Thursday 10 March 2011, by
On 27 February, the Chinese authorities cracked down heavily on ‘Jasmine rallies’ planned in over 20 cities across the country. Both uniformed and plainclothes police officers were out in force to stop a scheduled rally in Wangfujing Street, a shopping district in Beijing. In Shanghai, several hundred people trying to gather were dispersed with water trucks.
However, anonymous organisers of the campaign have already called for new rallies on 6 March. This despite the stifling security response the rallies have exacted, including human-rights activists being detained and a greater-than-usual Internet censorship regime being put in place. Even foreign journalists were roughed up, prompting US Ambassador Jon Huntsman to remark, ‘this type of harassment and intimidation is unacceptable and deeply disturbing.’ Huntsman was spotted among the crowd at the Beijing rally on 27 February.
As the ‘Jasmine rally’, inspired by the Tunisian revolution, spreads to more Chinese cities, government officials have grown increasingly nervous. On 12 February, Communist Party of China boss Hu Jintao summoned top leaders to a special ‘study session’, and commanded them to address growing social problems before they became threats to stability. Hu told the top ruling elites that ‘the overall requirements for enhancing and innovating social management are to stimulate vitality in the society and increase harmonious elements to the greatest extent, while reducing inharmonious factors to the minimum.’
Hu’s ‘inharmonious factors’ are people who are demanding a fair share in their lives, such as the 71-year-old man who was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, ‘I came here today to see how people protest against the government, which is corrupt and rules in an authoritarian way.’ Or a poor farmer from Anhui whose land was grabbed by a well-connected developer with no proper compensation.
In the case of Tibet, Hu’s ‘inharmonious factors’ can mean anything from singing Tibetan songs to downloading a ‘reactionary’ tune onto one’s mobile phone, or refusing to sell livestock to state-operated slaughterhouses. Since 2008, over 80 well-known Tibetan intellectuals are reported to have been incarcerated. The number of ordinary people detained or disappeared might never be known.
The reason why Hu and the upper-level leadership go to such extents with regards to burgeoning dissent is because they know that one voice leads to another – and soon the sounds of popular people’s chants can topple Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Communist Party, in central Beijing.
They also understand that the system they are juggling has many weak parts. Corruption, for instance, remains rampant and reaches the highest echelons of power. A number of China experts believe that corruption has become systemically indispensable: party cadres, who run the system, are poorly paid, and their only option is to earn in any ‘unofficial’ way they can. If corruption is stamped out, there is a possibility that millions of cadres would simply discard their allegiance to the Party.
Further, the widely discussed Chinese economic ‘miracle’ is fundamentally not as sound as it might appear. According to the 7 January issue of the Guardian Weekly, the cost of China’s environmental degradation was a whopping USD 197 billion in 2008, nearly four percent of the country’s overall gross domestic product. The cost of pollution spills and the other eco-disasters rose by more than 74 percent in the last five years.
Unbridled ‘development’ and a get-rich-at-any-cost ethos have done massive and lasting damage to China’s water systems, forests and soil. This is doubly problematic in Tibet, where glaciers are melting faster than elsewhere in the world and mining is doing irreparable damage to a fragile ecosystem. However, the economic machine cannot be slowed, since the Party’s legitimacy and authority to rule is today derived solely from economic growth. The Party assumes that as long as the Chinese people enjoy economic development, everything else in their lives can be co-opted.
However, the gap between the Chinese rich and the poor is today as large as it has ever been. While some have accumulated enormous wealth, millions still live in abject poverty. Moreover, in today’s China, it is critical to have guanxi, or personal connections, in order to get ahead in life. The poor, the recent migrants from the countryside or graduates with degrees from second-tier universities lack such connections. And when they witness the rich and the children of high-level Party cadres achieving everything through guanxi, their disaffection is massively multiplied.
The political system under which this angst develops is deeply flawed. The Party is the government. The Party is the judiciary. The Party is the media. The Party is the law enforcement. This is a system in which the Party trumps all else. Since less than five percent of China’s 1.3 billion-strong population are members of the Party, 95 percent are automatically outsiders in this system. President Hu’s ‘inharmonious factors’ stem directly from these outsiders, in the form of protests numbering over 75,000 a year. One day, the balance is bound to tip in favour of this majority. The Party cannot wish away this imbalance.
According to Boxun, a Chinese language website based in the US that initially called for the peaceful protests, the Jasmine rallies are likely to spread to other large cities. Popular protest, it seems, has finally reached the shores of China.