Three recent blog essays by the young writer Han Han - on revolution, democracy and freedom - sparked a fierce debate on the internet. Among his views, his support for reform over revolution was the most contentious. Han's popularity is of course one reason his postings ignited such a debate. But the fact is, the subject resonated because China stands at a crossroads.
The relevance of revolution in today's society was a hot topic among scholars three months ago when the centenary of the 1911 revolution rolled around. Law professor Xiao Han declared China today to be ripe for a revolution, and believed a revolution was inevitable. He said he did not hope that violence could be avoided, but suggested it should be justified.
Philosopher Li Zehou took the opposite view. In his argument for a 'farewell to revolution', he said any regime that seized power through violent revolt would itself cling to the use of violence to maintain power. Yet another tyrant or autocratic government would be born, inciting yet another revolt. This was the vicious cycle of violence that accompanied the rise and fall of China's dynasties, he said. No matter which held power, it was the people who suffered. Notions of democracy, freedom and the rule of law would be mere slogans, for there would be no room to develop them.
Han made the same argument. Besides, he said, Chinese people on the whole were not well educated and, in the chaos of a revolution, there would be nothing to stop villains and opportunists from taking power.
One observation is left unsaid: the history of the Chinese Communist Party proves this argument right. The party led a violent revolution holding aloft the banner for democracy and freedom for an oppressed people. They seized the so-called 'political power that comes from a gun barrel' and founded a new China. Sixty years on, not only has democracy failed to arrive, the rights of freedom of speech, publication, association and protest have all deteriorated. A person could be arrested today for voicing support for the values widely trumpeted in the 1940s.
The advantage of reform over revolution can't be as handily illustrated, but it, too, has historical precedence. Before 1911, two generations of Chinese had worked to put in place innovative reforms. If social justice could be achieved without bloodshed, only the bloodthirsty would not attempt to do so.
The question is: how can reform be made possible? Li Zehou advocated letting the ruling authorities dictate the pace of change and making sure their interests were not threatened, and reform would come. In this view, history is written by the social elites, and ordinary people may only await their fate. Historical change will come at the expense of people's rights and interests.
Han Han understands the importance of individual resistance. In his third essay, he urged authorities to relax censorship controls on media and the arts. And if things did not improve in two or three years, he said, he would stage protests at the annual conferences of the Chinese Writers' Association or the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles.
Will this work? Such a protest is likely to be dispersed by the police. Some protesters may even be arrested and jailed, as activist Wang Lihong was after she protested outside a court in support of three bloggers on trial. If replicated in China, Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent resistance - openly defying the colonial government, repeatedly organising sit-in rallies, even tearing up his identity card - would unfortunately invite the same punishment from officials as a violent protest.
It is worth asking if the recent stand-off in Guangdong's Wukan village is a revolt or reform. Out of concern for their own safety, the villagers denied they led an uprising. But the fact is they fell out of government control for three months, and formed their own governing body based on clan relations and elections. This would be considered illegal, and reason enough for a government crackdown. Yet the Wukan villagers mobilised to set up road blocks in open confrontation with armed police, and eventually forced the government to recognise its 'illegal organisation' and even negotiate with it. This was a fundamental breach of government; we'd only be fooling ourselves by calling it 'reform'. Put another way, can such 'reform' be promoted elsewhere? Or, if it were a revolution, how was it able to maintain order and achieve success?
Guangdong officials who took part in resolving the crisis now take credit for it, and it is possible they would set it up as an example of the Guangdong government's 'humane treatment of its people'. But it should be clear that without the people's refusal to back down in the face of police force, and their determination to hold even bigger rallies, the government would not have instituted change.
Where does the impetus for reform come from? I asked this question of several people familiar with government thinking, and their answer was: not from any belief in just rule, but from the pressure to maintain stability. Where does this pressure come from? Clearly, not from scholars' rational and constructive criticism, but from mass movements that threaten violent disorder and social breakdown.
Binary thinking of reform or revolution is to my mind somewhat misguided, and does not accord with the realities of China's underclass. It lacks awareness of civil rights. Effective people's resistance is likely to be a combination of both: the fear and pressure of revolution giving the impetus to reform, and progressive reform leading to systemic change that is nothing short of revolutionary.
Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese