The tea-leaf readers were jittery during my recent visit to Beijing in the days leading up to the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China. Speculation about political reform peppered conversations, especially after a high-ranking official publicly acknowledged the need for change.
To the certain disappointment of many, the conservative-leaning lineup of top leaders announced Thursday is unlikely to meet these expectations. In fact, the status quo of surveillance, force, and repression may actually get worse, at least in the short term, as the Internet-savvy generation born in the 1990s begins to test boundaries.
Ironically, it is the spectacular change in Chinese society that may bring this about. China’s economic miracle has lifted millions into new wealth, and the nouveaux riches entrepreneurs, style-conscious consumers and public servants are increasingly educated. China’s universities are bursting at the seams. They are graduating millions of young people who are learning to think more critically than their parents.
A number of young people I encountered during my two-week visit expressed cynicism about the system that controlled them, including the endemic corruption that permeates its cadres and the growing gap between rich and poor. They were also opportunistic. Some had joined the CPC, membership being a quasi-necessity for anyone who hopes to be employed by a state company, where the most secure jobs still lie.
They did not experience the Cultural Revolution – but many of their parents and grandparents were victims of that bizarre period during which millions died, and about which no one may speak. They had no direct knowledge of what happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989, but their parents did, and that recent history was also off limits. These young people had their own views about what happens when people are unable to decry abuses such as arbitrary evictions and the detention and torture of dissidents. One, whom I’ll call Hue, thought that an individual who had notoriously murdered kindergarten children in 2010 did so because “he needed to talk to his government about having been evicted from his home and had no way of doing so.” So he lashed out at the most precious thing of all – children – in a society that allows couples only one child.
They were all single children, as were their parents, and that, too, was a source of stress. They had neither siblings, aunts nor uncles, and because Confucian thinking about filial obligation remains a powerful value, they worried about how they would take care of aging parents in a society with inadequate social welfare structures, including public health care and help for the disabled.
The most serious test of China’s totalitarian rule will come from the Internet – that portal to the world that will increasingly shape the thinking of the young. There are approximately 538 million Internet users in the country, and more than half of them are under 25. Access is censored, of course; websites are blocked and thousands of ciphers are employed to delete the content of what remains available.
Since Facebook and Twitter are inaccessible, the party has authorized a pan-China network of social media called Weibo that can be monitored. The so-called Great Firewall doesn’t always work; in July, 2011, for example, the authorities tried to cover up the derailment of a train crash by ordering the carriages to be buried, but within days there were more than 10,000,000 pictures of the “burials” on Weibo. Nonetheless, the government seems to have decided to allow these small infractions. The young people I met thought they were deliberately providing an escape valve for pent-up tensions.
A telling indication of the mounting irrelevance of party ideology in the lives of ordinary people came from a sanctioned newspaper report about a 12-year-old from Guangzhou who had been chosen “Young Pioneer” of the year (an organization designed to indoctrinate children). Asked to respond, she said thoughtfully that she “did not know much about what it meant to be a Young Pioneer.”
The country has moved forward. The CPC has not. As the educated young push harder, it is likely that the party will either tighten its already frightening security apparatus, or be forced to accommodate social change with reform.
Erna Paris is an author and the 2012 recipient of the World Federalist Movement-Canada World Peace Award.