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Chinese Dreams: The Fight for Democratic Pluralism

In March, David Shambaugh, a professor at George Washington University, wrote a major essay for the Wall Street Journal titled “The Coming Chinese Crackup.” Shambaugh’s main point was that “the endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun . . . and it has progressed further than many think.” Shambaugh admits that his view is not universally accepted, but the fact that a scholar of his reputation has reached this conclusion is significant.

Shambaugh gives five reasons for thinking that the Chinese regime suffers from systemic and ultimately fatal weaknesses. The first is that the Chinese elites have lost confidence in the system, as demonstrated by the fact that they are fleeing from the country en masse. He quotes a study by the Hurun Research Institute in Shanghai that found that 64 percent of the “high net worth individuals” whom it polled—nearly 400 billionaires and millionaires—were either already emigrating or planning to. They are also sending their children to study abroad in record numbers.

The second reason that he believes China is headed toward trouble is the dramatic increase in political repression under President Xi Jinping. Shambaugh believes this is a symptom of the leadership’s “deep anxiety and insecurity.” The repression has been across-the-board and has affected journalists and religious groups, artists and writers, NGO activists and university students, Tibetan and Uighur minority groups, and lawyers like Gao Zhisheng, Pu Zhiqiang, and Xu Zhiyong, the founder of the New Citizens Movement. What seems to frighten the regime is the potential appeal of what Document No. 9, a party directive issued in 2013, calls the “seven perils,” among them constitutional democracy, press freedom, market economy, and universal values. This explains Education Minister Yuan Guiren’s declaration at a recent conference that “textbooks promoting Western values” would not be permitted in classrooms. The fact that government officials, according to a report in the Economist, have been using “the harshest terms heard in years” to warn against the danger of Western values shows how attractive they think such values are to Chinese youth and why this appeal therefore poses a threat to the Chinese regime.

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At the root of the regime’s fear of Western values is its own ideological bankruptcy, which is Shambaugh’s third reason for thinking that the party is doomed. The “China Dream” is Xi’s signature concept, meant to give the country’s economic boom a nationalist uplift, but Shambaugh, who visits China frequently, writes that he has been unable to find any genuine interest in the idea among scholars and ordinary people. Some elites that he has encountered pretend to believe in this new party line, but he can’t escape the conclusion “that the propaganda had lost its power, and the emperor had no clothes.”

The fourth reason for a dim view of China’s prospects flows from and further underlines the regime’s ideological bankruptcy. It is, as Shambaugh writes, that “the corruption that riddles the party-state and the military also pervades Chinese society as a whole.” Xi’s anticorruption campaign has generated some popularity and has succeeded in purging a number of potential political opponents. But it’s ultimately futile since the problem of corruption remains rooted in the closed Chinese political system, and any effort to make the system more open and accountable would be blocked by powerful interests within the establishment.

This brings us to Shambaugh’s fifth reason, which is that Xi has been unable to make any progress on the ambitious package of economic reforms he proposed at the party’s Third Plenum in 2013. The purpose of the reform package was to enable China to address problems of rising inequality and corruption and to become an innovative “knowledge economy” able to compete in the global marketplace. Unlike earlier reforms, such as Deng Xiaoping’s decollectivization of agriculture and Hu Jintao’s reform of social security, the kinds of reforms that are needed today—ending state monopolies in critical sectors, for example, or giving the judiciary more independence—would encounter stiff resistance from deeply entrenched interest groups and local party cadres that want to preserve their privileges in the present system.

China, therefore, has reached an impasse. It cannot move forward on the path of reform because of the threats this poses to the legitimacy of the overseers of the status quo. And since the path forward is a minefield of bureaucratic obstacles, there are prominent elements in the leadership that want to tighten their hold on power and to take China backwards toward greater repression and business cronyism.

 

Whether China is actually approaching the crackup Shambaugh predicts is impossible to say. Youwei, a pseudonym used by a scholar in China, writes in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs that while “authoritarian adaptation” has hit a wall, the regime has built up its internal security apparatus to such an extent that “even as grievances proliferate, the balance of power between the state and society leans overwhelmingly toward the former.” Yet even the pessimistic Youwei warns that “the regime has not developed a coherent, contemporary ideological discourse to justify” the determination of Communist Party officials to retain power despite the need for the market economy to operate according to an “impersonal legal system.”

Even friends of the Chinese democracy movement differ on the stability and resilience of the regime. Columbia political science professor Andrew Nathan believes that Xi’s anticorruption campaign has been politically effective because he cleverly targeted only a narrow network of newly ascendant party and business leaders and has thus received support from both the broad public and the “princelings,” the powerful group that descends from the founding Communist leaders. But Xiao Qiang, a UC Berkeley professor and founder of China Digital Times, doubts that Xi can succeed in the long run because his campaign exposes how rotten the system is and therefore undermines the regime’s legitimacy. Minxin Pei, director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College, sees the regime caught in a Catch-22 situation: It’s impossible to root out corruption “in a one-party system without press freedom, a robust civil society, or the rule of law. Yet these are precisely the ‘Western values’ that the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] apparatchiks are attempting to eliminate.”

We can’t know how the conflict between Xi’s assault on liberal values and the economy’s need for accountability and the rule of law will play out. But there is convincing evidence that the campaign of repression has so far failed to achieve its objective of stifling civil society and popular protest. Despite the crackdown, a major Freedom House report titled “The Politburo’s Predicament: Confronting the Limitations of Chinese Communist Party Repression” finds that more people are joining rights-defense activities, information is spreading despite censorship, the fear of repression is waning, and the disillusionment with party corruption is growing.

The labor activist Han Dongfang believes that there is actually now more space than before for social media platforms dealing with “livelihood issues” like forced housing removal, landgrabs, environmental damage, and labor disputes. He says that while the politically sensitive word “strike” used to be inaccessible online, it is now possible to link to stories on strikes and other “livelihood issues” on social media platforms like Baidu. He speculates that social media platforms are “slowly opening up” because they offer the government a way to get accurate information about what is happening on the ground. The picture may not be as bright as Han suggests since the space for advocacy NGOs is less than it is for those that deliver services, as Jessica Teets points out in her study Civil Society under Authoritarianism: The China Model. But Han makes an important point nonetheless: that civil society organizations are “becoming more permanent because they have gained stronger support from the relevant social groups.”

He thinks this is especially true of labor NGOs that help workers organize, engage in strikes, and establish collective bargaining agreements. Among the many examples he gives to back up his hopeful point of view was an incident just last month in Panyu, in the southern city of Guangzhou, when more than a hundred workers at a shoe factory met in a local restaurant to discuss bargaining strategy on social insurance payments and compensation for contract termination. The meeting, which was facilitated by the Panyu Dagongzu Workers’ Center, elected 20 worker representatives, although while it was in progress, 100 uniformed police broke in and arrested all the representatives along with the staff person from the workers’ center.

What followed is revealing. Within 10 minutes, news of the arrests was on Weibo and WeChat with pictures of the police clashing with the workers. Within an hour, several hundred workers from the shoe factory were demonstrating in front of the local police branch demanding the release of the 21 people arrested. Not only was their demand met almost immediately, but the local government promised to arrange bargaining meetings between the workers and their employer.

Han documents many similar incidents where workers have gone on strike over grievances, after which the local population rallied to their defense and the local authorities and police retreated, fearful of triggering “the huge anger” of workers whose rights and dignity are being systematically violated. For Han, the Chinese regime may seem secure and stable on the surface, but in reality it is very vulnerable.

 

It is certainly true that China wields growing power and influence on the international stage, where it flexes its muscles economically and projects its growing military power in the South China Sea and other regions. But the bulletproof image it projects is undermined when it acts in a fearful and panicky way in the face of a resilient civil society that can use social media to tap into popular anger over corruption, environmental degradation, forced landgrabs, and growing income inequality.

Thus, while the regime could hang on indefinitely, it faces growing challenges and sharpening internal contradictions. It could probably avert the kind of crackup that Shambaugh feels is coming if it decided to engage in even a tenuous top-down process of gradual opening and reform. Such a process might include giving the judiciary more independence, strengthening the National People’s Congress so that it can address fiscal issues, and introducing competition within the party in conjunction with debate over policies to deal with the economy, minorities, the environment, and other critical issues.

But no one believes that such an initiative, however hygienic it might be for the status quo, will be possible because the hard-liners are simply too entrenched and too determined to maintain their hold. So the crackup Shambaugh foresees might very well happen at some point. But even if it does, as recent history has shown us, the collapse of a dictatorship is not the same thing as a democratic opening. Democracy doesn’t inevitably follow after the fall of a dictatorship, especially if the old regime has done nothing to prepare for a democratic transition. Indeed, by repressing moderate forces, the Beijing regime is virtually ensuring that instability and disorder will follow any crackup that might occur. It’s quite ironic, therefore, that the regime and its apologists in the West justify perpetuating the current system by warning of the consequences of its collapse.

While we need to be aware of the dangers that may lie ahead, we should not go along with the Chinese regime’s use of the fear of disorder to scare off opposition or block efforts to achieve a real democratic opening. No one knows what might happen in the event of a crackup, and we should not underestimate the capacity of grassroots social forces, in periods of instability and transition, to defend democratic values.

What happened recently in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is instructive. Many experts predicted that the presidential elections that were held at the end of March would be stolen by the ruling party, and that the ensuing crisis would lead to violence and possibly even civil war. But civil society mobilized massively to support a fair and peaceful democratic process, and tens of thousands of citizen journalists used social media to broadcast the voting results instantaneously to the people, making it exceedingly difficult for political leaders to commit fraud. And so to everyone’s surprise, the elections were not stolen. The opposition party won, the election result was respected, and conflict was avoided. Because citizens acted, a possible catastrophe turned into a step forward for democracy. People didn’t fear change. They acted to defend democracy.

And that is what civil society in China must continue to do, despite the harsh repression it faces. It has the dual task of pressing for a democratic opening and preparing for a period of uncertain change that may lie ahead. Democracy activists can prepare for the future by staying engaged in the present, learning by doing, and using their current struggles to build networks of cooperation that can give citizen movements the political and organizational capacity to influence events as they unfold. The key task for activists in exile is to help build international coalitions of solidarity for the democratic movement on the mainland.

Groups working to defend the rights of China’s Tibetan, Uighur, and Mongolian minorities have a common interest with Chinese democracy activists in building a broad, pluralist, and unified pro-democracy movement. Democratic unity will help the minorities overcome their isolation, and it will also be a way for them to demonstrate that their goal is not “splittism,” as the regime claims, but a defense of their ethnic, linguistic, and religious rights. For Chinese activists and intellectuals who are challenging the legitimacy of one-party rule and the centralization of power in the Communist Party, supporting autonomy for the ethnic minorities is a way to affirm the importance of political pluralism and the decentralization of power. It will also be a way to challenge the hard-line nationalism that the regime has sought to gin up to compensate for its ideological bankruptcy. Not least, it will challenge the double standard that allows China to escape international criticism even as it commits cultural genocide against its non-Han minorities. If China is given a free hand by the international community to repress its minorities, it will not be possible to mount a meaningful international campaign against its crackdown on dissidents, workers, lawyers, and others who are fighting for basic human rights for all the people in China.

President Xi will visit the United States in September. Groups working for human and minority rights in China ought to consider using the occasion to press for change. Why shouldn’t these groups develop their own Magnitsky List (by which the US has sanctioned Russian officials responsible for the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and other crimes) that would name Chinese officials who are involved in gross human rights abuses. Such a list could be shared with the Obama administration and members of Congress prior to Xi’s visit, with the recommendation that anyone whose name appears on it should, at bare minimum, not be part of the official delegation that will be accompanying Xi to Washington.

The struggle for democracy in China will be fought and won from within. But in our wired and connected world, there is much that can be done from the outside to help those who are on the front lines of that movement. They’ve earned international support by withstanding a harsh campaign of political repression. Their struggle gives heart and hope to others in Asia and around the world who are fighting for basic rights and freedoms. We give them heart and hope by letting them know that they are not alone.

Carl Gershman is the president of the National Endowment for Democracy. This article is based on an address he delivered on April 28, 2015, to the 10th InterEthnic/InterFaith Leadership Conference on China. It was completed for the Summer issue of the journal and published early online on June 4, 2015.

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