It is a cold winter in Beijing for thousands of economic migrants forced from their homes by the municipal government. The move comes in the wake of a deadly fire last month in a crowded neighborhood, but it is also part of a larger government effort to reduce the surplus (“low-end”) population of Beijing and transform the city into a showcase capital and no doubt opening up exciting new real estate opportunities for the usual suspects.

Class Dismissed: How Class Divides are Changing Beijing

One wonders if Beijing Party Secretary Cai Qi might be in for a visit from three spirits this holiday season. If so, might I suggest we swap Dickens’ original trio for Marx, Engels, and the ghost of Mencius? I suspect old Karl in particular might have a few useful thoughts to share about what happens when workers and the downtrodden start to feel the squeeze.

Nathan Vanderklippe of the Globe and Mail reports that the government has begun targeting individuals and organizations trying to help those dislocated migrants:

Such retribution comes as China under President Xi Jinping intensifies the role of the Communist Party in the country’s economic, political and social life, while shunting aside those with differing agendas.

“When government spots a problem, it would prefer to solve it on its own rather than alongside other people,” said Jia Xijin, a scholar at Peking University who studies civil society. Co-operate with the government and “you will be fine,” she said. Refuse and “you will be stopped.”

There is callous policy and there is incompetent execution of that policy, but this seems unusually cruel. It is not, however, new.

A Tale of Two Tragedies

Professor Jia is correct. The government is suspicious of independent organizations or individuals taking on roles it feels are the sole purview of the state. But official concern over non-governmental activism has a history in Beijing going back centuries before Xi Jinping’s New Era.

In her landmark study, Peking: Temples and City Life, 1400-1900, historian Susan Naquin cites several cases where authorities showed marked ambivalence to private charity, even in times of crisis.  For example, when floods ravaged areas in and around the capital in 1801, officials argued that private individuals should be prevented from donating money to the relief effort.

The irony is that the Qing government, stretched thinly across a large empire, was reliant on private individuals, local elites, temple associations, lodges, and other entities to deliver state services even as the court fretted about the blossoming of rival centers of power. This dilemma meant frequent swings of policy where the state would allow organizations to serve the interests of the government by helping the people, and then crack down again.

In the case of the 1801 floods, for instance, the officials were overruled by the throne. The Jiaqing Emperor flatly rejected official concerns arguing the more donors the better. But at other times, the government went out of its way to remind temple associations and other private religious organizations and charities that they were technically illegal. The state would also frequently attempt to co-opt activities started by non-state actors, taking over soup kitchens, granaries, and benevolent halls.

The relationship between society and the Chinese state — whether that state is officially Confucian or nominally Communist — has always had a paternalistic quality. It’s an old cliché, but no less true for being a cliché, that the state likes to think of itself as a macrocosm of the family. It is the rare father who feels validated when his family turns to others for charity and support. There is something of the hyper-masculine in Chinese politics. One gets the sense that incompetence is akin to emasculation — in the political sense, of course.

Private activism threatens the state by creating alternative centers of power within society, but it also threatens to undermine the notion of state omni-competence, this idea that only the government (and by extension, the Party) has what it takes to lead the way forward for China. This omni-competence is what separates the current leadership, so they would have us believe, from their dynastic predecessors, and it is a key pillar in the current government’s legitimizing bargain.

Should things break, if systems go awry, the government alone takes the initiative to fix the problem, or, if that fails, to try and make the problem go away as quickly as possible using the winning strategy known as “Let’s bury the train.”

What is happening in Beijing is a travesty, and the decision to then target organizations for trying to assist those affected by forced demolitions and evictions is particularly harsh. 

As author and political scientist Sam Crane suggested this week on Twitter:

Whether Cai Qi listens to visiting spirits is an open question. But it’s clear that ghosts of past and present might have something to tell him about Beijing’s future.

Cover image: Mencius (source)