Oct 21, 2005
(Part 1: Is China heading for a social ‘red alert’?)
The Chinese government, while aware of the problem posed by China’s rising Gini coefficient, still feels it has plenty of time to react. One major reason for this is the cultural context of Chinese poverty: in China, poverty is shameful (in contrast to some other societies with many poor people, such as India, where the poor do not feel shame for their impoverished status per se). In China, poor people hide away, or are told to do so, and feel a “loss of face” caused by their condition. This predicament can have two effects: on the positive side, it creates a drive to move out of poverty, an entrepreneurial push. And on the negative side, it can create resentment for being left poor, which can lead in turn to protests, riots, and even a push for revolutionary change (of course, the effects of revolutions are not always negative).
There is a very widespread perception that street protests are just the first step in a continuum that leads inexorably to riots and ultimately revolution. But this is misleading, because there is a huge qualitative difference between protests and revolution. Revolution requires more than just an urge to change things; it needs a direction, where to lead the change. And it is precisely here – the direction of change – where there is the most confusion, both within China and without.
Most westerners would like to see a revolution for democracy. But democracy itself is just procedural; it has no prescription for what kind of government will emerge from the procedures – there can be liberals and conservatives, fundamentalists and secularists, democrats and republicans. One of the ideas gaining ground among the have-nots of China is a form of neo-Maoism. But its prospects appear weak; after all, Maoists ruled China for 30 years and left many scars of failure behind. The poor of China are looking for something else, and many other cults are faring better than the neo-Maoists, such as actual cults of the Falungong type, or pseudo-Christian groups, like the Taipings of old.
Also doing quite well are triad-like organizations, which have taken control of the elections in many villages through a mix of intimidation and corruption, and often help to organize the “floating workers” who come to Chinese cities to do manual labor. Hardly any social research is available on the impact of neo-Maoism, cults or triads, but a random questioning of common workers in Beijing proves that immigrants are much more familiar with these than with Western democracy. One could use this fact to argue that if there were a revolution in China, it would be a cult revolution, a triad coup. This is hardly farfetched, given that most Chinese dynasties, including the current “Communist” dynasty, have had cult-like characteristics.
But the overall impression is that Chinese are fed up with revolutions, having had more than their fair share in the past 160 years. This is especially so given the highly visible improvements in daily life, social differences notwithstanding. No matter what is happening in relative terms, in absolute terms life is getting better. Only 15 years ago, school canteens in central Beijing provided a protein-poor diet. This is no longer true. In addition, there is more social mobility now than there has been for centuries; more possibilities to send children to university or to start up a commercial venture. Lastly, there is no longer anything resembling the clear-cut “struggle line” of Marxist cliches: the poor are not against the rich; the proletariat is not the leading class of society; factory workers are actually opposed to peasants migrating to cities; and intellectuals all want to either get an official post or go into business.
In modernizing, urbanizing, marketizing China, if often feels as though everybody is against everybody – hardly a situation ripe for revolution, but definitely one where the central government is constantly asked to mediate among different constituencies: the rich against the poor, the middle class against everyone else, the center against the provinces, the districts against the provincial authorities. All these perpetual conflicts require central government intervention more, not less, than a decade or two ago. In those days, all was clear: the party leaders had everything, and the rest of the population was out in the cold. The leaders felt isolated, and thus, at times, besieged. The social divide was very clear: those who lacked power – students, workers, farmers – could all potentially unite against those with power – the officials.
The situation today is much murkier. Now, there are people with power and no money; people with money and no power; and people with both money and power, the corrupt. There are the rich, the middle class, the poor in the cities and the poor in the countryside (who are very different kinds of poor, with different ambitions). There are students, officials, entrepreneurs … Overall, society is growing more complex by the day; while this makes it hard for the government to hold everything in balance, it also creates a huge new space for balancing action, a space that did not exist 20 years ago. Then the government had only to exercise its power, not provide balancing actions between class interests, which had been artificially leveled.
The greater diversity of society has made it objectively more difficult to try to start a revolution. Which group would an aspiring revolutionary try to mobilize, the peasants or the workers? It may be impossible to recruit them both, because the differences in their interests are too great. It is true some young intellectuals have been playing with the idea of organizing a peasants’ movement; some have even traveled to villages to mobilize peasants, and some peasants have gone to cities to seek help from intellectuals. In fact, such activities have been going on for years, but nothing substantial has ever materialized, and certainly not just because of the presumed ubiquitous presence of the Chinese security apparatus. It is because the necessary preconditions for revolution were not there, and still are not.
Furthermore, the government publicly waving the Gini factor suggests something else: social differences nowadays are a form of social transparency, while under Mao, social differences were starker, but hidden. In the Maoist period, a small group of officials, systematically ranked, starting from the Great Helmsman himself, who was granted the number one position in the hierarchy, were accorded clear differences in “daiyu”, which became a technical term indicating the differences in privileges granted. Moneywise, the difference was minimal, but during this orthodox Communist period, money did not buy anything anyway. Top leaders had a villa with servants and cooks in every province of China. These were open and operated 12 months a year, even if their owners never visited some of them. Ministers had large estates with drivers in attendance, director generals had cars and telephones – and common people frequently starved. These privileges were enhanced by mystery: no one could scrutinize the lives of leaders, who literally lived behind closed walls. The cars which still speed today through Beijing’s streets with tinted windows are a legacy of that past, when top leaders had huge “red flags” cruising at high speed through deserted Changanjie, the main road in Beijing. Those differences were immense compared with the present ones.
But: they were hidden, and now the differences are open. Very commonly, people who made the same living for years are now economically far apart, one still with a bicycle, another with a BMW. Part of the idea of harmonious society is that people have to reconcile themselves with these differences, some of which are engendered by corruption, but most of which have simply emerged due to the variable business acumen of different individuals.
It appears that the government remains confident of having the upper hand, that social changes may actually lend the regime more room to maneuver, and that greater transparency will in fact improve the government’s ability to retain control. Under these conditions, if the government pushes for greater liberalization, if it moves towards democratization, it will gain more clout and consensus – not less. In other words, we could see a future China both more transparent and liberal, moving towards democratization, and yet with an increased role, power and influence of the Communist party. This is a paradox for some observers – unless we stop thinking of the Chinese Communist Party as “communist”.
On the other hand, there is perhaps another aspect to consider. Historically, all major shocks to the power of the Party came not from some alien opposition, but from within the party itself. The late Zhao Ziyang, now celebrated as the demigod of liberalization, was a party secretary, and the leading dissident Bao Tong was his assistant. Even in the case of Falun Gong, the members who in 1999 organized the sit-down protest outside Zhongnanhai which panicked the government into repressing the sect, were senior party officials, including a retired aviation general later sentenced to 13 years in prison.
The situation has not changed since then. The party controls everything, and there is no social organization, or even a religion or triad group, capable of challenging it. Triad-like groups may be strong and have solid connections with some officials and police officers, but their reach does not go beyond their own province, and often their own city. Even the Catholic Church, which for decades resisted Communist repression by staying united and loyal to the Pope, and is closely organized, does not influence the population beyond its own believers. Furthermore, these groups are in competition with each other; certainly the Catholics oppose the triads, and different triads compete with each other, as do different cults in the countryside.
Even if the party were unable to keep each of these organizations under strict control, which for good reasons or bad it is extremely keen on doing, it would be hard for any of these organizations to prevail both over the party and over other, competing organizations. In reality, most of these groups are more than happy, for various reasons, to live with the party without openly challenging it. This, then, leaves the millions of protesters isolated. The only possibility for a major political upheaval comes from a serious power struggle within the party that breaks out in the open, which was what happened in the Tiananmen incident or, to a certain degree, with the repression of the Falun Gong.
Will such an internal power struggle happen any time soon? No outsider can say. Yet the lesson the party learned from Tiananmen, and from the experience of the botched Soviet coup against Gorbachev in 1991, was that if internecine struggles break out in the open, then everybody in the party will lose, and external forces may even step in and take over. To some extent, knowledge of this fact preempted major power struggles with the demise of the powerful Yang Shangkun faction in 1992; digested the arrest of the mighty Beijing party chief Chen Xitong in 1995; and made it possible for National People’s Congress chairman Qiao Shi to leave power in 1997, opening the way for Jiang Zemin.
Even during the Falun Gong crackdown, when many retired senior party officials were sympathetic to the organization, the party mustered all its strength and brought everybody back in line, without massive, open clashes. From all these events, the party has learned a lot; it may even have also learned that the real threat may come from within its ranks, not from even millions of people in the streets of Chinese cities.
Francesco Sisci, based in Beijing, is Asia Editor for the daily La Stampa.
(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved.
Francesco Sisci – Asia Times
Oct 21, 2005