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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.”