A stalled revo­lu­tion

China’s move to­ward a more open so­ci­ety — it’s not hap­pen­ing.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Ti­mothy Cheek and Jef­frey Wasser­strom Ti­mothy Cheek, of the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia, is the au­thor of “The In­tel­lec­tual in Mod­ern Chi­nese His­tory.” Jef­frey Wasser­strom, of UC Irvine, is the au­thor of “China in the 21st Cen­tury: What Ev­ery­one N

What­ever hap­pened to the Chi­nese revo­lu­tion?

Not the dy­nasty-top­pling 1911 revo­lu­tion. Not the Com­mu­nist-led 1949 up­ris­ing. Not the 1989 strug­gle, some­times called an abortive revo­lu­tion, which was crushed by a mas­sacre on June 4.

No, the revo­lu­tion we have in mind is a very re­cent one, which the jour­nal­ist Ian John­son, in his 2005 book “Wild Grass,” mem­o­rably called a “slow-mo­tion revo­lu­tion.” At the turn of the mil­len­nium, it looked as though China was mov­ing grad­u­ally, some­times glacially, to­ward be­com­ing a more open — as op­posed to just more pros­per­ous and pow­er­ful — coun­try. China’s rise con­tin­ues. But that slow-mo­tion revo­lu­tion has been stopped in its tracks.

John­son’s claim was not that of a starry-eyed fan­ta­sist con­vinced that China was pre­des­tined to be­come Amer­i­can­ized. He sim­ply en­vi­sioned a China where, from year to year, there would be fewer lim­its on what one could talk about, and more ways to ex­pose of­fi­cial malfea­sance and gain re­dress for ba­sic griev­ances. He doc­u­mented the smallscale but sub­stan­tive gains be­ing made by brave rights lawyers, mod­er­ate civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists and en­ve­lope-push­ing jour­nal­ists who strove not to over­turn the Com­mu­nist Party but to get it to do a bet­ter job of liv­ing up to its pro­fessed goals.

As re­cently as 2009, this slow­mo­tion revo­lu­tion still seemed alive. The party did tighten con­trol in 2008 as it strove to en­sure that the Olympic Games went well. And the party al­ways dealt ruth­lessly with or­ga­nized chal­lengers. But the watch­word was, as a bar­tender summed it up to one of us: Meiyou yun­dong,

shenme dou keyi — if it isn’t a move­ment, any­thing goes.

Writ­ing in 2009 to mark the June 4 an­niver­sary, Li­jia Zhang, who marched in 1989, de­scribed the sit­u­a­tion well. Twenty years be­fore, she said, peo­ple like her had felt trapped “in a cage” and longed to be free. Since 1989, the bars of the cage had moved far­ther away. They knew that the cage still ex­isted, but it was eas­ier to imag­ine that it didn’t.

To­day, how­ever, the bars are clos­ing in again. Many rights lawyers and mod­er­ate civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists have been jailed. In March, five fem­i­nists were sum­mar­ily de­tained in Bei­jing with no le­gal process, solely for plan­ning events pub­li­ciz­ing the need for greater equal­ity. Cen­sor­ship of the In­ter­net has in­creased. Chi­nese aca­demics have been warned to watch what they say in class. They should not pro­mote “Western val­ues” or “threaten so­cial sta­bil­ity” by talk­ing about so­cial in­equities and his­tor­i­cal mis­takes made by the party.

These warn­ings, new to the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion, have ap­palled and sur­prised some young in­tel­lec­tu­als. Their el­ders, though, feel a depressing sense of deja vu. Some say to us, in ef­fect, “We’re back to the 1980s, but with­out the hope we had then.” What ex­plains this shift? Party leader Xi Jin­ping seems to be­lieve he must stamp out all hints of dis­sent in or­der to save China from the in­sta­bil­ity that has be­set var­i­ous post-com­mu­nist so­ci­eties in Eura­sia and post-au­thor­i­tar­ian ones in the Mid­dle East.

Above all, Xi is de­ter­mined not to end up be­ing China’s coun­ter­part to Mikhail Gor­bachev, a fig­ure Chi­nese lead­ers dis­dain for al­low­ing the Soviet Union to im­plode un­der his watch. Xi al­legedly de­rided Gor­bachev, in a speech given be­hind closed doors, for fail­ing to be “manly” enough to take tough ac­tion when nec­es­sary a quar­ter-cen­tury ago — a con­trast, pre­sum­ably, to what the tougher Deng Xiaop­ing had done when or­der­ing tanks to roll into Bei­jing in 1989.

As the jour­nal­ist Wil­liam Dobson ar­gued in “The Dic­ta­tor’s Learn­ing Curve,” mod­ern au­thor­i­tar­ian rulers are in­tensely aware of the chal­lenges their coun­ter­parts are fac­ing, and they’re steal­ing from one another’s play­books.

In the 1970s, Sin­ga­pore’s lead­ers be­gan ap­peal­ing to tra­di­tional Con­fu­cian val­ues while de­fend­ing one-party rule and push­ing for rapid de­vel­op­ment. Later, Deng’s suc­ces­sors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jin­tao echoed that strat­egy in China.

More re­cently, Xi and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, who share a dis­parag­ing view of Gor­bachev, have been draw­ing closer. It’s en­tirely pos­si­ble that the former has tried to cur­tail Chi­nese fem­i­nist ac­tiv­i­ties be­cause he wants to nip in the bud the kind of prob­lem the lat­ter faced with Pussy Riot.

Xi’s ef­forts are pop­u­lar in some Chi­nese cir­cles. That’s in part be­cause he’s not only mov­ing against threats to the party (real and imag­ined) but also the party it­self. Xi has pledged to re­move no­to­ri­ously cor­rupt of­fi­cials, clean up messy bu­reau­cra­cies and rein­vig­o­rate the party rank and file, all in the name of re­al­iz­ing the so-called Chi­nese dream of na­tional resur­gence.

But there’s another rea­son some in China ac­cept Xi’s meth­ods. A quar­ter-cen­tury ago, there was a wide­spread be­lief that Western ways had proved su­pe­rior to Soviet ones in gen­er­at­ing wealth and de­liv­er­ing so­cial jus­tice. The years since then have not been kind to this no­tion.

Bei­jing does not have to make up tall tales to cast the West in a neg­a­tive light. It can just point to the dis­as­trous in­va­sions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis, Eu­ro­zone eco­nomic anx­i­eties, Amer­i­can leg­isla­tive paral­y­sis, the Ed­ward Snow­den NSA rev­e­la­tions and the lat­est po­lice shoot­ings. It is not just party pro­nounce­ments against Western val­ues that in­hibit Chi­nese ac­tivists from hold­ing up the West as a model; our own faults and foibles are clear to see.

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