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Li Yiping was 22 in the spring of 1989, and joined the protests in Tiananmen Square. He eventually had to flee China – but he’s never stopped believing another resistance movement will come, or that he will be a part of it. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Li Yiping was 22 in the spring of 1989, and joined the protests in Tiananmen Square. He eventually had to flee China – but he’s never stopped believing another resistance movement will come, or that he will be a part of it. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

25 years after Tiananmen: Who will rise up against inequality now? Add to ...

“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.”

Cracking down

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.

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