Letter from China: China builds a new wall, and democracy hits it

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Howard W. French
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SHANGHAI The other day, an acquaintance pointed out something I’d scarcely noticed on a frequently traveled route through this city: steel benches had been removed from the sidewalk in front of one of central Shanghai’s premier hotels.
It seemed like idle chatter at first. Then came the payoff in the form of a hard-bitten observation by a Chinese person who knew his own society. “The city government must be getting ready for an important meeting across the street. If they are so afraid, they shouldn’t hold their meetings in the heart of the business district.”
For months now, the site in question, on Nanjing Lu, directly across the street from the majestic, Soviet-designed Shanghai Exhibition Center, where the city’s leaders often meet, has been gradually transformed into a sort of Democracy Wall. This is the place where Shanghai residents come these days to air their grievances, usually over property issues, like being railroaded out of the central city as a result of cozy deals between local officials and big developers. And sure enough, a few days after the friend’s comment, a big meeting of city leaders was convened there.
Over time, the site has become an ever-bigger headache for the police, whose job seems to be keeping the discontented out of the view of the city’s leaders, as well as the investors, celebrities, well-heeled tourists and big shots of every stripe who flock to the hotel, drawn by the inescapable hype about Shanghai, the world’s latest gleaming global city on the hill.
The police have mostly done their job, it must be said, with a fair amount of efficiency and grace, gently shooing away the motley knots of stubble-bearded and gray-haired pensioners, and ushering those who continue to complain into white police vans for what one assumes is a brief arrest or detention. But the crowds have grown undeterred, driven by the unfathomable murkiness that surrounds the razing of old neighborhoods and the building of high-rent skyscrapers to replace them.
Other methods have been tried to banish this problem – not the problem of corrupt or unjust real estate practices, mind you, but rather the expression of disgruntlement and dissent. State censors, for one, have warned Chinese media off of the topic, and lawyers who have dared to take on the city and the developers have themselves been arrested. Now, if the benches, favored resting spots of the old pensioners during their low-key protests, have to go, it’s because someone decided that enough is enough.
The verdict is still out in China – barely – on whether absolute power corrupts absolutely. Beyond dispute, though, is the striking fondness of those in power here for barricading themselves behind high walls. And walls can come in all kinds of forms, both structural and metaphorical, as the Nanjing Lu sidewalk saga shows.
Another wall, usually invisible, wheeled into view again this week with the news that Google had agreed to help China police the Internet as part of an agreement to allow the company to base some of its search engine servers in China. Henceforth, Chinese users will be treated, if that’s the word, to a sterilized version of Google’s services aimed at keeping out what the authorities call “unhealthy information.”
Gone will be entries on the Tiananmen massacre, and Tibet and much news about Taiwan. The word “democracy” is a no-no, too.
The Google agreement came on the same day that the authorities closed Bing Dian, or Freezing Point, a weekly newspaper that specialized in reporting on sensitive political and social issues.
The paper irritated censors last year, among other ways, when an internal memo was leaked and published on the Web detailing a rewards system linking journalists’ salaries to their approval ratings among the country’s leaders.
China’s leaders seem keenly aware that their country is poised at a hugely important moment.
Their anxiety can be seen in the handling of recent unrest in villages like Dongzhou and Panlong, in Guangdong Province, where massive police force was deployed.
In the first instance, in December lives were lost on a still unacknowledged scale when the security forces opened fire on a crowd. This month’s big protest was less disastrous – villagers say two people were killed – but the corpse of a 13-year-old girl was rapidly destroyed to protect an official story line that said she had succumbed to a heart attack.
As in faraway Shanghai, the issue in both instances was the takeover of land for development with scant compensation offered to the little people and no recourse for effective, legal opposition. The Shanghai authorities have to handle things gingerly because their city is on the world stage. Out in the provinces, the witnesses are easily cowed, bought or otherwise silenced, kept at a distance behind yet another of China’s walls.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who often impresses audiences with a palpable humanity and decency, particularly compared to a collection of mostly stiff and colorless cohorts at the top, put his finger on the land issue, easily one of the country’s most dangerous fault lines: in a remarkably blunt speech last week, he warned against “historical errors.”
“In some areas, illegal seizures of farmland without reasonable compensation and resettlement have provoked uprisings,” said Wen, in a cool understatement. “This is still a key source of instability in rural areas and even the whole society.”
“Historical error” is polite Communist Party jargon for “blowing it big time,” and Wen’s expression of alarm may be just enough to keep the verdict open on the absolute power versus absolute corruption equation, for now.
It will be action, and not words, though, that determines things. Can China overcome its fear of a rules-based system in which people in power and the institutions they run are subject to legal reproach? Can corruption issues be aired in this country in a way that doesn’t bring the entire edifice crashing down? Even in open, democratic societies, the record of the powerful policing themselves is not a good one. But one senses that without breaking down walls, gradually relaxing restrictions on expression, China’s leaders will be digging themselves a hole.

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