Beijing, Why So Tense?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Andrew Nathan:

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.


In addition to Andy’s broad analysis, we could add a number of specific questions facing the government, any one of which could prove difficult to manage. It’s good to remember that China has always been full of surprises—from the Taiping Rebellion through repeated democracy movements to Falun Gong—memories the administration certainly lives with: the problem is, you never know where the next one might come from.

The Bo Xilai trial will have a long tail in terms of public perceptions of the elite—nobody came out well from the affair. There is a looming financial crisis visible in anxieties about credit—local government debt is at threatening levels and enterprises, state owned and private, have hugely expanded operations and now find themselves caught in a demand downturn.

Liquidity seems to be tightening across the board and this will have a knock on effect on the viability of any number of enterprises.  When firms begin to shed jobs, the credibility of the regime is called into question along with its legitimacy.

The bills are coming in for the development model of the last three decades, from poisoned soil to toxic air and water. These will be costly and difficult to fix and the modestly prosperous middle class is impatient, if contradictory in its desires: it wants to consume more, drive cars, eat abundant and safe food, enjoy clean air and keep the lights on, all without paying more taxes— a tricky  set of aspirations to balance.

There is a growing concern amongst those who hoped for reform under the new administration that little is visible on that agenda: we wait for the upcoming plenum to see if it will materialize there—and to see if the new leadership can square enough entrenched interests to begin its long list of necessary reforms. The list includes local government finance, political participation and the legal system, none of which is working as it needs to if China is to become the liveable, modestly prosperous society proclaimed from the top. (That’s without touching on the subject of corruption, something the Party has been promising to fix for seventy years.)

To become that society will demand innovation, confidence, credit, rule of law and an enhanced role for the private sector. Not much sign of any of those yet.

It’s a challenging and interlocking set of problems and so far the signs are not encouraging. There must be a temptation in Zhongnanhai to sit tight and hope that by changing nothing, nothing will need to change. But unless China begins this transition soon, there will be more surprises.   

What do Bo Xilai, the aggressive advocate of Maoism and ambitious princeling just tried for corruption, and the perseverant constitutionalist and moderate scholar Xu Zhiyong have in common? 

Both men are regarded as challengers of the power and authority of the Chinese Communist Party. This is why Beijing is so tense and why the leadership’s current behavior is confusing to many people: the CCP thwarted Bo’s Maoist campaigns by putting him on trial and also detained Xu and smeared his so-called Western ideas.

After Mao Zedong’s death, the Party decoupled itself from radical Maoism but the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989 precluded the Party from pursuing any real constitutionalism or democracy.

What we’ve seen in the last three decades is an oscillating Party, one that flirts with many ideas— from neo-authoritarianism to Maoism, from nationalism to constitutionalism—while hesitating to actually engage in any of them. (Please don’t forget that before The Southern Weekly tried to interpret Xi’s “China Dream” as a “Constitutionalism Dream,” it was Xi who, on December 4, 2012, urged people to guarantee “the full and effective implementation of the Constitution”). The Party always has struggled to maintain an unchallenged supremacy above all other ideas and forces yet has failed to make clear its own stance. 

As a result, Beijing feels tense because the challenge may come from anywhere and everywhere—from lawyers, journalists, and peasants losing their lands; even from within its own Politburo. The Party’s tension and consequent repression makes everyone in China feel correspondingly tense.

Dissent in China has long been driven by the disenfranchised or marginalized like the poor petitioners carrying their faded photocopies to Beijing. They were easy to isolate and ignore.

But over the past year or so, there's been a noticeable and important shift. The calls for change are coming from China's rich, the people who have benefited the most from the past thirty years of prosperity. They are taking to the blogosphere to air their dissent. Though their views are mild, authorities are displeased, as seen in the arrest of venture capitalist and celebrity blogger Charles Xue, known by the pen name Xue Manzi, for allegedly soliciting a prostitute. The salacious coverage by state media accusing him of engaging in orgies and suffering from a sex addiction comes at a time when the government has asked prominent bloggers to toe the party line.

When people like Xue are emboldened it opens the gateway for the mainstream to feel its safe enough to speak out, too. There are signs that's already happening. In one example, a man known by the Chinese pen name Meaty Monk has set up an online auction for things like meals with celebrities or luxury handbags where the proceeds go to help the families of jailed dissidents.

These small actions let people dabble in dissent, gradually eroding their fear of the regime. What happens when China isn't afraid anymore?