“Signs of a New Tiananmen in China”

A sensationalist headline from Minxin Pei, who thinks the same factors that lead to Tiananmen are starting to resurface in Chinese society:

Despite disagreement among participants in this incipient post-1989 Chinese intellectual renaissance, the discussion is fast converging on three critical issues. First, there appears to be a widely shared consensus among China’s thinking class that the country’s economic reform is either dead or mired in stagnation. Second, those who believe that economic reform is dead or stuck argue that only political reform, specifically the kind that reduces the power of the state and makes the government accountable to its people, will resuscitate economic reform (some advocate for more radical, democratizing changes, although the consensus on this particular point has yet to emerge). Third, the status quo, which can be characterized as a sclerotic authoritarian crony-capitalist order, isn’t sustainable and, without a fundamental shift in direction, a crisis is inevitable.

Such signs of an intellectual awakening are worth noting for many reasons. Its timing is certainly significant. Many people would connect this development with China’s pending leadership transition. In China, as in most other countries, pending changes in leadership usually stimulate discussions among the intelligentsia about the future of the country and the accomplishments or failures of the departing leadership.

One may be tempted to dismiss such discussions as idle chatter among marginalized Chinese intellectuals. This would be a mistake. Some of the participants in these discussions are influential opinion makers or advisors to the Chinese government. Their views reflect the thinking of at least some insiders of the Communist Party. So the frustrated tone and anxiety conveyed by their views could suggest that more open-minded elements in the party, some of whom may be in line to assume senior or important positions as a result of the leadership transition, share the same sense of crisis and urgency.

The voices of China’s liberal intelligentsia are now resonating among a public increasingly disenchanted with the party’s policies. In particular, such voices should appeal to China’s better-educated youths, whose numbers have increased several times since Tiananmen. Two decades of rapid economic growth, consumerism, and state-sponsored nationalism may have lulled them into political apathy. But as they experience the injustice, corruption, and incompetence of the current system in their daily lives, they’ll most likely feel increasingly swayed by voices urging a fundamental change of course.

Maybe.

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Filed under political reform, Tiananmen

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