Written by Eric Fish.
The last time China saw a major social movement, it came to an abrupt halt and ended an era. The youth-led Tiananmen movement of 1989 was the climax to a succession of mass demonstrations that had built up throughout the free-wheeling 1980s. When China’s leaders decided to end it, they did so with machine guns, tanks, and gratuitous violence far beyond what was necessary to clear protestors from the streets. It appeared to be a message written in blood that the Communist Party would no longer tolerate challenges of this sort.
After using sticks at Tiananmen, the Party also began offering up carrots. Throughout the 1990s, it opened the economy, backed away from the private lives of its citizens, and reverted to pushing Chinese nationalism. It was a tacit bargain: We’ll make you proud to be Chinese, you can get richer, and you can do almost anything you want…so long as it doesn’t become political. If it does, you know what we’re capable of.
The bargain has held firm for more than two decades, but for today’s under-30 generation, it’s losing its luster. Those that came of age after the events of 1989 now have little emotional connection to the massacre and the fear it was meant to instill. And those who’ve grown up under already comfortable circumstances are becoming less impressed by economic growth.
We’ve already begun to see this trend manifest itself in various movements that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. After the advent of the social media platform Sina Weibo, there was a rapid succession of online campaigns calling out everything from corruption to forced abortion. During this time China also began seeing a steady resurgence in large-scale street activism, with youth on the front lines. First it was environmental demonstrations that saw thousands of protestors hit the streets in cities like Xiamen, Maoming, Shifang, and Dalian. Then in early 2013, students from around China went a step further by uploading pictures of themselves to support Southern Weekend’s stand against overbearing censorship; throngs even turned up to protest in-person outside the paper’s Guangzhou offices.
As these protests were taking shape, the double-digit economic growth that’s long hedged against any major challenge to the Communist Party began slowing. Symptoms like industrial downturn, local government debt, risks of a banking crisis, and youth unemployment have deteriorated to threaten economic and social stability.
Since President Xi Jinping came to power, he’s demonstrated recognition of the various socioeconomic issues threatening stability and Communist Party authority. He’s attacked some of the roots with sweeping economic reforms and a far-reaching crackdown on corruption. At the same time though, he’s even more aggressively attacked those who publically speak out against the ills plaguing China. Xi has spoken regrettably about the Soviet Union’s collapse, faulting Mikhail Gorbachev for compromising on Leninist values and allowing his party to weaken as it soaked up ideological heresy from the West. “In the end nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist,” Xi has reportedly said of the Soviet collapse.
Since consolidating power, Xi has doubled down on censorship and ideological control while stomping out anything resembling independent activism. Xi’s Communist Party now isn’t just targeting people considered political radicals like Liu Xiaobo, who advocated a fundamental overhaul of China’s political system (something that isn’t appealing to most Chinese). Last summer authorities gave lengthy prison terms to members of the New Citizen’s Movement, which pushed broadly popular initiatives like wealth disclosure for officials. Last September, scholar Ilham Tohti, who pushed for better treatment of Uighurs and stressed non-violence, was given a life sentence; which was followed by long prison terms for seven of his students. Then recently authorities went even further by criminally detaining a group of feminist activists who had gone out of their way to avoid political sensitivity in their quirky demonstrations.
At the moment, Xi’s approach seems to be working. The large-scale protest movements and online activism that were emerging under his predecessor Hu Jintao have ebbed. But the apparent calm in China now may be misleading.
As the Communist Party increases repression, it creates more grievances, more martyrs, and brings more people face-to-face with systematic injustice. If one thing became apparent at the Hong Kong protests last autumn, it was that coercive attempts to break up young activists can have the opposite effect and elicit sympathy that prompts even more to join their ranks. A report published by Freedom House in January concluded that empathy is similarly becoming a greater impetus for activism in the mainland. “For example, people will join a protest or sign a petition even if the complaint in question does not touch directly on their own interests,” the report said.
This can be clearly seen in the recent case of the detained feminists, which sparked droves of Chinese—men and women alike from all walks of life—to publically express solidarity with the detainees; which in turn led authorities to escalate repression to encompass the newly-minted activists. This strategy of perpetually intensifying repression is a vicious cycle that’s hardly sustainable in the long term.
Even nationalism, oft-cited as the Communist Party’s trusty tool for deflecting opposition, is an unreliable hedge against social movements that go against its agenda. Anti-Japanese demonstrations in 1985 and anti-African protests in 1988, for instance, served as gathering points that planted seeds for the mass movement of 1989. History has shown on many occasions that when patriotic Chinese feel their own leaders have become corrupt and ineffective, angst can quickly turn away from foreign enemies toward more domestic concerns.
None of this is to say another mass movement is inevitable in China, or that if it did happen, the outcome would be desirable. In the case of 1989, a festive push for reform descended into factionalism among protestors, then ended with a massacre and seizure of power by hardline conservatives in the Communist Party. But to assume that materialism and nationalism will continue to subdue Chinese youth from speaking out on a large scale (or even instigating more mass movements) is a rather dated notion.