Not to discount all the dizzying growth and change, but it’s often easy to view progress in China as sloppy sublation of the most basic problems. Old issues never die. They just get old.
Take the regular “crackdowns” on corruption. They do little more than lend a wisp of legitimacy to a system that’s endemically corrupt. Rural relief programs succor peasants not deemed ready for the land-use “rights” of city folk. Beijing’s fever for press briefings, post-SARS and pre-Olympics, diverts attention from the real mess in the provinces. And new emissions and energy diets have given the country short-term environmental targets to shoot for, even though China, as a nation, appears bound to keep growing and polluting more than any other.
The state media, likewise, have bought much of the shaky prestige they’ve gained via commercial success. Ditto, and more, for the avant-garde (cheers, Sotheby’s). The “Fourth Estate” actually has begun to wield the force of a check on power in China . But where are the other three legs of the proverbial checks and balances system?
There’s only one inalienable right in China today, one people feel entitled to, one that’s basically guaranteed. That’s the right to “peaceful and stable development”. Chinese people really want freedom and justice, most will tell you, but they badly need stability. Stability is opportunity. And so, toward that end, they tend exhibit curious, often contradictory, behavior.
A few weeks ago, I hopped into a Beijng taxi in a mad rush to make it to an interview on time. My driver wasn’t going anywhere, though. He was busy phoning the police.
“That’s right. Corner of Panjiayuan Lu and East Second Ring. He just flew by on his bicycle and stuck the petition into my door handle,” barked the cabbie, who I’ll call Chen, after the surname on the I.D. clipped above the passenger’s side glove compartment. “It said ‘something-something Nine Criticisms of the Communist Party (九评共产党)’”
I heard a scratchy, indecipherable response over Driver Chen’s mobile.
“…Maybe 50, less than 55 years old,” Driver Chen dutifully answered.
Impatient, I threatened to switch cabs. So Driver Chen got off the phone and stepped on the gas. As we rumbled along, I asked him about the malcontent he’d just informed on. What was his deal? What were the nine points on his petition?
“How should I know?”
“Didn’t you read it?”
“No. I threw it away as fast as I could.”
“It’s hard for you foreigners to understand. These people…they just want to make trouble for the rest of us.”
“But why turn the guy in?” I asked.
And then his phone rang. It was the police calling back. We’d pulled up to my destination. He was jabbering away as I got out.
Okay, so you probably wouldn’t classify Driver Chen your prototypically crotchety Beijing cabbie. Yes, some cabbies are recruited through their city’s fleet to act as guardian angels on the roads, even rewarded with bonuses for police tips. But suffice it to say, they’re not the neighborhood snitches of the Mao days. Maybe “average” cabbie would have curiously read the flyer, and ignored the petitioner. But whatever. Driver Chen clearly felt his right to “stability” was invaded. And he responded of his own accord.
The Chinese government, for its part, has no problem at all preying on popular fears of homeland insecurity. Earlier this month, police announced the largest known raid ever on Islamic Uighur separatists in the northwestern Chinese frontierland of Xinjiang: 18 dead, 17 captured, at an alleged “terrorist” training base in the foothills abutting Pakistan and Afghanistan (one Chinese policeman was lost). Beijing used the siege to pad its longstanding claims that Uighur separatist organizations are intimately linked to Taliban and al Qaeda. Uighurs exiles and rights groups contend they are overwhelmingly nonviolent independence movement, forcibly distanced from Muslim fundamentalism under Communism, and hence government grossly overstates the threat as a rationale to keep on cracking down. Western authorities tend to support the latter.
Here, meanwhile, the government line remains virtually unchallenged. Even the most aggressive newspaper in the country over the past decade, Guangzhou-based Southern Weekend, used the raid as a peg for a front-page retrospective on Beijing ’s 17-year struggle with “the terrorists”. Filling two and a half pages of broadsheet, it was based entirely on official records. “The fight against terror is a confrontation of justice and evil,” Southern Weekend wrote in its coverage. “It’s a confrontation between reason and irrationality. It’s a war more difficult than a war. Winning this war must depend on our comprehensive strength, political, economic, cultural, and military.” The thrust of the package was not surprising. That Southern Weekend decided to run such a monster is.
But never underestimate popular appeal of preserving the union at any cost. To question it would mean trouble for a newspaper under the current propaganda norms of political correctness. To not question it only risks stirring controversy in the case of film epics set centuries ago. (See Zhang Yimou’s film, Hero). Many Chinese have come to see Osama Bin Laden as a cult figure in the context of war with America . In the context of his collaboration with top Uighur extremists, as alleged in Southern Weekend, he’s meant to be read as just another bad guy.
A desire for stability also means people root for lawyers, editors and a few good cadres working to change the system from within, but reserve far less tolerance for radicals, rebels and traitors. The Communist Party seems remarkably confident of the success of this social process. Recently, it passed on a chance to put away perhaps a sworn foe.
Lawyer Gao Zhisheng, whom I wrote about when he was detained in August, was convicted several weeks ago of inciting to subvert state power. A court in Beijing could have put him away for many years. Instead, it placed him on probation with a suspended three-year term.
Gao, himself born a peasant in a cave, was an all-around defender of the oppressed: from farmers stripped of their land and labor and legal activists deprived of their rights to underground Christians and Falun Gong faithful. He wrote caustic letters to the leadership on behalf of FLGers allegedly tortured at reeducation camps and for a time, spoke daily to the Epoch Times, the U.S.-based Falun Gong-sponsored paper. By the standards of 1950’ s America, Gao was guilty
Why did he get off so lightly? The official reason was that he cooperated by coughing up evidence related to others’ cases. But last time I spoke to Gao, he was fully resigned to doing hard time. He craved jail as stage along his path of non-violent resistance toward a democratic future. He consciously compared his condition to Gandhi’s. By jailing him, in effect, the government would have given him what he wanted.
But, as a well-known opposition figure wasting in jail, Gao might have become much more dangerous than as a human tracking device shadowed round the clock by the international human rights community and his supporters in China. Perhaps more importantly, by the time of his detention, Gao had already managed to alienate much of the liberal community in Beijing . He was no longer a rallying point so much as a polarizing figure. Once the state news wire spread the word that he jeopardized others’ freedom for the sake of his own cause, he became even more suspect. After all, his radicalism was already the chief criticism of Gao among dissident peers. Many ultimately advocate incrementalism, and compartmentalization of different rights issues
“If you oppose the position of the Communist Party, then you think it’s right to hate authorities and love freedom. But in a lot of the work for democracy in China , our hate toward the Communist Party surpasses our love of freedom,” commented Wang Yi, an intellectual democracy activist who teaches law in Chengdu, in an interview weeks before Gao’s detention. He was making reference to a clique of “rights defenders” led by Gao.
Throught the ages, Confucian values have trained each successive rebel savior to da tianxia – or claim a moral right under heaven, to lead the people. Mao and his Revolution were no different. What about Gao? “Even democratic causes become exaggerated in the same way as the Communist Party,” said Wang, making an argument for people’s right to stability.
Still, even a partly free Gao ahead of the Olympics and the attention that he’ll be able to garner outside China is a risky proposition for Beijing. On the day new rules went into effect easing restrictions on foreign correspondents, Gao and his family where whisked away. Destination unknown.