Beijing Plays Up the Carrot While Still Wielding the Stick

Riot Police in Shifang

The relatively swift resolution of the protests in Shifang in southwestern Sichuan Province could mark a turning point in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration’s handling of the estimated 150,000 or so cases of mass incidents that erupt every year. While continuing to boost its formidable “preserving stability” (weiwen) apparatus, Beijing appears to be putting at least as much emphasis on conciliatory gestures in tackling very public and large-scale disturbances. No change, however, is expected in the CCP leadership’s draconian measures to stamp out frontal challenges to its one-party rule, including those posed by dissidents and human rights activists such as Liu Xiaobo, Gao Zhisheng and Ai Weiwei.

On July 1, several thousand residents—including scores of high-school students—in Shifang, a county-level city in Sichuan, held a rally to voice their opposition to the planned construction of a $1.6 billion molybdenum copper plant. Municipal officials immediately deployed anti-riot police against the protestors, many of whom had surrounded party and government buildings. Tear gas was fired at the demonstrators of whom 27 were arrested (Ming Pao [Hong Kong] July 2). It was soon apparent that authorities not only in the provincial capital of Chengdu but also in Beijing decided to adopt a softer and more flexible approach to quickly defuse this largely environmentally-based protest. Barely two days later, Shifang cadres buckled under pressure and indicated they had scrapped plans for the plant, which the officials had claimed earlier would help revive the economy by bringing in huge employment opportunities. Beijing-based national newspapers began berating Shifang officials for their failure to make proper consultation with its people, most of whom were scared of the pollution that the factory might generate. On July 5, Chengdu dispatched the Zuo Zheng, Vice Mayor of Deyang City, which has jurisdiction over Shifang, to “supervise” local Party Secretary Li Chengjin in handling the aftermath of the incident (CNN, July 6; China News Service, July 5).

It is probably not a coincidence that the same week, the CCP Central Political-Legal Commission, which is in charge of the nation’s police, domestic intelligence, prosecutors’ offices and courts, laid down instructions on so-called “innovation in preserving stability [methods]” (chuangxin weiwen). While the leadership has yet to spell out details of chuangxin weiwen, Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, who heads the Central Political-Legal Commission, asked law enforcement cadres to emulate the so-called “Wukan Village Model” (CNTV.cn, July 4). This was a reference to Guangdong authorities’ placatory treatment of “rebel peasants” in Wukan Village in southern Guangdong. Late last year, residents there threw out local officials who were accused of illegally confiscating the household family plots of peasants and then selling them to developers at huge profits. Fresh elections at Wukan were held in January and a few of the protest organizers were elected as the village’s new administrators ( “The Grim Future of the Wukan Model for Managing Dissent,” China Brief, January 6). After discussions with Guangdong Deputy Party Secretary Zhu Mingguo, who personally negotiated with the Wukan rebels, Zhou praised Zhu and his colleagues for their “bold exploration” in political-legal work. “I hope Guangdong will continue to establish path-breaking experience in chuangxin weiwen,” Zhou said. How to use the “Wukan Model” to handle confrontation between police and citizens was also featured in a training camp for 1,400 newly appointed municipal- and county-level police chiefs (Southern Daily, July 6; China News Service, July 6).

There are other examples of Beijing’s new-found readiness to enforce an “innovative” style in upholding stability. Feng Jianmei, the woman from rural Shaanxi Province who was forced to undergo a late-term abortion was last week promised an unprecedented compensation of $11,000. The grisly picture of her killed fetus was widely circulated in China’s Cyberspace as well as in the foreign media. Two local officials were sacked and five others penalized for their overzealous – and illegal – methods in enforcing China’s stern one-child policy (Sina.com, July 12; Global Times, June 27; The Guardian, June 26).

If it is indeed true that part of the spirit of chuangxin weiwen includes a more placatory way to deal with protests, what are the factors behind this turn of events? Apart from an obvious desire to stop the number and intensity of anti-government mass incidents from increasing, a key consideration could be the enhanced activism of the so-called post-80 and, in particular, the post-90 generations—references to Chinese born after 1980 and 1990, respectively. While the participation of the post-90 generation was already evident in the Wukan insurrection in Guangdong, this phenomenon first attracted nationwide attention during the Shifang incident. Particularly noticeable was the unusually enthusiastic involvement of several dozens of students from Shifang Middle School. The slogan of these teenagers resonated among the tens of millions of the country’s post-80 and post-90 Netizens: “We are not afraid of making a sacrifice; we’re of the post-90 generation!” (Hong Kong Economic Times, July 5).

That the authorities are nervous about the political awakening of the post-90 generation was evidenced by the speed with which the CCP propaganda machinery swung into action. The popular Global Times ran an editorial entitled “We should not encourage high school students to show up at the frontline of [social] conflicts.” The official paper warned different social sectors “not to unreservedly praise the [political] participation of high school students.” The paper went further, noting “Nobody should encourage high school students to plunge into different types of mass incidents, not to mention going to the frontline of political confrontation…It is immoral for adults to make use of youths to attain their political goals” (Global Times, July 6; Ming Pao, July 6).

The party leadership has good reasons to be disturbed by the destabilizing potentials of politicized youths. During the Cultural Revolution, teenage high school students as well as college students in their early 20s figured prominently in some of the bloodiest “armed struggles” among rival Red Guard factions. The post-90 generation’s eagerness about “rights protection” (weiquan) and defending the rights of the underprivileged has demonstrated that “patriotic education” about the party’s supposedly glorious achievements is not working well. More significantly, even compared to their post-80 forebears, members of the post-90 generation seem to have less economic and political baggage. They do not yet need to worry about jobs and saving enough money to pay for their first mortgages. Most importantly, the Internet—especially social media platforms such as the Chinese versions of Twitter and Facebook—has more influence on their way of thinking than government propaganda. As famed writer and blogger Han Han wrote of the post-90 youths who starred in the Shifang demonstrations: “It’s wrong to call them future leaders of the country; they are already today’s movers and shakers” (Apple Daily [Hong Kong] July 11; Han Han Blog, July 5).

Shifang also marked one of most obvious instances of the CCP Propaganda Department’s inability to contain public discourse critical of the government in cyberspace, where more than 500 million Chinese Internet users congregate virtually. More than 200 nationally known bloggers and Internet-based social critics defied orders from the authorities by penning pungent commentaries on how cadres’ arrogance and insensitivity had contributed to the Shifang mishap. Han Han and popular commentator Li Chengpeng also praised the increasing maturity of young protestors nationwide. Beijing’s apparent inability to control Internet-based opinion leaders also may have prompted central and provincial authorities to take quick action to mollify Shifang residents (Tianya.cn [Beijing], July 7; Sina.com, July 6).

There is little evidence, however, that the political-legal apparatus will contemplate more enlightened methods in dealing with dissidents who are deemed to pose the most serious threat to CCP authoritarianism. Dissidents, such as human rights activist Hu Jia and avant garde artist Ai Weiwei, are still placed under 24-hour surveillance. This is despite the fact that Chinese courts have not convicted them of any offenses. Even though blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng left China two months ago, his nephew Chen Kegui is still held by police in Shandong Province. Attorney Song Ze, one of dozens of human rights lawyers who have helped the Chen family, has lost contact with his family members or associates. International human rights watchdogs believe, like famed lawyer Gao Zhisheng, Song has “disappeared” and is believed to be held in an undisclosed location somewhere in China (Amnesty International, July 6; China Human Rights Defenders, July 6).

Beijing’s decision not to yield an inch regarding widespread demands that party authorities pay hefty compensation to victims of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, let alone overturn the official verdict on the June 4 “counter-revolutionary turmoil,” is also telling. A case in point is the mysterious death of Hunan Province labor activist Li Wangyang, who was imprisoned for 22 years because of his role in the 1989 democracy movement. Li was detained again in late May shortly after he had given an interview to a Hong Kong television station. On June 6, authorities claimed he had committed suicide. The 62-year-old’s body was incinerated immediately despite queries and protests lodged by relatives and lawyers about the circumstances of his demise. Last week, Hunan authorities released a report confirming that Li had taken his own life. Li’s closest kin—his sister and brother-in-law—were kept under house arrest in an apparent attempt by the police to prevent them from talking to foreign media (New York Times, July 13; BBC News, July 13).

Chairman Mao Zedong said it all with this telling remark about the incendiary nature of popular protest: “A spark from the heavens can set the whole grassland on fire.” While party authorities might have been forced into using relatively rational and placatory weiwen tactics in the wake of the Wukan and Shifang incidents, there is slim evidence that the leadership under outgoing President Hu Jintao is ready to introduce radical measures to promote social justice and ensure ordinary citizens’ rights in political participation. The world—and the increasingly politicized post-80 and post-90 generation in China—waits with impatience for signs that the new leadership to be endorsed at the 18th Party Congress this autumn may bring real reformist zeal to repairing the party’s sorely strained relationship with the citizenry.