China: Weak Impetus For Change

The political tide that has turned against dictatorial leaderships in Tunisia and Egypt, and is swiftly spreading across North Africa and the Middle East, has led to intense speculation on whether China may be next.

The World Today
4 minute READ

Online calls within China for street protests are among signs that simmering social discontent might possibly manifest itself on a larger scale. The Chinese government has reacted by censoring coverage of the events in Egypt and Tunisia, offering selective news coverage of how the revolutions have led to wide-spread unrest and economic instability in the neighbouring regions. More than a hundred activists in China have been rounded up by the police and, in yet another display of lack of savvy in dealing with foreignmedia, the government has reportedly clamped down hard on activities by foreign journalists in areas where the protests are scheduled to take place, escalating the bad press.

In this context, the annual ‘two meetings’ by the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) are timely, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government could use official channels to address some of the longstanding issues at the heart of the problems, such as income distribution, provision of affordable housing, education, health care reform, and social security, and to prevent inflation, stabilise prices and other pertinent issues that greatly concern the grassroots. To the surprise of many analysts, President Hu Jintao has revised the target growth rate for 2011 from the usual ‘at least eight percent‘ to seven percent, possibly a tacit acknowledgement that while economic growth remains a top priority, it can no longer come at the overwhelming expense of other important issues. Notably, according to the draft of the twelfth five-year plan (2011-2015), there will be construction and renovation of 36 million apartments for low-income families, the minmum wage standard is to increase by no less than thirteen percent on average each year, more than 45 million jobs are to be created in urban areas, and the efficiency and credibility of government is to be improved. China currently has 170 million people above the age of sixty and last year, 152 billion dollars in pension was paid out. Ninety-five percent of 95,300 people in a state media poll held before the NPC listed pension payments as their utmost concern (outranking inflation and real estate prices), and expressed their desire formore equitable reforms. According to the draft of the five-year plan, pension schemes will cover all rural residents and 357 million urban residents, which adds up to approximately fifty percent of the population. There have also been discussions on inclusive growth, both in terms of addressing the income disparity and geographical disparity in the level of development. In a bid to stem environmental degradation, the plan also targets reduction in carbon emissions, increased use of clean energy, conservation of farmland reserves and increased forest coverage.

While these objectives appear to be laudable, inconsistencies abound. Wu Bangguo, Party Secretary and Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, in his recent speech to the NPC, reiterated points he hadmade two years earlier: China will not tolerate multi-party democracy, nor will it allow ideological pluralism, check-andbalance polity, bicameralism and private ownership, as changes in the system could lead the country to “sink into the abyss of internal disorder”. This severely undermines some of the objectives outlined in the draft, which include in-depth reform in monopoly industries for easier market entry and more competition, and improvements in democracy and the legal system.

With the possibility of even slight political change diminishing, the looming question persists: is China set for a revolution? This remains unlikely for a number of reasons. Due to the large-scale efforts to control dissent, most of the Chinese remain unaware of the recent calls for protests online. Protests (or what the CCP terms ‘mass incidents’) in China are usually issue-specific, related to personal grievances and largely scattered and localised,with only a small segment of the population intent on overarching change based on political= ideology. There is no strong galvanising force as yet to bring disgruntled Chinese together as a force for political and social change. The Chinese organisers of the Jasmine revolution have asked people to simply bring their families and take a walk at the sites as a sign of peaceful protest.However, the sites chosen are perpetually crowded spots in the cities, for instance Wangfujing in Beijing and People’s Square in Shanghai. And the organisers have requested that the protesters gather every Sunday at 2pm, a day and time when the areas experience peak human traffic. This makes it virtually impossible to discern passerbys from protesters. While this is presumably intended as a safe and anonymous way for demonstration, it also reduces the meaningfulness of the exercise, with some dismissing the calls for dissent as a gimmick and not a genuine call for political action. The security apparatus and physical coercion also makes protests virtually impossible. At the annual session for NPC, the total budget for domestic security was 95 billion dollars, while the budget allocated for national defence was 91.5 billion dollars, the first time that the budget for the former has exceeded the latter, and a telling sign that the government sees domestic ‘threats’ as more severe than external threats and will channel more resources to repress opposition.

Most importantly, the Chinese have mixed sentiments towards replacing the incumbent regime. Compared to Tunisia and Egypt, the stakes are far higher in China. Having achieved a sustained rate of economic growth, and with China now widely perceived to be the rising economic and political giant of the century, the Chinese are only too aware that replacing the incumbent regime comes with high opportunity costs. While the benefits of a fast-growing economy have not trickled down to all levels,most Chinese do perceive that as the lesser of two evils. Whether the extent of these opportunity costs are perceived (i.e. the result of political rhetoric) or real is debatable, but what is clear is that radical political upheavals would undermine investors’ confidence and severely compromise the current growth trajectory. In addition, the CCP has been the dominant party since 1949 and has left opposition parties limited political space to grow or mature. The young generation of Chinese have grown up under propaganda education, censorship, sustained economic growth, and have never experienced any other political system. What would be the feasible alternative in its place? Should hope lie in a regime change, or a change within the incumbent regime? These remain dilemmas confronted by the Chinese populace.

While the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt largely centred on removing a dictator at the apex, toppling the CCP entails revamping an entire system – a system that has amply showcased its demerits and at the same time, its merits. The CCP has prioritised economic growth over environment and public health, failed tomanage glaring income-disparities, and been at the centre of controversies and corruption. But at the same time, its leadership lifted hundreds ofmillions ofChinese out of poverty, improved China’s international political standing, and steered China’s phenomenal economic growth since the 1970s. These redeeming qualities are constantly weighed against its failings, leading to conflicted Chinese sentiments toward the regime, and the CCP government continues to enjoy a certain level of popular support that was clearly lacking in Tunisia and Egypt. Most Chinese are not confident that even if the CCP is replaced, the ensuing party, regime or system of governance will not be corrupt. The CCP has also enjoyed moderate success in harnessing nationalist sentiments against historical aggressors and perceivedwestern bullying, to channel discontent toward external sources and convince the populace that even with its shortcomings, it remains the best leadership to safeguard China’s interests.

Interestingly, a Pew Global Attitudes Survey in June 2010 revealed China as the country with the most satisfied people among the 22 countries surveyed.Eighty-seven percent stated that they were happy with the direction of their country, 91 percent responded that they felt good about the state of their economy and 87 percent expressed their optimismabout China’s economic future. It appears that the level of tolerance towards the government continues to hinge on economic performance and China’s political ascent in the international arena. Unless there is drastic economic decline, it is unlikely that the Chinese populacewill bemobilised into radical action. While the fundamental issues of political freedom, equitable wealth and social justice cannot be disregarded indefinitely, the diffused protests pushing for these will be contained through governmental controls and silent assent of the majority who hope to continue to benefit from China’s economic growth. As it currently stands, the impetus for bottom-up change in China remains weak.