With the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan rebellion of 1959 still fresh in the memory, Beijing now has to confront the 20th anniversary of the student-led democracy movement that was crushed in Tiananmen Square.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has taken all the necessary steps to prevent — and crush, if necessary — any protests that might take place next week.
In 1989, students seeking political reforms were met with tanks as the regime feared being toppled by a ragtag movement seeking a more open political system with transparency and accountability.
That system was, and still is, racked with corruption.
Was there any serious danger to the CCP from the student movement? Then-CCP general secretary Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽) didn’t think so and was toppled by the ruling clique led by Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平).
In secret tapes recorded by Zhao during his 16 years in house arrest until his death, he raised some pertinent questions.
“It was determined [by the leading CCP group] that the student movement was a planned conspiracy of anti-party, anti-socialist elements with leadership,” Zhao said.
“So now we must ask, who were these leaders? What was the plan? What was the conspiracy? What evidence exists to support this?” he wrote. “It was also said that that there were black hands within the party. Who were they?”
“It was said that this event was aimed at overthrowing the People’s Republic and the CCP. Where is the evidence?” Zhao said.
His conclusion was that there were no such elements conspiring to overthrow the CCP.
“I had said at the time that most people were only asking us to correct our flaws, not attempting to overthrow our political system,” he said.
One might think that having crushed the last perceived organized threat to its monopoly on power, the CCP would feel at ease. But the paranoia persists.
The system remains alert to any organized sign of resistance that might emerge.
After all, the Falun Gong movement emerged out of nowhere and managed to hold a large public protest in 1999. Soon afterwards, the movement was banned and declared an evil cult, with thousands of followers arrested and tortured.
The persecution continues.
Falun Gong was never a threat to the CCP’s rule. But overkill is still the mark of the ruling oligarchy.
The fact is that China’s rulers do not want to take any chances with unruly masses, believing they need the perpetual control and guidance of the CCP to prevent the country from plunging into chaos.
This is the CCP’s self-serving mythology that has been parroted ever since. In the absence of any kind of popular endorsement of its rule, the CCP has had to create the illusion of impending disaster if the party is not around.
This makes the party and the country indistinguishable. In other words, a Chinese citizen ceases to be “patriotic” if he or she seeks political change.
If a group meets regularly to talk of democracy as a political alternative for the country, soon enough its members will find themselves behind bars.
Zhao, though, favored the democratic alternative. He reportedly said that: “It is the Western parliamentary system that has demonstrated the most vitality … [and] meets the demands of a modern society.”
But the CCP is unlikely to follow this route to commit political suicide. Indeed, it actively works to destroy any challenge (real or imagined) to its political monopoly.
The government freely uses charges of subversion and leaking of “state secrets” as justification to throw people in jail.
Other no-go topics are Tibet, Taiwan and Uighur separatism in Xinjiang.
In other words, the country’s communist rulers have multiple grounds to throw people into jail.
The Internet, though, is posing problems. Despite a panoply of firewalls built by the Chinese government to deny people access to certain types of information, those determined enough do manage to keep themselves informed through alternative sites.
Most Chinese, however, live on a diet of government-fed information that provides a filtered view of their country and the world.
With the economy slowing, however, social unrest has been increasing.
Even with growth rates of more than 10 percent, China has been unable to provide jobs for many of its teeming millions.
The rural economy is so depressed that young men and women from the countryside flocked to urban industrial centers for jobs.
There have been an estimated 140 million migrant rural workers in cities. With the closure of urban factories, about 20 million have already gone back to their homes and farms.
If the process of rural workers trekking back to the countryside continues, it will aggravate social unrest.
There are no jobs for them back home and their families’ farms can hardly feed more mouths. With progressively reduced remittances back home, the rural families will have an even harder time.
Already, there is a three-fold gap between rural and urban incomes. Any widening of this gap is likely to create further tensions.
There is a sense that the Chinese government is aware of the grim social reality of even harder times in rural areas. It is, therefore, diverting resources to the rural sector as part of the overall stimulus package.
Jonathan Fenby, China director at Trusted Sources, said Chinese in rural areas “aren’t benefiting much from the US$1 trillion sloshing out in China in fiscal and monetary stimulus.”
That is because: “That money is going mainly to big urban-based firms, while the drop in remittances from migrant workers in coastal export zones is hitting village income, deflation is reducing income from sales of food, farm input costs have risen and mechanization is uneconomic in many places, given the small size of plots allowed under the land ownership system.”
At the same time, in the cities, the middle class finds itself with fewer economic opportunities. Young graduates coming into the job market find it increasingly difficult to find jobs.
Therefore, even if China’s economy continues to grow (but at nearly half the growth rate reported in the last decade) things are pretty grim.
As economic difficulties create more social tensions and unrest, China’s paranoid leadership will start seeing ghosts of political challenge, which might lead to greater repression.
This is not to suggest that the CCP’s grip on power is in any immediate danger. The suggestion, though, is that an increasing aggregation of social tensions could create an explosive situation in the short or medium term.
Sushil Seth is a writer based in Australia.
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