Jinping" says she understood that economic growth, once a pillar of legitimacy for the party, was under threat. Lam says Xi Jinping was forced to look elsewhere to legitimize the party. He turned to two things - convincing the Chinese that only the Communist Party could restore China to global greatness and No. 2, suppressing anybody who threatened the party's control over China.

WILLY WO-LOP LAM: So that's why we see an unprecedented amount of members of the civil society - liberal college professors, human rights lawyers, leaders of the underground Christian churches. All of them do not have any intent to overthrow the Communist party. But from the party's point of view, these are destabilizing forces.

SCHMITZ: Soon after Xi Jinping came to power five years ago, posters began to appear along streets, highways, everywhere really, promoting the China dream, Xi Jinping's guiding principle of rejuvenating the country. Today these posters advertise 24 words that make up China's socialist core values. They include words like justice, equality, freedom and democracy. I ask lawyer Liang Xiaojun about these posters.

LIANG: (Through interpreter) Authorities ask government workers and school children to recite these 24 words. They're all bright positive ideas, but they don't exist in China. I think they're there to craft a dream for the people a dream.

SCHMITZ: He says that, judging by current trends, won't likely come true. Liang says he hopes he's wrong. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Shanghai.


Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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