China: Not Quite a Revolution

By Jeremiah Jenne

BEIJING, China -- First of all I want to thank Jim for giving me this opportunity.  My usual audience consists of two classes of Chinese history students per semester and a handful of loyal readers who follow my blog, Jottings from the Granite Studio

There has been a lot written in the past 24 hours about China's still-born "Jasmine Revolution," and I agree with those commentators who feel the chances of an Egypt-style revolution are very remote -- at least in the short term.

First of all, while many in China are griping about inflation, rising food prices, and the great difficulties in finding affordable housing in China's booming cities, there is a general sense -- especially those in urban areas -- that life is steadily improving.

That's not to say there are not conflicts and contradictions in Chinese society.  Each year there are thousands of cases of unrest, local demonstrations, and violent clashes between the disaffected and those felt to have benefited unfairly from the system or against the system itself.  But despite all the sparks, the tinder never catches, and the reason is that China's leaders have learned from history.

On May 4, 1919 students protesting the cession of Shandong Province to Japan as part of the Treaty of Versailles took to the streets of Beijing.  They were soon joined by workers, journalists, merchants, and the common people of the city...and then the movement spread to Tianjin, to Shanghai, and to Guangzhou. The government wobbled and eventually collapsed in the face of massive popular opposition and unrest.

Seventy years later, a similar scene played out before the eyes of the world.  The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 may have begun as a student movement, but soon other groups linked their own grievances with those expressed by the student protesters and before long the streets were flooded with ordinary Beijing citizens who felt the need to express their solidarity with the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

In both cases, what started as a single group airing their specific problems developed into something much larger as the movement spread to other classes and to other parts of the country.

The CCP knows that they could never hope to suppress every single act of defiance in a country as large and diverse as China, so they have instead chosen to invest time, money, and energy in preventing these acts from linking together, either vertically across class lines or horizontally across geographic space.  Chinese government Internet controls (the Net Nanny) are aimed less at clumsily blocking information than at disrupting the kind of online sites or platforms through which disparate groups of people can come together to organize and plan.

The Party also goes to great lengths -- sometimes in the form of staggering overreaction -- to stymie the emergence of any group or ideology that could present itself as an alternative to the CCP.  This lack of an organized opposition allows the Party to present a false dichotomy to China's people, a dichotomy best described three centuries ago by Louis XV of France as: Après moi, le deluge.

In short: Stick with us, because without us there will be only chaos.

After the celebrations in October 2009 marking the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the PRC, I wrote a short post about why this false dichotomy worked so well for the CCP:

In Western Europe and North American our dystopian nightmares, those of science fiction and political thrillers, as well as in our history books, involve tyrants who acquired too much power and used that power to brutalize people.
From the Chinese perspective, in particular as written in the history textbooks used in PRC schools today, the greatest horrors have not come at the hands of the all-powerful state, but in times when the state was too weak to defend itself and the people: the depredations of the European imperialist powers in the 19th century at the expense of a rapidly weakening Qing Empire and the starvation and disasters of the warlord period in the early 20th century.  Even under a period of relative prosperity in the 1930s, Chiang Kai-shek's control never extended much past a few central provinces in the Yangzi region.  Locked in struggle with the CCP, the Nanjing government lacked the political will to build a new society or improve the lives of China's rural population, and soon that gargantuan task took a back seat to mere survival as the forces of both the KMT and the CCP were overrun by the Japanese onslaught.
Even if we look at the latter half of the 20th century, a period not covered quite so thoroughly in the PRC school curriculum, the personal experience of many Chinese during the Cultural Revolution serves as fresh reminder about what can happen when the central government abandons order and stability in the name of "idealism."

Whether you agree or not, the salient point is that many people in China do calculate the risk versus reward of taking on the government not only in terms of their own personal safety (because the Party still can be very brutal towards those it feels are a threat to its legitimacy) but also in terms of the larger cost of revolution and the possibility of undoing the very real gains many people in China have made over the past thirty years.

While it can be easy to sell a message of "Stick with us or face the consequences" when you have near total control over the education, information, and media environments, it is still worth noting that an awful lot of people in China, especially in Beijing, buy into this.  So long as this is the case, and so long as there aren't any events or causes which mobilize popular discontent across class lines or geographic distance, the chances of a revolution -- of any flavor -- in China will remain quite remote. 

Jeremiah Jenne is a PhD candidate in Chinese history, living and working in Beijing. He is the author of the blog Jottings from the Granite Studio.