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Where China Goes Next

5 minute read
Simon Elegant / Beijing

With the Chinese media gushing over the success of the Olympics, the latest issue of Southern Window — a highbrow news magazine with a circulation of 500,000 — caught my eye. The cover illustration features a couple of law textbooks and a teacher with a wooden pointer giving instruction to a businessman and a government official. The coverline: “Rule of Law Starts With Limitation of Power.” Sounds boring? In China, it’s almost revolutionary.

The Chinese Communist Party wasn’t explicitly mentioned, but since it holds virtually all of the power in China, the articles were clearly about how to limit the party’s all-pervasive reach and allow the Chinese people some wiggle room. Anything that touches on limiting the power of the party is extremely sensitive — and often very dangerous. So amid the euphoria of the Olympics, it was pretty gutsy of Southern Window to publish stories with headlines like, “When Administrative Power Obstructs the Law” and “Putting ‘Boxing Gloves’ on Police Powers.”

The magazine’s editors have fired an opening shot in a debate that started the moment the closing ceremony’s last firework exploded: What now for China? Will party hardliners, emboldened by the world’s timid response to their brutal pre-Games crackdown on dissent, continue to tighten their grip on power? Or will the spirit of volunteerism and community that arose after the May earthquake in Sichuan be revived? Could reform-minded party officials — like those who approved the publication of Southern Window’s special issue — gain ground in their drive to loosen control over areas such as the courts and the media?

Not all Chinese are asking those questions at this very minute; many are basking in the residual glow from all those fireworks and gold medals. Despite numerous controversies ahead of the Games — turmoil over the Olympic torch relay, the bloody suppression of Tibetan riots in March, and so on — the Games went spectacularly smoothly. Senior party cadres can give themselves a pat on the back for a job well done.

Not for long, though. It is hard to exaggerate just how important the answers to those fundamental questions will be for China. Chinese society has reached a point where maintaining the status quo is simply not an option. Beijing is barely able to keep a lid on the tremendous social dislocation caused by the country’s pell-mell economic growth over the past 30 years, and the consequent misery suffered by untold millions — the unemployed, the landless, tens of millions of migrant workers laboring under inhuman conditions, the countless victims of widespread corruption. Government officials have acknowledged that up to hundreds of so-called mass incidents occur every day. These often violent eruptions of frustration occasionally threaten to spread into chaos; as the Olympics loomed, they were more tightly controlled, or often simply ignored by the media. Now that the Games are over, it’s a good bet that the turmoil will resurface.

“There are serious issues that have been accumulating, including ethnic problems in Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as social issues and conflicts that have been temporarily covered up by force to guarantee a ‘successful Olympics,’ ” says He Weifang, a Peking University law professor and reform advocate. “I cannot predict whether there will be an immediate outbreak of all these problems after the Olympics. But there will be an outbreak if the government does not take steps to tackle the domestic problems.”

For President Hu Jintao, who made the successful staging of the Games the centerpiece of his presidency, a moment of truth looms. He will face mounting pressure to loosen the party’s grip on power. Nicholas Bequelin, China researcher for Human Rights Watch in New York City, believes the pre-Olympics tightening of controls is actually contributing to rising social discord. “The pressure is building in the pressure cooker, and there’s no current avenue for it to be released. I believe we will see many calls both inside and outside the party to put some sort of reforms on the agenda again,” Bequelin says.

Nor is the pressure for change coming only from the marginalized. Those who have benefited the most from China’s booming economy, in the swelling urban middle class, are also increasingly pushing the authorities to grant them more rights and freedoms. It’s a contagious process. Last year’s protests by thousands of citizens in the coastal city of Xiamen against plans to build a billion-dollar chemical factory ultimately forced the cancellation of the project. And the protests directly sparked copycat demonstrations against planned mega-projects in Shanghai as well as Chengdu in Sichuan province, which occurred just a few days before the earthquake devastated the region in May. “Chinese are trying to get government off their backs,” says Bequelin. “This has nothing to do with the legitimacy of the Communist Party or debates about political systems.”

The Games taught us that pressure from the outside world on issues like human rights and civil society has little effect on Beijing. Now it’s up to the Chinese people to take matters into their own hands and really begin the building of the new China.

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