Beijing, Why So Tense?
A ChinaFile Conversation
I think of the Chinese leaders as holding a plant spritzer and dousing sparks that are jumping up all around them. Mao made the famous remark, “A single spark can start a prairie fire.” The leaders have seen that terrifying truth confirmed in the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989, the fall of East Germany, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the outbreak of the Arab Spring, and lately in countless smaller incidents all around China.
Although it’s true that deprivation, misery, and poverty can produce the dry brush for such conflagrations, paradoxically so can economic growth, social mobility, improved information flow, and the first steps of political liberalization. That is because—as Alexis de Tocqueville noted a century and a half ago—under such conditions people’s expectations rise faster than the system can change to meet them. Social change is disrupting many people’s lives, even if some of them get richer in the process (and not all do). A lot of Chinese are angry and dissatisfied. I suppose the leaders think of them as ingrates. But, according to the Party, the Chinese people have always been hard to rule.
No matter how dangerous it is to oppose the system, there are always people like Xu Zhiyong whose sense of self-respect drives them to speak out and fight for justice. They are the Chinese Vaclav Havels. Such people have to be spritzed. If a little spritzing doesn’t get the message across—warnings, harassment—then a heavier spritzing has to be applied—arrest, trial, and imprisonment. We have seen this process operate numerous times and the story never changes.
If a regime based on repression hesitates in applying repression then, as the political scientist Timur Kuran pointed out in his analysis of the collapse of the East German regime, people get the message that it has become safer to express their dissatisfaction. The greater the number of people who speak out the harder it is to repress all of them and the safer it actually does become to speak out, and pretty soon the repressive system collapses. That is why revolutions come as such surprises. One day the system looks hard as a rock and almost everyone is silent; a few days later the masses are boiling and the system is crumbling. Some have called it a "revolutionary cascade."
The classic trigger of a revolutionary cascade is not the Xu Zhiyong type who opposes the regime, because there are always people like that. The decisive trigger is the Zhao Ziyang type, the man in power who hestitates in cracking down. That is why it is so dangerous to let the public know about divisions within the elite, and why it is necessary to close ranks decisively when divisions burst into public view, as in the Bo Xilai case.
This is what I think the leaders are afraid of: the fragility of the system. In a democracy the public can complain and politicians can attack one another and life goes on. But how to get from the system China has now, to that kind of system? The time of transition is the most dangerous time. So long as the system is based on the myth of harmony below and unity above, a single spark can start a prairie fire.
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