Philip Pan's Out of Mao's Shadow.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 5 2008 5:59 AM

The Party vs. the People

What might the new populist protest in China portend?

(Continued from Page 1)

If the new order is kind to Chen and Zhang, it is merciless toward people like Xiao Yunliang, a worker employed in a large state-owned iron alloy factory in Liaoyang. A region run by party bosses with close ties to the mafia, Liaoyang is a part of China's rust belt where most state-owned enterprises were driven into bankruptcy in the late 1990s by both competition and mismanagement. Millions of blue-collar workers like Xiao were left stranded, abandoned by the state and cheated out of their pensions. In early 2000, Xiao and thousands of co-workers staged days of demonstrations to demand that the government honor its promises. Instead, the authorities deployed thousands of police officers, sowed distrust among workers by turning some of them into informers, and arrested protest leaders. Xiao was given a choice: He could either take an all-expense paid vacation to a faraway scenic province or face jail. Xiao chose jail without any hesitation—and served four years.

In such individual acts of defiance and moral courage, Pan resists the journalistic temptation to see the rejuvenation of the collective soul of the "new China." He devotes the remainder of the book to the stories of six ordinary citizens who dared to challenge the new inequities and corruptions of China, but he does not romanticize their accomplishments. Their heroic efforts yielded limited results—and some of them paid a heavy price. A retired army surgeon he writes about, Jiang Yanyong, forced Beijing to admit the truth during the worst moment of the sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis in March 2003. Yet he was abducted and silenced after he demanded a year later that the party admit its mistake in ordering the June 4 crackdown in Beijing in 1989. Cheng Yizhong, an enterprising newspaper editor, turned his Southern Metropolitan Daily into a vehicle that championed social justice, but he was arrested on trumped-up bribery charges. Chen Guangcheng, a blind self-taught lawyer Pan writes about, was once hailed by the government as a model citizen for speaking out for the rights of the disabled. He is now serving a four-year term for "disturbing social order" after he challenged the cruel family-planning measures enforced by a local party boss (who, incidentally, received a six-month training in public administration at the University of New Haven and interned in the New Haven mayor's office in 2000).

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It is not hard to see why Pan pessimistically concludes that "the Communist Party is winning the battle for the nation's future." Yet perhaps there is as great a risk in seizing on individuals as emblematic failures as in glorifying them as saviors, or demonizing them as villains, of the nation. China is a huge country, and there are signs that resistance in more collective form may be on the rise and become more potent. The party has done well since 1989, but its policies have become increasingly untenable, especially with rising income inequality and worsening environmental degradation. The legitimacy of outright repression is declining. The party may incarcerate those trying to set up an opposition party, but it cannot deploy brute force against ordinary citizens demanding clean air, drinkable water, and affordable health care.

The Chinese citizenry today is not just more diverse and demanding. It is also becoming sophisticated enough to probe the soft spots (such as corruption, inequality, and incompetence) of the autocratic system and challenge it without taking excessive risks. So last year when residents of Shanghai tried to stop the city government from building a magnetic levitation train that would threaten their health and property values, they organized a collective "street stroll" and "shopping trip" in central Shanghai. They forced the government to suspend the project. Such new populist political tactics—deploying a Chinese version of "civil disobedience"—will be more effective in forcing the party to heed the voices of the people. They're also likely to inspire more innovative collective endeavors to demand better government.

So the battle for China's future is far from over. Pan is right to write off the Communist Party as a democratizing force. But in history, many autocratic regimes that were once thought invulnerable eventually succumbed to "people power." China will be no different.

Minxin Pei is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of China's Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy.

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