November 10, 2011 § 1 Comment
Occupy Wall Street protests have not spread to China, but Beijing’s crackdown on media coverage and Internet activity related to OWS isn’t surprising. What’s less predictable are ways that Occupy protests could shake up China’s internal politics, especially among neo-Maoists.
Occupy Wall Street protests have not spread to the People’s Republic of China. But word of the protests has, and the Chinese authorities are trying to figure out how to respond.
Their reactions have run the gamut: from gloating denunciations of American capitalism, to a crackdown on all media coverage of Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Of course, there is no real surprise in this sequence of responses. More interesting, and less predictable, are the ways in which the Occupy Wall Street protests could substantively shape China’s internal politics.
In the early days of the OWS movement, when protests were confined to US cities, a China Daily OpEd (Sept. 30) harshly attacked the American media for journalistic hypocrisy, for not giving coverage to protests in their own country even as they had relished covering protests in the Arab world just a few months earlier. A couple weeks later, state-run Xinhua News was harsher still, arguing that the protests in New York’s Zuccotti Park “laid bare malpractices of the US government and ailments of its political and economic systems.”
But as the Occupy movement spread globally, the Chinese response shifted. Assault on the silence of the American press gave way to anxiety about the possible effects Chinese media coverage might have on their Chinese audience.
On Oct. 17, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, after remarking that the issues raised by OWS may be “worth pondering,” cautioned the Chinese media, saying that their “reflections should be conducive to maintaining the sound and steady development of the world economy.” On the same day, editors of the Chinese Communist Party-run Global Times called for people to “calmly observe the protest movement and the global situation, and not be confused by extreme points of view.”
A few days later, on Oct. 19 and 20, Beijing authorities – setting aside any ambivalence they might have had about the Occupy movement – issued an order to the Chinese media to cease all reporting and commenting on the OWS movement.
What happened? Perhaps Beijing had examined the numbers in the intervening three days, and been reminded that as high as the income gap in the United States is, China’s income and wealth inequality is right up there as well, even higher according to some estimates. Or perhaps recognition had set in that China’s elite 1 percent just might – like America’s 1 percent elite – be open to charges of greed and corruption.
Given, too, that 36 percent of the Chinese people (that’s 481 million people) live on $2 a day or less, the Beijing leadership might have become worried that the Chinese would not remain as “calm” in the face of news about the US protests as the Global Times might wish.
Cyberspace censorship quickly followed after the media gag order. Searches for “Occupy Wall Street” and, more pointedly, for “Occupy Beijing,” “Occupy Shanghai,” “Occupy Guangzhou,” “Occupy Zhongnanhai,” and “Occupy Lhasa,” among a growing list of banned terms, now yield blank screens on microblogging sites like Sina Weibo (China’s version of Twitter).
Such a crackdown was predictable. Since the Arab Spring uprisings, the Chinese leadership, vigilant about any signs of civil unrest at home, has been aggressive in promoting the “harmonious society” that is the Community Party’s mantra.
But tensions in the ruling Chinese Communist Party have surfaced in recent years. New Leftists, sometime called New Maoists, have become more voluble about the widening gulf between rich and poor; corporate and official collusion; the state’s inattentiveness to the needs of the elderly, the infirm, and the impoverished; and the rise in “mass incidents” of protest against official corruption. It is time, the New Leftists suggest, to put the brakes on the liberal reform experiment launched in the post-Mao era by Deng Xiaoping. It is time to resurrect the revolutionary, egalitarian spirit of Chairman Mao.
Will the message or spirit of the Occupy Wall Street protests resonate with China’s 99-percenters and give momentum to China’s New Maoist agenda? OWS has already produced small demonstrations in nearby Hong Kong and Taiwan. If OWS endures and expands its reach to mainland China, savvy politician Bo Xilai, party chief of Chongqing municipality in China’s southwest, would likely have much to gain. The leading figure and public face of the New Maoists, Bo is angling – some would say campaigning – to win a position on the all-powerful nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo in 2012.
Described as “handsome,” “outgoing,” and “Kennedy-esque,” Mr. Bo has made a name for himself as an activist party chief – even as he has ruffled feathers along the way. He launched a popular campaign targeting organized crime and official corruption in 2009. He also sponsored low-income housing projects and welfare programs for the working class and the poor in Chongqing. This summer, he inaugurated the Red Culture Movement, calling for a renaissance of the revolutionary spirit embodied by Chairman Mao.
Residents of Chongqing are encouraged to come together in parks and stadiums to sing “red songs” – songs extolling the achievements of Mao and the Chinese Communist Party – and to watch the revolutionary dramas that have replaced the soap operas on Chongqing TV. With such efforts, charismatic Bo has struck a strong populist chord in Chongqing and beyond.
But winning acclaim from the people and winning a place on the Standing Committee of the Politburo are two different matters. Bo’s flamboyant style is at odds with the staid style of present members of the Standing Committee (which in a process lacking any transparency will select the replacements for those retiring from the Standing Committee next year).
His support for a more tightly state-controlled economy is at odds with the more liberal state capitalism now in vogue. And his Maoist rhetoric is at odds with the liberal reform rhetoric embraced by the Chinese leadership for the past decade, and especially by current Premier Wen Jiabao. Bo’s words and actions have conjured up, at least for some, the specter of a return to Cultural Revolution days.
Still, in the words of the press, Bo is a “political rock star.” Excluding him from the Standing Committee may be difficult. But should China’s 99-percenters awaken to the call of Occupy Wall Street and coalesce around the movement, excluding Bo from the Standing Committee mix would be more than difficult – it would simply be too risky, even for China’s authoritarian ruling party.
This post first appeared as an op-ed article in the Christian Science Monitor on November 8.
March 11, 2011 § 2 Comments
This article first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on March 2:
The West is guilty of wishful thinking when it excitedly imagines people-powered revolt in the Arab world spreading to China. There is dissatisfaction in China. But Tiananmen Square is not poised to become a Tahrir Square anytime soon. Here’s why.
In the past week or so, a lot of Western press has been given over to the question, “Is China the next Egypt?” Why this question is receiving so much attention puzzles me. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking: We’d like to see every country under authoritarian rule become more democratic. But looking at China today, even if I squint really hard, I don’t see a government at risk of being toppled by mass protests soon.
This is not to say that Chinese people are uniformly happy, or even satisfied, with their government. There are the poor who aren’t participating in China’s skyrocketing prosperity; there are the powerless who see their lands seized from them by those more powerful and better connected; there are the college-educated who can’t find jobs commensurate with their skills and expectations; there are the activists who have been silenced (sometimes brutally), placed under house arrest, or imprisoned by the state. And, there’s the sort of culture of official corruption where a hit-and-run driver can taunt his pursuers by shouting, “Go ahead, sue me if you dare. My dad is Li Gang!” (the deputy director of Baoding City’s public security bureau).
There is dissatisfaction in China. But Tiananmen Square is not poised to become a Tahrir Square anytime soon. Here are a few reasons why.
First, and most obvious, under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) China has enjoyed 30 years of uninterrupted economic development. GDP has grown at an average annual rate of nearly 10 percent for the past two and half decades. Children live much better than their parents, who, in turn, live much better than their parents. Pundits may point to the fact that Egypt’s GDP has experienced solid growth in recent years as well. But growth there has been half that of China; and more telling is the percentage of Egyptians still living under the poverty line, a whopping 20 percent, compared to China’s 3 percent.
Wisely, too, the Chinese government has dedicated much of its new wealth to building up the country’s infrastructure. By pouring money and resources into the road and highway system, subway lines, high-speed rail, power grids, telecommunications, schools and education, and water supplies, for example, the CCP has sought to improve China’s standard of living. In these projects, Chinese people find some tangible signs of a government that is giving back to the country. In Egypt, the popular perception was that former President Hosni Mubarak used the country’s growing prosperity mostly simply to enrich himself, his family, and his cronies.
Second, that China in 2011 is now counted among the world’s great powers, economically and politically, is a source of great pride among the Chinese people (consider the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics). Remember, this is a country that just over 30 years ago viewed itself – and was viewed by much of the world – as backward. The people’s deep pride in witnessing their country’s triumphant return to the global stage cannot be underestimated; it’s a pride that serves to bolster the legitimacy of the current government, since the CCP, after all, has been the guiding hand responsible for shaping China’s emergence as a 21st-century superpower.
Third, China is ruled by a party whose leadership changes at least every ten years. In 2002, President Hu Jintao succeeded Jiang Zemin as party leader; in 2012 Xi Jinping is expected to succeed Mr. Hu for the two five-year terms allowed by the Constitution. In Egypt, under Mubarak, the government was embodied in the person of one “strongman” – for a full 30 years. The grievances of the Egyptian people could find a ready target in this one man; he was a natural focal point for their disaffection.
In China there is no similar focal point, in part because CCP leadership is routinely changing faces, and in part because within the leadership there are differences of opinion (which often make their way into the press) – over foreign relations, the domestic economy, the rule of law, environmental stewardship, the rise of nationalism, and Internet freedom, for instance. That there exist differences within the party helps to mitigate the intensity of people’s opposition to one-party rule.
At the Feb. 19 meeting with high-level government officials Hu, according to Xinhua News, “acknowledged that despite China’s remarkable social and economic development and growth in its overall national strength, the country is ‘still in a stage where many conflicts are likely to arise. There are still many problems in social management.’” Xinhua paraphrased him as further saying, “The government should speed up the development of various social sectors by developing education as a priority, promoting employment, reasonably adjusting income distribution, and perfecting the social security system that covers urban and rural residents.”
And in an Internet chat directly with the people this week, Premier Wen Jiabao, in the words of Xinhua, “laid out three planks of government policy essential to maintaining stability: closing income gaps; equal benefits and opportunities for rural residents; and eradicating corruption.”
This isn’t Mubarak’s government. This is a government that realizes what it is expected to do to maintain the support of its people – and its own legitimacy.