Who’s Afraid of the Revolution?
The paradox of fear and stability in today’s China.
How can it be that a book on the French Revolution, written by an aristocratic French historian and political thinker from the 19th century, has inspired a modern Chinese bureaucrat to the extent that he has strongly recommended it to his Politburo colleagues? Not only that but Alexis de Tocqueville‘s bourgeoisie book The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856) has now been reprinted and is very popular among China’s high cadres. The man who introduced this book to China’s elite was Wang Qishan, one of the seven members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, and the current head of the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection. He has been at the core of the think-tank in Beijing since the CCP’s 18th Party Congress and his declared ambition is to fight against corruption. While the so-called “kill the tiger, but also the flies” tactic of Xi Jinping’s administration is controversial and unconvincing in eyes of observers and the common people, Wang is known for his low-profile working style. As chief of the Disciplinary Committee, he now stands at the forefront of dealing with the metastasis of corruption and confronts the most complex issues and crises on a daily basis.
- During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
- Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.
In his book, Tocqueville analyzes the social conditions, causes, and forces that triggered the French Revolution. He points out that the revolution happened not while society was in a state of stagnation, but while reform had already started; it was important “to continue the process of modernizing and centralizing the French state which had begun under King Louis XIV.”
For Wang Qishan, the thunderbolt in Tocqueville is his profound analysis of an inevitable and imminent revolution. The present situation in China has many similarities to the precondition of the French Revolution—even though 224 years lie between them. For his part, Wang wants to impart a sense of crisis among China’s leading politicians and put it on the agenda, to redistribute the unbearable heaviness of responsibility among different pillars of power. Besides, the aftermath of revolution is totally vague. What kind of new social and political order will be built up to replace the existing mutated crossbreed of communism and capitalism? The Singapore-model has been much discussed behind closed doors, as always, and neither the elite nor the public are involved in the discussion.
It’s a contradictory situation in China. When you walk through the city streets and see all the well-dressed people in the colorful, glinting shops, the vigorous supply and demand of the market, the magnificent buildings, the high-speed railways, the gigantic modern bridges strung across rivers, you think that this is a rich and modern country. On the other hand, if you go online and read all the news about uprising, protest, suppression, and injustice, a shiver of despair will take hold of you. Many people believe that minor and uncontrolled incidents can trigger a catastrophe that could ruin stability in an instant.
The recent death of a 22 year-old Anhui migrant girl, who fell from the fourth floor of the Jingwen Wholesale house in Beijing where she worked, is a typical case of simplicity that nevertheless seethes with danger. The incident happened at 4:00 a.m. on May 3. According to the police, the girl in question committed suicide; her family didn’t believe the explanation and asked to see the footage from the warehouse’s closed-circuit cameras. The police refused to show the video of the incident. Rumor spread that the girl was first raped by several guards, then murdered. The police closed the case quickly and the media was not allowed to report on it. Online information was blocked and all the related names and keywords were filtered. Then an astonishing thing happened. On May 8th, thousands of migrant workers from Anhui gathered in front of the Jingwen Wholesale business center in protest. They asked the police to release evidence of the death. It was one of the largest protest actions in years. Armed police were mobilized and helicopters circled in the sky.
As the protest was forming armored trucks and police cars parked on a side street, and police equipped with heavy shields, batons and dogs lined up. It was yet another unbalanced confrontation between power and the powerless. Luckily, the situation did not escalate. The police arrested one woman, who supposedly spread the anonymous rumor online that accused the authority of misconduct.
According to the most recent report, the police have posted several videos online, which showed that the girl entered the building on her own and that she had no contact with any other people. The police investigation said that she was not poisoned, nor sexually assaulted, nor was the case a homicide. That is to say, she fell under her own power. The family has since accepted a monetary compensation in the sum of 400 thousand yuan ($65,000) from the building owner and their daughter’s body has been cremated.
It seems that a storm has died down. There are lots of doubts in this case, but when the family members are mollified, who can make further noise?
The German word schadenfreude, malicious-joy, is a good portrayal of the psychology of the Chinese people. Everyone disapproves of the injustice, hates the corruption and arrogance of law and order, suffers under the destroyed environment, is scared about the poisoned food, and yet no one really wants to disturb the stability and experience the consequent chaos and turbulence. All are afraid of the Revolution—both the rulers and their subjects. Survive in paradox, flourish in shame and affluence, that is the living philosophy in today’s China.