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An Open China

The long-awaited move has come. Chinese President Xi Jinping has asked the nation’s top political body to amend the “Basic Law” or constitution to allow him to stay for a third five-year term.

The wave of protests in response was anticipated, but still extraordinary. It is China, after all, and the authoritarian government does not allow protests – except when it does. Xi’s action has setup a showdown of sorts in a nation which has experienced more cultural turmoil than perhaps any other and still retained a Confucian sense of order.

But can that last, or is this the start of something different?

Xi Jinping. This is about as close to a smile as he ever has.

At last fall’s Communist Party Conference, the cards were already on the table. Xi failed to designate an obvious successor, leading to speculation that he would seek to reverse the tradition established after the death of Mao Zedong. Instead, the appointment of Xi loyalists to nearly every position instead cemented his power and put the nation under the rule of one man in a way not seen for over 40 years.

The proposed change to the Basic Law was greatly anticipated as a result, and Chinese censors were ready for the backlash. With the “Great Firewall of China” isolating the nation, it is common for words and pictures to be expunged from Weibo, the national chat app.

What was not anticipated, nor easily silenced, is the criticism in the press.

Li Datong, an important press leader in China. Will his actions embolden others?

Leading the way is former China Youth Daily Editor Li Datong. He was covered widely for calling the proposed change “a farce.” He is also unafraid of repercussions. The same can be said for Hong Kong based South China Morning Post. This widely read paper included an editorial saying there would be a “backlash” internationally.

Their reference to “one man’s bad decisions” is clearly a reference to Mao, whose status in Chinese history is complicated at best and includes a general belief that the Cultural Revolution was the result of one man simply being in power too long.

How can there be this much open criticism in China? Is this a sign of the ferocity of the opposition? Perhaps it is, but open protest in China is more common than outsiders think. Typically, as long as you do not openly criticize or embarrass the Communist Party everything is OK. And that needs some explanation.

Protesting in China

Chai Jing, who showed that standing up can make a difference.

The most significant public protest, and the first since Tiananmen Square in 1989, came in a form unexpected both in China and around the world. Journalist Chai Jing was well known and respected, with her own news show on government run CCTV. When her daughter was born with a cancer attributed to pollution, she took action.

Using her own money and time, she produced “Under the Dome” (穹顶之下 qióngdǐng zhī xià) in 2015. It’s essentially a TED talk on pollution in China in format and execution. It also included some hard-hitting indictments against the officials who were supposed to be regulating industry and why they did nothing to stop pollution.

The video was seen 150 million times in the week before it was banned. It is still seen underground by many people, and is well known. Chai Jing lost her job with CCTV, but now has a new show with an independent network and never faced jail time or any other punishment.

One of the images banned on Weibo, along with all references to Winnie the Pooh.

Her cause was taken up by the government, and just three years later there has been significant action on pollution in major cities. The Xi administration is even positioning itself as a world leader on clean technology. Protesting was not only possible, it also didn’t cost that much and clearly worked.

That message has sunk in to China. It’s not North Korea, after all.

In July 2017, blogger Zhang Wumao published an essay called “Beijing has 20 Million People Who Pretend to Live Here.” It is an artful and elegant commentary on the rapid urbanization of China, in which 30% of the population moved into cities from the countryside in generation. Zhang himself came to Beijing in 2012, and loves it, but does not see his love in many recent arrivals.

I once took a taxi to Lin Cui Road. Because I was afraid the driver wouldn’t know the way, I opened the navigation on my phone to help him find the way. He said he did not need the navigation, because he knew that place. There was a flour mill there 30 years ago, [he said], it was demolished 10 years ago, and they built low-income housing there. I asked him how he knew this so well. “That used to be my home,” he said, the sorrow showing in his face.

Zhang Wumao, back in the countryside he came from.

The article was circulated on Weibo without censorship. The mayor of Beijing even published a rebuttal. But after ten days, Zhang was forced to take it down and apologize. By then, however, nearly everyone had read it, and that was all that befell Zhang.

The piece highlights the more natural political and cultural tension in this large nation which is changing rapidly, a tension between tradition and a western-style open society. If the Communist Party was not in the middle trying to control everything, a politics easily recognizable on something like a Western left-right axis would appear. In China, however, protest does not name names.

It doesn’t have to. A population used to censorship knows how to read and speak around the issue.

Tan Weiwei is an even better example. A genuine rockstar and professor of Music at Chengdu University, her style  often combines traditional and modern forms into one seamless statement of Chinese culture on the move. Her lyrics are often very biting, too. This performance on the popular show China Star (中国之星 Zhōngguó zhī xīng) simply must be seen. The piece is called “Give you a little color,” (给你一点颜色 Gěi nǐ yīdiǎn yánsè) a reference to the Chinese slang term for “showing you who is boss.”

It opens with traditional comic opera performers, who got away with a lot of sarcasm in the Qin Dynasty. It dives right in to a ripping heavy metal protest song about how dreary life in China has become. The lyrics are worth dwelling on:

女娲娘娘补了天  Nǚ wā niángniáng bǔle tiān  Goddess Nüwa repaired the sky.
剩下块石头成华山  Shèng xià kuài shítou chéng huàshān  The Stone that was left become the Hua Mountain
鸟儿背着那太阳飞  Niǎo er bèizhe nà tàiyáng fēi  The birds are flying against the sun
东边飞到西那边  Dōngbian fēi dào xī nà biān  They are flying from the east to the west
为什么天空变成灰色  Wèishéme tiānkōng biàn chéng huīsè  Why has the sky become grey?
为什么大地没有绿色  Wèishéme dàdì méiyǒu lǜsè  Why is there no green on earth?
为什么人心不是红色  Wèishéme rénxīn bùshì hóngsè  Why is our heart no longer red?
为什么雪山成了黑色  Wèishéme xuěshān chéngle hēisè Why has the snow on the mountain turned black?
为什么犀牛没有了角  Wèishéme xīniú méiyǒule jiǎo  Why does the Rhino have no horn?
为什么大象没有了牙  Wèishéme dà xiàng méiyǒule yá  Why does the elephant have no teeth?
为什么鲨鱼没有了鳍  Wèishéme shāyú méiyǒule qí  Why does the shark have no fin?
为什么鸟儿没有了翅膀  Wèishéme niǎo er méiyǒule chìbǎng  Why do birds have no wings?

The combination of traditional and modern is complete. The subject of the protest is, like Zhang, a colorless modern life and a genuine question as to where the nation is going. The gut-wrenching changes would probably have exploded any other nation by now, but in China they produce art – which is not censored, no matter how difficult it is.

Tan not only gets away with this, she is very popular and loved by millions.

Protesting and Xi

Getting back to the third term for Xi, the state of protest in China is clearly complicated and in flux. If there are more open protests against Xi, and that is to be expected, the government can do one of three things:

  • Crack down on protesters, censoring and even jailing them. This would cause a backlash which would be unpredictable.
  • Ignore the protesters and do what they want. This could potentially galvanize them even more.
  • Retreat and give up if the protests are too strong and threaten overall order, which is something that Xi’s opponents, at least those who are left standing, might want to do.

What happens when Chinese see themselves as victims of their system?

All three ways point to danger ahead for China. It may be too late to clamp down on criticism entirely for many reasons. People chat all the time on Weibo, and they are skilled at getting past censors. Currently, the term “North Korea” is trending as a comparison – if that is banned, there will be something else.

If Xi does have to back down because of a combination of pressure inside and outside the party, all Hell could break loose. Immediately he becomes a “lame duck” with four and half years left in his term and no successor. More importantly, it would show that protesting really does work and actually does change things.

The Standing Committee poses for a group photo after the “election” in 2012. This is what passes for openness in China.

It is very likely that Xi will get his way, as he always does. But as he wins this battle he may yet be losing the war. China has a natural politics which is evolving and the voices of the Chinese people are indeed being heard. They even influence policy.

The forces on society would be recognized by anyone in the developed or developing world, too. The leaders of protests and new thinking are often women and young people, as they are in the West.

As China rises there are too many intelligent and talented people who deeply care about their nation and their people for it to remain authoritarian forever. The grip has already loosened substantially. Xi’s request for a third term may be the catalyst which shows us the future of China in interesting ways. Any other nation would have exploded by now, but China has not. Yet.

3 thoughts on “An Open China

  1. We want to think that anti-democratic nations are on the brink of collapse, but they usually aren’t. It will take a lot more than this to bring down Xi.

  2. If I were Xi, I’d carry on with my plans. Protests are not revolutions. They may change a bit here and there, usually nothing at all, then they’re gone and another protest, usually smaller and even less effective follows. Globally, the trend is anti-democracy and pro-totalitarianism. Whatever happens in China, before it’s over for Trump in the States, he’ll do his damnedest to make himself dictator. The trend towards militarism and the armed security state demands a “strong” central government and that means a dictator with his own family and cabal, bought, bribed, coerced to run the show. With the downfall of the UN, having become no more than a costly showpiece reminiscent of the League of Nations, the people will turn towards “the strong man” for leadership. In China Xi may face “protests” but much of that is stirred up by a political opposition, likely not by the rank and file Chinese. I could be wrong, time will tell, it always does.

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