By Lauri Paltemaa
In December, the Chinese Communist Party celebrated the 30 years anniversary of reforming and opening up policy that became possible in the now almost legendary 3rd plenum of the 11th Central Committee where Deng Xiaoping defeated his “Whateverist” (read Maoist) rivals in the Party leadership. This coming March, however, we will celebrate another thirty-year anniversary of one of the key policies in reforms. It was then, on March 30, 1979, that Deng Xiaoping announced that the Party would continue to uphold the “four cardinal principles” of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought, proletarian dictatorship, party leadership, and socialism. This laid the foundation for the authoritarian Chinese development model, which now faces probably one of its most severe challenges. The model itself was copied form China’s near neighbours, which had been able to pull off their own “economic miracles” through a combination of authoritarian governments and economic reform policies. The Chinese addition to this was to show that a Communist country could also accomplish an “economic miracle” – although by losing almost all features traditionally associated with communism in the process.
Deng’s March 1979 speech on the cardinal principles therefore marked an important decision of how the reforms would unfold. This becomes more visible when we remember that, theoretically at least, Deng had a choice when he gave his speech. He, and his reformist followers in the Party had engineered a political thaw that made possible the emergence of the Democracy Wall Movement, which in turn helped Deng score his victory. The Movement, although never coherent or united over most issues, offered an alternative vision to economic modernization. Its activists all supported the economic reforms and the four modernizations, but they offered an alternative way of getting there by establishing socialist democracy as an integral, and indeed necessary part of the modernization of Chinese society. In his March speech Deng basically rejected this road and chose the authoritarian way.
For the next thirty years the strategy seemed to work well enough. It yielded an “economic miracle” in China when the economy grew, opened up, urbanized, and industrialized at break-neck speed. However successful economically, the regime nevertheless had, and still has, an existential problem, which liberal systems do not face, which is shown in the fact that the debate on democratization has never died out. The Democracy Wall Movement was silenced by 1981, but some of its activists moved overseas and established a Democracy Movement there. In 1989 the question of democratization almost caused the collapse of the regime.
That the debate goes on was last demonstrated in December, when a number of people (originally 303, now reportedly at least over 7,000) published a co-signed petition labelled “Charter 08” where a road to democracy was mapped out for the CCP. The charter shows interesting parallels to, but also important differences from the Democracy Wall Movement thirty years ago. Both answer the same question of “Whither now, China?” The Democracy Movement answered that the key to modernizing socialism was in the direct supervision of the officialdom and the Party by the people and economic reforms. Charter 08 lacks any references to Marxism as its source of inspiration, but also seeks to answer how to create a more just and better-governed society after thirty years of the growing social inequality and corruption that has plagued the economic miracle. The Charter’s signatories answer is grounded in liberal democratic institutions of competitive elections, rule of law and respecting human rights, but also in fairer distribution of wealth, environmental protection and care for the weak.
The disappearance of Marxism from Chinese democratic activism is hardly surprising, as the international and domestic developments of the past thirty years have made it more or less passé as a source of inspiration for political thinking for the masses of people. However, there is also a notable, and telling, change in the demographics of activists of thirty years ago and at present. The Democracy Wall Movement was predominantly a movement of ex-Red Guard youth who had gone through the Cultural Revolution and developed their thinking about socialist democracy during it. This narrow social basis was one of the reasons why the movement was relatively easy to snuff out. A distinctly high number of the signatories of the original Charter 08 were of middle class and well educated professional origin. This is a development the CCP has been afraid of. Its legitimacy has been based on economic growth, promoting nationalism, and rhetorical devices such as telling the Chinese people that there are no, or only worse, alternatives to the Party. One of its methods in staying in power has been co-opting emerging middle classes to the regime by offering access, perks, and stability to allay its fears of the “mob rule.” For some members of the middle class, at least, this is clearly not working.
Is the past then catching up with the party? Opting for authoritarian growth thirty years ago has paid off, but for how long will it do so? Will there be a revision of the authoritarian development model? It is hardly likely in the near future, but Charter 08 is not the only instance of middle class protest. The recent Shanghai Maglev protests, 2007 Xiamen PX-factory protest, and the 2008 similar protest against a government backed petrochemical plant in Chengdu offer other examples. Of course, one must not make too far-reaching conclusions on this handful of instances, which still count as only a fraction of the staggering number of protest all over this big country, but all of them show how members of the middle class are starting to demand something more than just economic perks – good governance. They want a say in decision-making that affects them and their neighbourhoods. In the Democracy Wall Movement, the members of ex-Red Guard youth who demanded a say in society were relatively easy to suppress, but in 2009 discursively well-developed middle class activism poses a trickier challenge for the regime. Thus far, the official response has been mostly repressive, but as these interesting times continue, we can expect more on this front.
Lauri Paltemaa is a professor and director of the Centre for East Asian Studies at the University of Turku, Finland and author of numerous articles on social movements and protests in China.