The Chinese Communist Party guards nothing more closely than its grip on power. Although China has changed dramatically since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, one thing remains constant; the CCP will never willingly share power with any other entity. With the opening up of China following Nixon's first visit in 1973, the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, and the ushering in of modern socialist commercialism by the late Zhao Ziyang, China has made great advances in establishing itself as a formidable economic powerhouse, bringing its people from the brink of starvation to a level of prosperity that China has never seen in its 4,000 year history.
China is proving that capitalism can coexist with totalitarianism, that democracy is not necessary to achieve wealth and to create a wealth-based upper class. Indeed, China now boasts more than a million millionaires, ironic because more than 99% of those are members of the Chinese Communist Party. Marx, Lenin, and Mao would be turning in their graves.
China's rapid economic growth does not satisfy the Chinese. Wealth is concentrated in less than one percent of the population, and those who want to become wealthy by their own merits cannot pierce the wall of cronyism and corruption that allows so few to succeed. It was lack of equal opportunity, the opaqueness of the government, and the rampant corruption that motivated those brave souls that, unarmed, faced the Army in June 1989, leading to China's biggest public relations nightmare since the Cultural Revolution. But the problem of the Tiananmen Square Massacre can be dealt with easily in such a political environment as China. To this day, many people believe that the accounted for bodies of many of those killed during those bloody days are living in exile in the west, more than likely the United States, which is where all traitors eventually take up residence.
Since Tiananmen, China has stopped short of nothing to prevent the protestors and petitioners of grievances against the government from gathering, from making a show of force, from formulating a solidarity against the benevolence of the dictatorship of the people. Or so it would seem.
All is not well in the people's paradise of China. Rebellions against the government by large numbers of people, often mass demonstrations or riots, are termed “mass incidents” by the Chinese government. According to Bendilaowai.com, a web site devoted to reporting change in China, there were 74,000 of these mass incidents in 2004, 87,000 in 2005, and even more in the three years following. The Chinese government itself, through the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, reports that there were 60,000 mass incidents in 2006 and more than 80,000 in 2007. These mass incidents are no small affairs. One such incident reported on Financial Times web site, FT.com, involved over 10,000 villagers in Guizhou Province who set fire to a police station when the local police covered up a murder by relatives of a local government official. Often, riots in small towns erupt when farmers' lands are taken with no or little compensation and turned over to developers for commercial enterprise, to build a mall, a factory, an industrial park, a new house for an official.
China has nearly one and a half billion people, and the government knows they cannot be all happy, and like P.T. Barnum says, they cannot all be fooled. So China is ever vigilant to the possibility that some groups may complain just a little too much. The best way to fool most of the people is to control what they see and hear.
Most Chinese do not hear about these mass incidents, save a few that are impossible to block, such as the recent riots in Urumqi in far west Xinjiang Province, or the demonstrations and subsequent military action in Tibet. And when they do hear about them, the news is obviously slanted in favor of the government, the perpetrators are quickly tried for treason, sedition, and subverting the power of the government, then executed. If the foreign press does not catch wind of it, nobody will.
There is no shortage of bad news in China. But most of it is from outside of China. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, news coverage in China was constant. Last month's floods in Australia are still receiving play in Chinese media, and the earthquakes in New Zealand, Chili, and Japan are more than adequately covered. All this coverage of natural disasters in foreign lands is intended to direct the attention of the Chinese away from their own disasters. The message is fairly clear. China is good and the West is bad.
Large disasters, such as last year's earthquake in Sichuan Province, cannot be avoided. But it can be distorted. Most of us will remember the footage of rescues in the earthquake stricken towns of Sichuan, all provided by China Central Television because foreign camera crews were prohibited or limited in their access to the disaster area. If you took a good look at the successful rescues that we saw on the news, you will notice that all of the “victims” were wearing clean clothes and their hair was well-groomed. Not even their hands and faces were dirty. According to the Research Foundation of the State of New York, which undoubtedly took at face value the information provided by Xinhua, China's official news agency, nearly 69,000 people died in that earthquake, with more than 17,000 still missing, and slightly more than 374,000 who were injured. The same report claims that more than 7,000 classrooms collapsed. If you know anything at all about Chinese schools, then you know that the average number of students in a classroom is 60. Because the earthquake struck during school hours, one must assume that there were 420,000 students that were in classrooms that collapsed. This number is just under the total number of all casualties, killed, missing, and injured, in the reported numbers. When you add to that the fact that 420,000 homes were demolished in one county alone, at least some of which must have been occupied, it is easy to see that the numbers have been underreported.
The Chinese government still continues to list the number of fatalities of the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake at 240,000, when conservative estimates in the scientific community in the West puts this number closer to 800,000.
The reason for this deficiency in number is obvious. China is a good place to live if you are Chinese. The system is good. There is no reason to complain. Democracy is bad.
This brings us to China's most recent peril, the Jasmine Revolution. With the recent unrest in the Middle East, China's power elite must be trembling in their goose-stepping boots.
First, there was Tunisia. Beginning with the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazzi on December 17, in just 28 days the people of Tunisia were able to oust their tyrannical president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, their authoritarian leader for 23 years. Tunisia is now basking in the warmth of modern democracy. This single event began what is now known as the Jasmine Revolution.
Within days, influenced by the success of their fellow North Africans, the people of Egypt took to the streets on January 25, demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, a result that was achieved only 17 days later. Knowing full well that Chinese are cleaver enough to learn about the events in Egypt, the Chinese press reported mostly about the destruction of public works by demonstrators, the looting, and the violence that they perpetrated against other citizens. When Mubarak fled the country, the situation was presented as one of chaos, a fearful situation for the law abiding citizens of Egypt.
The Jasmine Revolution then made its way to Bahrain, the failure of which was excessively reported in the Chinese press. This is a lesson for the Chinese that acting against your government is dangerous and will not be successful.
Now that the Jasmine Revolution has made its way back to North Africa, the current revolt in Libya provides China with a two-for-one chance at manipulating its people. The first lesson the Chinese people learn from Libya is that contesting the legitimacy of one's government gives rise to chaos and suffering. Also, the Chinese government cares for its people, evident by its heroic effort to retract 30,000 Chinese workers from Libya. Interestingly, not even its nearest neighbors had that many people in Libya. The Chinese were building a hydroelectric project for the Gaddafi government, but that is another story.
The Bahrain and Libya debacles were not enough to deter some Chinese activists who attempted to capitalize on the success of the Jasmine Revolution. They had planned a mass incident (a protest) at Wang Fu Jing, a popular tourist shopping district in Beijing, February 19 and 20, using various social networking sites still operating in China as well as text messaging on mobile phones. Unfortunately for the protest planners, China's control of the internet and telecommunications is nearly absolute, and the government quickly learned of the planned demonstration. The police quickly rounded up all known political activists, as well as anybody else they suspected of being involved in the protest, incarcerating some and “questioning” others. Rather than an organized protest, China's first battle in the Jasmine Revolution was nothing more than a large gathering of riot police and curious onlookers at Wang Fu Jing.
Any time China gets nervous, it goes to its press and issues statements. The government's top spokesperson on the recent unrest happened to be Chen Jiping, deputy secretary general of Communist Party's Political and Legal Affairs Committee, the man in charge of the country's police and courts. According to Chen, the recent unrest is undoubtedly a result of interference by the West, primarily the United States, in the internal affairs of other counties under the guise of human rights. In other words, human rights is not a real issue. Furthermore, because of this meddlesome influence by the West in the affairs of China, which is the cause in the increasing number of mass incidents, China will be stepping up such activities as monitoring its citizens. In other words, whatever personal freedoms the Chinese have begun to enjoy will diminish.
Interestingly, though, Chen's statements were watered down in China Daily, the official English newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, which serves as the premier propaganda piece to the rest of the world after China Central Television International (CCTV-9). In the watered down version of Chen's speech suitable for western readers, no such condemnation of the West is made. Instead, in the article headlined “Moves on Way to Aid Stability, Harmony,” Chen attributed the increase in mass incidents to “imbalanced and uncoordinated development that has led to differences between urban and rural areas and to a wide income gap.” This is “Because social management and services are lagging behind social development, we may frequently face social conflicts.” As to Chen's promise that Chinese citizens will face closer monitoring by the government, the official newspaper said simply that “Chen also listed specific security problems that 'we cannot afford to ignore'.”
There is no doubt that the world is changing and that we are witnesses to history. The Middle East, long a region of tyrannical rule, hereditary monarchies, and totalitarian regimes is on the verge of erupting into democracy. China, which has never enjoyed democracy, is likewise on the verge of erupting. But the change will be more subtle, slower, like the blooming of a flower.
by Patrick T. Nohrden
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© 2010, Patrick T. Nohrden