Slice of Life: The China crisis goes viral
Posted: 8 Jun 2012
We’re not quite halfway through the year but already we’ve seen things that we’ve never seen before in our lifetime – in terms of Chinese politics, that is.
Here’s a quick recap of what’s happened over the past five months: amid power struggles in the Politburo, Xi Jinping made a state visit to Washington, confirming the rumours that he would be the next boss. The Hong Kong Chief Executive election turned into a bunfight, mirroring the much larger bunfight going on in the central government. Premier Wen Jiabao then made an unprecedented denouncement of the Cultural Revolution, and of princeling Bo Xilai’s Cultural Revolution-style leadership in Chongqing. Phew, what a start to the Chinese new year.
Then came Act Two.
Bo, the once rising star on the political firmament, was quickly brought down. The toppling of Bo read like a summer blockbuster – embezzlement, murder, poison, a beautiful but psychologically unstable wife, a foreign businessman suspected of spying, insatiable power, insatiable greed, and a city police chief with a penchant for ‘organ transplantation’. As if the drama wasn’t heightened enough, a blind human rights lawyer scaled the walls of his house arrest and fled to the US Embassy in Beijing (just as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in the capital). If this were a movie, you’d call it ridiculous.
The international media basked in the binge of China’s woes (Time magazine gleefully ran a cover story headlined ‘The People’s Republic of Scandal’). Beijing soon fought back. Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan, known for her aggressive reporting style, was suddenly denied a visa, becoming the first foreign journalist to be expelled from China in 14 years. The government gave no reason, nor cited no law. Then they turned their sights on the Philippines, which is still in a state of farcical stalemate.
Yet beneath all this turmoil the question of ‘reform’ remains. How would China reform? When would China reform? Can China reform? Nobody was expecting another June 4 incident, but the rallying cry for democratic reform was definitely louder in volume.
“It appeared as if the Party, unable to find the ‘golden mean’ (zhongyong) – the middle way revered by classical Chinese political philosophers – hoped at least to create an optical illusion of moderation by oscillating back and forth rapidly between the extremes, alternately coddling and punishing its intellectuals,” writes Orville Schell in an article about the 1989 crackdown. How well do those words fit today’s situation?
Willingly or not, the Communist Party has to face what it has never faced before – the ever-growing power of social media. It doesn’t help matters that Chinese people are becoming more media savvy by the day, and that more people in China are ‘connected’ to the web than anywhere in the world. Remember the Wukan village protest? The party’s compromise only came about because Wukan residents shrewdly used online media as a communication tool. And the very nature of social media makes official censorship almost impossible – information spreads wide and fast, and social media users can always find ways to bypass censorship. The simple truth is this: if the censors can lock it, the bloggers can unlock it.
Yet political reform leads us to the ultimate question: will there be real democracy in a one-party political system which controls everything? And how can reform ever happen when the CPC is riddled with corruption? “Trying to get graft out of the Chinese system is like trying to take the sugar out of an already baked cake,” says one Wall Street Journal opinion piece. It’s likely that China will see more turmoil even if it does reform.
But one thing’s for sure – the central government must learn to focus on the future by learning from the past. If China wants us to see its commitment to political reform, it should first take a serious look at the 1989 tragedy and put the Tiananmen Square incident back in the history books.
June 4 Candlelight Vigil, Victoria Park Mon Jun 4, www.alliance.org.hk