China's summer of discontent
  • Mon, 08/22/2011 - 12:00

Editor's Note: Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. The following post was originally published in The Diplomat, a stellar international current-affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific region.

By Minxin Pei, The Diplomat

The temperature isn’t the only thing that has been rising in China this summer – public outrage is also apparently boiling in the sweltering Middle Kingdom.

The most powerful expression of popular discontent was, without doubt, the nationwide outcry over the crash of China’s new bullet train in Zhejiang Province on July 23 that killed 40 and injured close to 200 passengers.

Occurring barely three weeks after Beijing’s high-profile launch of its Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail service, the tragic accident wasn’t just an embarrassment for the Communist Party. The mishandling of the tragedy by the government, ranging from releasing little information on the causes of the crash to hastily burying one of the mangled carriages, further enraged an irate public suspecting a crude cover-up.

In the face of withering public criticism, Beijing was forced to lower the speed of the high-speed rail service and launch a safety campaign.

Before the firestorm over the train crash receded, the Chinese Internet was lit up with denunciations of Beijing’s policy of holding vast sums of U.S. Treasury debt in its foreign exchange reserves. Although the Chinese government kept a low-profile during Washington’s debt-ceiling debate, Standard and Poor’s downgrade of U.S. sovereign debt in early August provided new ammunition to watchful Chinese citizens who are skeptical of their government’s wisdom in putting two-thirds of their hard-earned foreign currency into low-yielding American government bonds that are sure to lose value against the Chinese renminbi because of the future devaluation risks of the dollar.

Admittedly, Chinese netizens may be hopping mad, but they have little influence to force Beijing to abandon its long-standing policy of keeping most of its foreign exchange earnings in dollar assets.

So by comparison, residents of the city of Dalian had much better fortune in making their local mandarins heed their grievances over a polluting chemical plant.

On August 14, more than 12,000 people in Dalian staged a rare public rally to call on the local government to relocate a $1.5 billion petrochemical plant located 20 kilometers from the city.When the city’s party secretary met the protestors to assuage their concerns, he was shouted down. Within 48 hours, a chastened city government announced that it would move the two-year-old plant elsewhere. For once, people power prevailed in a one-party state.

These three disparate incidents portend an important political trend in China: the rise of citizen activism. To be sure, this trend isn’t new. But its recent intensification suggests that Chinese politics is entering a more fluid phase during which the old playbook for keeping the Communist Party in power may no longer work.

In the two decades following Deng Xiaoping’s historic tour of south China in 1992, the party has stuck to an effective two pillar survival strategy: promoting economic growth and suppressing democratic opposition. While this strategy has delivered the desired results, recent events indicate that its effectiveness is diminishing.

Many analysts attribute the rise of citizen activism to the growth of the middle class, the revolution of rising expectations, the Internet, social media and rising awareness of individual rights.

These are definitely factors responsible for an increasingly assertive public. But what has been overlooked in the search for explanations of citizen activism in China in recent years is another driving force: The internal contradictions of developmental authoritarianism.

As the term suggests, developmental authoritarianism has two facets: economic growth and one-party rule.

In the Chinese case, economic growth has indeed been spectacular under one-party rule, at least in quantitative terms. Unfortunately, the single-minded pursuit of GDP has incurred enormous social costs, such as environmental degradation, corruption, inequality and deteriorating social services.

If the Chinese public had earlier accepted these consequences of rapid growth as the necessary price to pay for modernization, their patience is running out. But the Chinese government hasn’t been able to shift its high-speed, low-quality growth strategy, despite pledging to do so for years.

As a result, instead of bolstering the party’s legitimacy, rapid growth is undermining its authority and generating social tensions, which have galvanized more and more ordinary citizens to take part in protest activities and add their voice to criticisms of government policy and behaviour.

If growth has begun to lose its magic potency in legitimizing a one-party state, changing political values in China are making the maintenance of this regime increasingly tenuous. The party is finding out that it can’t simply tell the Chinese people that it has the right to rule and can be counted on to make all the right decisions.

As ordinary Chinese people experience, in their daily lives, poor governance, corruption, official callousness and incompetence (the three incidents cited above are apt illustrations), they increasingly feel that they shouldn’t rely on the party to make all their decisions, much less keep quiet when the party’s actions threaten their wellbeing.

So behind recent incidents and the rise of citizen activism lies a much deeper political crisis: the fundamental illegitimacy of authoritarian rule in a fast-changing Chinese society.

This legitimacy crisis poses tricky challenges to the Communist Party, which can’t deploy its repressive tools against ordinary people who are demanding better government performance, but not outright democracy.

As we have seen in the post-Tiananmen era, the party can be ruthless and effective in crushing any direct challenge to its authority by pro-democracy activists, but is often hamstrung in dealing with ordinary citizens asking for nothing more than safe transportation, breathable air and affordable housing.

Ironically, the party’s recent populist rhetoric, no doubt adopted to augment its legitimacy, has further limited its repressive options in confronting citizen activism.

For the moment, Beijing is trying to muddle through. In responding to public outrage over incidents similar to the train crash on July 23, the Chinese leadership typically takes specific measures to show that it cares about public opinion, but stops short of giving the Chinese people a genuine say in how they are governed. The question is: Can muddling through help the party avert a political crash in the future?

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Minxin Pei.