Call for a return to common sense
Including a long queue outside the Mao Memorial Hall in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
The next day, Wen Jiabao, the premier, spoke at a ceremony to unveil statues of Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People's Republic, and Chen Yi, who took over as foreign minister from Zhou. He said: "The older generation of revolutionaries like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Chen Yi founded the People's Republic and ended a hundred years of humiliation ... laying the foundation of new China's foreign relations. We must forever remember their magnificent achievements, and ... develop their intellectual and spiritual qualities."
The day after that speech the Japanese government signed a deal to begin to "nationalise" the Senkaku islands, known as Diaoyu in China. The Chinese government strongly objected and sent surveillance ships to the disputed waters. Anti-Japan demonstrations have spread across China, including Hong Kong.
However, interpreting Wen's words and the mass protests as simply nationalistic would miss the point. Rather, as the leaders well know, accumulated social discontent with a regime seen by many as externally weak and internally corrupt has found expression in maritime disputes between China and its neighbours. Some of the signs used in the anti-Japan demonstrations address domestic policies. Voices from the top and bottom of Chinese society have coincided to call for a return to common sense.
Wen, by reputation the most "liberal" among the party's political factions, was speaking about the need to honour modern China's roots in the epic liberation struggle. In the eyes of ordinary Chinese, the People's Republic has moved far from its founding promises of popular power and wellbeing, "rising" through hyper-growth, frenzied urbanisation and single-minded globalisation, with grave moral, social and environmental costs: losing its soul while expanding economically.
Continuities and ruptures are both evident in a comparison of the Maoist and post-Mao eras. Deng Xiaoping, who belonged to the first communist generation, led China's market transition after the cultural revolution. The 1980s saw general living standards rise and 400-million peasants lifted out of poverty. Despite such pragmatic slogans as "getting rich first", Deng warned against the danger of income polarisation.
Yet, in the absence of determined political intervention, China became one of the world's most unequal societies. Instead of tackling the urgent problems of corruption and rising social insecurity that contributed to the Tiananmen upheavals, the Jiang Zemin-Zhu Rongji leadership selected by Deng radicalised an initially socialist reform of self-adjustment. They pushed for industrial privatisation, introduced stock and real estate markets, and negotiated China's accession into the World Trade Organisation with excessive concessions. Jiang also paved the way for the communist party to change colour. As 40-million urban workers were laid off and rural communal management collapsed, the second reform phase turned out to be an all-out neoliberal adventure.
Since then the astonishing wealth and lifestyles of some cadres and families have become common knowledge. Officials keeping overseas bank accounts, or fleeing the country with bags of cash, fuelled popular indignation and political cynicism. It was hoped that Hu Jintao, the president, and Wen – appointed with Deng's approval – would clean up the mess. They proposed a "scientific conception of development" and people-first social policies, removing agricultural taxes and school fees, and working on rebuilding public medicine and social security. However, they also forced property laws on the legislature to legitimise privatisation, and stuck to a gross domestic product-centred strategy. China is trapped in the developmentalist predicament of cheap labour, undue energy consumption, heavy pollution and foreign trade dependency.
During Hu and Wen's tenure – like that of their reformist predecessors – market supremacy has relied on state sponsorship or imposition, at times violently. Senseless commercialisation in Tibet and Xinjiang, with intended and unintended social, cultural and demographic consequences, caused deadly clashes.
With hopes for the third "reform decade" dashed, China's vulnerable feel the pain: the landless peasants; the struggling migrants and the children and elderly and sick people they left behind; and, in the end, angry strikers and protesters. As the economy falls into a slump, the government seems to have followed every World Bank recommendation.
China's post-Deng power transitions have been largely smooth. The processes have been modernised, with more extensive consultation. The leaders at all levels have become younger and better educated, but the system still hinders able, independent candidates, and promotes the mediocre and obedient.
As things stand, it is difficult to anticipate any decisive change in China's political economy. Yet there are multiple factors at work: the logic of the market and the logic of bureaucracy – but ultimately the logic of politics. Xi and Li Keqiang, the assigned premiers, have been appointed through rounds of internal elections and negotiations. They are fully aware of popular demands, and social movements. Perhaps they may be more committed to political transparency and, indeed, democracy.
And we may also expect them to tackle corruption, so as to rescue the regime for their own survival. They could begin with publicising the earnings and family incomes of national leaders and highly placed officials. They need also to revert to the minimal communist ethic of serving the people. – © Guardian News & Media 2012
Chun Lin teaches comparative politics at the London School of Economics