“China’s Unstoppable Billion”

Gordon Chang made the extremely bold prediction that China would collapse this year a few weeks ago, and seems to have been taking some flak since then. He’s made this call before and been proven wrong by the ongoing survival of the CCP, and his new piece in The Diplomat reads like an attempt to justify his predictions in the face of this criticism. His argument:

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.”

Now, in a modernizing era, the Chinese people are putting themselves back together and creating an integrated society. As a result, the people are once again having national conversations, and this permits trends to sweep the nation. The Chinese are creating change by nothing more complicated than talking to one another. And this talk has implications because now, as social scientist Yu Jianrong says, “Everyone has a microphone.”

Mao also protected his new republic from the outside, with high and strong walls. As these walls come down, all the forces that apply around the world – political, economic, and social – are changing China as well. And as these forces continue to reshape the nation, the People’s Republic is taking on the look, and even some of the feel, of the modern world.

China’s leaders recognize, at least rhetorically, this irreconcilable dilemma. As Wen says, “our people cannot be suppressed.” Yet he is nonetheless trying to repress them by maintaining a political system that no longer serves an increasingly progressive society.

Perhaps the best evidence of this struggle between the Party and the people is evident every hour of every day on the web. Even though the Chinese state maintains the world’s most sophisticated set of internet controls, commonly referred to as the Great Firewall, it is engaged in a never-ending struggle it can’t win, even when it gets its way in the short term. “One site has been shut down thirty times,” noted Liu Xiaobo before he won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. “But after a month or two they open up again. You can’t shut them down completely.” Beijing officials can boast they have deleted 350 million articles from the web, but their claim indirectly confirms Liu’s point: the number of censored items is so high because netizens keep posting new pages, many of them more subversive than the ones taken down by the authorities.

Cyber China, the most vibrant part of the most exciting nation on the planet, reflects the growing interest of Chinese citizens in their society. It’s on the net that officials criticize government corruption and businessmen post tracts on democracy. Political dissent is sizzling, online, and available, at least most of the time. Chinese censors are being overwhelmed, by bad news, by the growing number of media outlets, by the new forms of social networking, by the sheer mass of users. Even when the authorities want to silence bold “netizens,” they often are intimidated by the weight of opinion in China’s boisterous online community.

And even when Beijing censors haven’t been able to completely erase history, Party spinmeisters have propagated their version of it. “The only thing I can remember about June 4 is watching television and hearing that riot police had died,” said Lu Jing, who was six at the time of the massacre, according to AFP. “I don’t believe any students died. China in this respect is democratic as China wouldn’t hurt its own people.” Ignorance of 1989 is contributing to the perception of a benign government among the younger – and most volatile – elements of the population.

Beijing now has a dilemma. Its leaders want to appear benevolent, but to do so they have had to whitewash Tiananmen. Yet whitewashing Tiananmen is far more dangerous to the regime than reveling in its brutality. The Chinese don’t take to the streets when they are angry, notes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. They do so when they think they can get away with it. “China has always operated to some degree on fear, and that fear is now eroding,” he wrote in 2003. Continual erosion means that Deng’s essential lesson of Tiananmen – that the Communist Party will resort to deadly violence on a mass scale to preserve its power – has been largely lost.

The biggest mistake China watchers make is that they think Beijing’s elite will be willing and able to once again employ brute force against massed protestors. In the newest version of New China, the options for the Communist Party are narrowing. Already, the leadership has its hands full trying to avoid a reexamination of the slaughter, and although no senior official is in favor of reconsidering the Party’s verdict on Tiananmen, no one wants to share former Premier Li Peng’s stain by being associated with another murderous crackdown. In short, it’s unlikely that Beijing’s current leaders would want to change long-held tactics and begin to rely mainly on fear.

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, 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.

There’s a lot more; certainly worth a read. I mostly agree with his reasoning about the various impetuses for change, but he definitely downplays the forces fighting on behalf of the status quo. His conclusions about the Communist Party being unable to use force to preserve their rule… that I certainly disagree with. They’d prefer not to, but when absolutely pushed? The idea that they wouldn’t be able to frame the necessity of violence against protesters the same way they routinely frame interactions with minorities- as a necessary way to stop forces seeking to destroy China- seems naive to me. They stress loyalty to the Party and the puppet government above all else, and China doesn’t seem so far gone yet as to override decades of propagandizing on that front.

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Filed under Communist Party, Jasmine Revolution, Tiananmen

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