Make it real

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 June, 2009, 12:00am

Twenty years ago, the Communist Party called out the People's Liberation Army to suppress a people's movement whose focus was Tiananmen Square in Beijing but whose scope was nationwide. The result was what is known today as the June 4 massacre.

And, in the ensuing weeks and months, the security apparatus of the government that calls itself the People's Republic of China employed tactics of force and intimidation to drill fear into its citizens - the people of the People's Republic.

Night after night, television news showed more and more people being taken into custody. Those arrested were shown in helpless postures, with arms twisted behind their backs by iron-faced men in uniform. The power of the state was in full view.

Twenty years later, many would say that the party has won. Today, there is little resistance to party rule, largely because it has brought prosperity to the people and international respect for the country. Maybe. The party has learned that, to stay in power, it has to give the people what they want. And so, as many have pointed out, there is an unspoken compact: as long as the party continues to raise living standards, the people will not challenge its right to rule.

That is why the economic downturn is such a challenge. If China should fall into recession - in fact, if China's growth rate should drop below 8 per cent - there is a serious danger of unrest and the party's legitimacy could be seriously questioned.

Today, the communist leadership likes to describe itself as the 'ruling party', as though there had been an election that it had won. The iron fist is well covered by the velvet glove.

China's leaders today wear jackets and ties rather than Mao suits. They are well educated and sophisticated and do not feel awkward in the presence of foreign leaders. And while they may do business with international pariahs whose countries are rich in natural resources, they certainly don't want China to be lumped together with them.

In this way, they are a far cry from Mao Zedong and his in-your-face honesty in telling a western journalist: 'Sir, you say we are dictators? Yes, indeed, you are right. We are 100 per cent dictators.'

But trying to act like a civilised government exacts its own price: if the iron fist is no longer in evidence, people may lose their fear of you.

Recent events, indeed, show that an increasing number of people on the mainland are willing to stand up for what they believe in and no longer fear the government. In December, despite the real risk of arrest and imprisonment, several hundred prominent citizens signed Charter 08, a manifesto calling for political reform and human rights. The principal drafter, Liu Xiaobo , was immediately jailed, and more than a hundred signatories have been subjected to police questioning and intimidation, but the number of those who have signed the charter online has now risen into the thousands.

And this year, on May 10, almost a score of intellectuals got together to discuss the democracy movement within China and to commemorate those who died on June 4, 1989 - ending two decades of silence during which time no one had dared to talk openly about the student protests and the military crackdown.

May 10 was Mother's Day, and those present began by honouring the mothers of the students who died. Since then, several people who were present have posted on the internet the speeches they made on that occasion, making it clear to the authorities that they are not afraid.

The message is clear. Unless the party resorts again to brute force to enforce its will, people will not be intimidated. But if it does that, it will certainly jeopardise China's chances of being seen as a country governed by the consent of its people whose government should play a much bigger role in the world.

The party faces a dilemma. The solution is simple. Instead of pretending that the government has the consent of the governed, make that a reality.

And, if the Communist Party wins the election, it can rightly describe itself as the 'ruling party'.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator