People’s Square, the site of Shanghai’s horse racing track in pre-revolutionary days, has become a symbolic center of gravity in Shanghai, not unlike Times Square in New York. This, and the fact that it is at the intersection of three metro lines, making it easily accessible to millions of residents, is undoubtedly the reason why it was chosen as the rally site. As I approached the area, I noticed that the metro exit closest to Peace Cinema was blocked, with a sign saying (in Chinese) “This area is closed for maintenance. Please use another exit. Thank you for your cooperation.” I therefore used another exit, leading to a large shopping mall, Raffles City, which directly joins onto the Peace Cinema and contains the Starbucks immediately adjacent to the rally site. The Starbucks looked normal from within the mall except that the outdoor tables had been moved inside the mall. Quite strangely for a pleasant Sunday afternoon, the entrance to Peace Cinema was blocked, and the theater itself was completely closed. Entering Starbucks from the mall, I found the door to the outside was also blocked, with a sign saying, obviously falsely, “This door is out of order. Please use the back door.”
There was nothing else to do except go outside, using the mall’s main entrance. As I reached the sidewalk, I had no idea what to expect, and would not have been surprised to find nothing, or find the entire area fenced off. Instead, to my amazement, it was immediately very obvious that something unusual was going on. A crowd of perhaps three to four hundred had gathered in the rally area. It was clear that most of them were not just pedestrians, because they were just standing around, as if they were waiting for something to happen. In fact, this was more or less what the Jasmine organizers had requested — for people to simply show up at the appointed place and time, without saying or doing anything in particular. There were also hundreds of pedestrians just passing by coincidentally, some of whom, as in Beijing last week, were attracted by the crowd and stopped to gawk (an instinct to join crowds, rather than avoid them, is one noticeable characteristic of Chinese culture which differentiates it from American culture).
Several people had cameras and were very conspicuously videotaping the rally. The obvious question is whether these people were demonstrators or working for the government; my guess would be mostly the latter, although it’s impossible to be sure. The police presence was indeed heavy, just as it had been at the first Jasmine rally last week, according to reports. There seemed to be several different kinds of police; some wore standard police uniforms, while others had private security badges, and there seemed to be some rough-looking individuals on the periphery of the crowd without any uniform at all observing everything. It is certainly possible that the latter were plainclothes policemen. I also saw a few foreigners.
The mood at this event was odd, difficult to describe, and very different from the last major political gathering I witnessed in China, which was the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, held in Hong Kong in 1999. At the Shanghai Jasmine Rally, the people who looked like demonstrators were mostly older Chinese; their facial expressions were a peculiar combination of determination, curiosity, and cynicism. The cops seemed slightly jumpy but also bored, because at least during the short time I was there, it was apparent that nothing very dramatic was happening.
Oddly, a small street sweeper was moving down the sidewalk, apropos of nothing. I later learned that last week, the same faintly ludicrous tactic was used in Beijing to clear the rally area there. After lingering in the mall for a while, I checked the area again before leaving. The only change was that a police officer was walking up and down repeating a Chinese phrase into a megaphone; I was unable to get this phrase translated before filing this article, but it is likely that he was ordering the area to be cleared, aided by the street sweeper.
Few would dispute that the PRC is a vastly better-governed country than Libya, and probably much better than Egypt as well. But similarities nevertheless exist. China’s ruling party took power by force, with Stalin’s help, and has never once dared to test its legitimacy at the ballot box. The party constantly asserts that it has invented a new “Confucian” model of government which is superior to “Western democracy,” even though, as the democratic revolutions sweeping the Arab world have so forcefully demonstrated, the appeal of democratic governance obviously extends beyond the limits of Western civilization; indeed, in today’s world, most people living under democratic governments are not “Western,” as the term has been traditionally understood.
The CCP and its defenders also claim that it has wide public support, although if this is really the case, why does the party need to hire tens of thousands of low-paid drones to defend its record on public Internet sites? Why, indeed, does the CCP feel the need to undertake its massive Internet censorship program — by far the most aggressive, intrusive and expensive in the world — which focuses special attention on any site where individual people can give uncensored opinions? (Youtube, Blogspot, WordPress, IMDb, Twitter, and Facebook are among the most prominent targets of the “Great Firewall.”) The CCP’s own actions demonstrate beyond doubt, to any thinking person, that the Party knows it is losing popular support, and therefore seeks to muzzle anyone who cannot be bought off or intimidated (the roster of foreign companies and even governments who fit in one of the latter two categories is depressingly long).
The basic problem with the Chinese system, whether one calls it neo-Confucianism, market-Leninism, “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” or any other label, is actually quite simple. Compared to the Western-democratic model, it lacks two basic features: freedom of speech, and public accountability.
Without freedom of speech, problems invariably fester until they become so serious that they result in mob violence. This is the basic reason why China now has serious incidents of public disorder nearly 100,000 times every year, even by the government’s own reckoning — and the number has been steadily rising. China actually has many excellent journalists who would be happy to expose local problems, as they do in other countries; instead, these reports are usually suppressed. Even in the rare cases where they become so well known that the official media are forced to discuss them, the Party line is always that disasters, such as plastic baby formula, or shoddily built schools killing thousands of children in an earthquake, are the fault of a few inexplicably depraved local scapegoats, not the inevitable result of the system itself, or (God forbid) the ultimate responsibility of China’s unelected Politburo. The intent of the Party’s death grip over the media is to protect the CCP’s reputation, but this cannot work in the long run, because a failure to deal with the underlying causes of problems simply guarantees their repetition in the future, and a lack of credible media causes exaggerated rumors and conspiracy theories to be accepted as fact by the population.
Without public accountability, government officials will invariably do the rational thing, which is to ignore what the public wants and curry favor with their superiors instead. This is why Hu Jintao, the former governor of Tibet, became China’s leader even though he was hated by most Tibetans: it made no difference what his subjects thought of his performance — only the opinion of the CCP higher-ups carried any weight. And this is also why corruption has exploded out of control: as long as government officials make enough money to keep their superiors and other officials happy, it makes no difference if ordinary people think that their taxes and bank deposits are being wasted. It is no coincidence that one key demand of the Jasmine organizers is this: “the details of tax collection [must] be published, and that taxes [should be] genuinely ‘collected from the people, and used for the people.’”
Perhaps the most fundamental problem with dictatorship, as a form of government, is that dictators, for the reasons just mentioned, always end up surrounded by fawning lackeys who tell them whatever they want to hear, and insulate them from the real concerns of the population. The result is that eventually, the dictator begins to lose touch with the reality in his country, and is especially prone to believe a claim that has never been true — indeed, cannot be true — in any human society: that the dictator, or his political organization, are indispensable to the nation. Events in Libya over the last few days have provided a very clear example of where this phenomenon can lead.
Unfortunately for the Communist Party of China, it shows every indication of falling victim to all these syndromes. Hu Jintao delivers condescending lectures to the Chinese people about the need to “solve prominent problems which might harm the harmony and stability of the society,” as though they are children who could not possibly be aware that Hu himself, as the leader of the CCP, is the single individual most directly and personally responsible for the “problems which are harming the harmony and stability of the society.”At the same time, China’s prosperity and integration with the global economy have created a huge middle class which has no patience for, and no interest in, the patronizing lessons of a self-appointed philosopher-king.
As for the myth of indispensability, this is practically the foundation stone of the CCP regime, which constantly, and ridiculously, refers to itself as “China,” an arrogant inanity reminiscent of precisely the feudal system Marx sought to overthrow (e.g., the alleged claim of Louis XIV that “L’État, c’est moi”). For example, the CCP defends Mao Zedong’s monstrous democide with this shibboleth: “Without Chairman Mao, there would be no New China.” But the term “New China,” when it was originally used, meant nothing except China ruled by the CCP, headed by Chairman Mao — so the statement is logically equivalent to the moronically circular “Without Chairman Mao, there would be no China ruled by Chairman Mao.” Even after years living in China, it remains unclear to me how the country was improved by forcing people to regurgitate this kind of idiocy.
Furthermore, the CCP was never “chosen” by the Chinese people but rather imposed on China by the defunct Soviet Union; does not represent “Chinese” ideas, but rather a totally discredited and colossally destructive detour in Western philosophy; has never included more than a tiny fraction of Chinese people as members; is directly responsible for catastrophic policies which killed at least fifty million Chinese citizens; and delayed China’s economic modernization by at least three decades, among countless other crimes. (The regime’s foreign policy misdeeds, such as propping up Kim Il-Sung and Pol Pot, are simply too extensive to discuss here.) For such an organization to claim identity with the 5000-year-old Chinese civilization, to say nothing of the 1.2 billion Chinese people now living, who have never once endorsed its leadership in a free vote, is more than just false — it is, in fact, profoundly insulting to the intelligence of any patriotic Chinese person, and ought to make them livid with rage.