The future of China: stuffy old men vs. energized citizens

JISHOU, HUNAN — The common American assumption about China’s government is that it’s repressive, hellbent to maintain its power despite all internal or external pressures to change. But, from the perspective of someone inside China, the general population does not seem to fear the government, despite its ability to detain or “disappear” troublemakers.

Among my students, associates and friends, there is a quiet willingness to criticize the government, remark on the corruption of party officials, and play along with seemingly illogical demands from higher ups while basically doing nothing about them — the Chinese version of the colonial Spanish motto,”Obedezco pero no cumplo,” — I obey, but I do not comply (with royal edicts).

To be frank, I was not entirely sure my conclusions were correct until I read a lengthy essay in The Diplomat tonight by Gordon Chang, a writer for Forbes. Turns out I’m a better political and social analyst than I thought.

[Reading the comments after the essay, though, it seems not everyone agrees with me or Chang.]

Chang’s argument is cogent. Prosperity and electronic media have emboldened the Chinese populace as never before, as it plunges headlong into the 21st century. Meanwhile, the powerful elite men (and it is mostly men) who run the central government are slowly losing their iron grip on the country, and have no idea how to regain it. President Hu Jintao recently blamed Western influences on the “non-harmoniousness” of China, but he was relying on a familiar Chinese scapegoat: blame the outsiders for problems that are internal.

As Chang explains in detail, the cloistered men in Beijing pontificate and plan while the rest of the country basically ignores them. The Communist Party, for most Chinese, is no longer relevant to their lives. In addition, they’ve tasted freedom, and they want more.

Despite how the nation’s young feel, most foreign analysts – and all of Beijing’s apologists – tell us the Chinese people don’t care about personal liberty, that they are content to reap economic gains while letting the Communist Party keep its monopoly on political power. Yet due to the repressive nature of the political system, we don’t know if China’s citizens are telling us what they really think. The best we can do is catch a glimpse of them as they make their dash into the future. Chinese society is changing faster than any other on earth at the moment, and the ongoing transformation is shaking the country, even the seemingly invincible one-party state.

Especially the one-party state. “China’s leaders may run what looks like a closed political system, and their decisions seem autocratic,” noted Clinton-era official Robert Suettinger in Beyond Tiananmen: The Politics of U.S.-China Relations. “But they are struggling to keep up with a society that is changing in a direction and at a speed they cannot fully control.”

The pressure is not from without, despite Hu’s polemics. It’s coming from within China, as result of opportunities the Communist Party itself enabled. In essence, the CPC let the genie out of the bottle and now can’t force him back inside.

First, for the past 30-plus years, Chinese have been able to go into business for themselves. Families can till their own land. Entrepreneurs can start their own companies. Housewives and students can open e-stores on taobao.

Secondly, the Internet and mobile phone networks enable news, and criticism, to travel faster than even the government’s vast army of censors can keep up with.

In our volatile time, ideas are more powerful than they have ever been. The cell phone and the laptop can tip the balance against the Party as they can put everyone in touch. With instant communications, alliances can form quickly, thereby making broad coalitions possible. Groups, therefore, can be separated geographically yet still act in concert. That happened in 2003 in Shanghai where organizers of housing protests in different parts of the city made extensive use of cell phones for coordination. Texting spread rumors on SARS and, as noted, forced the government to act. We know hysteria can travel electronically: in 1999 a bank run in China was spread by rumors posted on the internet.

In the past, Chang notes, the leadership felt free to quash dissent brutally, as it did in 1989 with the Tian’anmen Square student protests. But, while the CPC does “round up the usual suspects” whenever there is even a hint of popular protests like the Arab Spring, Chang argues Beijing’s leaders will probably never again sic the Army on their own people.

Veteran China watcher Willy Lam, for one, says it’s extremely unlikely that the current Fourth Generation leadership would ever order another Tiananmen. For one thing, no one in today’s leadership has the personal authority to do so. For another, even if someone in the Fourth Generation gave such an order, it’s highly unlikely that the People’s Liberation Army would obey, says Lam. Even with his military record, it took Deng a long time to find a unit that would actually fight unarmed citizens in 1989. Nobody in the current civilian leadership has the same stature as Deng [XiaoPing], and such an order might split the military and cause a revolt in the officer ranks. Finally, even if the top brass followed an order to shoot, it’s unlikely that ordinary soldiers would kill ordinary citizens on behalf of a regime that has lost the love and loyalty of its people.

“Smith & Wesson beats four aces,” says another great China historian, Arthur Waldron. That’s always true – as long as one is strong enough to give the order and can command others to pull the trigger. China, unfortunately for the Communist Party, has changed too much to permit a 21st century Tiananmen.

Entrenched leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and other places have dramatically lost their hold on their governments. That kind of popular movement will probably not happen here. Instead, change will come slowly, even glacially, but it will come, in spite, or perhaps because of, China’s out-of-touch leadership. In the meantime, I reckon I should keep my head down.

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