China Must Reform to Avoid Chaos

The student-led Tiananmen Square protest of 1989 ended with a bloody suppression by the Chinese government.

chinaSince then, Beijing’s legitimacy has been a sensitive subject which is not supposed to be addressed publicly. However, signs of public frustration with China’s policies are growing.

For example, earlier this year, reporters and editors of Southern Weekend – one of China’s most liberal newspapers – went on strike against Beijing’s “crude meddling” of free press. The strike received broad public support and ended after the Propaganda Department of Guangdong Province compromised to loosen some of the controls on news publication.

What we can see behind the strike is not only the final eruption of pent-up public dissatisfaction against strict government censorship, but also the renaissance of public awareness of government legitimacy after its more than two-decade’s hibernation.

During the past two decades, the heavy influence of Confucianism that emphasizes social hierarchy and government authority along with the government’s firm grip on free expression acted as a damper on dissent. But things are about to change, or have already changed, with globalization exposing traditional Confucius ideology to “rebellious” Western culture, and with the Internet’s free flow of information.

Recently, a picture of President Obama waiting in line to buy ice-cream triggered heated discussion in China. Most of the time, democracy is nothing more than a word to the public in China, but when globalization visualizes the degree of freedom in democratic countries, people start questioning what was previously taken for granted. Globalization, therefore, laid the foundation for the renaissance by nurturing public awareness of government legitimacy in Chinese society.

What further facilitated this renaissance is the wide-spread use of social media. The booming of Weibo – the Chinese counterpart of Twitter – may herald a turning point of social transformation. According to the report by Sina.com, the developer of China’s most popular micro blog website, Sina’s registered membership had exceeded 500 million as of the end of 2012.

Weibo not only enlightens people with information that the government tries to block, but also provides a channel of self-expression that has long been absent. If we look back to 2011 and see how the high-speed train wreck incidence in Zhejiang Province led to a flood of public criticism in Weibo against the unresponsiveness of the government, it becomes obvious that blogging has encouraged free expression in China.

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Like it or not, Chinese people have now regained awareness to challenge government legitimacy. The question becomes: How should Beijing respond to this fundamental change?

Three options exist. The first is to remain unchanged; rely on suppression, restriction and censorship to deal with any anti-government activity. But this option seems increasingly impractical since censorship is losing its weight in front of hundreds of millions of bloggers, and with a repressive approach, the government risks an all-out political crisis.

The second option is a superficial reform of mild improvements while leaving the basic political institution unchanged. This option appears to be what the government prefers. Through the handling of the protest incidence of Southern Weekend earlier this year and the recent breakout of H7N9 influenza, we have seen improvements of government in terms of information transparency and responsiveness.

Yet the problem remains: How long can the government hang on with responsive improvements after each social crisis before nation-wide calls for democracy? Based on the current trend, that day should be coming soon.

The last and most promising option is an overhaul of the current political institution. The reform can be carried out in a gradual manner given that a sudden transformation of government structure may cause social instability. But the reform must be completed before the full awakening of public awareness of democracy. Lifting strict censorship laws on news media can be the first step of the overall reform, so that a free media will serve as a useful tool for the public to monitor government behavior.

To avoid repeating the past, we must make changes in case the simmering anti-government sentiments escalate to another all-out political crisis. And by that time, the social cost of a simple crackdown will be too high to bear.

Tammy Tang is a MA candidate in International Relations at New York University. Her research concentrates on the Asia Pacific and US-China relations. She is now interning at Asia Society – a leading non-profit organization for promoting cultural exchange between the US and Asian countries. Before attending NYU, Tammy received a BA in English at Nanjing Normal University, China. She wants to pursue a career in media communication and journalism after graduation. 

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