20 April 2021

Dan Wang: “2020 letter”

But there’s more on-the-ground evidence that ordinary people are growing nervous. In so many settings, one has to tread on eggshells in a public discussion in China, with organizers taking pains to remind audience members of sensitivities. Sometimes even in private, people beg off with an embarrassed laugh that they can’t discuss a subject due to unspecified difficulties. WeChat blocks sensitive keywords, which today includes “decoupling” and “sanctions”. It’s now inconvenient to use the app for professional conversations, and I’ve been pretty insistent to my contacts to use Signal instead. And since I brought up Germany, I wonder if the right analogy for China today is as a successful East Germany.

It’s hard to imagine that this increasingly censorious environment is conducive to good thinking. Actions from the government seem to be matched by a growing intolerance among the population for dissenting views. That’s due in part to their sense of feeling besieged after international opinion on China turned sharply negative after the virus outbreak. That hasn’t made it any better for Fang Fang, the novelist in Wuhan whose journal entries documenting the pandemic were first widely-read and then widely-criticized after she authorized an English translation. At that point, critics charged her with “blackening China’s name” and “handing a knife to China’s enemies”. The abuse wasn’t confined online: prominent personalities in state media have led criticism campaigns against her. I wonder if this society can be reflective and thus capable of self-improvement if it is so intolerant of criticism.

It might not be clear that censoriousness is hurting the creation of new companies, but it is clear that it’s becoming more difficult to create better cultural products. Over the last decade, China’s most successful cultural exports include TikTok, the Three-Body Problem, a few art house films (mostly directed by Jia Zhangke)… and that might be it. The Three-Body Problem was published in 2008 and translated into English in 2014; today, the series looks more like something that was able to escape the system rather than the vanguard of a great Chinese outpouring of marvelous cultural creations. Not content to allow science fiction movies to develop independently, the film authorities have this year released guidelines on the correct ideological direction of new films.

Dan Wang

As with last year’s letter, an interesting essay about the life in China during this pandemic year, and how the society is evolving under increased government censorship and international pressure. Another good reflection on the current state of affairs is how American sanctions and tariffs against Chinese companies could have implications for the international trustworthiness of America, with other business partners possibly losing trust in American exporters and fearing that the same tools levied against China could be turned against them.

While censorship may be hurting creativity in China, I expect that the US could start suffering from a loss of innovation as well, although for a different reason: the immigration slowdown. For decades, the US has massively benefitted from imported talent, people drawn there by the allure of freedom, better living, and countless possibilities. This image has eroded in recent years under Donald Trump, who placed stricter controls on immigration and generally did anything in his power to make America an unappealing target for immigration. This situation may continue for some time, first because of the ongoing pandemic, which is reducing travel and raising more barriers to immigration (I assume the US will require immigrants to be vaccinated, which for now is relatively hard to do for the majority of the world). Secondly, President Biden seems unwilling to move away from Trump’s restrictive immigration policies – despite promises and policy reversals without clear objectives.

I asked the White House to explain what logistical barriers might prevent the refugee cap from being lifted, and why hundreds of already vetted refugees are being blocked from resettlement. Instead of offering specifics, an administration spokesperson reiterated prior public statements about the Trump administration breaking the refugee-admissions process and Biden officials’ promises to fix it. Officials told CNN that Biden fears the “optics” of accepting refugees while the administration faces dubious accusations of being responsible for an influx of migrants at the border.

Restoring “the soul of the nation” cannot mean simply unseating Trump. It also has to mean reversing the policies his administration put in place in an attempt to codify into law his racial and sectarian conception of American citizenship. If Biden cannot do that, then he has restored little more than Democratic control of the presidency. And should he fail to rescind these policies simply because he fears criticism of those who enabled Trump’s cruelty to begin with, it will be nothing short of cowardice.

Adam Serwer

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