Ng Han Guan / AP

Today’s Issue

  • “Whenever people are able to cross the kinds of silos that the Chinese Communist Party prefers to keep them in, the party is very concerned and often reacts with overwhelming force,” says Elizabeth Perry, a professor of government at Harvard.
  • Twenty years ago, Perry was quoted in an Atlantic story on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Today The Masthead asks her to update that story.
  • Perry’s insights offer a guide to when activist movements can succeed in China and when they prompt a crackdown. You can listen to the full interview on SoundCloud, or you can get it directly in your podcast player.

By Matt Peterson

This summer will mark the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, in which thousands of Chinese protesters were slaughtered by the state. In the intervening years, 1989 has come to mark an extreme for crushing dissent, not the norm. Another extreme is defined by China’s mass suppression of its mostly Muslim Uighur population in the west. Between those acts of violence lies a deliberately ill-defined space where opposition is possible.

A theme has emerged from The Masthead’s recent looks at archival stories about China: Plenty of Chinese citizens are willing to make vocal demands of their government, even as the threat of violence looms in the background. Take two examples from our series:

  • The era of rampant, unregulated pollution in China ended because ordinary people protested, said the UCLA law professor Alex Wang. “It became a real problem for officials—and certainly for the people who were protesting. That's the reason they were on the streets in the first place. And it helped spur the decision, I think, to head toward greater environmental protection.”
  • China can’t silence its feminists. The journalist and scholar Leta Hong Fincher documented a campaign of official harassment against the activist group known as the Feminist Five. Women’s rights are suppressed in China, Fincher said, but because the Communist Party fears the power of feminists, it can’t simply disappear every woman who speaks up. “It’s not a total blackout on discourse online about women's-rights issues. And it's amazing how much room there still is for women to talk about sexism, and to talk about injustice and gender discrimination,” Fincher said.

The space for dissent in China is shaped by the Communist Party’s history, ideology, and present-day desire for power. The Harvard scholar Elizabeth Perry has made a career of studying how those factors interact. Her analysis was featured in an Atlantic story on the tenth anniversary of Tiananmen. As the 30th approaches, The Masthead asked her to revisit that article. Our conversation with Perry focused on the forces that trigger the Communist Party to crack down as it did in 1989. Here are the essential takeaways. You can also listen to the interview in full on The Masthead’s podcast feed.

When the working class combines with other social groups, watch out. Tiananmen is remembered in the West as the crushing of a pro-democracy movement, but it wasn’t simply demands for representation that spooked officials. “Why 1989 seemed so threatening to the Chinese Communist Party was precisely because workers and students were joined together in making demands for change,” Perry said. The party knows its history, after all; the nucleus of the 1949 revolution was a union between urban, educated elites and members of the working class. New cross-class movements remain highly threatening. “I think the regime does react more sensitively to labor than to other social forces—to labor, and to students and intellectuals. I would say those are probably regarded as the two most politically dangerous social forces in China because of their importance both symbolically and economically,” Perry said.

For all its capitalist impulses, the party is still Communist. Opposition from labor matters because the Communist Party rests its claim to power on a worker-centered ideology. The great pursuit of wealth that has come to characterize the modern state hasn’t changed that claim, Perry said. “On the one hand, yes, there are ways in which China looks very capitalist, and certainly doesn't look like an ideal Marxist Communist state. But the fact that it is being run by a Communist Party which still ties its own legitimacy to an effort to present itself as a Communist Party that operates according to Marxist-Leninist principles has been very important for explaining a lot of what the party leadership has done from the 1920s to the present.” One example: President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, which has targeted millions of party officials across China, including many of Xi’s rivals. That campaign resonates because of the party’s self-presentation of its members as morally pure, self-sacrificing individuals.

The Communist Party has allowed and at times even encouraged some kinds of protest. Mao Zedong advocated street protests “in order to discipline comrades,” Perry said. Xi, by contrast, wants to keep the anti-corruption campaign a tightly controlled, internal affair. He has rounded up human-rights activists, not to mention massively cracked down on dissidents in China’s autonomous region Xinjiang, showing how far the party will go to defend its control. “I would not want to whitewash or sugarcoat the Chinese Communist state, but it has an up-and-down at different periods. And the state has generally recognized that protests which are quite limited in their demands, and which … do not involve crossing the territorial, occupational, or social boundaries in which the state would like to keep people siloed, have generally been okay,” she said. But precisely what’s permissible is never made explicit. “Part of the reason is to make people a little nervous, to inhibit them from protesting every time they have a concern, and also to give the state the upper hand.” The grand narrative of Chinese politics is not about a state on the brink of collapse from pro-democracy forces, but about officials’ careful and ever-changing strategies to manage and channel dissent.

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