Twenty-five years ago, Li Yiping walked the streets near Tiananmen Square wearing a shirt soaked through with the blood of those he tried to save. Today, he lives in Surrey, B.C., and sells Toyotas for a living. Since immigrating to Canada in 1997, he has also strung communications cables in northeastern Alberta and washed dishes at a Vancouver restaurant.
But time and geography have done little to take him away from June 4, 1989, the day students, activists and workers took to the streets to push for freedom before tanks rolled into Tiananmen. For years, his most diligent labours have been on the nights and weekends he has devoted to plotting the overthrow of the Communist Party of China.
That work is contained in a 200-page book he has published – a blueprint for revolution.
Since the crackdown at Tiananmen, though, many Chinese have benefited from a revolution of a different kind: economic reforms that have led to an explosion in consumer spending and material wealth, a 33-fold growth in the economy and a 24-fold growth in average wages. The government has also made strategic changes – the end of the one-child rule and the abolishment of labour camps – that have kept dissent in check.
There are famous political activists in China. There’s unrest among the Uyghur in some parts of the country. But the mainstream discontent that spurred the protests at Tiananmen? In contrast to Mr. Li’s generation, students today feel an allegiance, occasionally an affection, for the state. They see the future as full of hope and opportunity.
But whether China can maintain those sentiments – and stability – is unclear. The economic lion is showing signs of age. Growth is slowing. In nearly two dozen major cities, home prices are now falling, taking owners’ hard-earned savings with them.
And there are millions of Chinese – the country’s migrant workers – who have, in large part, been mere spectators to the country’s economic leap forward. While well-connected officials drive Bentleys down sprawling highways, these workers watch from construction sites where they have few rights and little ability to influence their future.
Inequality underlay the mass protests of 1989. It has since grown far more acute, and far more obvious.
As Mr. Li sees it, the landscape of China today is filled with “dry wood. Whoever creates a spark will light a huge fire.” For him, the question isn’t whether the Chinese people will rise up again – but how soon.
The migrant factor
In early April, a retiree in Dongguan, a city just north of Hong Kong, discovered that the world’s largest manufacturer of brand-name shoes was cheating its workers. Tens of thousands of people, whose toil produces Nike and Adidas sneakers, had not been given the full pension benefits they were due.
News quickly spread, and soon streets around the company’s seven factories were filled with striking workers, waving banners calling on employers to “give me back my social insurance, give me back my housing benefits!”
For a week, about 30,000 people walked out on their jobs. It was the largest recent strike in China, and it capped a troubling spike in labour unrest. In 2010, the latest year for which there are numbers, 180,000 “mass incidents” – protests and strikes that sometimes devolved into the torching of government offices, bombings and suicide attacks – broke out across the nation, four times the number a decade ago.
The discontent is particularly grievous among the country’s vast population of migrant workers, who now number about 260 million.
They leave home for faraway cities where they are forced to live on the margins, without access to education or health care. Many face severe conditions at work too, and little they can do about it. Their only channel for complaint is a centralized workers union aimed at stability above all – no other unions are allowed.
And while their wages are better than what they might make at home, with average salaries of $15 a day, they still fall on the wrong side of the country’s wealth equation.
Official statistics say China’s level of income inequality remains well above the “red line” international organizations and academics consider risky for a country; some Chinese university research has suggested it is in fact much higher than the government lets on, and is among the worst on Earth.
“The social contradictions are growing more obvious and more serious,” says Zhang Zhiru, a labour activist who played a central role in the shoe-factory protests.
In this environment, a single, even small, act has the power to spark a national conflagration, he says. Witness the Tunisian peddler whose self-immolation set in motion events that brought down that country’s government, and sparked the Arab Spring.
“It’s hard to predict which group of people or social class it might come from, but with the current situation of China, it’s easy for problems to arise from farmers or migrant workers,” he says. “They are the ones living in the bottom of society. Their oppression and exploitation is more serious than others – and their resistance is more powerful.”
To some, strikes like the one at Dongguan have the appearance of tacit approval from Beijing, a convenient way to pressure corporations for more pay to help assuage the concern of discontented workers.
The force of the Chinese response at Dongguan suggests otherwise. Legions of police responded to the strike armed with dogs. Dozens of protesters were dragged off for interrogations and detention. Security forces went so far as to block state media from interviewing Mr. Zhang.
“Once the details are reported by national media, it will grab the attention of many migrant workers,” he says.
The containment of local protests is in line with countless others: a 2013 campaign against censorship of the boundary-pushing magazine Southern Weekly; the promotion of Charter 8, a petition for democracy, protection of human rights and an independent judiciary; and China’s so-called Jasmine Revolution, which sought to undermine the Communist Party with calls for accountability and transparency.
All of them captured the world’s attention. But they didn’t last long and none of them spread. Protest leaders were detained, kicked out of jobs or otherwise silenced.
“So things can boil over in one county, but they won’t boil over in the next county, because they are not allowed to link up,” says David Kelly, the Beijing-based research director for the advisory firm China Policy.
At the same time, the Communist Party has orchestrated enough political change for people to feel their lives are improving. The party has not only eliminated painful pressure points such as the one-child rule, but has also made great noise with campaigns — whose effectiveness remains to be seen — against corruption and the poisonous air that frequently blankets the country.
“This is a country in which empires and dynasties have been overturned by rural rebellions more than once. But there’s many a pathway, and many, many things have to come together,” Mr. Kelly says. “You generally have to have about 100 years of increasingly harsh measures and harsh taxes. And in fact, this government has softened a lot of measures.
“So they actually have taken out a lot of insurance, if you like.”
The primacy China places on “stability maintenance” nonetheless puts it in a near-constant state of battle with its own people.
Armed guards beat farmers angry that their land has been seized to build high-rises. Riot police drag away people protesting against rivers filled with toxic effluent. Security forces hunt down and jail human-rights lawyers. Armies of censors scrub the Internet.
For months before the June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen protests, those who have pressed for a more equitable and honest China, such as Nobel Peace Prize-nominated Hu Jia, have been placed under house arrest.
“I represent their fear,” he says of the government. “They fear citizens’ power. They fear citizens’ voices.”
Mr. Hu was only 15 during the Tiananmen student protests. But he posted poems and marched with thousands of others – and the violence he saw galvanized his desire for change. In subsequent years his work has drawn global attention to China’s problems with issues such as environmental pollution and AIDS.
Along the way, he has watched person after person like him confront the Chinese state – and come away singed.
“If a person desires to speak truth, he immediately becomes an enemy of the state,” he says.
But that, he says, has unforeseen consequences.
“This system is waking new people up every day. It fosters more and stronger enemies.”
‘People are born equal!’
Take Mr. Li. When he was two and a half years old, his father was sent to a remote village in the mountains – punishment for butting heads with local authorities. It was a small community, and poor. For years, the family went hungry.
A decade later, they were allowed back to their home near the Yangtze River in Hubei province. But Mr. Li had been stripped of innocence.
“If you have been through that kind of life experience, you just know that society is not right – there’s just something wrong,” he says.
Driven to succeed and intellectually curious – he skipped breakfast for half a month to save enough money to buy Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Confessions – he poured his energy into his studies.
The year he graduated high school, he posted Hubei’s top score in the gaokao, China’s nationwide placement test.
That was a ticket to law school at Peking University, the pinnacle of the Chinese education system – and at that time a haven for liberal thought. He raided the campus library for more books by Rousseau, as well as Voltaire, John Locke and Greek philosophers.
“People are born equal!” he says, still speaking with the joy of discovery. “I was so surprised. It’s so simple.” Western thought “wiped out all the wrong ideas” of submitting to the power of the Chinese system.
He was 22 in the spring of 1989, and joined both the protests and the ensuing hunger strike. On the evening of June 3, with tanks converging on Tiananmen Square, he arrived at Muxidi, an area near the square where some of the Communist Party’s top officials lived. There, students had erected blockades and set a bus on fire.
As Mr. Li approached on a bicycle, he heard gunfire. He was convinced that it must be rubber bullets. When he arrived moments later, he looked in disbelief at the very real carnage left by troops.
“It cannot be true,” he thought, before moving into action.
He helped carry the injured to taxis and carts, which took them to hospitals. His clothes were red with blood when he stood up to throw a rock at an armed military vehicle. A soldier raised his rifle and trained it at him. Mr. Li collapsed to the ground behind a flower pot. Bullets smashed into the wall behind him.
“I lost my thoughts,” he says. “That’s probably the most dangerous moment I’ve been through.”
That night also changed his path. He finished his law degree, but barely practised. Instead, he travelled the country advocating for farmers and migrant workers.
In 1994, authorities cracked down on him and his fellow activists, jailing some. He escaped, hiding out for a year before being plucked from China by Operation Yellowbird, the Hong Kong effort that saw a preacher, a triad gangster and embassy staff smuggle out dozens of Tiananmen protesters wanted by the authorities.
He was one of Yellowbird’s last rescues and, at 30, made his way to Canada.
But between studying English, washing dishes and working, Mr. Li devoted his time to figuring out how to dismantle the regime that first shot at him, then chased him out of his country.
With the same rigour he once devoted to French philosophers, he has studied other revolutions – Korea, the Philippines, Eastern Europe. He has closely watched the Arab Spring too. “They used lots of tactics that highly relied on the Internet. And that’s something we can copy – and do even better in China,” he says.
He knows the Chinese state moves with lightning speed to spy on communications, censor anything it doesn’t like and detain anyone doing anything it considers dangerous. But short of shutting down social media, the censors can’t stop everything.
“Before they delete words, those words have already spread,” he says.
His own words have spread, too. His book, Strategies for Changing the Regime, is distributed online, available for purchase in Hong Kong, and has circulated in mainland China. In very quiet ways his strategies are having an impact, says Mr Li. He doesn’t know the precise number, but groups are forming. Leaders, he says, will naturally emerge once groups begin to co-ordinate an effort to topple the government.
“So we can weave a net across the country,” he says. “There is no centre of power. Every part can run individually.”
And there is a latent risk to a country whose leadership has built its power on ever-rising wealth. What happens if the growth stops? With China now saddled with a heavy debt load and dimming financial prospects, Mr. Li sees an opportunity to push for change – not just among career activists, or those, like him, who lived through Tiananmen and still hold onto their ideals, but from a new generation of regular people deeply discontented with the inequality in the country.
“When the next economic recession starts, the revolution has a very good chance,” he says.
“It’s getting very, very close. Theoretically, revolution could happen any day.”