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China: Despite Current Crackdown, Desire For Reform Quietly Takes Root

Political change may at last be forced upon China’s Communist Party, as the society, rich and poor, starts to show that economic growth alone will no longer keep them quiet.

Mao is still omnipresent, at least in public (Richard Fisher)
Mao is still omnipresent, at least in public (Richard Fisher)
Brice Pedroletti

BEIJING – Is China about to enter a genuine phase of political reform that will set it on the path to democracy? The question may seem absurd in the face of the recent repression suffered by some of the country's most committed social activists, including the artist Ai Weiwei and many well-known lawyers.

Whether it is because the police hysteria has missed its target, or because it has backfired and galvanized the opposition, the situation in China is far from harmonious. The skeletons are out of the closet. For example, the liberal intellectual and well-known economist Mao Yushi – no relation to the revolution's so-called Great Helmsman – denounced Mao's crimes in a scathing attack published on the Caixin news site at the end of April. It is time, he writes, to consider him an "ordinary human being," and not a god.

That was daring in this day and age. Since then, diehard Maoists have attempted to silence him, making a spectacle of their obsolete idolatry. Another dissonant sign in a regime that has long given off the impression of consensus reigning within its ranks was a series of editorials of a new tone published in May in The People's Daily, the Communist Party's press organ. They are pleas for a "de-ideologized" vision of public affairs, where the respect for pluralism and the freedom of expression would dominate. On the civic action front, sociologist Yu Jianrong – who is also an academic, painter, and documentarian – has replaced Ai Weiwei as the troublemaker-in-chief of the Chinese web. He is the organizer of a new campaign for citizen voting, using social networks to relay updates.

The threat of a Chinese "jasmine revolution" that has so frightened the security apparatus in the wave of the Arab uprisins has now been replaced by a fear of social implosion. There is an urgent need "to improve and innovate social management," pleaded President Hu Jintao at the end of May at a meeting of the political office dedicated to "major social contradictions," which grabbed headlines in the form of self-immolations, revenge attacks by rebuffed petitioners, and "mass incidents," that is to say, protests. The "maintenance of stability," the regime's number one priority since the 2008 Olympic Games, has caused the old methods of repression to continue indiscriminately – all that is unstable is politically "subversive" and "counter-revolutionary" – and has called into question the creation of the "State of law" that accompanied the opening up of the economy at the end of the 1980s.

A new progressive vision?

This approach is criticized today as too simplistic and counter-productive. Yu Jianrong is among those attempting to promote a "dynamic" version of the "maintenance of stability"—during seminars for party or police members—in accordance with China's level of development today. This moderate and progressive vision is also being promoted by the more liberal wing of the party, mainly in the editorials of The People's Daily, which are supposed to be pedagogical, or in speechs by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

The dream of a more liberal China also aims to challenge the current neototalitarian drift as nothing more than a maneuver to benefit powerful interest groups under the pretext of serving a political line that barely maintains any relevance. Beyond that, the liberal offensive aims of course at showing the necessity of implementing long-delayed political reforms, notably by adopting an effective balance of powers.

Avoided for a long time by an all-powerful Communist party confident of its economic record, is the debate on political reform quietly becoming inevitable? "The age of avoiding debate has passed," the intellectual Zhang Musheng recently declared. Despite the astronomic growth of the Chinese GDP, the urban middle class, whose standard-of-living is now reaching that of developing nations, is suffering from a genuine lack of rule of law that prevents them from securing their assets. In the countryside, where Third-World China still exists and which provides the migrant workers needed to operate the factories of the "world's workshop," the people are increasingly aware of their formal rights and determined to defend them.

Rich or poor, the Chinese harbor a feeling of extreme distrust of local authorities, whether large or small, that manage the people's lives. "Whenever the GDP per head reaches a certain threshold, the people inevitably have other aspirations than just satisfying material needs. They need to participate in matters that concern them," explains one local independent candidates for a district deputy seat. The "growth pact" between the society and the State-party imposed after the crackdown in Tiananmen Square 22 years ago—in exchange of improved standard of living, people had to gave up their civil rights—is no longer sufficient. The Chinese are thirsty for political participation.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Richard Fisher

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