By Tom Bannister.
From snatched glimpses of a leader’s new wife, to the breathy examination of prison camp photos; North Korea-watching brings out the voyeur in all of us. However, in the age of Weibo, it is easy to forget that not too long ago China used to be similarly opaque. China-watchers sweated in Hong Kong, trying in vain to catch glimpses across the border into the sometimes confusing policies of the Mao-era government.
In a CIA document entitled “The Art of China Watching”, written in 1975 and unclassified in the 1990s, the techniques of professional China-watchers are examined. Often the tone is one of dismay – there is a section titled ‘Does Logic Help?’ – but some semi-successful methods are also described:
“One rule of thumb is that in their propaganda the Chinese do not say things by accident and rarely say anything directly.”
“Another favourite tool of the analytical trade is the scrutiny of leadership appearances. The order in which Chinese leaders are listed can be a reliable gauge of their relative standing in the leadership.”
Despite being written over three decades ago, the handbook contains some pertinent advice for Xi Jinping:
“[Some] China watchers have noticed a remarkable correlation between those Chinese leaders who wear sunglasses in public and those who eventually lose their jobs.”
Learning that Bo Xilai loved Ray-Bans would have made the whole affair so much simpler to understand.