“It only takes a small group, and we are that small group,” says Peng Ming, the revolutionary. “We don’t need the general population, and we don’t need the overseas dissidents. All we need is a few hundred determined people.” And, in a sense, Peng does not need a large force if he can attract disaffected elements within society. “Now it’s the easiest time to plot a coup from within the Party,” he notes. The same goes for the People’s Liberation Army, in which he claims to have recruited a small band of followers. Overthrowing the government “only takes a couple of people to plan, a dozen people to organize, and a couple of hundred people to act,” Peng Ming believes.
Whether Peng is correct or not in his assessment of China’s stability, modern society has become increasingly vulnerable. If a nation is a matrix, as network theorists assume, then how much of the grid do you have to wreck before you fundamentally alter the structure of the entire society? Not much, is the surprising answer: All you have to do is bring down critical junctures or, to use the nomenclature of today, hubs.
The regime in Beijing is fragile, just as most other governments in the world are today. And the greater its interdependency, the more fragile a government is. Peng Ming notes that, in the later stages of the revolution, two million Communist troops marched on Beijing, which was defended by 100,000 Kuomintang soldiers. Although the Communists surrounded the Chinese capital for six months, life in Beijing remained calm. The city in those days was able to supply water and other essentials from within its boundaries. “But today, water for Beijing comes from a central reservoir fifty miles away,” Peng says. “If someone poisons the reservoir, no one in Beijing will dare drink water. In the past, one only had to dig two meters underground to get water. Now, even digging 200 meters will not get water.” So Peng Ming, or any other revolutionary for that matter, needs to recruit just a few people to bring the Chinese capital to its knees.
And then there is the matter of size, which in Peng Ming’s view does definitely matter. “Even if there is water underground, in those days Beijing only had one million people. Beijing now has ten million people. Once water is cut off, everything breaks up.”
The same principle applies to gas and electricity. “Electricity is linked by grids,” notes Peng Ming. “One can cut off the electricity supply by destroying a grid. Computer technology will destroy the supply. No need for heavy artillery and an army to invade. In those days, it took more than two million people to bring down that city. Now it only takes 200 people.”
Poisoning water and cutting off electricity may be feasible for a small gang, but these actions can only lead to the fall of a state in the later stages of conflict. What does he plan to do before then? Peng Ming says that he will “trigger a banking crisis to lead to social instability.” Referring to the banking problems, he says, “This is the regime’s Achilles heel, and this is where we will attack.”
His more general argument, which is not entirely implausible, is that the Chinese people are waiting for an opposition to form. “When we act, people will follow,” he tells us.
Or maybe the people will follow someone else. The truth is that there are many organizations in China that seek to overthrow the state. As reported last November in Open Magazine, a Hong Kong Chinese language publication, the Ministry of State Security believes that there are more than sixty revolutionary organizations existing in China now. The authorities are constantly uncovering and smashing underground organizations, like the East Thunderbolt Party, which aims to overthrow the Communist Party and establish a democratic system. This group, many of whose members are demobilized soldiers, is organized much like the Communist Party in its earliest days. For every East Thunderbolt Party that is uncovered and destroyed, there is at least another to take its place.
If Peng Ming survives today, it is perhaps only because the mighty state is beset by plots and conspiracies. There is, after all, safety in numbers. “I think the police are as strong and as arbitrary as ever,” says the Dui Hua Foundation’s John Kamm. “But in a sense they are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the dissidence–not dissidents–in Chinese society, and they have to prioritize these days.”
Peng Ming, if he is clever or maybe just lucky, could succeed in his goal. “I predict in five years, I will go back to China to take over,” says the revolutionary from the safety of a small restaurant in the heart of New York’s Chinatown. A devout Taiwanese woman told him that God revealed to her that the Chinese regime will collapse in half a decade. This woman, living in San Diego, was never interested in politics. Yet God gave her a vision: Peng Ming was standing on one side of the river and tried many times to cross it. The Almighty told her that within five years, Peng will cross the river. “I know people may not believe this,” he says. “But I am a Christian. I believe.”
In the meantime, Peng Ming believes that he will carry on the battle with less than Christian charity in his heart. “The Chinese Communist is ruthless,” he says. “We have to be more ruthless. To use more ruthless means to overthrow it. Peaceful means will never get one to power.”
And what happens when he finally grabs that power? As an initial matter, China’s existing rulers should expect no mercy. “We will suppress them the same way they suppress us,” Peng Ming says.
And the rest of the Chinese people should not expect democracy right away. “There are too many problems,” he explains. “We have to eradicate the remnants of Communist power, and we can only do that if we have absolute power.” He does promise rule of law, and then he plans to solve social problems such as unemployment. “Only then will people elect me as their leader,” he says. Otherwise, they might elect a communist, he fears.
“Religious freedom can be immediately allowed,” Peng Ming promises. “Nonpolitical organizations can be allowed. Freedom of the media can be gradually allowed. Political parties will be finally allowed. We have to establish rule of law first.” Of course, no government has been able to establish rule of law without democratic institutions.
Peng Ming won’t find much support for the government in exile that he wants to set up unless he first makes stronger promises on allowing self representation. If he gets into power, will he be the person who finally beings democracy to the Chinese people? Or will he be just another tyrant? “I will first be a bandit, a ruthless person,” he tells us. “Eventually, I will be a gentleman.”
The Chinese people know plenty of bandits and don’t need another set of absolute rulers, no matter how wise or well intentioned they may be. What they need, more than anything else, is the opportunity to govern themselves. Yet, because Beijing’s current leaders resist reform, conspirators and plotters will continue to try to topple the Chinese government by force. And if by chance it is Peng Ming who succeeds, we would like to think that he will immediately break the cycle of autocratic rule. But getting rid of the Communist Party will be the easy part. Making true progress on the road to representative government is much harder.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, published by Random House.