Features | Society | East Asia

China’s Unstoppable Billion

The most important global trend is the emergence of a great people from millennia of despotic rule, says Gordon Chang. The Chinese people, in short, are the world’s unstoppable force.

By Gordon Chang for

This is the second in our special series of essays on the Asia-Pacific's future.

Lydia, my wife, and I have just landed in Singapore, having endured a flight from Hong Kong. In the seats near us there is a tour group from Shenzhen, very noisy and rowdy. Sitting in the row next to us is a boy of about 10. Apparently, it’s his first time on a plane. His mom and a sister are next to him, the dad a couple rows up.

As we disembark, Lydia asks the boy how long he’s staying in Singapore. He says a week. Lydia then mentions how lucky he is to spend so much time there and that he will get to see a lot. “Yeah, but I have to follow the tour group,” the youngster replies. “I have no freedom.”

Lydia turns to the mother and remarks, “He’s so young, and he is already talking about freedom.” The mother replies, “They all do.”

China’s young certainly want freedom. “These kids don’t care what the government says, and you don’t need listen to what the teacher says,” China’s leading pollster, Victor Yuan, once told the Washington Post. “There’s an aggressive search for individualism and personal liberation occurring among China’s young.”

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Despite how the nation’s young feel, most foreign analysts – and all of Beijing’s apologists – tell us the Chinese people don’t care about personal liberty, that they are content to reap economic gains while letting the Communist Party keep its monopoly on political power. Yet due to the repressive nature of the political system, we don’t know if China’s citizens are telling us what they really think. The best we can do is catch a glimpse of them as they make their dash into the future. Chinese society is changing faster than any other on earth at the moment, and the ongoing transformation is shaking the country, even the seemingly invincible one-party state.

Especially the one-party state. “China’s leaders may run what looks like a closed political system, and their decisions seem autocratic,” noted Clinton-era official Robert Suettinger in Beyond Tiananmen: The Politics of U.S.-China Relations. “But they are struggling to keep up with a society that is changing in a direction and at a speed they cannot fully control.”

Or not control at all. In the autumn and winter of 2002, for example, the central government covered up the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, until it was too late to stop its spread around the world. President Hu Jintao eventually reversed course in the spring of 2003, and foreigners lavished praise on him for doing so. But in fact he changed direction only after Chinese doctors and nurses left him no choice. These men and women, at considerable personal risk, began talking to the foreign media and the World Health Organization and so made the government’s attempted cover-up of the epidemic untenable.

At the same time, Beijing residents didn’t wait around for their government to act. The Health Ministry knew that a mass migration out of the capital would lead to a healthcare catastrophe. “The government held meetings for hours with no decision and meanwhile, everybody left town,” said Bi Shengli, a virologist who at the time worked for the health minister, according to the Washington Post.

About one million people – 10 percent of Beijing’s population – fled the capital while government bureaucrats talked among themselves, accomplishing almost nothing. “The previous model of social governance by an all-powerful government is already hard put to cover a society which is flowing at high speed,” wrote one Chinese newspaper during the SARS crisis.

The bravery of the country’s doctors and nurses, and the mass migration out of Beijing, both highlight the striking change in the mentality of the Chinese people since the first days of the People’s Republic.

A Startling Transformation

What accounts for the startling transformation of the Chinese people? Of course, economic liberalization has led to social change. In 1978, the beginning of the so-called “reform era,” virtually all Chinese citizens depended on the state for their livelihood. Today, with the creation of the private and foreign-funded sectors of the economy, that number is under 40 percent. As a result, the Chinese people gained choices over their lives and developed confidence.

Furthermore, the state’s control of its remaining employees is diminishing fast. Those holding positions in government offices or state enterprises can, if they are so inclined, find another job, something extremely complicated in the days of the Maoist command economy when citizens needed permission to do just about anything – even marry or divorce. Then, the danwei – the work unit – provided virtually everything, from housing to health care to education to recreation. Today, work units, for the most part, have shed these functions.

As they did so, the state dismantled the social controls Mao Zedong put in place. The Great Helmsman, as he was known, consolidated power by dividing up the Chinese people into small units and isolating the units from the others. Now, in a modernizing era, the Chinese people are putting themselves back together and creating an integrated society. As a result, the people are once again having national conversations, and this permits trends to sweep the nation. The Chinese are creating change by nothing more complicated than talking to one another. And this talk has implications because now, as social scientist Yu Jianrong says, “Everyone has a microphone.”

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Mao also protected his new republic from the outside, with high and strong walls. As these walls come down, all the forces that apply around the world – political, economic, and social – are changing China as well. And as these forces continue to reshape the nation, the People’s Republic is taking on the look, and even some of the feel, of the modern world. In short, China is becoming less Chinese.

Yet there’s still another reason why China’s citizens have been asserting themselves.  Paradoxically, Mao, the tyrant who enslaved the Chinese, also freed them to think and act for themselves. During the Cultural Revolution he urged millions of radical youths, then grouped into roving bands known as the Red Guards, to go throughout the country to tear down temples, destroy cultural relics, and denounce elders, officials and Party members as well as parents. The young radicals bound “reactionary elements” and paraded them in the streets, barred local officials from their offices, and tortured and killed on a mass scale.

Government ceased to function, and revolutionary committees, people’s communes, and improvised brigades took over. As a result of all this madness, the Chinese broke free of the strict restraints and repressive mechanisms of the state and communist society. People no longer waited for instructions because Mao had told them they had “the right to rebel.”

For the radical young, it was a time of unrestrained action. For others, it was a release from Mao’s absolute regimentation. As the Red Guards attacked the “Four Olds” – old customs, old habits, old culture, and old thinking – they inevitably liberated people from a tradition that had molded the Chinese for thousands of years. In one magnificent stroke, Mao delegitimized the notion of authority and empowered hundreds of millions of common folk. Although the moment didn’t last long, just a few years in the mid-1960s, Chinese thinking changed irrevocably. Mao planted the idea in people’s minds that they could act on their own. 

The latter years of the Cultural Revolution were marked by a return to Maoist regimentation, and his successor, the hapless Hua Guofeng, continued the process of reinstitutionalization. Yet Hua’s success in reasserting the primacy of the state and the Party proved to be more apparent than real. This would become evident soon after Deng Xiaoping pushed Hua aside at the end of 1978.  

The world credits the diminutive Deng for the startling transformation of Chinese society. We believe, according to the universal narrative, that his dictatorial state first debated, then planned, and finally decreed change. Yet reform, in reality, progressed more by disobedience than design.

Deng began his tenure as China’s paramount leader by adhering to orthodox communist economics and trying to implement a ten-year plan. Yet early failure to meet goals forced him to back away from command-economy tactics and to permit individual initiative. Peasants on large collective farms, for example, were allowed to form “work groups” to tend designated plots. Central policies, however, specifically prohibited these groupings from including just one family. But Beijing’s policy didn’t last long: families started to till their own land – and local officials condoned the clear violation of central government rules.

The same process of reform-by-subterfuge was at work in China’s towns and cities. Private industry was strictly prohibited, but entrepreneurs flourished by operating their businesses as “red hat” collectives and enterprises – private companies operating under the guise of state ownership. Deng’s rural and urban reforms succeeded because the Chinese people disobeyed Deng’s rules.

Such defiance would have been unthinkable in the coerced uniformity of the 1950s. Even during the relative freedom of the first years of the Cultural Revolution, people were nominally supporting Mao and acting in his name. In Deng’s time, however, individuals, including some of the poorest citizens in China, took the next step by taking on the state.

Since then, China has enjoyed an “economic miracle” largely because desperate peasants and frustrated bureaucrats openly made themselves into plucky entrepreneurs. By ignoring central government decrees, they built large and small private businesses and changed the Chinese economy beyond recognition.

A Regressive Party-State

While people took matters into their own hands, officials remained holed up in Beijing preparing meticulously detailed five-year plans, and ideologues engaged in fierce polemical debates. Yet now it almost doesn’t matter what China’s behind-the-times officials do. Social change, the result of bottom-up transformation, has acquired its own momentum, and the Communist Party can no longer stop it. In fact, change appears to be accelerating even though the current leadership team of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao has, by embracing a new paradigm, turned its back on Deng’s model of reform and opening up, popularly known as gaige kaifang. Hu and Wen have, since 2006, taken steps to renationalize the economy and to partially wall it off from the outside.

Their generally regressive economic policies have been matched by a striking return to Maoist political thinking. One of the first things Hu and Wen did when they took power was to undo the ideological legacy of Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Jiang, in May 2000, began the move away from old-time ideology by espousing the Three Represents, which holds that the Communist Party should represent the foremost productive sources in society, the most advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of the people. The concept, which was written into the Chinese constitution in March 2004, implicitly replaced Marxism with utilitarianism and made the Communist Party a ruling organization rather than a revolutionary one.

That was a switch of historic proportions, a transformation designed to permit the Party to retain its dominant role. The assumption behind the Three Represents is that competing interests in an increasingly complex society could be balanced, or represented, without representative government. As it tried to adapt, the Communist Party, facing a crisis of identity, hoped to switch the base of its support in society. In essence, that is what Soviet leaders tried to do. In 1961, the Soviet Communist Party declared itself to be “a party of the whole people.” It was Mikhail Gorbachev who took this one step further and actually discarded the theory of class struggle. Yet his attempt to accomplish two irreconcilable goals – strengthening communism and reforming it – resulted in his losing popular support.

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Hu and Wen, both members of the first generation to join the Party after it came to power, appeared determined not to make that same mistake. They essentially abandoned the Three Represents and charted a course correction under the banners of “putting people first” and “common wealth.” This seemingly benign language was accompanied by rhetoric with a more Marxist tinge, such as their “concept of scientific development” and their “five syntheses and coordination.” Moreover, theyapparently aren’t embarrassed to say “socialism is like a big ocean” and promise that it “will never dry up.” Ominously, the Hu-Wen pair is now in the midst of a multi-year campaign to revive the reputation of the fanatical Mao Zedong.

As a result of the fresh embrace of Marxism and Maoism, even reformers these days talk about “Red culture” as the solution to China’s many problems. Zhang Ming of Renmin University in Beijing has noted that revolutionary culture has become the dominant theme of politics under Hu. Accordingly, “Red” entertainment, driven by both politics and nostalgia, is making another comeback across China.

Unfortunately, the return to old-time rhetoric has been accompanied by the adoption of legal requirements completely inappropriate for the 21st century. For instance, in December 2010, the General Administration of Press and Publication announced a language “purity” rule prohibiting newspapers, books, and websites from using English words or abbreviations. That followed an incredible order from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in December 2009 that required the registration of all websites.

None of these prohibitions – or dozens like them – will be effectively enforced, but they show the closing mentality of the Chinese government. The Communist Party these days permits less speech than it did during the giddy days of the Beijing Spring of 1989, when the Party had to tolerate almost any words. Yet despite the determined efforts of President Hu and Wen, society is, on the whole, undeniably freer today than it has been since the slaughter in Tiananmen.

This anomalous state of affairs points to the principal “contradiction” – one of Mao’s favorite words – of today’s China. As the one-party state is moving toward the past, the Chinese people pretend not to see impediments and push forward. This dynamic – what geologists would recognize as the grinding of plates that eventually creates an earthquake – is the fundamental cause of China’s instability.

A New Assertiveness

China’s leaders recognize, at least rhetorically, this irreconcilable dilemma. As Wen says, “our people cannot be suppressed.” Yet he is nonetheless trying to repress them by maintaining a political system that no longer serves an increasingly progressive society.

Perhaps the best evidence of this struggle between the Party and the people is evident every hour of every day on the web. Even though the Chinese state maintains the world’s most sophisticated set of internet controls, commonly referred to as the Great Firewall, it is engaged in a never-ending struggle it can’t win, even when it gets its way in the short term. “One site has been shut down thirty times,” noted Liu Xiaobo before he won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. “But after a month or two they open up again. You can’t shut them down completely.” Beijing officials can boast they have deleted 350 million articles from the web, but their claim indirectly confirms Liu’s point: the number of censored items is so high because netizens keep posting new pages, many of them more subversive than the ones taken down by the authorities.

Cyber China, the most vibrant part of the most exciting nation on the planet, reflects the growing interest of Chinese citizens in their society. It’s on the net that officials criticize government corruption and businessmen post tracts on democracy. Political dissent is sizzling, online, and available, at least most of the time. Chinese censors are being overwhelmed, by bad news, by the growing number of media outlets, by the new forms of social networking, by the sheer mass of users. Even when the authorities want to silence bold “netizens,” they often are intimidated by the weight of opinion in China’s boisterous online community.

That is precisely why Liu Di, a college student better known online as the “stainless steel mouse,” got the better of her government in perhaps the most celebrated incident of its kind. In her brief career as an essayist in the early part of the last decade, she told the Chinese that they could do whatever they wanted. “Ignore government propaganda and live freely,” she defiantly wrote. The state, predictably, detained her, but that was a strategic error. Thousands signed online petitions on her behalf, and one man even called a press conference to campaign for her release. Beijing, fearing the consequences of a trial, eventually declined to prosecute the frail Liu Di and let her go in 2003. The mouse roared, and the mighty state retreated.

The saga of Liu has been repeated countless times since then as the internet has penetrated into almost every corner of China. These days, copper wire, optical fiber, and signal streaming through space connect almost 500 million netizens across the country. Hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens blog. One posting from Han Han, now known as one of the world’s most popular bloggers, received over a 100 million hits. The Chinese spend a billion hours a day online, and there were more than 980 million text messages in one day in one city – Beijing, not China’s most populous – in February 2011. Texting, naturally, is now called China’s “fifth media.” The Chinese, therefore, now have a bigger platform from which to express themselves. “The internet,” wrote Liu Xiaobo, “is God’s present to China.”

God’s present is a lively place hosting hundreds of thousands of political views, most of them fundamentally inconsistent with those of the ruling group. Yet we shouldn’t be surprised because that’s just a reflection of Chinese society, which is searching for a post-Communist, post-modern future. As H. Lyman Miller has written, “China today is not a cultural and ideological vacuum: it is a bewildering riot of competing ideas, values, and re-embraced and frequently reinvented traditions.”

This extraordinary intellectual ferment is resulting in a nationwide political debate that is lively, widespread, and in the open. And open, widespread, and lively debate is inevitably leading to a consensus in many Chinese circles – and even in the lower and middle reaches of the Party itself – that the country has progressed about as far as it can within its existing political framework.

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In that rigid framework, the Chinese people can’t have two things they demand. The first is the right to govern themselves. Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan pointed out in the Wall Street Journal the essential problem for the Communist Party. “Like all nondemocratic systems in the modern era,” he wrote, “the Chinese system suffers from a birth defect that it cannot cure: the fact that an alternative form of government is more legitimate.”

And now the Chinese people are talking about democracy as the cure for their country’s problems. It’s not just intellectuals and dissidents who are part of the nationwide discussion. When my wife and I went back to my dad’s backwater hometown in Jiangsu Province just before the 2008 Olympics, no one wanted to speak about the event, which was seen as “the government’s games.” Instead, almost everyone asked us how American democracy worked and who would win the presidential election that year. They wanted to know everything we could tell them about John McCain and Barack Obama.

The call for political change is coming from all quarters, even from elements of the conservative People’s Liberation Army. In mid-2010, Lt. General Liu Yazhou stated that China’s rise depended on democratization. If it doesn’t accept democracy, the alternative, he asserted, is Soviet-style collapse. “If a system fails to let its citizens breathe freely and release their creativity to the maximum extent, and fails to place those who best represent the system and its people into leadership positions, it is certain to perish,” the political commissar of China’s National Defense University, wrote. In short, just about everyone – Liu is the son-in-law of one of the “Eight Immortals” of the People’s Republic – thinks the current form of government, which rests on Marxist notions of history, is inappropriate for China.

The second thing the Chinese people can’t have in the existing political framework is a set of enforceable rights. In Shanghai in June 2008, my wife and I witnessed a well-dressed, middle-aged man scream at security guards in the middle of the main lobby of a cavernous bus station to protest additional security measures put in place before the Olympics. Passengers, before boarding, were required for the first time to put their baggage through a screening machine, and the irate citizen absolutely refused, shouting “I have a right of privacy” and “You have no right to look at my luggage.”

For the first time since Mao founded the People’s Republic in 1949, the Chinese believe they have enforceable rights that protect them from rapacious local officials and overreaching central bureaucrats. Although common folk still use the petition system to plead with officials, a practice dating back to imperial China, they are just as likely to take their grievances to People’s Courts, even when the chances of prevailing are slim.

If there’s any cause for believing that political change in China can be peaceful, it’s the growing faith in the rule of law. Popular pressure resulted in the incorporation of the concept in the Chinese constitution in 1999, and since then the idea has taken on a life of its own. Communist Party cadres may declare their word is the law – and they certainly act as if it is – but lawyers and scholars disagree and ordinary citizens just ignore them.

When people think they have rights, rulers tremble. One of the significant political trends in China at the moment is that the populace is paying less attention to the Communist Party. Senior Party leaders are certainly trying to be more coercive and coercion continues to affect political discourse, but repression in China’s forward-looking society is losing its power. And as it loses its power, an important change in the thinking of Chinese people is occurring. In the spring of 2009, I was talking to a prominent businessman in his spacious office in a Shanghai skyscraper, and he talked about how much China had changed in two decades. “No one fears the government anymore,” he noted, smiling.

Not long ago, the Party-state created real fear. Deng Xiaoping ordered the murderous crackdown in 1989 to teach the Chinese people a lesson in obedience. His successors, Jiang and Hu, have taken the opposite tack, however. In a modernizing society they realized they had to portray their regime in a benign light, masking its more brutish aspects.

As a result, the Chinese who lived through the Beijing Spring are forgetting Deng’s lesson, and younger Chinese have never learned it. In 1996, one of our Shanghainese friends, Min, a woman then in her mid-20s, expressed disbelief when she first learned of the Tiananmen massacre. The tragedy came up in a casual dinner conversation my wife and I were having with her and Chris, her American boyfriend. We were astonished that anyone could have lived in a major city in China and not heard about the protests in Beijing, Shanghai, and about 370 other cities.

Chinese leaders, when they are absolutely forced to talk about Tiananmen, refer to the slaughter as “the event that happened in the late 1980s of last century” or as “that 1989 affair.” But for the most part, they’ve been able to prevent national discussions of the matter. Textbooks don’t mention it, teachers don’t teach it, and state media goes out of its way to ignore it. Mainland websites are scrubbed of references to the slaughter, and Chinese search engines block Tiananmen articles. Censors are on the lookout for “64,” the code the Chinese use for the horrible events of June 4.

The Party’s efforts have been surprisingly successful. In June 2007, for instance, a Chengdu newspaper carried a classified advertisement commemorating the mothers of victims of the massacre. A clerk took the ad because she had never heard of the incident.  

And even when Beijing censors haven’t been able to completely erase history, Party spinmeisters have propagated their version of it. “The only thing I can remember about June 4 is watching television and hearing that riot police had died,” said Lu Jing, who was six at the time of the massacre, according to AFP. “I don’t believe any students died. China in this respect is democratic as China wouldn’t hurt its own people.”  Ignorance of 1989 is contributing to the perception of a benign government among the younger – and most volatile – elements of the population.

Beijing now has a dilemma. Its leaders want to appear benevolent, but to do so they have had to whitewash Tiananmen. Yet whitewashing Tiananmen is far more dangerous to the regime than reveling in its brutality. The Chinese don’t take to the streets when they are angry notes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. They do so when they think they can get away with it. “China has always operated to some degree on fear, and that fear is now eroding,” he wrote in 2003. Continual erosion means that Deng’s essential lesson of Tiananmen – that the Communist Party will resort to deadly violence on a mass scale to preserve its power – has been largely lost.

Ruthless leaders can maintain stable authoritarian regimes. As Hu Jintao is reported to have said in September 2004, “politically, North Korea has been consistently correct.” The late Kim Jong-il was able to tighten his grip in large part because of public executions and other tactics meant to instill extreme dread and apprehension. Fear, unfortunately, works.

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Like Kim, early-stage communist leaders – Mao and Deng – were capable of great cruelty and weren’t embarrassed by their crimes. Their successors – Jiang and Hu – are technocratic, bland, and not especially bloodthirsty. Hu’s political partner, Wen Jiabao, now known as “the crying prime minister” and “Grandpa Wen,” prefers to portray himself as the popular choice of the Chinese people. That may make him more acceptable to a contemporary populace, but his repressive tactics, though more up-to-date and subtle, aren’t as effective as Kim’s were. There are few protests in North Korea and tens of thousands each year in China.

Perhaps there are hundreds of thousands each year in the People’s Republic. In 2010, there were 180,000 protests by some measures. Figures for protests are notoriously unreliable, but it’s evident that Chinese society, in the last half decade, has become more turbulent.

The upswing in protests, including most recently the Wukan uprising, isn’t because conditions are worse – they aren’t – but because fear is receding while thinking inside the country is changing, as it has in every modernizing society. As Samuel Huntington once wrote, “In fact, modernity breeds stability, but modernization breeds instability.” So progress in society can even turn the beneficiaries of change against their government.

Analysts believe the middle class, big winners during the last three decades, generally support the Communist Party. That is probably true, but China watchers may want to brush up on their Tocqueville, who noted that peasants in pre-revolutionary France detested feudalism more than their counterparts in other parts of Europe, where conditions were worse. Discontent, he told us in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, was highest in those parts of France where there had been the most improvement. Moreover, the French Revolution followed “an advance as rapid as it was unprecedented in the prosperity of the nation.” So, as Tocqueville noted, “steadily increasing prosperity” doesn’t tranquilize citizens. On the contrary, it promotes “a spirit of unrest.”

Chinese leaders should not take comfort from the fact that Tocqueville was writing about 18th century France, another continent and another century. We saw these same trends play out in late 20th century Thailand and, more important, both in the Confucian South Korea a mere two decades ago and the Chinese-dominated Taiwan a little later.

Why did all these societies liberalize? “Patiently endured so long as it seemed beyond redress, a grievance comes to appear intolerable once the possibility of removing it crosses men’s minds,” wrote Tocqueville. “For the mere fact that certain abuses have been remedied draws attention to the others and they now appear more galling; people may suffer less, but their sensibility is exacerbated.”Chinese citizens, like those in other reforming times, now have exacerbated sensibilities.

Senior Beijing officials now face a dynamic disadvantageous to them: economic success changes the populace and a constantly changing populace endangers their continuing control. Sustained modernization, Huntington told us, is the enemy of one-party systems. Revolutions occur under many conditions, but especially when political institutions do not keep up with the social forces unleashed by economic change. Nothing irritates newly empowered citizens like inflexible leaders.

Beijing’s rigid policies are widening the gap between the people and their government, and this ensures instability for the foreseeable future. China is now witnessing unimaginable societal change at unheard of speed, yet at the same time the Communist Party is resisting meaningful political change. The situation is politically unsustainable.

So it’s no wonder the Chinese social order is beginning to fray, and by now the evidence of disintegration is unmistakable. At the end of 2008, Yang Jia became one of the country’s most popular heroes. The drifter, previously beaten by police for riding an unlicensed bicycle, entered one of their compounds in Shanghai and killed six officers while wounding four others on July 1, the anniversary of the founding of the Party. Outside his trial, middle class Chinese chanted “Down with the Communist Party,” and they carried banners emblazoned with “Long Live the Killer.” On his MySpace page, someone wrote “You have done what most people want to do, but do not have enough courage to do.”

Zhu Jun also attained hero status. He launched an attack on the hated judicial system, generally perceived as corrupt and as a tool of the Party. He killed three judges, wounded another one, and injured two judicial officials in Hunan Province in June 2010. Mainland authorities removed news reports of the incident and scrubbed websites because netizens posted “gleeful” comments and portrayed the attacker, who ended the mayhem by killing himself, as a hero. “We have reached the stage where the public is no longer concerned with details of the case,” said Beijing lawyer Xia Lin to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. “They’re just angry.”

Beijing can no longer protect its officials, and sometimes it has to release their killers. Deng Yujiao, a 21-year-old waitress in a backwater town in Hubei Province, fatally stabbed Deng Guida, the chief of a local business development office, in May 2009. The official, not related to the young woman, first sought to buy sex from her – he pushed banknotes into her face – and, when she refused, forced her onto a couch. She reached for a knife and killed him while wounding one of his companions.

Deng was detained, tied to a bed in a psychiatric hospital, and shown on local TV crying and pleading to her dead father for help. Almost immediately, she became an internet icon, and after a national outcry – netizens rallied around the slogan “Everyone could be Deng Yujiao” – a court dropped murder charges against her. She was found guilty of using excessive force in defending herself, but she was freed without punishment in what appeared to be a negotiated result. When the public becomes involved, prosecutors and courts have to take their cues from popular opinion.

The Inevitability of Rapid Political Change

When attacks on government officials are glorified, it’s clear the country’s ruling organization has lost legitimacy, and when the government can’t prosecute the killers of its officials, it’s apparent that the political system is losing its effectiveness. Is society now so volatile that the Communist Party could fail?

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Virtually every major political scientist believes that the world’s largest political organization – the Party claimed 80.3 million members at the end of 2010 – is secure. Even Andrew Nathan, no friend of the regime, believes it has been able to adapt, institutionalizing itself by smoothing out successions, promoting meritocratic politics, modernizing a large bureaucracy, and establishing avenues of political participation to strengthen legitimacy. “Regime theory holds that authoritarian systems are inherently fragile because of weak legitimacy, overreliance on coercion, overcentralizaton of decision making, and the predominance of personal power over institutional norms,” Nathan wrote in the Journal of Democracy. “This particular authoritarian system, however, has proven resilient.”

Yes, the Communist Party may have found institutional answers, but its policies, by failing to keep up, have gotten out of synch with the people it rules. Therefore, the Party has ultimately had to increase the use of coercion, historically a sign that autocrats have become insecure. Therefore, the Chinese communist formula for internal stability can’t be as successful as many, including Nathan, claim it to be.

This situation – Leninist political organization versus dynamic populace – has created a standoff of sorts, except that the nature of the confrontation is constantly changing.  David Shambaugh has perceptively written that “China today is in a curiously ambivalent state of ‘stable unrest’ that may continue for some time.” If the George Washington University professor is correct, then all the instability we see today may not have lasting significance. This is especially true if, as current thinking goes, the Communist Party will be able to remain in power until some other group gains enough strength to present itself as a viable alternative.

Political scientists, if they believe anything, hold that a government can’t fall unless there’s an opposition. Mao, after all, needed both a well-organized political party and an inspired army to topple the ruling Kuomintang. To prevail, he followed the path blazed by Lenin, who as an aspiring revolutionary extolled meticulous planning. Now political scientists seem to think that revolutionaries need to be organized if they are to succeed.

Yet history, although it repeats itself, isn’t confined to following established patterns. It’s ironic, for instance, that Lenin’s Soviet Union was brought down by an impromptu crowd. Almost no one – including those who would later form that crowd – saw this coming. Even after the loss of the Eastern European satellites in 1989, Soviet citizens despaired of getting rid of communism in their own land. They felt that change would not happen because there was no opposition, argues Andrew Meier, a Time correspondent then. Soviet citizens were, of course, wrong. Gorbachev, history records, was forced to consign the USSR to oblivion on Christmas Day 1991.

Soviet leaders weren’t the only ones to disappear quickly. What we witnessed in Moscow later occurred in, among other places, Manila, Lima, Belgrade, Kiev, Tunis, Tbilisi, and Cairo. These days, what we know about political change is itself changing, and that change favors the opponents of unpopular regimes. We are, from all appearances, approaching a time of leaderless revolution, and Seattle may just be the new template for political change. In 1999, small and amorphous “affinity groups” routed the police in that American city and shut down the downtown area as they protested the meeting of the World Trade Organization. Lenin, the master organizer, would have been surprised by the turn of events. “In the eyes of many activists,” writer Austin Bunn has noted in New York Times magazine, “the greater success of the battle of Seattle was the validation of their decentralized, leaderless model.”

What worked in Seattle to cripple the WTO meeting also produced a miracle in Manila in January 2001 when “People Power 2,” a mass protest, brought down the government of President Joseph Estrada. The unpopular Estrada was finished when an unknown Filipino sent out a text message urging people to congregate at a well-known intersection in Manila. Other citizens urged friends and relatives to join by sending text messages (“Go 2 EDSA. Wear blck.”) from cell phones. The crowd grew rapidly, beyond the expectation – or control – of anyone. Ringleaders of the anti-Estrada forces didn’t lead the protest – they merely took advantage of it. A demonstration that would never have happened in the past occurred spontaneously and grew electronically. Eventually, the Philippine military, who gauged public opinion by the size and fervor of the crowd, switched allegiance and forced Estrada to resign. Similarly, one person changed everything we knew about politics in Tunisia. In mid-December 2010, a disenfranchised 26-year-old, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire and triggered disturbances that toppled a despot seemingly secure in his rule, setting off the chain of events known as the Arab Spring.

The combination of the concept of self-rule and the power of instant communications has magnified the power of seemingly inconsequential acts of lone individuals. Beijing’s opponents may look weak and scattered, but appearances reveal almost nothing about their ability to radically change the country’s political system. In a struggle waged in the minds of a population, a random action can inspire citizens to form crowds that give force to widely held ideas.

That’s especially true in China where, from all we can tell, the Chinese have lost most of their respect for the people who rule in their name. “I don’t know anyone who believes in the Party anymore,” said one resident of China to me a decade ago. In the late 1940s, Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang, despite its overwhelming military advantages, fell simply because people had become disgusted with it. Now, people feel the same way about the Communists. During the last six decades there has simply been too much corruption, injustice, and suffering. People’s devotion to their rulers is largely absent. As Yu Ying-shih, the great Chinese historian who witnessed the fall of Chiang, says, the Communist Party has lost people’s hearts.

And when a political system loses people’s hearts, it can fall fast. It’s true, as almost every student of Chinese history has noted, that the country’s regimes, even feeble ones, can remain in place a long time before they finally collapse. The Qing dynasty, for instance, took decades to finally succumb in 1912 to China’s first revolution. But radical social change can occur quickly. The Qings went down after an accidental explosion in Wuhan, an accident that Sun Yat-sen, the leader of that revolution, read about while he was in Denver. Mao was also taken by surprise by his success. In 1948, just a year before he finally prevailed over Chiang, the revolutionary said it would take him another decade to win China.

Mao would succeed faster than even he predicted because he couldn’t see that he had, in reality, already won the most important contest. Today, that same contest has largely been won by the regime’s opponents, and the emerging intellectual consensus will have momentous political consequences. Societies change – or “tip” to use a phrase popularized by Malcolm Gladwell – because, at some point, enough people think the same way. “Ideas sometimes seep into people’s minds almost imperceptibly and, over time, become embedded in a population’s collective psyche,” writes Jean Nicol, a psychologist.

This seepage is something hard to see. “I recall that my friends and I for decades were asked by people visiting from democratic Western countries, ‘How can you, a mere handful of powerless individuals, change the regime, when the regime has at hand all the tools of power: the army, the police and the media, when it can convene gigantic rallies to reflect its people’s ‘support’ to the world, when pictures of the leaders are everywhere and any effort to resist seems hopeless and quixotic?’” wrote the late Vaclav Havel in the Washington Post back in 2003. “My answer was that it was impossible to see the inside clearly, to witness the true spirit of the society and its potential – impossible because everything was forged. In such circumstances, no one can perceive the internal, underground movements and processes that are occurring. No one can determine the size of the snowball needed to initiate the avalanche leading to the disintegration of the regime.” So, one person, at the right moment, can write or say something that reverberates across a nation.

Now, that happens all the time in China. And because many Chinese now share the same general aspirations for their country, it’s not surprising they react the same way. Thoughts can start out small and spread rapidly in countless chat rooms and online forums. A concept – representative government, for instance – that is dominant throughout the remainder of the world can gain currency. That’s why Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08, a political manifesto, found so much acceptance throughout China – and why the regime acted so decisively to imprison him.

In our volatile time, ideas are more powerful than they have ever been. The cell phone and the laptop can tip the balance against the Party as they can put everyone in touch. With instant communications, alliances can form quickly, thereby making broad coalitions possible. Groups, therefore, can be separated geographically yet still act in concert. That happened in 2003 in Shanghai where organizers of housing protests in different parts of the city made extensive use of cell phones for coordination. Texting spread rumors on SARS and, as noted, forced the government to act. We know hysteria can travel electronically: in 1999 a bank run in China was spread by rumors posted on the internet.

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Demonstrations, another type of event fueled by emotion, are now transmitted by means of technology. In 2002, tens of thousands of workers across China protested against state giant PetroChina. “It’s the first time we have seen protests occur in the same industry, over the same issues, in different cities in China,” said Han Dongfang, the labor activist exiled by Beijing, who noted that workers triggered protests in faraway cities by phoning their colleagues and explaining their plight. “It’s not necessarily organized, but it looks like the beginning of a united movement.” So now the Chinese can synchronize their activities by picking up a receiver, clicking a mouse, or hitting the send button.

In today’s China, we should expect fast change. When most everyone is connected to each other, mass demonstrations have special significance. The protests in China today may resemble and even be linked with unrest that has existed for generations, but they are occurring at a time of great stress. Chinese people today may not have revolutionary intentions, yet their acts, occurring at this turbulent time, have revolutionary implications nonetheless. In sum, too much is happening too fast for any set of leaders to keep up.

Today’s disruptions, therefore, reflect more than just change or instability – they have the potential to shake the government and even bring it down. Because so many people across the country share common grievances, demonstrations can erupt and engulf the country. We may soon witness revolution by spontaneous combustion in China, just as we saw in North Africa and the Middle East this past year. The swift disintegration of Arab governments undoubtedly led anxious Chinese leaders to come down hard on the call for “Jasmine Revolution” protests in Chinese cities in early 2011. Beijing smothered the sites designated for these demonstrations with a massive police presence, ending any possibility of peaceful assembly.

Analysts, looking at how officials stopped the Jasmine demonstrations before they could begin, believe that China won’t see its third revolution because the regime is willing to use force. After all, Deng, personally offended by the crowd in Tiananmen Square in 1989, called out the army to put down what he saw was an insurrection. As Deng famously remarked at the time, “We are not afraid to shed a little blood.”

That was then, but this is now. The biggest mistake China watchers make is that they think Beijing’s elite will be willing and able to once again employ brute force against massed protestors. In the newest version of New China, the options for the Communist Party are narrowing. Already, the leadership has its hands full trying to avoid a reexamination of the slaughter, and although no senior official is in favor of reconsidering the Party’s verdict on Tiananmen, no one wants to share former Premier Li Peng’s stain by being associated with another murderous crackdown. In short, it’s unlikely that Beijing’s current leaders would want to change long-held tactics and begin to rely mainly on fear.

Veteran China watcher Willy Lam, for one, says it’s extremely unlikely that the current Fourth Generation leadership would ever order another Tiananmen. For one thing, no one in today’s leadership has the personal authority to do so. For another, even if someone in the Fourth Generation gave such an order, it’s highly unlikely that the People’s Liberation Army would obey, says Lam. Even with his military record, it took Deng a long time to find a unit that would actually fight unarmed citizens in 1989. Nobody in the current civilian leadership has the same stature as Deng, and such an order might split the military and cause a revolt in the officer ranks. Finally, even if the top brass followed an order to shoot, it’s unlikely that ordinary soldiers would kill ordinary citizens on behalf of a regime that has lost the love and loyalty of its people.

“Smith & Wesson beats four aces,” says another great China historian, Arthur Waldron. That’s always true – as long as one is strong enough to give the order and can command others to pull the trigger. China, unfortunately for the Communist Party, has changed too much to permit a 21st century Tiananmen.

A Billion Defiant People

Communist officials insist on sending out orders and directives, but China’s people – peasants, workers, artisans, students, shop owners, even privileged cadres and Party members – often ignore them. The populace isn’t always defiant, but it’s not obedient either as people have simply stopped asking for permission. As one American banker told me as he was leaving China a decade ago, “There’s a billion people who don’t like following instructions.”

And that’s why Beijing’s success in stamping out the Jasmine protests can only be temporary. The history of the People’s Republic, at least since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, is in large measure the story of the progress of a people determined to do things in their own fashion, to stand up as Mao asked them to do. If any metaphor captures the mood of the last three decades in China, it’s the one of the Chinese rising to their feet. For better or worse – better in my view, but not everyone’s – we are living in a period where the most important global trend is the emergence of a great people from millennia of despotic rule. The Chinese people, in short, are the world’s unstoppable force.

They have already begun to make their mark, and it doesn’t look like they have any intention of stopping. As the Chinese assert themselves, they are realizing that they – not their rulers – define the border of acceptable conduct in a once-totalitarian state transitioning to something new. “Nobody knows what’s possible these days,” noted Li Fan, a democracy activist according to Time. “Whatever you can do, that’s what’s possible.”

In China today, almost anything is possible. And that means, just about everything will happen.

Gordon Chang is a columnist at Forbes.com and the author of 'Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World.'