Barely two months into their jobs, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) new leaders are being confronted by the challenges posed by a constituency that has generally been one of the party’s most ardent supporters: the middle-class and well-off Chinese who have benefited from a three-decade economic boom.
A widening discontent was evident this month in the anti-censorship street protests in Guangzhou and in the online outrage that exploded over an extraordinary surge in air pollution in the north. Anger has also reached a boil over fears concerning hazardous tap water and over a factory spill of 35 tonnes of a toxic chemical in Shanxi Province that has led to panic in nearby cities.
For years, many China observers have asserted that the party’s authoritarian system endures because ordinary Chinese buy into a grand bargain: The party guarantees economic growth, and in exchange the people do not question the way the party rules. Now, many whose lives improved under the boom are reneging on their end of the deal, and in ways more vocal than ever before. Their ranks include billionaires and students, movie stars and homemakers.
Few are advocating an overthrow of the party. Many just want the system to provide a more secure life. But in doing so, they are demanding something that challenges the very nature of the party-controlled state: transparency.
More and more Chinese say they distrust the Wizard of Oz style of control the party has exercised since it seized power in 1949, and they are asking their leaders to disseminate enough information so they can judge whether officials, who are widely believed to be corrupt, are doing their jobs properly. Without open information and discussion, they say, citizens cannot tell whether officials are delivering on basic needs.
“Chinese people want freedom of speech,” said Xiao Qinshan (肖青山), 46, a man in a wheelchair at the Guangzhou protests.
China’s new leadership under Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平), who took over as general secretary of the party in November, is already feeling the pressure of these calls. Xi has announced a campaign against corruption, and propaganda officials, in a somewhat surprising move, allowed the state news media to run in-depth reports on the air pollution last week.
Zhang Jian (張建), a journalism professor, said he believed that the leaders had decided “to face the problems.”
Some Chinese say that they and their compatriots, especially younger ones, are starting to realize that a secure life is dependent on the defense of certain principles, perhaps most crucially freedom of expression, and not just on the government meeting material needs. If a ruling party cannot police itself, then people want outsiders, like independent journalists, to do so.
Proof of that can be seen in the wild popularity of microblogs in which ordinary citizens frustrated by corruption post photographs of officials who wear expensive wristwatches. It was evident, too, when hundreds of ordinary people rallied in Guangzhou to defend Southern Weekend, a newspaper known for investigative reporting, against censorship.
“What’s interesting is that these protests were not over a practical issue but over a conceptual issue,” Hong Huang (洪晃), a news media and fashion entrepreneur, said in a telephone interview. “People are beginning to understand these values are important to a better life, and beginning to understand that unless we all accept the same universal values, things will never really get better.”