Social unrest is erupting in China—again. Simmering protests that began in two industrial cities several weeks ago have spread and intensified over the past few days, prompting yet more vigorous displays of force on the part of local governments and the security bureaucrats in Beijing. These are tremors, not an earthquake. But we all know what tremors here frequently foretell.
To put things in their proper context, we have long been counting demonstrations in China—“mass incidents” is the clean, official phrase—in the tens of thousands per year. But this truth cuts two ways. Yes, protests are daily occurrences coal miners, farmers, dispossessed property owners, victims of abuse and corruption, and so on—but the economy keeps cruising as if the mainland were a placid lake. At the same time, 127,000 public demonstrations a year—the unofficial figure for 2008 and a record—surely bear a message as to what immense frustration and impatience lie beneath the surface.
Instantly we have to recognize that the current wave of demonstrations does not signify the emergence of a unified political movement. But then again, neither were the Tiananmen demonstrations 22 years ago political at their core. (And neither were they well-organized, which was among their tragic features.) Now as then, the generalized gripe is the maldistribution of prosperity’s benefits and the abuse of power among those—petty municipal officials and Beijing mandarins alike—who hold it.
The question on many minds when unrest rears up is always the durability of an authoritarian state in a nation ever more exposed to the benefits of huge strides on the material plane and ever more aware of democratic advances elsewhere—Beijing’s efforts to clog the Internet notwithstanding. The movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere were sparked by corruption, official abuse, and deprivation. But they toppled governments, even if they didn’t begin with that intent.
The Communist Party in China has what must be among the tightest social-control mechanisms of any ruling institution since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The comparison is useful. Until Communist rule crumbled in Russia and Eastern Europe two decades ago, the presumption among outsiders was that it was tragically unshakable. One difference in this case is that U.S. businesses and consumers—whether they think of it this way or not—share the benefits of a repressive system with those atop it.
The lesson to take away from what’s happening on the mainland is this: The future of the world’s largest nation is not a settled matter. China is a vast field of contention and will remain so until a new social and political contract evolves. Ironically, this is better understood among the Chinese than by onlookers in the West. The current protests would not be taking place if those in them had no faith in a future that doesn’t resemble the present.
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