[Updated] Parting thoughts on the Shanghai Expo

Note: this post has been amended. The original version included a paragraph towards the end in which I stated, “I was left wondering why so much was doled out on constructing a pavilion that legally cannot be eclipsed by any other, which could have otherwise gone to more pressing demands of healthcare or education.” While I still stand by that assertion, a commenter pointed out the statement was misplaced in the context of the post. I agreed with him, and it’s been removed.

Despite its name, this blog has produced next to no coverage of the event that, it could be argued, defined Shanghai this year: the 2010 World Expo. Why? For one, I was out of the city during the height of the event and, by the time I had returned, it was obvious that two good gentlemen had it brilliantly covered: Shanghai Scrap’s Adam Minter and DeluxZilla’s Zachary Franklin provided news from inside the pavilions, details of the length of the queues and what visiting European dignitaries had to say, and everything else in between, from behind-the-scenes nepotism at the construction of the US Pavilion, to where to take a good nap in the scorching summer heat. So, I decided my two cents would take the form of these parting thoughts, and here they are.

Hot off the heels of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which aimed to bring China to the global stage, the extravagant Expo sought to bring the global stage to China. Over the past six months, official figures estimated that over 70 million visitors flocked to the 5.28 square kilometre area housing national, corporate and theme-inspired pavilions, split into two and strewn across the banks of the Huangpu River. That’s the entire population of the UK plus an extra 10 million, in an area more or less the size of New York’s Central Park. Last Sunday alone, 1.3 million people crammed themselves in to the national pavilion side, slamming Osaka’s daily record of 836,000 visitors in 1970.

And not for nothing, either. An estimated $55 billion – double the amount dished out on the Olympics – has been spent on the Expo and immense sprucing up of Shanghai: we have seen the lightning-speed expansion of the city’s subway system (complete with guards and x-ray machines to maintain ‘public security’), the repaving of just about every potholed street, and a brand-spanking new walkway on the Bund. A media campaign pushing for more ‘civilised’ behaviour and government-led programmes clamping down on wearing pyjamas outside, smoking and spitting in public, all day-to-day fare in the city, have also been set up. Perhaps more bitterly, Shanghai has also seen the demolition of several of its quaint, historical neighbourhoods.

It was during this time (September 2009) that I landed in town: the city’s clean up was my introduction to the Expo. As the infamous food street Wujiang Lu faced deconstruction to show a more sanitised Shanghai complete with glitzy malls instead, I became cynical about the price being paid for this World’s Fair. Given that the pavilions (except China’s) were also due to be torn down once the event finished, I wondered what the point of the whole thing was, without a legacy to preserve the efforts that have gone into creating it.

That lingering air of skepticism stayed with me on my few trips to the Expo. As I walked through the Italian pavilion one evening, surrounded by a display of pasta, a multitude of wine bottles, a giant high-heel plastered with other footwear, and all the while surrounded by model Renaissance architecture, I wondered where I was. This isn’t the Italy I come from or know, I thought to myself. Wandering through the Brazil pavilion, I waltzed under a football net. Hmmm. Brazil = football. I then walked beneath passing shots of Rio’s lush skyline. How big is Brazil? How much of the country looks like this? Whether or not North Korea is a “paradise for the people”, as its pavilion suggests, is also open to debate.

The entire event felt like one enormous cliche of regurgitated stereotypes. Adding to the surreal nature of it all was, for instance, the exorbitant prices charged by some pavilions’ restaurants (a set menu in the Italian pavilion’s eatery went well into the 100s of yuan range). Could the average Chinese visitor afford the food they have seen displayed on the walls of the room they have spent the last fifteen minutes circling? Probably not. They get teased but don’t get to taste.

Other foreign bloggers brushed the event aside. ChinaGeeks‘ C. Custer said

The idea of a “World’s Fair” was understandably appealing in the 1800s, when it served as an important exchange point for technology, and its appeal continued in the twentieth century because of the peerless opportunity it provided to get a glimpse of lots of other cultures all in one place. Unfortunately, in the twentieth century, we have the internet for that. Many countries seem to be treating the Expo as a soft-power branding opportunity, and some countries are just phoning it in. But what seems to be missing from all this is why any regular person would really want to go. I’ve read far more coverage of the Expo than any average foreigner would be willing to, and it still seems like a collection of overly-stylized buildings containing vaguely interactive tourism advertisements. Why would I want to stand in line for hours for that?

Although I’m unsure of what he means by “any regular person”, Custer’s final sentence summed up my sentiments as my uber-enthusiastic flatmate dragged me, the poster child for a moaning Briton, around Zones B and C one balmy September evening. I strolled past the Russia pavilion at around 7pm: the estimated waiting time was still around 3 hours long. Uninspired by the prospect of waiting 3+ hours just to gaze at what I could only expect would be a cut-out of St Basil’s cathedral, I moved on.

But as the evening went on, my cynicism wore off. I realised, yes, the Expo is pure, unadulterated nation-branding. And yes, that entails re-hashing stereotypes, which, as a privileged and reasonably well-travelled foreigner, I am able to spot. But for the millions of Chinese who have travelled far and wide and spent hours trudging across the Expo site, I doubt the issue of stereotypes is of great concern. In the words of Minter,

Could it be, just possibly, that all of those people are curious to know something about a country capable of spending (reportedly) well over $100 million on a pavilion, and lacking the opportunity to travel there themselves (unlike most Expo critics in the foreign media), are taking the only route available to them?

An Expo sympathiser, Minter has lamented the patchy coverage of the event given by China’s community of foreign correspondents. What motivated the Chinese, in their millions, to keep returning to the site, was a missed opportunity for a story, he argues. Earlier this week, he posted an interview with Malcolm Moore, the Daily Telegraph‘s Shanghai correspondent and undeterred Expo critic. Minter asked him whether Telegraph readers and editors back in the UK were interested in the event, to which Moore responded:

There was no interest. We had a senior editor come over, but he was pretty bored by it all. It was a distinctly unimaginative, uncreative, uninteresting event. Let’s face it, everyone loves sport, so everyone loves the Olympics. But what excitement was there at the Expo over the six months it ran? I must have asked fifty people who paid for tickets and queued up what their impression of it was, and around 95 per cent of them simply shrugged their shoulders and said it was “alright”.

While demand in the West for all things Expo may have been low, it seems the Shanghainese can’t get enough of it. Xinhua reported that surveys conducted by Shanghai-based Touchmedia through touch-screens installed in the backs of taxi headrests, around 60 percent of passengers among the 130,000 surveyed expect another Expo in the Middle Kingdom.

For all its quirky stereotypes, insane crowds (complete with sly folk jumping queues), overpriced refreshments and hasty demolition of some of Shanghai’s more beautiful spots, it’s undeniable that the Expo has been a defining feature in the city’s development and China’s growth more widely. It has seen the Middle Kingdom reach out to the rest of the world far more, and bring those nations, albeit in limited terms, to its own people. It set out to be the victory lap for 2008’s coming out party, and some are optimistic that it achieved this goal. Speaking to Adam Minter, Zachary Franklin said,

You’re not going to find a single pavilion at this Expo walk away saying they failed. Every pavilion had some measure of success. Some pavilions wanted visitors going home knowing where the country was located on the map, other pavilions created extensive cultural and business programs for six months.

So it is goodbye to the Expo, a farewell I am saying from the comfort of my flat, rather than among the millions of visitors who beat me to the punch in securing tickets for the final day. Thank Christ the sun’s out.

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The West must stand up to China, says Kapil Komireddi

According to freelance writer Kapil Komireddi, writing on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, the West needs to promptly stand up to the monolith that is China, rather than sit back and let it expand and continue its oppressive regime.

Erasing its own history, massacring its own people, shielding genocidal dictatorships abroad, bullying its neighbours, China is an expansionist power without a conscience. There is much that is wrong with the west – and liberal democracies elsewhere – but imagine a world in which China can no longer be held to account. That future is not very far. But if the west continues to cower, it will be here sooner than we think.

Indeed, China’s expansion has not been a peaceful one. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, to cite the two most obvious examples of Mao’s dictatorial quest for a communist society, took the lives of millions. The student and worker protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 ended fatally, with precise figures of those killed by Deng Xiaoping’s troops still unknown. The People’s Republic continues to crack down on those who criticise the legitimacy of the Communist Party: case in point, Charter 08 co-author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is almost one year into his 11-year sentence for inciting subversion.

China is also quick to show its obstinate side out on the diplomatic stage. The recent spat with Japan over a Chinese fisherman who collided with Japanese coastguards in disputed waters produced no winners: China cut diplomatic communications with Japan when they refused to release the fisherman, and promptly demanded an apology and compensation once the fisherman was handed back to the Middle Kingdom. Last year’s Copenhagen climate summit saw similar head banging: the West called on China to abide by legally binding cuts; China said no. China’s role in Africa is also notoriously controversial, with China known for having supplied war-torn Sudan with arms, for example.

So it seems that the Middle Kingdom could benefit from the West taking it down a peg or two. We have seen this happen of late: by the Nobel Committee awarding Liu Xiaobo with this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, China’s poor human rights record has been brought into question, and the work of a relentless and brave dissident has received wider circulation. The West essentially told China it is wrong in continuing cracking down on dissent.

But my issue with Komireddi’s piece is that it is endemic of a simplified, black-and-white vision of China that does no justice to the complexity of the country. Komireddi writes that “China is not a substantially freer country today than it was a decade ago.” But what he means by ‘free’ is unclear, as he fails to consider what such a wide-ranging term could mean to the average Chinese person. It might be the freedom to feed your family comfortably or buy a house; yet Komireddi overlooks how Chinese citizens might take pride in the country’s intense economic strengthening more so than Western notions of ‘freedom’.

He adds that new media, used by more and more disgruntled citizens to voice their concerns of the state, is used just as quickly by the government to monitor and crack down on contentious actors. This is true, the piece’s next paragraph raises an issue:

Liu’s [Xiaobo] plight casts light also on the fundamental uselessness of the so-called “social networking” sites. If Facebook could foment revolutions, Liu’s Charter 08 would have attracted many more signatories than the 8,000 it managed.

It is puzzling that Komireddi did not mention another, more significant reason Charter 08 did not receive overwhelming support within China: because so few of the nation’s 1.3 billion people could in fact relate to the ideals of democracy, multi-party elections and freedom of expression that Liu was calling for. Blogger Han Han alluded to this theme some months ago, in response to Google’s dramatic exit from China:

Perhaps Google thought that freedom, truth, justice, and other such things would mean a lot to a large portion of Chinese netizens. But in reality, these things are nothing compared to a finding a 100 RMB bill on the street.

He also fails to place China’s rise in an appropriate and critical historical context that accounts for why China behaves the way it does with the rest of the global cast. No doubt about it, China is stubborn, but this is in large part due to the ‘century of humiliation’ the country endured at the hands of foreign powers. For example, Japan’s second invasion of China, during World War Two, saw the infamous massacre and rape of hundreds of thousands in Nanjing. With China unable to truly forgive and forget, relations still remain strained between the two.

None of this is to say the West should “cower” to China. Indeed, if China wants to be respected as a global player, it must banish the idea that it can play by its own rules, a’ la the Copenhagen climate summit.

But by at least understanding and acknowledging the country’s complexities, both past and present, the West’s discourse on China can move beyond antagonism. Journalism such as Komireddi’s will only end up serving the opposite purpose.

The vexed question of a Liu Xiaobo Nobel Peace Prize win

Activists holding photos of Liu Xiaobo. Photo by AP

One of the potential recipients of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, due to be announced tomorrow, is Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s most famed dissidents who was last year imprisoned to 11 years for ‘inciting subversion’, having co-authored the pro-democracy document Charter 08.

Modelled on Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, the polemic called for multi-party elections, independent courts and greater freedom of expression in the People’s Republic. It garnered around 7,000 signatures both in China and internationally, and warned of “the possibility of a violent conflict of disastrous proportions” if Beijing failed to reform the one-party authoritarian state.

The possibility of Liu receiving the prize does not sit well with Beijing, with China’s Foreign Ministry calling it “totally wrong.” The head of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, Geir Lundestad, also revealed that China’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Fu Ying, warned him that Liu’s win “would pull the wrong strings in relations between Norway and China, it would be seen as an unfriendly act.”

According to Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu, the fundamental issue is that Liu violated Chinese law. “His acts are completely contrary to the purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize,” she said.

Human rights and pro-democracy activists, however, have marched behind Liu’s cause. Vaclav Havel, the author of Charter 77, wrote in support of Liu’s potential win. Soon after, a Chinese petition signed by 300 scholars, former government officials, lawyers and factory workers followed:

We ask the Nobel Committee to honor Liu Xiaobo’s more than two decades of unflinching and peaceful advocacy for reform, and to make him the first Chinese recipient of that prestigious award. In doing so, the Nobel Committee would signal both to Liu and to the Chinese government that many inside China and around the world stand in solidarity with him, and his unwavering vision of freedom and human rights for the 1. 3 billion people of China.

Liu is no stranger to the world of Chinese dissent. He cut short a visiting scholarship at Columbia University to return to Beijing and participate in the deadly student and workers’ protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, during which he took part in high-profile hunger strikes. Authorities labelled him one of the protest’s ringleaders, and he served an 18 month jail sentence for ‘counter-revolution.’

Throughout the first half of the 1990s, he wrote a number of essays advocating freedom of expression, promoting human rights and criticising the government. However, he was eventually sentenced to three years of manual labour in a re-education camp, being released in 1999.

Nor is he the only Chinese activist to be shortlisted for the prize. Human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng and AIDS activist Hu Jia were both favourites in 2008, having lost out to Finnish former president Martti Ahtisaari. Hu was nominated again in 2009, though lost out to a one Barack Obama.

Were Liu to receive the prize, it would certainly be an embarrassment to Beijing over China’s poor human rights record. It would also undoubtedly boost global attention to Charter 08 and similar writings, which would otherwise remain in circulation among small pockets of Chinese citizens. It may intensify international pressure on China to instigate political reform, changes that Premier Wen Jiabao has himself alluded to over the past few weeks.

But it will take more than a Liu win to kick-start political reform in the PRC. Action at a policy level and legal changes, as discussed by scholar Pan Wei, namely in clarifying the role of civil society, are fundamental. At best, Liu’s potential success would raise awareness of dissent in China. How long-lasting this awareness will be remains to be seen.

But, as with most things in China, matters could also go to the other extreme, and a potential Liu win might backfire. In drawing attention to China’s human rights abuses and raising the profile of those pushing for change, Beijing will not only lose face, but the Communist Party’s entire legitimacy – its monopoly of authority – will be brought into question. For the CCP, this is a non-negotiable. In retaliation, the CCP might toughen its stance on China’s other dissidents.

Such a response occurred, for instance, after Liu’s imprisonment in December 2009. Tan Zuoren, who worked with Ai Weiwei in investigating the deaths of children in schools that collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake, was sentenced to five years for subversion in February. One month later, the outspoken writer Liao Yiwu was banned from leaving the country to attend a German literary festival.

In rallying behind Liu – and I should make it clear I greatly respect him for his bravery – it is important to remember how his followers might well bear the brunt of a tougher government only too willing to lead a crackdown on dissent.

Beijing has made it abundantly clear it does not want Liu Xiaobo to win tomorrow’s prize. If he does, and how China would respond, are anticipated.

China and Brazil: one to watch

Brazil's Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. Image from triplefivedrew's Flickr photostream. Used under a Creative Commons license.

A topic that has been rapidly picking up speed and column space is China’s ever expanding relationship with Brazil. Since China surpassed the US to become the Latin American giant’s largest trading partner in May 2009, more eyes have been following this shift in global power from the developed to developing economies.

However, as this special report from Reuters recently pointed out, this relationship is also notable for for its profound inequality. Luciana Lopez writes,

The sheer size of the Chinese economy means its needs have begun altering Brazil’s, in ways both salutary and worrisome. The lopsided relationship underscores the profound challenges that China’s emergence as an industrial force poses for developing nations.

In the first half of 2010, China’s investment in Brazil topped $20 billion, more than 10 times all of China’s previous investment in the country. On Friday, Chinese state-owned oil company Sinopec inked a deal with Spain’s Repsol to buy 40% of its Brazilian business for $7.1 billion, giving China access to Repsol Brasil’s estimated reserves of 1.2 billion barrels of oil and gas. Another example of China’s growing presence is the Superporto do Açu, a £1.6bn port and industrial complex undergoing construction along the coast of São João da Barra, Rio de Janeiro state, dubbed ‘Little Shanghai.’ Due to open in 2012, Açu’s pier – or, the ‘Highway to China’ – will be two miles long, accommodating huge vessels known as Chinamaxes that will transport iron ore, grain, soy and barrels of oil to the East.

In order for China to continue its unabashed growth (over the past 30 years it has averaged 10%, with the nation recently surpassing Japan as the world’s second largest economy), its industries need to be supplied with sufficient energy and raw materials. Hence, investments such as the Superporto do Açu. They are evidence of China’s ‘going-out strategy’, as the Guardian’s Tom Phillips explains:

An economic and, some say, diplomatic push for Chinese companies, many of them state-run, to invest abroad, snapping up access to minerals, energy and food by pouring the country’s colossal foreign reserves into overseas companies and projects.

But Lopez argues that China has gone from positively influencing the Brazilian economy to in fact reshaping it.

One case is the soy industry. Exports of soy to China, used for tofu and fuel, have increased by around 18 times in value from 2000 to 2009. In Mato Grosso, western Brazil, exports rocketed by 27 times by tonne in the same period, with China buying approximately one-third of the soy grown in the state. This, Lopez concedes, has brought considerable benefits:

[It] has helped everything from local schools to Brazil’s trade balance. The boost is much needed, as Brazilians, now with a strong currency and economy, are importing and spending abroad more — without soy the numbers would be even more skewed.

The agricultural boom has also helped Brazil outshine more developed nations, with surging growth even as much of the rest of the world continues to struggle. The country notched its fastest annual growth in at least 14 years in the first quarter, a pace that has only slightly slowed as the year progresses.

However, the other side of the coin is that China is purchasing soy grains from Brazil, rather than the more expensive soy oil. An analyst at Agroconsult, an agricultural consulting firm based in southern Brazil, told Lopez, “crushing a tonne of soy beans and separating it into oil and soy meal would add about 12 percent to the pricetag.” As a result, Brazil’s soy industry has been stagnating: while there has been more bean production, crushing has seen little investment.

Another industry facing problems is shoemaking. A town in Rio Grande do Sul that was once known as the shoe capital of Brazil has seen its workforce depleted, with Chinese companies inviting Brazilian workers abroad, particularly to the industrial powerhouse of Dongguan, Guangdong province. The results of this were not pretty:

Brazil’s shoe exports fell almost in half by weight from 2004 to 2009, or 22 percent by dollar value. Over the same time, Brazil’s footwear imports from China more than doubled through last year, when anti-dumping measures kicked in. The government has also slapped tariffs on goods ranging from tires to drillbits.

All this activity has produced quite a fanfare. At the 2010 BRIC Summit in Brasilia, Brazil and China both spoke of the need to diversify bilateral trade, lest the Latin American nation become over-reliant on commodities exports. That China continues to invest so heavily in Brazil is also stirring up anxiety in the West, not least since the US was knocked off its pedestal as Brazil’s major trading partner by the Middle Kingdom itself. China has been, and doubtless will continue to be, blatant in its challenge to the US hegemony in Latin America.

Parallels are also quick to be drawn between China’s Brazil – and wider Latin America – policy and its perhaps more controversial one in Africa (a relationship detailed in this brilliant piece by Howard French). Here, too, the East has displayed its thirst for natural resources, while Chinese firms investing in Africa have notoriously preferred bringing in a Chinese workforce rather than using local labour, therefore not benefiting the communities of the host nations.

The Brazil-China relationship is an important one that requires far more attention as global clout continues to shift. How sustainable Brazil’s incessant sale of commodities to China will prove to be is an ongoing issue open to debate.

Brazil is also undergoing a shift of its own: today the country goes to the polls to elect its new President, with Lula’s successor widely tipped to be his protegee, economist Dilma Rousseff. How the country’s new leader will manage China’s growing presence in the world’s eighth largest economy and, as planned, diversify bilateral trade is an exciting prospect to keep an eye on.

Why China is also a loser in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute

Japanese prosecutors have vowed to free the Chinese captain they arrested two weeks ago after a collision near a set of uninhabited islands disputed between both Japan and China in the East China Sea.

Zhan Qixiong’s ship collided with two Japanese coastguard vessels on 8th September near the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands), which both East Asian nations claim as their own. Zhan was subsequently handed over to prosecutors on the southern Japanese island of Ishigaki, where he was detained and questioned over “intentionally hitting at least one patrol ship and obstructing officers.” If found guilty, he could have faced up to three years in prison.

Today, however, Japan conceded that no damage was intended, but blamed Zhan for ignoring repeated requests to leave the hotly-disputed area.

The row between Japan and China following Zhan’s detention was a key factor in today’s decision making, Japanese prosecutors said. Premier Wen demanded Zhan’s release, claiming Zhan’s detention was illegal, while Tokyo called for high-level bilateral talks between the two nations. However, once Japan extended Zhan’s period of detention, China retaliated by cutting diplomatic communication.

It did not stop there: a selection of Chinese travel agencies cancelled package tours to Japan, while a Chinese ticket agency suspended ticket sales of a Japanese band’s gigs in mainland China, a Japanese tabloid reported. The situation became even stickier yesterday, as The Economist reports:

China’s response seemed to take an especially nefarious turn when it apparently suspended its export of rare-earth minerals, which are vital to making electronics components used in everything from handheld gadgets to cars. On September 23rd China emphatically denied that it is blocking exports.

The row undoubtedly opened a lot of old wounds for China in terms of its national pride, which Tokyo had feared. Since such a substantial part of Chinese nationalism rests on how China battled against foreign humiliation, in particular Japanese oppression, to form a nation, it is unsurprising that this month’s events have garnered such sensitive responses from citizens. Ever more the vehicle for discussion and protest, the Chinese Internet was awash with nationalist sentiment. In the words of one netizen, reposted on ChinaSMACK:

Our national humiliation can never be forgotten. As an ordinary common person, all I can do is be angry and boycott Japanese goods; if there is a war, as a reserve officer, I will not hesitate!

In conceding to China’s heated demands, Japan has, much to China’s relish, perhaps come off from this scenario looking weak and unable to avoid diplomatic pressure from its looming neighbour. That China recently surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-biggest economy is an attest to the Middle Kingdom’s growing prowess.

However, none of this is to say China is the ‘winner’ in this battle for Zhan’s release. As The Economist wrote today, China’s actions have “called into question its maturity as a responsible international actor and undermined its pretensions to a ‘peaceful rise’.” That China should respond so dramatically to such a dispute does its diplomatic image as a global player no favours. Similarly melodramatic responses have plagued the nation throughout the past year, from its stubbornness to agree to legally-binding cuts at Copenhagen to a slew of disputes with the US ranging from Google’s exit to the revaluation of the Renminbi.

However, given China’s knack for holding on to its history tight, in particular the pain inflicted on the nation by Japan, its reaction to this month’s events is perhaps understandable. But understandable only to an extent: China’s obstinacy may well prove to be unsustainable as more and more global players become, simply, fed up of having to deal with a nation that won’t compromise.

For the past year, China has been Japan’s number one trading partner, and so it is in both countries’ interests to maintain diplomatic ties. The nasty effect of this month’s episode on those relations remains to be seen: perhaps the two countries, with a lot of face having been lost, will proceed with business as usual. Perhaps the event may harbour deeper resentment for an inability to progress past historical wounds. In any case, the post-decision “chill” will certainly be felt.

8964: thoughts on social unrest and democracy in China

The Goddess of Democracy. Image from China Digital Times

21 years ago today, Chinese military forces cracked down upon a protest led by students and workers in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Throughout a tumultuous spring, contentions and demonstrations had been building up in the Chinese capital. Deng Xiaoping had ordered the vast and imposing square be cleared by midnight on June 4th “at any cost.” China’s military opened fire on its own people, with the actual death toll remaining unknown today.

Aside from the tragic loss of life, Tiananmen is an important reminder not only of how social contentious can boil dramatically, but also the severity of China’s strategies of dealing with unrest. Today’s leaders remain so haunted by June 4th that maintaining social stability is their paramount aim.

However, in the West there is often tendency to romanticise the events of June 4th as a nationwide push for democracy. This is misleading for two reasons. Firstly, the reality is that the protests were divided into one group seeking fewer democratic reforms (workers) and other group seeking more (students). Secondly, the very notion of democracy in China is not one most Chinese might identify with. It is a grey area, a far cry from the black-and-white discourses that so often come out of the West.

Despite growth in various incomes, the 1980s saw a rise in widespread discontent amongst workers who felt Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms had gone too far. Inflation hit rates of around 18% and even peaked at 30% in urban areas by 1988-9. For the majority of China’s population, this was the first experience of such economic downturn, panic buying and the threat of unemployment.

Corruption was also rife, in part a result of the shortages in employment. These shortages triggered black marketing and smuggling, often organised by cadres or their children, weakening the already waning citizen faith in leadership. Although such unrest was also recognised at top levels – rectification campaigns in the mid-1980s sought to rid the leadership of nepotism, corruption and expenditure of public funds for higher officials’ personal gifts – the lack of any concrete change meant political instability could coalesce.

In light of this, students and intellectuals, in particular, felt Deng’s reforms had become stagnant. The discord between the government and these groups had been brewing since the mid-80s: for instance, a large student demonstrations in 1986 in Hefei, Anhui Province, which called for greater democratisation in China was swiftly repressed.

The catalyst came with the death of Hu Yaobang in April 1989, two years after his resignation from the position of Secretary General. Since the Anhui unrest, he had called for rapid reform in China. Around 30,000 students gathered to mourn him in Tiananmen Square, demanding continued liberalisation and the founding of unions for students and workers, as well as to simply mourn in public freely.

The course of the spring saw non-violent protest escalate into petitions being made to the Standing Committee of the Politburo, hunger strikes, the boycotting of university classes and instructions to state media from Secretary General Zhao Ziyang to spread more favourable coverage of the chaotic events.  Martial law was eventually declared, and despite initial civilian resistance, by dawn on 4th June Tiananmen Square had been emptied. Estimates of those killed range from 300 to tens of thousands.

To brand this tumultuous spring a ‘pro-democracy movement’ is wrong. Although the movement was a grassroots one, it did not cover or come from all of the lower stratas of society.

This leads us deeper into the contentious issue of democracy in China. Simply, China’s breakneck economic growth, which has led it to being the third largest economy in the world, has presided over political reforms. This has largely been met with pride, rather than resentment, from the Chinese public: the fact that China has achieved an economic superpower status at such a rapid speed and against a historical backdrop of a ‘century of humiliation’ (namely the Opium Wars, the Japanese occupation, the loss of Taiwan and America’s bid to contain the PRC) has bolstered public nationalist sentiment.

Further, these economic reforms have lifted around four hundred million out of poverty since 1980. It is of little surprise that maintaining new living standards presides over pushing for abstract democratic reforms. Han Han has summarised this:

To a lot of Chinese people, the value of seeking such things [freedom, truth, justice] is not nearly as high as seeking an apartment building or an online game to play.

(…)

This is a race of people who can eat genetically modified grain and oil distilled from recycled food scraps, drink melamine-infused milk, and take inferior vaccines. Their tolerance is higher than you can imagine. Their needs are lower than you can imagine.

This is not to say, however, that Chinese citizens are completely socially or politically apathetic. The country’s contentions have indeed been multiplying, from netizens’ appeals for social justice to environmental demonstrations, from unrest over the restrictive hukou (household registration) system to recent labour strikes. But democracy as a concept is sought by only a few: it is for this reason that the daring Charter 08 did not resonate widely beyond an intellectual urbanite collective.

It is therefore safe to ask, should China be expected to follow a Western track of democratisation, given that the majority of its society does not demand it? Pan Wei has argued that the CCP’s single party rule could be made more efficient and corruption lessened by the rule of law, an impartial civil service and an independent judiciary. These top-down reforms would avoid both the collapse of the CCP and an evolution toward Western style electoral democracy, in theory creating greater government accountability without de-legitimising the CCP’s monopoly on power.

China will not, cannot and should not transform into a democracy overnight. But incremental legal changes, as suggested by Pan Wei, are of the essence, especially since this particular anniversary occurs at a time of unrest and when social inequalities triggering macabre acts of revenge. Indeed, China’s very contradiction is that antiquated mechanisms of hardline suppression are still being used to deal with newly brimming contentions, which are now coming from a wider variety of actors than ever before.

If Tiananmen has taught the CCP anything, it is that more sustainable and effective strategies of dealing with unrest need to be developed that go beyond repression. These are necessary if the CCP is to legitimise one party rule and lessen any chances of political or social instability. Otherwise, social contentions will continue to ferment. While these may not add up to another Tiananmen, they will certainly increase the volume of one question: when will political reform catch up with economic deliverance?

To commemorate the anniversary, China Digital Times will be posting a series of original news stories from the spring of 1989.

The social underbelly of China’s school killings

Image from China News Service

This spring has witnessed a series of horrific attacks on Chinese schoolchildren that have killed 15 and injured around 60 others. The discussion over the patterns and motives of the killings has been rampant, with Stan Abrams helpfully summarising much of the conversation here and here. One theme is undeniable: that the attacks are underscored by the growing severity of China’s complex social problems. Fundamentally, they typify the dark side of the China’s glittering economic growth: that it has not come with deeper social and political reforms that must be delivered in order to sustainably manage the country’s growing contentions.

The events appear to have been copycat incidents, with middle-aged men attacking defenceless children. The most recent occurred in Linchang, Shaanxi Province, on Wednesday, when Wu Huanming, a well-liked 48-year-old local man, slaughtered seven kindergarten pupils and two adults. It has since been found that a property dispute between Wu and the school’s administrator, Wu Hongying, triggered his deadly actions.

On the surface, the row was perhaps a trivial one: Wu Huanming had rented a house next to the kindergarten and wanted it to be vacated when the lease expired in April, while Wu Hongying wanted to stay until the summer. Yet, the details of the other attacks – a jobless man allegedly angry over a series of personal and professional setbacks who then slaughtered 29 children and three adults at a Taixing kindergarten, and a 33-year-old teacher on sick leave due to ‘mental problems’ who injured 15 students at a Guangdong primary school – point to a darker, more serious root of social frustrations leading to vindictive actions.

In spite of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms that have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in the past thirty years and created a socially mobile, urbanised middle class, a sizeable pool of disenfranchised citizens has been deepening. Measures such as the hukou (household registration) system continue to limit China’s 200 million migrant workers’ access to basic services in cities, and the urban-rural divide is ever increasing, exacerbated by poor medical service provisions in rural areas and China’s widest wealth gap for thirty years.

The debate has also rippled to a wider discussion on mental health issues in China. Talking to AP, Renmin University’s Zhou Xiaozheng said,

The perpetrators have contracted a ‘social psychological infectious disease’ that shows itself in a desire to take revenge on society. (…) They pick children as targets because they are the weakest and most vulnerable.

The provision of adequate mental health care has long been neglected in the PRC. According to the National Centre for Mental Health, China has around 100 million mental health sufferers, with only 5% actively seeking treatment. When treatment is sought, it is largely insufficient: there are allegedly 11 hospital beds and fewer than two psychiatrists for every 100,000 people in the PRC (the world average currently sits at 43 beds and four doctors). Fundamentally, mental health remains a social stigma, with economic growth having overshadowed any psychological changes that may have come with it, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Friday.

This sombre melange of inequality and inadequate care has created a fertile ground for social contentions to grow. As ChinaBizGov’s Greg Anderson argues, the killings are symptomatic of the disappointment and powerlessness borne by China’s lower classes. Evan Osnos has termed this the ‘marginalisation’ suffered by those disorientated in China’s rapidly changing society.

At a policy level, such fatal contentions are beginning to chip away at the Hu-Wen trajectory of social harmony, raising questions over how such social inequalities can be tackled and what the future will hold for China’s mental health care. The government can no longer avoid dealing with such home truths. As Chatham House Senior Fellow Kerry Brown told me,

China’s more unstable than people think. Economic growth has been the great unifier, and the CCP has the objective of creating a strong, powerful country. This will continue to work in short to medium term, but beyond that, you’re hitting issues of stability, sustainability, equality and social justice. These could become killers in their own right.

It does seem as if this realisation for a more sustainable approach is taking hold. In the first public acknowledgment that Beijing is looking to the root of the problem and not merely increasing school security, Premier Wen Jiabao expressed his anguish over the attacks. He told Hong Kong’s Phoenix network,

As well as adopting vigorous safety measures, we also have to pay attention to addressing some deep-seated causes behind these problems, including dealing with some social conflicts and resolving disputes.

If there ever were a chain of events pushing a changing China closer to the crossroads of the need for deeper social reforms, it has most certainly occurred. It is only too poignant that innocent and vulnerable lives were lost in order to make the CCP realise that society is not, and cannot be, harmonious.