During a visit to Beijing in early May, I was struck by the large number of Chinese academics who predicted that the ‘tension’ between state and society would be the most important problem facing China in the coming decade. Intellectuals have often criticized the party-state, while elements of urban society occasionally exploded in dramatic demonstrations. But both proved ineffective in convincing Communist Party elites to pursue political reform. Indeed, such outbursts seemed to harden the elites against reform.
Perhaps they calculated that economic growth and the cultivation of nationalism would suffice to neutralize calls for change. Yet economic growth and proliferation of the communication channels necessary for cultivating nationalism also mobilize society into political action by changing the mind-sets and interests of its members. The Chinese academics I spoke with in May all recognize that this is a point China has now reached in its history. People from all segments of society are richer than ever before, but also better educated and more aware of social problems such as inequality, corruption, and pollution. They connect the dots and understand how these problems all have human causes. They have well-developed sociological imaginations that are increasingly critical, and they are now pressuring the party-state.
Yet the party-state obstinately holds fast against change.
Thailand reached a similar point sometime in the 1990s. The two countries are different in many ways. But even if at slightly less than 70 million people, Thailand is about the size of a Chinese province – and has never been ruled by a communist party – it has much to teach Chinese elites about the risks entailed in resisting political change.
The resounding victory of Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai party in last weekend’s general election should be studied carefully by Chinese political strategists for clues about what happens when even mildly authoritarian states try to resist fundamental political change. In a climate of socioeconomic mobilization, they eventually fail – or else accumulated tensions start damaging the economy while trapping the political system in repeated crises.
The point isn’t that Pheu Thai represents the forces of democracy in Thailand while the outgoing Democrat Party represents authoritarianism – that would be a grossly inaccurate characterization. Pheu Thai is in some ways democratic – it and its antecedents have regularly won elections, for example – but in other ways (as we know from Thaksin Shinawatra’s rule in 2001 to 2006) it is authoritarian-populist. Pheu Thai leaders have also been associated with violence, notably during last spring’s mayhem in Bangkok, in which Red Shirt protestors – allied with the Pheu Thai – welcomed into their ranks well-trained thugs who shot and killed military officers using high-powered rifles, while also planting bombs and burning buildings throughout the city. Pheu Thai’s predecessor party, the Thai Rak Thai, showed a violent streak as early as 2003, when Thaksin launched a war on suspected drug dealers that led to nearly 2,500 people being killed extra-judicially in just three short but bloody months.