Author: Feng Chongyi, UTS
The factors contributing to the waves of revolution reverberating through North Africa and the Middle East are visible in China.
They include widespread discontent caused by despotism, corruption, social inequality, social injustice, unemployment and inflation, and the rise of the middle class and rapid growth in internet users brought about by the gathering pace of economic modernisation.
Public protests in China, officially ‘mass incidents,’ have recently exceeded 100,000 a year. But the emulation of revolutions in the Arab world through an online appeal for a ‘jasmine revolution’ (a mass rally disguised as a ‘stroll’) in China has generated a paltry response from the Chinese people. Across the 13 nominated cities, only a few thousand people participated in or watched over the gatherings on 20 February 2011. More ‘strolls’ have been planned and publicised for each Sunday thereafter, and more cities have been added to the list, but turnout remains very small.
The reasons for this lie in both the social conditions of post-totalitarianism and the current strategy underlying social movements in China.
The dominant strategy of social movements in China today is reform rather than revolution. After the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, the Chinese democracy movement waned. ‘Farewell to revolution’ became the mainstream thinking of students and intellectuals, who, in fear and despair, shifted their focus from politics to elsewhere. The ‘rights defence movement,’ emerging in China after 2003, has instead manifested itself through individual litigation or collective demonstrations, seeking compromise with the government and pursuing legitimate rights and interests within the existing legal–political framework.
Compared to authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, China is run by a post-totalitarian regime, where the mechanisms of social control and political suppression by the party-state are much tighter and effective than in authoritarian regimes. Whereas political associations and gatherings are legal due to the practice of semi-democratic elections in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, political life and political organisations are strictly monopolised by the party-state in China, leaving no space for political opposition. Whereas the army and police are regarded as state institutions for maintaining state security and public order under an authoritarian regime, the military and security apparatus in post-totalitarian China are still tools of the Chinese Communist Party, or ‘organs of dictatorship’ (zhuanzheng jiguan) for crushing the ‘enemy, differentiated from the people by the Party.
Thus the anonymous online appeals for political gatherings have prompted coordinated assaults by the security branch, sending thousands of uniformed and plain-clothed police to the sites. Thousands of attacks by hackers on the Boxun website, which issued the message calling for the ‘jasmine revolution,’ have also taken place. The security branch rounded up, detained, placed under house arrest or ‘disappeared’ more than 100 rights lawyers, opinion leaders and other activists nationwide.
This reaction may appear paranoid. But it is precisely the function of a dictatorship organ under a post-totalitarian regime to nip the bud of social unrest conspired by the enemy. For dissidents, the collective leadership of post-totalitarian China also makes it difficult to identify a target to unite the forces of popular revolution, compared to the focus of attack on individual dictators in authoritarian Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
There is a race between reform and revolution in China today, similar to the situation of the late Qing dynasty when the government — interested in economic modernisation but reluctant to yield to the public aspiration for rapid change from autocracy to constitutional democracy through reform — was overthrown by the 1911 Revolution. And, today, there are signs that both the ‘rights defence’ (weiquan) by the Chinese population and the ‘stability preservation’ (weiwen) by the government are approaching a dead end.
But the government is finding that maintaining this level of control is no easy task (the internal security budget has surpassed even the huge national defence budget). And the Chinese population is finding that living under such levels of control is increasingly frustrating.
The only real solution for the government is democratic transformation. Failing this, a critical breaking point is somewhere on or over the horizon. If this day comes, crowds of potential revolutionaries are ready and available. They are the millions of peasants, trampled upon by farmland seizures; the millions of rural migrant workers, denied proper hukou and equal national treatment as urban residents; the millions of labourers, suffering through low pay and poor working conditions; the millions of laid-off urban workers, destitute and disaffected; the millions of home owners, angered by measly compensation from forced evictions by the state and developers; the millions of ex-servicemen and other retirees, denied legitimate social entitlements; the millions of Falun Gong practitioners, persecuted by the government for over a decade; the millions of Christians, prevented by the government from attending house churches; the millions of petitioners, persecuted in their efforts to seek redress from government-caused injustices; the millions of university graduates, unable to find a job and pay their debts; the thousands of journalists, routinely harassed by ‘thought’ police; and the hundreds of rights lawyers, themselves turned victims while providing legal protection from the very oppressions of above.
Dr Feng Chongyi is Associate Professor in China Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, and an Adjunct Professor of History at Nankai University, Tianjin.