The People's Republic needs to start telling a different story about itself.
Speaking in 1988, a leading adviser to then-Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang, Yan Jiaqi, declared that China had inherited a "dragon culture" from its long imperial past. If it was to become a free, cosmopolitan and peaceful society, Yan argued, China had to leave that dragon culture behind it. Yan fled China in 1989, after the Communist Party's bloody suppression of democracy advocates in Tiananmen Square. He has lived in exile in the United States ever since, but the time has come for the dragon culture to be laid to rest at last. That is the task confronting China's incoming leaders, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, in this decade.
Ever since 1989, there has been a running debate outside China about whether or how to press for political reform and human rights in that country. Its economic growth has led many interested parties to brush aside such calls as pointless, superfluous or presumptuous. The Communist Party has rejected them as efforts to weaken China. Since 2008, such rebuffs have even assumed a haughty tone at times, as if the apparently broken Western system of politics and economics had nothing to offer China in conducting its own affairs. In other words, the "dragon culture" remains ideologically ascendant: a political and geopolitical culture of repressive, grim authoritarianism that sees itself as above the law and superior to the barbarians.
The Party has created the most formidable system of surveillance and repression in the world.
But beneath the surface, tensions have been growing relentlessly in China. Early this year, sitting premier Wen Jiabao himself issued a startling warning that China faced a tragic social upheaval on the scale of the Cultural Revolution unless it embarked on serious political reform; astonishing words from the official head of state of a dictatorship that has relentlessly suppressed calls for political liberalization for 23 years. It officially derives legitimacy from Mao's seizure of power in 1949, but he was the man who caused the Cultural Revolution in the first place, not to mention the "Great Leap Forward" famine in which at least 30 million Chinese starved to death.
The Party magazine Qiushi proclaimed recently that the incoming leadership "must choose between bold political and social reform and driving China into a dead end." Qiushi means "seeking truth.Seeking truth is always and everywhere an arduous undertaking, especially under Communist dictatorships. But this call should be carefully noted. It means that political reform is on the agenda in China. The question is: after Hu and Wen, what and how?
The Party has created the most formidable system of surveillance and repression in the world. The budget for its internal security apparatus has grown even faster than its ballooning military budget and now totals about $110 billion. This funds the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of Supervision, the Ministry of Justice, the Central Politics and Law Commission, the sinister 610 Office; the State Internet Information Office, the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
Yet many responsible voices are pointing to the urgent need for reform. As social scientist Yu Jianrong, in Beijing, has said, in the name of "stability" the party has "suppressed the livelihood of the people, suppressed human rights, suppressed the rule of law, suppressed reform," but it has "not suppressed corruption, nor has it suppressed mining tragedies, nor has it suppressed illegal property demolitions and seizures." All it has done, as Chinese scholar Guo Xuezhi points out, is build the "biggest security state in the world." Now, Seeking Truth declares that this looks like a "dead end."
Respected liberal economist Mao Yushi remarked recently that the Arab Spring alarmed China's security chieftains by showing how quickly popular revolutions can gather momentum. "If you look at these protests," he said, "almost all of them are because of abuse of governmental power. That's why the leaders are very worried." Since 1989, the incidence of mass protests has risen relentlessly, reaching 180,000 a year in 2009. The party then suppressed the statistics. The data was becoming too disturbing. But this unrest has taken place during the years of China's economic boom. The combination of a downturn and rising expectations could, therefore, prove explosive.
It's no big secret that the environmental damage caused by China's era of unprecedented industrialization and urbanization has been horrendous; that China's population is now aging rapidly, posing massive problems with health and welfare. It suffers a massive gender imbalance due to its coercive one-child policy. Its huge current account surpluses look impressive, but they have piled up in a lopsided global trade regime that is now floundering. Its export-led growth model can only be replaced by a viable, domestic-consumption led growth model if its approach to domestic economic institutions radically changes; but that approach is now in the hands of very powerful vested interests.
These are the looming realities that are leading to calls for political and social reform to avert catastrophe. Hu Jintao is being quite widely and openly criticized for having failed to tackle the challenges of political reform. The Beijing Youth Daily declared recently:
Everyone has always been able to see that these contradictions are not sustainable. But there is a widespread feeling that the country is moving closer to the brink of crisis.
This, rather than China's trade surpluses and GDP, should be the pivotal consideration when it comes to whether foreigners should be supporting political reform there.
To get this in perspective, we need to reframe our narrative of modern Chinese history. The standard narrative pivots on the tired cliché that China was pre-eminent in Asia until Western imperialists assaulted the venerable Middle Kingdom, force-fed it opium and inflicted humiliation and poverty on it for a century. According to this story, only the Communist revolution enabled China to "stand up" and now the party is vital to enable the "whole Chinese people" to assume their rightful place as leaders in Asia and the world.
In reality, the Qing dynasty stagnated, rejecting reform and openness, even as social unrest and political dissent built up within the empire. Round-eyed barbarians intruded, but vastly more damage was caused by a series of gigantic civil wars in which the dynasty mercilessly crushed its domestic enemies. The biggest of them was the Taiping rebellion in the 1850s and 1860s. The net population loss was about 100 million - twice the global death toll of the Second World War.
The Taiping wanted to embrace the West, to trade with it, to build railroads, emancipate women, reform education and to Christianise China. They sought and were denied British support. Reform in China was held back for half a century, at enormous cost. In 1909, Ito Hirobumi, four-time prime minister of Japan and chief architect of its 19th-century political and social reforms, told a British reporter:
The greatest mistake which you Western people, and more especially you English people, made in all your dealings with China, was to help the Manchus in putting down the Taiping rebellion.
This should resonate with us all now. The West had much to gain in the nineteenth century from supporting political change in China; but it didn't. The stakes are now higher. This time we need to get it right.