It’s a mistake to call it a “desire for democracy.” But the demands and protests hailing from new social classes and the web are cause for alarm.
The Chinese government has been called to address a movement that it hasn’t mastered: managing a complex situation, where the power equilibrium is more important than power itself. Beijing is accustomed to head-on relationships, where something is obtained only if it can be seized by force. The country’s sense of singularity, residual scars from invasions, and the Great Wall syndrome pervade its international relationships. This time, the web to untangle is internal, at the heart of the social fabric. The demands of the new social classes from vast layers of the population hope for a different quality of life.
There is no need to fall into the trap of believing that demands are directed toward a unifying concept of “democracy,” at least the way it is understood in the west. Rather, they result from a series of contradictions that emerged when GDP growth could no longer create consensus, when the “obsession of development” generated problems that could not be neglected. The citizens ask for a series of interventions; there is no agenda, but an indistinct sum of appeals. They protest against forced seizures to subdivide and resell land, the draining of rivers, industrial waste dumping, corruption, the nomenklatura’s privileges, the arrogance of bureaucracy, and income disparities.
Certainly, censorship restrictions are also targets. Many of the 600 million Internet users are aware and hope for freedom of information. They began to doubt official versions in 2003, when the government initially belied the impact of SARS, attributing it to an international conspiracy against China. Subsequently, the truth emerged and social media have not been governable since. The devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan accentuated delays in emergency services, denounced buildings constructed illegally out of the responsible parties’ avarice, and thereby created fertile terrain for protest. This has taken the form of dissent on the web, while many Ngos are liberated from Beijing’s strict control for the first time.
It’s increasingly difficult to diffuse the truth via propaganda, but China cannot find alternative solutions. Maybe China unwillingly tolerates them. It continues to reiterate that without the PCC, the country would plunge into anarchy, nullifying decades of achievements. It insists on believing that western democracy is eccentric with respect to Chinese history, and that the translation of foreign models would implicate chaos and ruin, exemplified by the Soviet Union’s collapse. The message is repeated constantly, even by Xi Jin Ping’s new administration: it’s possible to become rich—actually, it’s dutiful—but it’s better not to dissent, at least not in an organized manner. Despite this, protests grow. Independent reliable sources have registered 180,000 incidents in 2010, no longer a trifling number. “When you open a window, it’s inevitable that gnats fly in,” said Deng Xiao Ping at the start of 1978’s great reform that transformed China. In any case, the protests are not side effects anymore. They need to be treated with greater competence, not just as a matter of public order, but doing so could set in motion uncontrollable mechanisms, capable of calling roles, income and privileges into question.
Beijing is resistant and firm. For the moment, it’s justified by the facts, but the opposition could soon make Beijing understand that proceeding toward reforms is a necessity, not a choice. In the face of certain turmoil, the specter of the Tiananmen Square Massacre looms in the collective subconscious of the Chinese. 1989 hosted critical turning events in history: the Berlin Wall fell, Eastern Europe was born anew, but the events that transpired in China did not dismantle the power structure, but in many ways reinforced it. The question of whether the tragic events could be repeated rises to the surface, particularly pronounced among those who bore witness to the catastrophe. China has long held a fundamental fear of chaos, and every time it senses instability, images of Tiananmen resurface as the inevitable outcome of civil disobedience. The aftermath of the massacre was so tragic that it still serves as a warning and bogeyman; the fear is justified, but comparisons between the current climate and the events of 1989 don’t fit seamlessly.
The factors precipitating the Tiananmen Square Massacre are complex and varied. The realization of extensive economic reforms instituted by Deng Xiao Ping in 1978 was fragmented and inconsistent. Attempting to open up China and introduce an increasingly market-based economy, Deng in some ways laid the foundations for ensuing civil unrest. Consistent with communist practices, prices for consumer goods had traditionally been controlled by the government, but were relaxed as the government attempted to transition to a market system. Although the government abrogated the reform almost immediately, enormous inflation ensued causing hysteria, as laborers could no longer meet basic needs. Compounding the panic was a commensurate decline in the productivity of state-owned enterprises, causing mass cost cuts that threatened job security and a score of social benefits for much of the population. Another failure was the elevated role intellectuals were meant to enjoy in the reforms and government. Priority was placed on education, but the government did not adequately anticipate the distribution of job demands, and many university graduates subsequently struggled to find employment. Adding to the students’ frustration was intense nepotism and corruption on behalf of government officials.
Students began demonstrating in earnest in 1986, culminating in the summer of 1989. In response to increasingly coordinated and widespread protests, the Chinese government declared martial law at the end of May, and began amassing forces against the students and citizens of Beijing. The scope of violence that ensued is difficult to quantify, as official reports are inconsistent with witness accounts. Estimates of causalities range from the hundreds to thousands; the emotional scar the events impressed on the minds of Chinese alive at the time is difficult to minimize. Since that time, Chinese leaders have feared instability above all evils, and have thusly smothered any form of dialogue. Coupled with the devastating legacy of the Cultural Revolution, the only imaginable resolution to conflict is revolution. In an ironic and tragic twist of fate, the Tiananmen Square Massacre reinforced restrictions and strengthened resolve to maintain order.
Many of the dissenting students—those who evaded exile or imprisonment—are now government leaders, faced with the same threats and uncertainties of twenty years ago. Social consensus was attained at a snail’s pace, marked by the GDP’s annual growth rate. Disguised by the colossal GDP rise, fear of indiscipline lost to economic progress. By no means did inequalities disappear; rather they grew but rendered China a generally more prosperous nation. Satisfying basic needs is no longer confined to survival. The PCC has displayed greater cunning in their repression, masking their abuses with electronic censorship. Today, civil unrest is guided by perceived injustices rather than absolute needs. Public outcry concerns land requisition, impossible mortgage payments, limited university enrollment, and environmental degradation. The PCC receives passionate approval and desperate mistrust simultaneously. Sects, popular beliefs and foreign religions provide easy asylums for the Chinese. In contrast to twenty years ago, dissent in China is elusive, impalpable and frequently irrational.
The ails plaguing the Chinese people in 1989 are distinct from current complaints; moreover, the government is likely better equipped to contain economic ramifications today, like rampant inflation. At least superficially, the government also appears committed to fighting social injustice, taking measures against corruption and displays of opulence. While progress toward reform appears inevitable, it is unlikely that protests will reach the scale seen in 1989. Although most of the population was elevated above abject poverty, some were much more successful. Faced with a broad range of employment opportunities, university students are less likely to devote themselves to protest, splintering the demographic of dissent, leaving much of the opposition to farmers and laborers who are unlikely to delegitimize Beijing.
The political leaders charged with opposing civil unrest seem disoriented by its new character. The PCC of today lacks the charisma of the old guard; its leaders are expressions of a synthesis of positions, elected by various plural and antagonistic interests. The General Secretary, Xi Jinping, may be at the helm of a pompous machine, but he’s hindered; the consistencies and lobbies he must respect are numerous. His hope for greater inclusion, harmony and progress toward an accessible “Chinese dream” are probably sincere. Nevertheless, his efforts appear subverted. If time works in his favor, he might demonstrate courage and innovation. If the protests online and in the streets augment, the possible scenarios seem riskier: forward progress in spite of the party, a stiffening of conservative positions, and a management of the crisis according to criteria of dialogue to which China does not appear yet accustomed.