China spends more on controlling its 1.4bn people than on defense

Silencing dissent also nips innovation in the bud

Aug. 29, 2022

It emerged in the central Chinese province of Henan in June that local authorities had abused an anti-COVID app to contain the movements of more than 1,300 people. Yang, who lives in Shandong Province, is one of them.

On the morning of June 13, Yang arrived on a night train at his destination, Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan. As the train approached the station, he could not believe his eyes as his "health code" smartphone app turned red.

In China, authorities track the location of citizens. If they are suspected of having come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, their health code apps turn red and they face strict restrictions on their movements.

Yang had no recollection of getting close to any infected person. But upon arrival at the station, he got another surprise: Officials told him he must leave Henan, and they took him away.

Yang was visiting Henan to withdraw 230,000 yuan ($34,000) from a local bank.

In Henan, multiple banks had refused to allow withdrawals since April, sparking a flood of protests by depositors. Local authorities feared that this would be viewed by the central government as a failure if the demonstrations spread. They rushed to cover up the inconvenient truth under the guise of the fight against COVID-19.

Demonstrators holds up signs during a protest over the freezing of deposits by some rural-based banks, outside a People's Bank of China building in Zhengzhou, Henan. © Reuters

China's zero-COVID policy of containing the virus through strict social controls has sent shock waves around the world.

As President Xi Jinping's government pursues its policy of tolerating no infections, local governments across the country are going too far in tightening their stranglehold on ordinary people.

On April 14, a video of a scuffle between police and residents of a housing complex protesting against an eviction notice in Shanghai, which was under lockdown, went viral on social media in China.

As the residents shouted to police to leave the housing complex, police officers wearing white protective suits moved in en masse to detain them. Screams could be heard.

Shanghai was locked down from the end of March, with 25 million residents banned from going out. Some were even forcibly evicted from their homes.

Live videos of citizens suffering from food shortages or police behaving violently were posted on social media one after another, leaving authorities scrambling to delete them.

A Shanghai sidewalk lies blocked due to discarded cartons believed to have been used for food rations. The street has been impassable since mid-May. © Kyodo

But China's leadership under Xi did not waver. In May, it pledged to firmly fight any words and actions that question or reject the country's COVID-control policy and began to further increase its control over the internet.

Once a state starts to move strongly in a given direction, it cannot stop easily by itself.

According to a U.S.-China joint study published in the journal Nature Medicine, if China eases its zero-COVID policy, it will suffer a devastating blow because the effectiveness of the widely used Chinese-made vaccines is low.

The study specifically warned that if China eases the policy, the number of people who show symptoms could rise to 112 million, and 1.6 million people could die in half a year.

The Xi government's prestige is at stake. It cannot modify its COVID policy because it cannot let itself depend on vaccines made in Western nations.

After taking the helm of the Communist Party as its general secretary in 2012, Xi launched a "zero tolerance" anti-corruption campaign. The move to try to do things perfectly has now spread to everything.

The public security bureau of the Shanghai municipal government boasts high achievements. According to the bureau, the arrest rates in 2021 were 96% for burglaries such as sneak thefts and 100% for pickpocketing on subway trains.

The bureau installed street cameras in all residential areas and commercial buildings by 2021, expanding the coverage of its surveillance system.

The number of robbery cases in 2020 stood at 72, down a whopping 98% from the peak recorded in 2000. It is becoming more likely that the number will decline to zero.

Although China is getting close to the ideal of a crime-free society thanks to technology, the price it must pay is by no means small.

China's "public safety" spending, which is used to maintain public order and control speech at home, reached $210 billion in 2020. The amount more than doubled in 10 years.

China's national defense spending is growing rapidly and closing in on that of the United States. But China's public safety spending was as much as 7% higher than its national defense spending in 2020.

That is not all. Pent-up frustration among the public is growing further as the crackdown begins to grow excessive.

The village of Wukan in Guangdong Province, once known as "Democracy Village," is now teeming with surveillance cameras.

In China, a slang word making fun of police, meaning literally "a falling young man," has trended on social media since late June. It all started when a woman in her 40s and her father got into an argument with a male police officer in Dandong, in northeastern China's Liaoning Province.

The woman and her father were stopped by the police officer on their way to a hospital. The officer cited the color of her health code as the reason. An argument broke out between them, and the woman was detained for 10 days on suspicion of obstruction of justice. A mocking video of the police officer, who pretended to have fallen during the confrontation, has gone viral.

Public distrust of authorities has deepened due to the zero-COVID policy, and the fruits of people's frustration are being spread on the internet one after another.

A vigorous and technologically innovative society can be created only where various opinions are allowed to clash. The more China tries to contain all differing opinions and control everything, the more it will also grow apart from the rest of the world.

When the public reaction to this finally comes, "Great China" will find itself diminished.

Patriotic reign blowing up in Hong Kong

Government squeezes public opinion polls

In April, yet another person who has supported Hong Kong's democracy left the city.

On a flight bound for the U.K., Chung Kim-wah, a former assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said in a Facebook post, "In the current Hong Kong, there is no room for sincere words, only lies."

Chung had been summoned by police three times in connection with the polling organization where he worked, the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute. He wrote on Facebook, "Hong Kong may no longer be a place to live without intimidation."

The HKPORI was inaugurated with a research department at the University of Hong Kong as its parent. It has conducted highly reliable surveys that many Hong Kong researchers refer to.

But its surveys have also sometimes reflected public opinion that China finds inconvenient.

Since the Hong Kong national security law came into effect in the summer of 2020, pro-democracy media outlets, labor unions and other organizations have been forced to disband one after another. The institute is now rumored to be the next target.

The Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily, once a vocal critic of the Chinese Communist Party, has been forced to shut down. © Reuters

The HKPORI conducted a survey ahead of the 2021 election for the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's lawmaking body. The survey asked Hong Kong people a multiple-choice question on how they would vote in the election.

But the choice of "casting a blank vote" was criticized as "manipulating public opinion and destroying the electoral system."

The institute's surveys about the zero-COVID policy and Russia's invasion of Ukraine were also seen as problems. Chinese government-affiliated media concluded that those surveys "lack a scientific basis" and that the institute "is suspected to be colluding with foreign forces."

The environment surrounding opinion polls is becoming harsh.

According to Tetsuro Kobayashi, an associate professor at City University of Hong Kong, some pollees do not answer political questions honestly, while some researchers refrain from asking sensitive questions.

"Basic information such as the support rate for pro-democracy forces has become difficult to see, leading to [Hong Kong's] civil society shrinking," Kobayashi said.

When lashing out at the institute, pro-China forces in Hong Kong frequently cite surveys by other organizations such as the Bauhinia Institute and OrangeNews. These surveys show completely different results from the HKPORI's surveys and Hong Kong citizens' actual feelings.

For example, a survey by the HKPORI showed that only 32% of people in Hong Kong supported the zero-COVID policy, while as many as 57% were in favor of living with the virus.

But a Bauhinia Institute survey said that 68% of people in Hong Kong supported the zero-COVID policy, while only 24% were in favor of living with the virus. It also said that as many as 76% replied that the national security law would not affect freedoms and rights in Hong Kong.

Details on the Bauhinia Institute, which was established in 2016 by pro-China forces, are shrouded in mystery.

An expert familiar with opinion polls said: "It seems to be conducting surveys using social networking sites popular with those born in China, such as WeChat. As sampling is unbalanced, decent researchers are not taking them seriously."

Nikkei asked the Bauhinia Institute about its survey methods and relations with China. It did not answer directly, commenting only that it "serves Hong Kong and the state, unites patriots and supports the implementation of a better one country, two systems [formula] in Hong Kong."

On July 1, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong for the first time in five years and implored "patriots governing Hong Kong" to be principled. © Reuters

Xi recently made a trip to Hong Kong for the first time in five years, timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary on July 1 of the former British colony's return to Chinese rule.

In a speech, Xi called for the thorough implementation of the principle of "patriots governing Hong Kong." He regards opinions differing from those of the Chinese leadership as impediments to policy implementation and shows no signs of a letup in the exclusion of pro-democracy forces.

A government-affiliated Hong Kong newspaper published the results of a survey showing that as a result of Xi's speech, 77% of local citizens had deepened their confidence in the "one country, two systems" formula.

China's propaganda campaign is becoming increasingly fierce.

Robert Chung, the HKPORI's president and chief executive officer, pointed out that the question now is how to assess the direction of Hong Kong's society under the banner of science and democracy. Opinion polls are facing a new challenge, he added.

If an authoritarian government continues to crack down on opposition forces, only voices supporting it come to be heard, and when the people finally vent their pent-up frustrations, it happens suddenly. This phenomenon is widely known.

Hong Kong's "patriotic governance" seems to be incurring great risks as it attacks opinion polls, which are a "social thermometer," and closes its eyes to public opinion.