Shadow Government

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Democratization through the backdoor?

All who hope for the democratization of mainland China should celebrate a recent development in Liaoning province. Upwards of twelve thousand Chinese converged on the public square in Dalian, seat of the province’s government, to demand that a petrochemical factory be closed and moved due to the public’s concerns that the plant puts their health ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

All who hope for the democratization of mainland China should celebrate a recent development in Liaoning province. Upwards of twelve thousand Chinese converged on the public square in Dalian, seat of the province's government, to demand that a petrochemical factory be closed and moved due to the public's concerns that the plant puts their health at risk. This story comes amid a continuing outpouring of stories over the last few years of the environmental degradation and health risks attendant with the booming Chinese economy, a boom the Communist Party government is desperate to keep alive as its only hope to ensure stability and thus stay in power. The Tiananmen Papers revealed how nervous China's leaders are when citizens speak out. While it is no surprise that "growth at any cost," including the costs of the safety and health of citizens, is the strategy of a government that expects citizens to trade political freedom for prosperity, it is striking to see that the citizenry increasingly seems determined to renegotiate the bargain.

In this latest event, riot police and demonstrators clashed and there was some violence, but many among the protestors were savvy enough to sing the national anthem and wave patriotic banners in an apparent attempt to avoid the fate of most Chinese that dare to criticize the government.

Perhaps the tactic worked: the mayor and a party official, within hours of the beginning of the protest, announced that the plant would be closed and moved in response to public concern. They did this after it was clear that simply saying they would do so was not sufficient for many of the demonstrators; they demanded a timetable for the action. Of course the state got very busy censoring and cleansing the Internet as best it could of any reporting of the events, but Western media outlets have widely reported the protests and the government's backing down.

All who hope for the democratization of mainland China should celebrate a recent development in Liaoning province. Upwards of twelve thousand Chinese converged on the public square in Dalian, seat of the province’s government, to demand that a petrochemical factory be closed and moved due to the public’s concerns that the plant puts their health at risk. This story comes amid a continuing outpouring of stories over the last few years of the environmental degradation and health risks attendant with the booming Chinese economy, a boom the Communist Party government is desperate to keep alive as its only hope to ensure stability and thus stay in power. The Tiananmen Papers revealed how nervous China’s leaders are when citizens speak out. While it is no surprise that "growth at any cost," including the costs of the safety and health of citizens, is the strategy of a government that expects citizens to trade political freedom for prosperity, it is striking to see that the citizenry increasingly seems determined to renegotiate the bargain.

In this latest event, riot police and demonstrators clashed and there was some violence, but many among the protestors were savvy enough to sing the national anthem and wave patriotic banners in an apparent attempt to avoid the fate of most Chinese that dare to criticize the government.

Perhaps the tactic worked: the mayor and a party official, within hours of the beginning of the protest, announced that the plant would be closed and moved in response to public concern. They did this after it was clear that simply saying they would do so was not sufficient for many of the demonstrators; they demanded a timetable for the action. Of course the state got very busy censoring and cleansing the Internet as best it could of any reporting of the events, but Western media outlets have widely reported the protests and the government’s backing down.

A fuller history of this episode provides further insight into what is a growing assertiveness on the part of the average Chinese. The plant in question is not one that exploded or suffered a massive leak, though citizens fear such because it is close to a seawall that is unsound. More importantly, this massive plant that represents a significant part of the country’s petrochemical production and therefore significant investment, was built a few years ago with the public kept in the dark and with disregard of environmental concerns. It would appear, then, that what happened with this protest was the boiling over of public resentment at be treated as subjects rather than as citizens. We have been seeing more and more of this in the last few years; a quick web search will reveal scores of incidents of protest and public opposition to government policy. With citizens readily choosing non-Communists for elected posts in municipal governments, physically attacking local officials for enforcing the one-child policy, and rioting over environmental and safety concerns, the public is showing that an increasingly connected and prospering people are growing restive with tyranny. We have been used to the "stoic Chinese" enduring repression. Maybe that is changing.

The government might not follow through on its promise to close the plant, but clearly if they don’t they will just have to face down the public a second time and it will likely only get uglier.

Do these incidents represent the democratizing of China through the back door? Will the Chinese come to resent and then to oppose a one-party state that demonstrates that it is not competent to lead them, and that it demands too high a price for the bargain of materialism in exchange for their freedom? While self-government, born in the West of natural rights thinking, seems unappealing, unconvincing or at least unknown among most Chinese, simple self-preservation might be the catalyst. Let’s hope so, and that it will lead the Chinese to question the deal their party leaders want them to maintain. And let’s hope our State Department sees clear to speak in ways that encourage the Chinese people to demand respect for their rights.  Clearly a lot of Chinese are starting to get it; shouldn’t the U.S. government?

Paul J. Bonicelli is professor of government at Regent University, and served as the assistantadministrator for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United States Agency for International Development.

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