The Party vs. the People

What might the new populist protest in China portend?

Also in Slate, Andrew Nathan reviews The Man on Mao’s Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, My Life Inside China’s Foreign Ministry.

Making sense of the momentous change taking place in China has never seemed more pressing, or more impossible. Even the most knowledgeable observers of the Middle Kingdom now have a hard time agreeing on where the country is headed or what China’s rise portends. If you read the business press, filled with stories about the Chinese economic juggernaut, you would believe that China is rewriting the laws of economics and will continue to grow forever. If you follow the annual Pentagon reports on Chinese military power, China seems to be replacing the former Soviet Union as America’s “peer competitor,” soon to challenge U.S. supremacy. But if you care to look at the countless books and articles about China’s internal transformation since the end of the Cultural Revolution, you would be totally confused.

One school, perhaps the dominant view, contends that China’s capitalist revolution has not only created an economic miracle but also launched the country on the road toward gradual—but inevitable—democratization. Extrapolating from the West’s own historical experience, believers in the power of capitalism to transform politics are convinced that China is no different: A liberal order is evolving. They cite as evidence the expansion of personal freedoms, the emergence of nongovernmental organizations, the spread of the Internet, and the increasing sophistication of government policies made by pragmatic technocrats.

The other school questions the assumption that capitalism can foster political liberalism on its own. Skeptics note that instead of opening up the political process to greater public participation or establishing the rule of law, the ruling Communist Party has, since the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, consistently resisted pressures for democratic reforms. By skillfully deploying the economic and repressive resources of the state, the party has stifled internal dissent, co-opted social elites, and solidified its hold on power.

In Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, Philip Pan—a prizewinning reporter for the Washington Post who spent nearly eight years in China (2000-07)—bolsters the case for the skeptics. He weaves his portrait of a “new China” out of the dramatic stories of individuals whose real-life experiences he views as a guide to where China is right now and may be headed. They do indeed supply a vivid glimpse of a system in turmoil, and he’s right not to find revolutionary heroes in his cast of characters. But Pan may miss stirrings of collective resistance, quieter and less colorful, that could challenge the party’s authority and doom its self-perpetuated political monopoly.

One of the decisive struggles for China’s future is, ironically, being waged over its history. As Pan deftly shows through his first batch of stories, history in China is resolutely suppressed by the party—and turned upside down. Hu Jie, a documentary filmmaker, gets fired from his government job for daring to portray an obscure college student’s opposition to the government, never mind that her defiance and execution occurred a half-century ago. In the juxtaposition of his next three characters, Pan illuminates with rare clarity the ironic reversals at the heart of a political and economic order that increasingly resembles crony-capitalism, maintained for the benefit of precisely those who were the targets of the Communist-led revolution. In today’s China, a well-connected few reap a disproportionate share of the rewards of the growth, while the majority of the people—ordinary workers and peasants—see their job security disappear, wages go unpaid, and houses get bulldozed for urban development. If they dare to make a fuss about their unjust treatment, they risk immediate repression.

Pan has found individuals who epitomize this sharp contrast. Chen Lihua, a Beijing mogul and China’s 54th-richest person, accumulated a real-estate fortune worth at least $1 billion, thanks to political connection—guanxi—which in the new political order can turn a virtual nobody into a billionaire overnight. Among other murky dealings, she managed to get the most senior members of the Communist Party leadership to intervene on her behalf so that her company could clear an old neighborhood in downtown Beijing for building commercial real estate. Zhang Xide is a corrupt party boss in an impoverished county who ordered police to beat up villagers who refused to pay taxes; gleefully, he told Pan how he chased a six-months-pregnant mother of two into a river trying to “persuade” her to undergo a forced abortion.

If the new order is kind to Chen and Zhang, it is merciless toward people like Xiao Yunliang, a worker employed in a large state-owned iron alloy factory in Liaoyang. A region run by party bosses with close ties to the mafia, Liaoyang is a part of China’s rust belt where most state-owned enterprises were driven into bankruptcy in the late 1990s by both competition and mismanagement. Millions of blue-collar workers like Xiao were left stranded, abandoned by the state and cheated out of their pensions. In early 2000, Xiao and thousands of co-workers staged days of demonstrations to demand that the government honor its promises. Instead, the authorities deployed thousands of police officers, sowed distrust among workers by turning some of them into informers, and arrested protest leaders. Xiao was given a choice: He could either take an all-expense paid vacation to a faraway scenic province or face jail. Xiao chose jail without any hesitation—and served four years.

In such individual acts of defiance and moral courage, Pan resists the journalistic temptation to see the rejuvenation of the collective soul of the “new China.” He devotes the remainder of the book to the stories of six ordinary citizens who dared to challenge the new inequities and corruptions of China, but he does not romanticize their accomplishments. Their heroic efforts yielded limited results—and some of them paid a heavy price. A retired army surgeon he writes about, Jiang Yanyong, forced Beijing to admit the truth during the worst moment of the sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis in March 2003. Yet he was abducted and silenced after he demanded a year later that the party admit its mistake in ordering the June 4 crackdown in Beijing in 1989. Cheng Yizhong, an enterprising newspaper editor, turned his Southern Metropolitan Daily into a vehicle that championed social justice, but he was arrested on trumped-up bribery charges. Chen Guangcheng, a blind self-taught lawyer Pan writes about, was once hailed by the government as a model citizen for speaking out for the rights of the disabled. He is now serving a four-year term for “disturbing social order” after he challenged the cruel family-planning measures enforced by a local party boss (who, incidentally, received a six-month training in public administration at the University of New Haven and interned in the New Haven mayor’s office in 2000).

It is not hard to see why Pan pessimistically concludes that “the Communist Party is winning the battle for the nation’s future.” Yet perhaps there is as great a risk in seizing on individuals as emblematic failures as in glorifying them as saviors, or demonizing them as villains, of the nation. China is a huge country, and there are signs that resistance in more collective form may be on the rise and become more potent. The party has done well since 1989, but its policies have become increasingly untenable, especially with rising income inequality and worsening environmental degradation. The legitimacy of outright repression is declining. The party may incarcerate those trying to set up an opposition party, but it cannot deploy brute force against ordinary citizens demanding clean air, drinkable water, and affordable health care.

The Chinese citizenry today is not just more diverse and demanding. It is also becoming sophisticated enough to probe the soft spots (such as corruption, inequality, and incompetence) of the autocratic system and challenge it without taking excessive risks. So last year when residents of Shanghai tried to stop the city government from building a magnetic levitation train that would threaten their health and property values, they organized a collective “street stroll” and “shopping trip” in central Shanghai. They forced the government to suspend the project. Such new populist political tactics—deploying a Chinese version of “civil disobedience”—will be more effective in forcing the party to heed the voices of the people. They’re also likely to inspire more innovative collective endeavors to demand better government.

So the battle for China’s future is far from over. Pan is right to write off the Communist Party as a democratizing force. But in history, many autocratic regimes that were once thought invulnerable eventually succumbed to “people power.” China will be no different.