China: ‘Important Information’ vs. Information that Is Important

Take U.S. presidents. Once they have risen to power, they set up their own cabinets. From the start, domestic and foreign policy decisions come from what kind of people the leader surrounds himself with. In America and other countries where the president or prime minister are elected by voters, before leaders rise to power, they often hold a relatively neutral political position, so much so that it can be a little vague. Nor do they write any books before an election.

In some one-party countries, top leaders, before rising to power, are often mediocre, making crowd-pleasing points and hiding their strengths until later. Under such circumstances, after they come to power, they often have to start their political positions from the people closest to them and from their right-hand men. This is also why some leaders that are not aggressive enough have, in effect, ceded the power of ruling the state to their second-in-command and even secretaries.

Besides think tanks and research institutions, leaders of the vast majority of countries also rely on secret intelligence agencies to gather information. Compared to the recommendations and information provided by advisers and aides, reports from these agencies appears more professional and relatively neutral. This is true of intelligence acquired through theft. During the Cold War, intelligence agencies were the primary channel of information for both U.S. and Soviet Union leaders. That explains why, in states where leaders do not trust their aides and there is no open media, spies and tapping devices are often used in state governance.

In the modern era, with the explosion of sources of information, policymakers, regardless of whether they are in a democratic country or not, rely increasingly on information provided by mass media and the Internet to decide policies and thus the direction of national development. U.S. presidents are an example. China is not an exception. U.S. President Barack Obama is often restrained by the media. The White House repeatedly changes his schedule, and he sometimes has to revise policies because of what the media says.

Professional reporting and analysis in the media can not only make up for deficiencies and error-making in state bureaucracy and intelligence agencies, but can also give policymakers direct access to public opinion gleaned from its loudest debates. But over-emphasis on public views reflected by the Internet can enslave a country’s governance to opinion polls.

State leaders rely on three channels of information-gathering to different extents, depending on a country’s political structure. Although China’s political structure and social mechanisms are different from those in the United States, Chinese leaders also rely on these channels, but it is a completely different matter whether their information gathered is as comprehensive and as accurate.

At the Communist Party’s 18th Congress, President Xi Jinping suggested the founding of a new kind of socialist think tank. I think this is very important. There are already many government-backed think tanks in China, so why do we need more? My understanding is that what the president had in mind is think tanks that genuinely reflect real issues, that are not afraid of raising taboo issues or of the consequences of making suggestions to leaders. Currently, under the Chinese system, the lower ranks do not dare speak the truth to their superiors. Many think tanks dare to do nothing more than interpreting the intentions of leaders. Over time, it is a wonder that all top leaders are not out of touch with reality.

I have often read about the utter shamelessness of some local leaders and been curious: Why didn’t any of their friends, aides and think tanks draw their attention to the problem? Then I was told I was being foolish. People would rather play up to their bosses and use them for personal gain than give them genuine advice and risking ruining their life. After all, if a boss dies or gets arrested, there will always be a new one.

There is no shortage of these kinds of examples overseas. I often jokingly say that if I were to have worked for Saddam Hussein, he might have still be alive and ruling Iraq because I would have advised him to rule the country according to modern political ideas and, in doing so, reinforce his own grip on power. Too bad that he surrounded himself with fawning courtiers. In retrospect, all they did was hasten his demise.

Intelligence agencies are also important, if they do not offer state leaders accurate and comprehensive information and instead just feed them what they were expecting to learn. If a leader is upset about disorder in one region, intelligence agencies should be looking for the cause and a solution instead of churning out “important intelligence” about infiltration by overseas forces and people conspiring to overthrow him.

Such “important intelligence” is so easy to collect. It can put a leader on edge and strengthen intelligence agencies’ power. It also allows them to blame “conspirators” and “hostile foreign forces” for failures in governance. But this will only contribute to the demise of the leader.

State leaders’ aides and think tanks must propose ideas that are frank and straightforward and that seek the truth from facts. Intelligence agencies should provide accurate and comprehensive information, and the media should be open to different voices and opinions. When all these channels are unimpeded, leaders can probably obtain enough information to make correct decisions and draw up policies in keeping with the interests of the nation and the people. A leader with access to information through channels like these will be great.

The rarity of leaders like this is not entirely to blame on the person in power. Their subordinates and institutions should be blamed as well. Many years ago, I supplied information to the highest levels of decision-making, which of course had to go through many layers of the command structure. Later, I would discover that the final version of the information that was put in front of the decision-maker had the most important parts removed, and most of the scraps that remained were background and supplementary information. I was at a loss. It was said that the information was amended by the right hands to avoid disturbing state leaders.

With the advent of the Internet, I thought writing a blog for free would be worth more than writing policy advices, even though they can pay more than 100 yuan a word. Many years later, a leader I was familiar with told me that my blog held more truth than the “important information” reported through the bureaucracy and was more beneficial to the country’s development. He also said that many other government officials were reading my blogs as well.

In fact, my writing has not changed, but it is no longer censored and abridged by higher-level authorities and standardized by bureaucrats. This also reflects a change, albeit minor, that is taking place to the way state leaders gather information. Perhaps they also know that the country’s several hundred thousand think tank employees, assistants and intelligence employees are, most of the time, duping them while still getting paid.

I really hope that government-backed think tanks and the officials’ aides and their subordinates can live up to their names instead of just being obedient to authority. Intelligence agencies should provide decision-makers a holistic picture and not mislead them.

I also think that the Internet and the media are the most important channels for leaders to learn about public opinion and gain first-hand information. It worries me that the government has tightened the control of the media and shunned the Internet on many occasions. This is not acceptable.

The fourth plenum of the party’s 18th Central Committee said the country should have “rule of law.” This principle should first be applied to the regulation of the Internet. Online crimes and other activities that harm national security and infringe upon individual rights should be firmly punished. But the citizens’ rights to freedom of speech should be guaranteed and strictly protected in accordance with the constitution and laws. This is a matter that relates to not only whether citizens’ rights are upheld, but also whether government officials, especially those at the top levels, can have access to true public opinion and make the right policies based on it.

Consider this a piece of my intelligence.

*Yang Hengjun is a commentator on politics and social affairs

(Translated by intern researcher Nikolai Blackie)

About the Author

The Corner
The Corner has a team of on-the-ground reporters in capital cities ranging from New York to Beijing. Their stories are edited by the teams at the Spanish magazine Consejeros (for members of companies’ boards of directors) and at the stock market news site Consenso Del Mercado (market consensus). They have worked in economics and communication for over 25 years.

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