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Is Democracy in China’s Future?

Turmoil in the Middle East and Prospects for the Chinese Communist Party
1 March 2011

by Daniel Michaeli

Public Security Bureau car at Tiananmen Square; photo by author, 2008

In recent weeks, many in the West, and even some in China, have speculated about the resilience of China’s authoritarianism. Could what happened in Egypt happen in China? (For some U.S. perspectives, see a Forbes.com article by Gordon Chang from January 30th and a Wall Street Journal article by Loretta Chao from a couple weeks ago.) China is clearly playing it safe as it reacts with force to even the smallest hints of protest this week.

The Tiananmen Square massacre remains the template for authoritarian responses to popular pro-democracy movements. “The unity of China is more important than those people in Tiananmen Square,” Muammar Qaddafi said last Tuesday. (In fact, Qaddafi was attempting to justify actions so appalling that even China has voted in favor of a unanimous UN Security Council resolution that said those attacks against civilians “may amount to crimes against humanity.”)

So, what would it take for another revolution in China? And what would China’s communist party (the CCP) be willing or able to do to stay in power?

Here are some things to think about.

Getting a Message Out

The first problem any kind of pro-democracy revolutionary movement would encounter is difficulty spreading messages among the public to encourage collective action. China’s censorship apparatus is sophisticated and clever, and this has been widely discussed elsewhere so I won’t belabor the point. But I do want to mention that censors have recently introduced a new sort of “smoke and mirrors” approach, which lets users think they’ve posted controversial comments successfully, while their posts are actually secretly hidden from others.

Censorship is both costly and imperfect. For example, as Robert Blohm noted in last Friday’s Nelson Report email newsletter, China is forcing private companies to shoulder the burden of paying for censors on many social media web sites–and private companies’ incentives are not always aligned with those of the government:

A profit-maximizing company running a censorship operation will hire the bare minimum of censorship staff needed at the lowest possible pay and intelligence and will refuse to hire and train a huge idle reserve of censors ahead of time. That’s also because the government assesses the companies’ compliance reactively on the basis of control performance, not proactively.

But as we’ve seen again and again, China is willing to shut down web sites or even whole categories of web sites when it perceives that “social stability” is at risk, e.g., during ethnic riots or important times on the political calendar. The failure of private censors would therefore probably not be enough to allow a controversial message to gain a national audience.

Word of mouth can be tremendously powerful in non-governmental membership groups, like large religious or professional organizations, but China is going to continue to be very cautious about the groups it allows to grow, particularly at a national level.

Legitimacy and Economics

The CCP’s legitimacy is based on a mix of economic accomplishment and nationalism. (Ideology is still around, but it only seems to have meaning when it is linked to nationalism.) So what would happen in the event of a major economic slowdown?

I wrote in a post last year about the risk that an economic downturn would create unemployment among victims of official land-grabs, who have lost the fallback option of returning to their villages because they no longer have land there. After losing their houses for paltry compensation, these people are tired of being discriminated against in cities and are facing major cost of living increases (housing costs and general inflation). These victims of CCP corruption are already a disgruntled group with an unlikely gathering point: officially-sanctioned petition offices.

Petitioners line up to seek redress of grievances; photo by the author, Beijing, 2008

And what about the wealthier classes, whose property speculation is helping to create a real estate bubble in China’s coastal cities? The CCP depends on their loyalty, and many have argued that their loyalty depends on their economic success. (Others have argued something quite different: that after a certain degree of economic success China’s middle class will begin asking for democratic rights. But the evidence of this is very limited in China, where money guarantees political access even without any kind of electoral system, and where bigotry towards China’s poor majority is widespread among the elites.)

Justice, Corruption, and Inequality

The concept of justice in China is often very deeply connected with equality of outcomes, more even than process. Will Chinese citizens blame their government for the uneven and unequal nature of China’s growth in recent years? For the tremendous amount of wealth that has been eaten up by officials free to abuse their power while stealing from the most vulnerable? There have been major cases that have galvanized the public nationwide–but always against limited aspects of the current system, not against the national communist party. An instigating incident, if there is one, would have to be serious enough for people to be willing to risk their lives to protest openly about it.

Nationalism Minus CCP Equals…?

The CCP maintains a largely effective narrative that equates China with the CCP. Without the CCP, the sentiment is, China would still be under the thumb of Western and Japanese imperialists. This is part of why U.S. criticism of human rights violations in China is so often interpreted by Chinese people as an affront to the Chinese nation. In my experience, this is a feeling widely shared by average Chinese people, regardless of the actual intentions of the U.S. government or international human rights groups.

It doesn’t help that foreign criticism of CCP behavior towards the Chinese population so often draws attention to ethnic minority/separatism-related issues like Tibet, the Uighurs (Xinjiang), and Taiwan. China will fall apart if not for a strong central government, many believe, including many well-educated, reform-minded Chinese people. That worry would have to dissipate for the majority of Chinese to accept a less authoritarian government.

Chinese flag-lowering ceremony at Tiananmen Square; photo by the author, Beijing, 2005

Last But Not Least, the Military

Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are where they are today largely because of military decisions (and defections) that enabled huge crowds to gather, and, in Libya’s case, actually hold territory in opposition to the government. Since high-level military officials refused orders from Deng Xiaoping in 1989, the CCP has beefed up the People’s Armed Police (PAP) to reduce the chances of any future insubordination.

China has a multi-pronged approach to protests, which occur nationwide each year in the tens of thousands. Authorities try to crack down when small incidents occur, arresting ringleaders and addressing reasonable demands–without allowing media coverage to spread knowledge of an incident, as much as possible. For something even to reach the level of a military escalation, it would have to overcome many a hurdle and gain widespread support.

Could that happen in China? It’s not likely for some time because of the concerns I brought up, including–not to be discounted–widespread fear in cities of China’s own rural population. But as the events in the Middle East have demonstrated, when the time comes, it may come with little warning. Then the final arbiter will be China’s military. And–so far–the military seems quite content with one-party rule.

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  • shamsuddoza said:

    Thank You Sir. A very good come back. Important article.China has recently spike its military budget . China lures its people of re-rise of Asian hierarchy( used by David Kang)

  • vokoyo said:









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