Tuesday, June 21, 2011
The Chinese Awakening 中国人正在苏醒
China's Riots against Authority 中国当前的动乱
JUNE 21, 2011
The Chinese Awakening
Wall Street Journal - Opinion
Migrant workers rioted in Xintang, Guangdong province, earlier this month. Signs of protest against Communist Party control.
"The big question is whether dissent will turn into unrest. A spate of recent violent incidents has revealed that Chinese society is not as stable as the government claims. But a better indication of how the political ground is shifting is the way that the Party and business elites are hedging their bets."
The Chinese Communist Party is 90 years old on July 1, and by way of celebration propaganda chief Li Changchun has ordered the official media to step up "patriotic education." Tickets to see the latest star-studded Party epic, "Beginning of the Great Revival," are being distributed to the masses.
Much of this hoopla doesn't register in the public consciousness, or is derided when it does. Yet for six decades the Party has succeeded in enforcing its world view by repetition and, more critically, preventing anyone from presenting alternative values.
That may be changing. Indications are emerging that dissenting voices are gaining traction in the public square. For instance, ordinary Chinese are running for election in local legislative bodies that are usually rubber-stamp bodies filled with reliable worthies chosen by the Party.
A similar trend briefly emerged in the early 2000s, but the authorities were largely able to intimidate or co-opt the challengers. This time crude measures are only encouraging more candidates to emerge. As in the Middle East, young, white-collar urbanites angry about corruption, inflation and poor governance are less cowed by threats.
Another difference is that the candidates are gaining such a large following that detaining them risks causing a wider societal backlash. The rise of social media is a contributing factor. When the major Web portals sprang to prominence a decade ago, authorities hired tens of thousands of censors and commenters to control the debate, with some success.
Now microblogging sites such as Sina Weibo are further speeding up communication, allowing celebrity "thought leaders" to broadcast their ideas to tens of millions before the censors can respond. As of March last year, Sina's service had only five million users. In the first quarter of 2011, the number passed 140 million and is still climbing.
The government has blocked Western sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and the Chinese equivalents maintain in-house censorship operations that obey government orders on what must be taken down. But the instantaneous nature of microblogging combined with user ingenuity in substituting alternative words for blocked phrases makes it more difficult to control.
One of the first independent candidates was Liu Ping, a laid-off worker who announced her candidacy in April. Jiangxi province officials harassed her and refused to allow her to run. That inspired others around the country, including a popular blogger with three million Weibo followers, to throw their hats into the ring.
Officially, anyone who has not been convicted of a serious crime can run for the local People's Congresses. Coercion has always worked in the past to deter outsiders from participating. But the new breed of candidates is setting out to expose the contrast between the letter of the law and the Party's tools of control, so coercion plays into their hands.
The big question is whether dissent will turn into unrest. A spate of recent violent incidents has revealed that Chinese society is not as stable as the government claims. But a better indication of how the political ground is shifting is the way that the Party and business elites are hedging their bets.
While hot money continues to flow into China in anticipation that the yuan will rise in value, the rich in China are moving some of their money out. A recent survey by Bain consulting and China Merchants Bank found that investment abroad has doubled annually since 2008. And 27% of individuals with more than $15 million in assets had already acquired a foreign passport, while another 47% were considering obtaining one.
The growing ferment is a reminder that the Communist Party's founding in 1921 followed the May Fourth movement two years earlier, which mobilized the country's youth to fight for democracy. That movement's ideals continue to resurface despite the Party's claim that its version of "people's democracy" superceded them. The Party still has the power to put down incidents of unrest, but the Chinese people are stirring against the injustices of dictatorship.