Beijing’s credibility crisis

Li Datong
25 September 2009

The People's Republic of China (PRC) was declared on 1 October 1949. The authorities seek to hold an especially large celebration on every tenth anniversary. This is carefully designed to give the people the illusion of possessing strength and wealth - and to project the rulers' own vanity. This year's sixtieth anniversary will be the biggest yet.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and former editor of Freezing Point, a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Among Li Datong's articles in openDemocracy:

"The CCTV fire: a voice without restraint" (5 March 2009)

"China: democracy in action" (19 March 2009)

"China's Tibet: question with no answer" (16 April 2009)

"Tiananmen: the legacy of 1989" (4 June 2009)

"China's civil society: breaching the Green Dam" (17 July 2009)
The celebrations over the last three decades have not always gone according to plan. In 1979 the damage wrought by the cultural revolution begun in the mid-1960s had not yet been repaired, and there was no money for major centrepiece events such as a military parade. By 1989, the reform and opening-up policies had brought some improvement to people's lives - cause enough, it was thought, for a splendid party. But in May-June of that year, the events of Tiananmen Square shocked the world, and China found itself more isolated than ever. Beijing was put under a strict military curfew, and the more flexible policies were set aside in place of noisy rhetoric about "opposing western peaceful evolution". It no longer seemed the time to celebrate, and the PRC anniversary events were low-key. For a while the Chinese believed they would never again see an extravagant and wasteful military parade.

In spring 1992, Deng Xiaoping's famous "southern tour" inaugurated a second round of reform in China. Deng himself passed away in 1997, bequeathing a mixed legacy of achievement and failure. His successor as party general-secretary leader was Jiang Zemin, a figure who combined commanding power with a love of performance. He decided to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the People's Republic in 1999 with a grand military display.

The problem of governance

The aim of that second round of reform was to establish a market economy - an aim achieved by a partnership between power and capital, with numerous state-owned enterprises sold off to the "able", creating a large cohort of capitalists. But many employees were forced out of work, with no social welfare to rely on - leaving them marginalised. Residential areas of cities and surrounding farmland were forcibly purchased at risible prices, and the rich-poor gap started to widen. The seeds of the social crisis that China faces today can be seen in this period, but there was not yet fierce confrontation. So the extravagant fiftieth anniversary celebrations went ahead - with the cost said to run to over RMB 100 billion ($14bn).

A dampener on the celebrations came in the form of an article entitled 50 Years of Trials and Hardships, by well-known liberal intellectual and former vice-president of the China academy of sciences, Li Shenzhi. The language was pointed: "1999 is not just the fiftieth anniversary of the People's Republic of China - it is the eightieth anniversary of the May 4th Movement" (a reference to the student-led protests of 1919 sparked by the unfair treatment of China embodied in the Versailles treaty which grew into a wider call for scientific advance, democracy, and social progress).

"The aim of the emancipation of the individual embodied in the demands of 1919 has today yet to be realised", Li Shenzhi continued. "1999 is also the tenth anniversaryof the June 4th incident which brought the Tiananmen protests to an end - a date that the authorities could use to declare an amnesty, in order to offer comfort to the victims and bereaved. This would restore public morale, lay the foundation for further reform, and also do wonders for China's international standing - thus improving the external conditions for reform. But those in power ignore this and the opportunity passes by."

It is a matter of record that Jiang did nothing for political reform. The seeds of social crisis planted during his reign have exploded, one by one, during Hu Jintao's leadership.  In 2008-09 alone, tens of thousands of people have been caught up in often violent protests.  There has been disorder in Tibet, Weng'an, Shishou, Urumqi and at the Tonghua steel mills, among many other incidents.

When public anger explodes, the authorities have no response but violent suppression. This crisis of governance is characterised by a loss of government credibility - particularly that of the authorities at the grassroots. A survey by the official publication Insight China found that government officials were rated as less trustworthy than sex-workers - surely the most devastating of verdicts.

The rot of corruption

The loss of government credibility is symbolised by two incidents. The first occurred on 17 July 2009, a million residents of Qi county in Henan province started to flee their homes. In only two or three hours, tens of thousands of vehicles flooded onto the roads, causing gridlock. Traffic police set up roadblocks and attempted to persuade drivers to turn back, but panic continued. The scene could have been taken from a Hollywood disaster movie, with the county left empty.

The reason? An accident with an industrial source of radioactivity - but there had been no leak of radiation and the situation was entirely under control. The local government did not view the incident as important and made no statement about it; but the public believed that government silence indicated a cover-up. The spreading rumours of an imminent explosion caused a spontaneous evacuation - with many public servants among those taking to the roads.

The second incident was the jailing for three years of a Hangzhou youth - the son of a rich family - for killing a pedestrian on 7 May 2009 while racing his car along the street. Many online commentators insisted the defendant was not the guilty party, but a stand-in; a bizarre belief, but one that earned much support, less because there was any evidence to support it than because people believe the rich can use their money to circumvent the law.

Such events are supplemented by constant tales of government untrustworthiness - which can seem exaggerated but often turn out to be true. For example, 1,500 people were arrested in a single crackdown on criminal gangs in Chongqing: the detainees included the deputy head of the city's public-security bureau (who had been in his post for a decade), the head of the justice bureau, other senior officials and several mega-rich businessmen. Many of these were local, or even national, "people's representatives".

The people cannot be expected to believe that only Chongqing is this corrupt. In recent months alone the vice-president of the supreme court, the mayor of Shenzhen, the party secretary of Zhejiang and the vice-ministry for railways have all fallen from office due to corruption.

The unavoidable clash

What of central government? The financial crisis has worsened China's employment concerns. Beijing has called for all levels of government to seek to combat unemployment, particularly among new graduates. The news provoked bitter humour among those affected: graduates responded to the publication of official figures on graduate employment by joking that they'd "been employed", internet-users reacted to the data from the statistics bureau showing increases in income by saying their incomes had "been increased". The public is dubious about any official and "authoritative" information.

Meanwhile, the record of a conversation with an "old comrade" has appeared online as the sixtieth anniversary celebrations approach. The identity of the source is not revealed, but the content suggests he must have been a member of the Central Political Bureau Committee, or higher. The article spread feverishly online; there were 300,000 hits within a few days. The source, speaking with particular authority, was frank in pointing out that sixty years of party rule have not been glorious - many of these years saw the people suffer at the hands of the ruling party. The party has turned its back on the commitments it made when it came to power: to "build a democratic, free, China". It has still not established basic political ethics.

The document sent shockwaves through the party. The analysis and the response to it reflect a crisis of credibility that is rare in the history of the People's Republic. At root, the cause lies in people's rising awareness of their rights and their desire to participate in politics - and the conflict between this and a closed, unsupervised and unfettered political system. This conflict is no longer merely theoretical; it is a living fact.

So the celebrations will take place against a background of fear that something will go wrong. There is tight security on a par with that for the Beijing Olympics, with three layers of monitoring to check people and vehicles entering the capital. Besides a large contingent of police and armed police, an army of 700,000 citizens has been mobilised to participate in security work - as if the country faces a dangerous enemy.

What air of celebration can there be? How long can these days of fear go on?


openDemocracy writers track China's politics in 2009:

Perry Link, " Charter 08: a blueprint for China" (5 January 2009)

Kerry Brown, " China in 2009: a year for surprise" (14 January 2009)

Wei Jingsheng, " China's political tunnel" (22 January 2009)

Kerry Brown, " China's giant struggle" (5 February 2009)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, " China's anniversary tempest" (24 February 2009)

Kerry Brown, " China local, China global" (11 March 2009)

Henryk Szadziewski, " Kashgar's old city: the politics of demolition" (3 April 2009)

Kerry Brown, " China's coming struggle for power" (14 May 2009)

Kerry Brown, " China's Tiananmen moment: the party rules" (3 June 2009)

Emily Lau, " Tiananmen, 1989-2009" (4 June 2009)

Yitzhak Shichor, " The Uyghurs and China: lost and found nation" (6 July 2009)

Henryk Szadziewski, " The discovery of the Uyghurs" (10 July 2009)

Kerry Brown, " Xinjiang: China's security high-alert" (14 July 2009)

Dibyesh Anand, " China's borderlands: the need to rethink" (15 July 2009)

Temtsel Hao, " Xinjiang, Tibet, beyond: China's ethnic relations" (23 July 2009)

Igor Torbakov & Matti Nojonen, " China-Turkey and Xinjiang: a frayed relationship" (5 August 2009)

Kerry Brown, "China's shadow sector: power in pieces" (14 September 2009)

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData