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Harmonious protest?

Twenty years after Tiananmen,China still can’t fathom dissent

Written by Nimmi Kurian |
June 2, 2009 2:54:39 am

Tiananmen has a classic ironic twist to it that is hard to miss: it is incongruous that the symbol of historical protests is called “the gate of heavenly peace.” This paradox will be on China’s mind as it braces for the 20th anniversary of the crackdown. But then you don’t need to talk about ironies to China; its growth story has been full of contradictions. An economy that for three decades has been scaling dizzying heights. A society that is seeing a rising graph of unrest in the form of protests,riots and strikes. There have been rising calls that public expressions of resistance should be resolved in “a harmonious and an orderly way.” But if China wants to manage “harmonious protests”,can it also figure out the contradictions inherent in such an oxymoron? 

Beijing may well find that people are not in much of a mood to forgive any semantic stumbles. China today is riding the tiger of complex social transition,as the economic slowdown begins to hurt. As its economy looks set to miss the psychological benchmark of 8 per cent growth,48 million job-seekers might be joining the ranks of the unemployed. A recent sampling survey carried out by the Agriculture Ministry revealed that the number of jobless migrant workers has already surged to 20 million. Add to this nearly 3 million of the educated unemployed,about 40 percent of China’s 7.8 million graduates. Many of these faultlines run along social,economic and gender dimensions,with distinct spatial patterns. Regional variations in performance indicators of health,education,housing,and infrastructure are massive across China,owing to vast differentials in local revenue bases. Out-of-pocket medical expenses borne by individuals have now risen steeply from 16 per cent in 1980s to hover around 60 per cent. Female literacy has been the direct casualty of the rising education burden on families — an estimated 80 per cent of China’s new illiterates are girls. The fact that of the 2 million children who drop out of school each year,1.4 million turn out to be girls conveys a troubling story of social exclusion. Across China,the ‘Glass Curtain’ between the rural and the urban,the coasts and inland,the wealthy and the vulnerable is developing into a knowledge and skills divide. As it juggles prosperity and protest,the real question that China needs to debate is this: is the social red alert likely to become a political red alert?  

This will essentially hinge on whether the Communist Party can get the politics of social harmony right. That the leadership takes this challenge very seriously is clear. Hu Jintao’s concept of a “harmonious society” now stands elevated to the highest rhetorical levels of importance in state policy. A notable trend in recent years is the growing level of openness and transparency on the part of the government on many of these sensitive issues. But,as the Chinese state comes increasingly under pressure to respond to social unrest,the preoccupation with order and stability will be fairly obsessive. With a calendar full of politically sensitive anniversaries,it will keep a wary eye out for spoilers who could crash the Party. As it opts for a strategy of seeking greater control in the name of caution,it will not be coy about drawing red lines. It is implementing this with a methodical thoroughness that is almost frightening. A “Stability Preservation Office” has been newly set up with a growing corps of “stability preservation information officers” armed with the mandate to suppress “elements that endanger stability.” On the anvil are plans to establish a country-wide network that can act as the “eyes and ears” of the government to “discover early,investigate early,resolve early.” 

A mix-and-stir version of dissent is a tricky proposition that can be at best be a fond hope and at worst a risky policy calculation. Attempting such a controlled experiment in ordering social space runs the danger of sharpening many of the existing complex contradictions. It remains to be seen if in equating control with caution,China can avoid backpedalling on the social space that it has conceded and helped foster. The post-reform decades have seen a dramatic expansion of social organisations in China,with impressive space ceded them to perform an array of vital social welfare functions. China will have to make the call on how it chooses to follow through its on “harmonious society” slogan — not only be a delicate balancing act but also one with long-term implications for political legitimacy and even survival. Seen thus,Tiananmen is not so much a question of dealing with the country’s past as much as holding out a mirror to its future.  

The writer is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Policy Research,New Delhi. express@expressindia.com

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