China’s Summer of Discontent
Image Credit: Flickr / daren_ck

China’s Summer of Discontent


The temperature isn’t the only thing that has been rising in China this summer – public outrage is also apparently boiling in the sweltering Middle Kingdom. The most powerful expression of popular discontent was, without doubt, the nationwide outcry over the crash of China’s new bullet train in Zhejiang Province on July 23 that killed 40 and injured close to 200 passengers. Occurring barely three weeks after Beijing’s high-profile launch of its Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail service, the tragic accident wasn’t just an embarrassment for the Communist Party. The mishandling of the tragedy by the government, ranging from releasing little information on the causes of the crash to hastily burying one of the mangled carriages, further enraged an irate public suspecting a crude cover-up.  In face of withering public criticism, Beijing was forced to lower the speed of the high-speed rail service and launch a safety campaign.

Before the firestorm over the train crash receded, the Chinese Internet was lit up with denunciations of Beijing’s policy of holding vast sums of US Treasury debt in its foreign exchange reserves. Although the Chinese government kept a low-profile during Washington’s debt-ceiling debate, Standard and Poor’s downgrade of US sovereign debt in early August provided new ammunition to watchful Chinese citizens who are sceptical of their government’s wisdom in putting two-thirds of their hard-earned foreign currency into low-yielding American government bonds that are sure to lose value against the Chinese renminbi because of the future devaluation risks of the dollar.

Admittedly, Chinese netizens may be hopping mad, but they have little influence to force Beijing to abandon its long-standing policy of keeping most of its foreign exchange earnings in dollar assets. So by comparison, residents of the city of Dalian had much better fortune in making their local mandarins heed their grievances over a polluting chemical plant. On August 14, more than 12,000 people in Dalian staged a rare public rally to call on the local government to relocate a $1.5 billion petrochemical plant located 20 kilometres from the city.  When the city’s party secretary met the protestors to assuage their concerns, he was shouted down. Within 48 hours, a chastened city government announced that it would move the two-year-old plant elsewhere. For once, people power prevailed in a one-party state.

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These three disparate incidents portend an important political trend in China: the rise of citizen activism. To be sure, this trend isn’t new. But its recent intensification suggests that Chinese politics is entering a more fluid phase during which the old playbook for keeping the Communist Party in power may no longer work.

In the two decades following Deng Xiaoping’s historic tour of south China in 1992, the party has stuck to an effective two pillar survival strategy: promoting economic growth and suppressing democratic opposition. While this strategy has delivered the desired results, recent events indicate that its effectiveness is diminishing.

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