Jerome A. Cohen. The Chinese People Have Stood Up! SCMP (South China Morning Post)

October 1, 2009

“The Chinese people have stood up!”  Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong’s dramatic declaration in establishing the People’s Republic of China sixty years ago has surely been vindicated. Today’s celebrations in Beijing and throughout the country reflect the nation’s tremendous economic and social progress, especially during the past thirty years, and its increasing power and influence on the world scene. For China’s leaders, successfully completing the sixty-year cycle of the traditional lunar calendar must be a source of great satisfaction.

Getting to this point has not been easy. The political convulsions of the PRC’s first three decades inflicted vast human suffering. Young Chinese learn little about the regime’s first decade—the upheavals of land reform, “people’s tribunals”, extermination of “counterrevolutionaries”, expropriation of the business community, condemnation of “rightist” intellectuals and starvation of tens of millions following the “great leap forward.”  Even the excesses that shattered one hundred million lives during the “great proletarian cultural revolution” of 1966-76 have receded from public view. Yet parents, and particularly grandparents, although they seldom discuss it, have not forgotten those prolonged nightmares.

The progressive decade initiated by Deng Xiaoping’s “open policy” in late 1978 was marred by periodic “strike hard” campaigns and attacks on “bourgeois liberals,” culminating in the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen slaughter that brought a remarkable era to a tragic close.

Fortunately, Deng sought to compensate for that political disaster in the early ’90s by liberating the people’s commercial energies to an unprecedented extent that has boosted living standards, expanded educational opportunities and enhanced China’s interaction with the world. The new policy has also brought many important “little freedoms” to improve the daily lives of ordinary citizens such as ability to choose one’s career and to travel, greater access to information and easier relations between the sexes.

Yet the social and economic costs of this successful, profound transformation have been enormous. Rapid development has caused horrendous environmental pollution. The gap between rich and poor is one of the greatest in the world. Although hundreds of millions have been brought out of poverty, the average GNP per capita remains very low, and many are still below the subsistence level. Land and housing rights have too often been sacrificed to redevelopment. Large numbers of farmers and workers have had their jobs eliminated, unemployment and underemployment are a constant challenge, and over a hundred million migrant laborers are often exploited. Finding work for several million college graduates each year is a continuing challenge. Food and workplace safety standards are still lax, and even China’s growing middle class is hard-pressed to pay soaring medical and educational charges.

Corruption is endemic and has reached into the highest circles of the Communist Party and government. Although the nation’s leaders repeatedly claim that they are engaged in “a life or death struggle” against it and publicize their efforts to eradicate it through severe punishments, there is little basis for optimism on this score, despite occasional massive purges in a few notorious cities. Nor are police, prosecutors, lawyers and judges immune to this cancer in the body politic. Party leaders seem unwilling to support systematic, consistent housecleaning that will reach their own families and political allies.

On top of all this, as events in Tibet and Xinjiang have demonstrated, Party policies for dealing with minority nationalities and disfavored religious practices have failed dismally.

Not surprisingly, this darker side of “the Chinese miracle” has produced a huge amount of complaints, grievances, petitions, protests and disputes. The sense of injustice appears to be spreading among modernization’s many losers. Yet the country’s leadership—reluctant to yield its monopoly of power—seems almost paralyzed in its ability to respond to this creeping crisis with little more than repression, censorship and force. It is pathetic to see the leaders of a great nation, and a government that has much to be proud of, so fearful of free expression, communication and organization. Having been schooled in Maoism and burned by June 4, they are aware that “a single spark can start a prairie fire.” Each repressive measure, however, while immediately dousing the sparks, only adds fuel to a future fire and further damages the regime’s international prestige.

China’s situation cries out for more meaningful political and legal reform, and less repression, in order to provide improved channels for asserting and processing the now dangerous accumulation of grievances. As South Korea and Taiwan have shown, that is the path to long-run stability. A radically-restructured petition system, genuine and expanded local elections, autonomous non-governmental organizations, freer religious practice, greater official transparency and media/internet freedom, self-governing labor unions, independent courts, fair criminal procedures and unharassed “rights lawyers” should all be on the Politburo agenda. Today’s spectacular show of tanks, troops and fireworks cannot conceal, any better than last year’s Olympics did, the urgent needs for institutional reform and free expression. In their own interests, as well as those of the people, Party members should insist on far-sighted, bold leadership to meet these needs. Otherwise, at the end of China’s next sixty year cycle, historians may conclude that the Party became a victim of its own success.

An edited version of this text appeared in English, under the title “The dark side of the Chinese ‘miracle’,” in the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) on October 01, 2009.