“Mohamed Bouazizi” is not an easy name to pronounce in Chinese. Ding Yfan, a well-known scholar and my official Communist Party contact in Beijing, tries anyway. Ding’s job is to answer “honestly” the questions of visiting Western intellectuals. Even before I raise the subject of the Arab uprisings—set in motion by Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia last December—Ding seeks to convince me that such revolts couldn’t happen in China. Unlike citizens in the Arab world, he insists, the Chinese are getting richer and therefore aren’t discontented. His reasoning is purely Marxist: only economics could drive a revolution, not ideas, and certainly not the hunger for freedom.
The Chinese are indeed getting richer. That’s particularly obvious in Beijing, which abounds with luxury shops and restaurants where millionaires’ children exhibit their new wealth. The nation’s economic expansion—powered by a 10 percent growth rate every year for the last 30 years—has given birth to an immensely rich class, which now tends to reproduce itself and holds both political power and economic influence. But while the Chinese Communist Party was becoming a wealthy oligarchy, the peasants of the eastern and central provinces might as well have been living in the Middle Ages. Now, thanks to migrations from the countryside to big construction sites and the industrial sector, Chinese peasants (or their children) are slowly entering the modern economy, even if salaries remain low.
Even if no Chinese version of Mohamed Bouazizi surfaces, the Middle Eastern uprisings have shown Chinese authorities how dangerous the Internet can be. Ding quotes Mao Zedong: “A spark can set fire to the whole meadow.” Bouazizi was that spark, and the Internet spread the fire, from Tunisia to all parts of the Arab world, including countries with growing economies. Economic growth generates hope, but hope can sometimes make a society more unstable and demanding precisely because the situation is improving—just not as quickly as people would like. Alexis de Tocqueville, looking back at the French Revolution, saw that dynamic at work: because freedom and prosperity had expanded throughout France, he argued, the French wanted everything, right there, right then.
In his own way, Confucius expressed this same sentiment 25 centuries ago: “Only subsistence societies are stable,” he wrote, “because their living conditions are equal for all.” In China, repression has become ever more severe: the Internet is censored, and connection speeds have been slowed. Dissident intellectuals face prison sentences of 11 years on average; lawyers who challenge the government in civil affairs vanish without warning. At the first sign of riot or strike, the police send peasant leaders or workmen to reeducation work camps for three-year sentences. Liu Xia, the wife of imprisoned Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, has been missing since January; the wife of democratic militant Hu Jia, also in prison, is forbidden to leave her house. And on April 3, artist and dissident Ai Weiwei was arrested and detained in Beijing.
It’s possible to miss this increased repression with the naked eye. The tourist, the entrepreneur, and the tradesman (and the rock musician, like Bob Dylan, who visited recently) can choose to ignore those social tremors that don’t affect their business—as long as the tremors don’t trigger an earthquake. Liu Jiming, a Beijing-based political scientist and free-market philosopher who bravely took over his friend Liu Xiaobo’s work, thinks, contrary to Ding Yfan, that China numbers millions of Mohamed Bouazizis. Everywhere, Chinese peasants try, like Bouazizi, to escape poverty and, as in the Arab world, see their small businesses destroyed by the Chinese police because they lack proper authorization (usually obtained by bribing a bureaucrat). The difference, according to Liu, is that China’s immense size makes a mass movement difficult. Even with the galvanizing potential of the Internet, it’s not easy to turn isolated rebellions into a general mutiny against the Communist Party.
Another important distinction between China and the Arab world is the ruthless efficiency of the Chinese police. Nothing works more effectively against a revolution than a powerful police force. But a general revolution will happen anyway, Liu believes, sooner or later. Only wealth allows the Communist Party to maintain its power. When economic growth slows, the Party will lose its grip on the police, the army, and the feudal landowners and apparatchiks, whose loyalty to the regime is purely financial. Unlike leaders in the Arab world, Chinese Communist leaders understand their society well. They know that they’re not popular with the people—but they remain feared.
And in fact, economic growth has slowed—down to 8 percent so far this year—and inflation has jumped to around 10 percent for basic food products. Can the Party retain legitimacy faced with these constrictions? It will not be able to rely on popular faith in Marxism, which no one believes in anymore. It is taught in schools and universities only as a compulsory, antiquated catechism—as is Confucianism. The thought of Confucius has been integrated into the school curriculum as part of the Communists’ effort to connect the past with the present, as if the Party incarnated an eternal China. For the Chinese, Confucius remains the father of all morality, the advocate of respect for authority and social order. The Party has thus erected a kitschy statue of Confucius in Tiananmen Square, not far from the tomb of Mao Zedong and next to the National History Museum, which is hosting a new exhibit extolling the continuous success of Party leaders since 1949—an exercise in pure propaganda. Chinese cultural centers overseas have been renamed Confucius Institutes. Confucianism, then—or more precisely, the superficial vulgate that has replaced its complex writings—has unanimous support among the Chinese. But despite the Party’s best efforts, it’s not likely that many ordinary Chinese link Confucianist morality with the Communist princes who govern their lives. It’s better for the Party’s sake if the people don’t read Confucius too closely, Liu Jiming says: his criticism of corrupt leaders and social inequality would only undermine the current apparatchiks.
As Liu points out, Confucius does not encompass the entirety of Chinese thought, whether classical or contemporary. Lao-Tse, the old master of Confucius, was in his time an advocate of complete anarchy; no Western political philosophy is as suspicious of power as Taoism. We could, Liu concludes, quickly sum up 2,500 years of Chinese culture as a dialogue between Lao-Tse and Confucius—between Taoism’s individual freedom and Confucianism’s enlightened despotism.
Jiming and his fellow dissident intellectuals (who must remain anonymous) have no illusions about their influence in today’s China. It is not philosophers, they concede, who will bring down the Party, but a mutiny from the Chinese Bouazizis. Confronting the Party head-on, they now believe, leads nowhere but jail, because the Party is physically too strong. Political manifestos, like the one that landed Liu Xiaobo in prison, are now a bit outdated. Manifestos belong to the old world of political struggle. Intellectuals have come to believe that real change today will rise from social unrest, not from ideological proclamations. This means that the main role for Chinese activists is to convey news of local rebellions—which occur nearly every day, somewhere, in this vast and restless country—with the hope that disseminating the images and information on the Internet will build links among local dissidents and eventually converge in a national movement.
Intellectuals now believe that their true role will come after the movement is underway: preparing the alternative institutions of civil society, formulating a confederation of provinces, and creating the democratic institutions that would govern them, so that democracy—not chaos or some other tyranny—could replace dictatorship. The Chinese democrats see that the Arab world, because it has not prepared itself for such a transition, could move from one tyranny to another. They appeal to Westerners—Europeans and Americans—for methodological guidance: how to build a democracy while avoiding the chaos that revolution so often brings? They believe that the Chinese people know well what democracy means. But as the Arab revolts demonstrate all too plainly, the path from revolution to democracy is never clear.