From Tiananmen Square to Tahrir Square

PETER MAUCH

Peter Mauch

Will those who remember Tiananmen Square please put up their hands?

While the world has – for good reason – focused for the last few weeks on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, I’ve caught myself wondering whether the Chinese Communist Party leaders are caught between (1) a sense of self-congratulation, and (2) a case of the jitters.

The Chinese Communist Party in mid-1989 stared down a mass protest movement in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Among the protestors’ demands were freedom and democracy; the Chinese Communist Party responded with brute force. Nobody – except perhaps a few Chinese Communist Party cadres – knows how many protestors died. Rest assured that the body count was high.

What, then, is stopping the Chinese people from launching a new wave of protests? Why, in other words, are events in Egypt (and Tunisia, and across the Middle East) not inspiring something similar in China?

China’s authoritarian rulers have one or two aces up their sleeve. For one thing, they have presided over an extended period of astonishing economic growth. This sets China apart from a moribund Egypt. So, too, does the adroitness with which the Chinese leadership has channelled its people’s political consciousness away from domestic discontent and instead into a deep and abiding fury with Japan.

Why, then, should the Chinese Communist Party leadership be feeling perhaps a little jittery at the moment?

Economic growth not only legitimises the Chinese Communist Party, it also raises a host of issues that defy easy solution. First, economic growth is overwhelmingly concentrated in the cities such as Shanghai, and there are a mind-boggling number of Chinese who feel forgotten, or left behind. Second, nobody in their right mind would be willing to guarantee eternal economic  growth in China. If and when the economic keg runs dry, what comes next?

Let’s move on to the other ace up the Chinese Communist Party’s sleeve. Japan as public enemy number one is admittedly convenient. The conversation that plays itself out in the Party’s smoke-filled backrooms is predictable: “What’s that? Signs of unrest in Shanghai? It’s time to release a little pressure. Let’s whip up a little patriotic fervor, denounce Japan for its past injustices, allow a few thousand (or tens of thousands) to protest outside the Japanese Consulate, and then all will be well again.”

Yet, even here, the Communist Party cadres know they are playing with fire. Popular protests against Japan – and these occur regularly – could quite quickly transmogrify into something altogether different, including a protest against Communist Party authoritarianism.

Were China to be wracked by the revolutionary fervor that has brought down a few Middle Eastern dictators, would the People’s Liberation Army stand by the Chinese Communist Party? Or, would it throw in its lot with the Chinese people? I’m glad it’s not me who is losing sleep over all this.

Peter Mauch is a Lecturer of History in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney.

Source : http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/44220.html

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