Human Rights in China (HRIC): You are an astute observer of China’s political landscape. Can you share with us some of the major social and political trends that you see?
Bao Pu (BP): If you look at what’s happening on the street, what the government has been saying, the policy decisions made in the National People’s Congress (NPC), what Premier Wen Jiabao said in the press conference on March 14, at the closing of the NPC — that political reform in China must be carried out under the leadership of the Communist Party — and how the police has been reacting to the things circulating on the Internet, then you will have a broad sense of what’s really going on in China.
Specifically, the next Five Year Plan that was adopted by the NPC includes a decrease in projected GDP growth to 7 percent, down from the 7.5 percent targeted in the previous Five Year Plan, and, at the same time, an increase in spending on healthcare, social welfare insurance, and increase in minimum wages.
While you cannot take what they decide within the Party and during the NPC at face value, you can take these measures as an acknowledgement that the past policies did not resolve all social issues, and that the leaders are feeling the need to make new adjustments in order to cope with newly arising social issues. Their decisions suggest that they’re forced to consider these social issues.
Most striking is that up to a few years ago the Chinese government still believed that economic growth would buy them time to figure out what to do next, in terms of social and political reform. The government’s leadership thought that if it delayed additional reforms, stability could be maintained simply by continued growth. I think that that belief is now basically shattered. Now, the government probably have come to the realization that economic growth is not enough to resolve social issues, and fairness has to be achieved not solely via increases in GDP.” So this is a major trend.
HRIC: What do you think are the key social problems that the leadership believes it must solve first?
BP: Well, the foremost problem is income disparity. Income disparity has many root causes, and the leaders have to address each one of them. But that doesn’t mean that they’re willing to address all of the causes, because some are systemic in nature. But they will at least do cosmetic things to narrow the income gap. We’ll have to see what actually happens in the next five years.
HRIC: Is there a great deal of discontent among the people? What about the people who have done well in the economic reform?
BP: I believe that even those who’ve benefitted from the economic growth, let alone those who were left behind, don’t actually think that the system is perfect or fair, or even that the system works for their wealth. So I think, and the people in power in China must have realized, that this creates general social discontent.
HRIC: Can you give us an example of dissatisfaction as expressed by this socioeconomic group?
BP: The Olympic Games are a good example. In some ways, it really was the height of the government’s success. During the Olympics, the government issued an order to limit the number of cars on the streets. It then decided to keep that the rule. So, in Beijing, there are certain days that you cannot drive on the streets. The rule is enforced based on your license plate number. People complain: “How am I going to get to work if there are two days during which I cannot drive?” Those who have money just buy another car to get around the rule. So, now they have two cars for one person. But those who can’t afford another car are stuck with the rule.
Even relatively well-off people — people in the city who have cars — feel that the government can just do whatever it likes at any time, that it can arbitrarily create regulations any time, without hearings or debates, sometimes with only two weeks of notice before implementation.
HRIC: I’m curious whether the people who benefit from the current system ever express dissatisfaction over the lack of fundamental rights?
BP: Well, in China, everybody knows that if you express discontent in a certain way, then it’s not allowed. So, nobody does that just yet. But it doesn’t mean that there are no problems, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the people don’t feel the lack of fundamental rights. Also, the lack of fundamental rights comes to people’s attention through their own direct experience. Everyone knows of the lack of fundamental rights, but in China nobody talks about it.
Also, the authorities have learned to tolerate a certain degree of protesting over government violation of specific rights, such as migrant worker issues, people being owed back wages, and people trying to protect their land. Those are the most vocal people because they have very specific demands.
HRIC: To a great degree, land rights problems stem from corruption within the local governments. Does the central government have the wherewithal to deal with these problems effectively? That is to say, is the central government even capable of addressing corruption at the local level?
BP: I don’t think the central government is capable of fixing the problem. The problem is not that the local governments are hiding what they’re doing from the central government. I think the problem is that the central government allows the local government to use land as a source of income and a source of revenue. So the land issue is much more fundamental than people think. It’s not just one local interest grabbing land from the peasants. It’s a systematic problem, and the central government is not willing to confront it.
In China, all land is supposed to belong to the people, right? But each piece of property can only benefit a particular group of people. For example, you have a house and you live there, the house benefits only you, it cannot simultaneously benefit all people. That’s just the nature of property. And so now there are licenses of seventy years or less issued to properties. During the seventy-year period, there’s a fundamental issue that hasn’t been resolved. The local governments feel like they can take land from the peasants because in name it belongs to the government, or to the so-called people, and the government acts on behalf of all people. This really is the fundamental problem, and I don’t think that the central government is ready to tackle it. It’s not because it doesn’t realize the problem, but it’s because all the local governments depend on granting usage licenses to land, which generate a huge amount of income. This problem is systemic, and ultimately it is the people at the highest levels of government that need to resolve this.
HRIC: Earlier, you said that the government is willing to tolerate some protest on certain issues. Why is the government reacting so strongly to the Jasmine Rallies?
BP: There is no evidence of a rally, but the police are obviously there. The strong response is because it happened in the city, and also we can imagine those who called for the rallies are not workers or peasants, but are intellectuals. And when folks in the city gather they’re not going to say, “I need my wages.” Their demands are more general, say, for fairness, and those demands are likely to quickly become demands for certain fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of opinion, that the government is not willing to face.
HRIC: We were surprised that the government is willing to look like bullies on camera. They are attacking journalists in videos that are being watched around the world. They are not afraid to look bad on the international stage. Why is that?
BP: Well, what the authorities were willing to do on camera actually reflects the fact that they have no other means except to deploy coercive power. Nobody likes this type of police action. But they feel that they’re compelled to use it, which only underlines the true worries behind the action. I believe it highlights how much the government feels that it has failed to maintain stability, so the authorities need to use coercive force to make the society “stable.” The action reflects more the leaders’ psychology than the real situation on the ground.
HRIC: So they are displaying fear?
BP: This is hard for people to understand. If China has so much economic growth, if everything is so great, then what is the government afraid of? I also believe that the authorities are in some ways overreacting. Their reaction suggests that they are not completely in touch. Those who make the decision to deploy police are not entirely grounded in reality.
HRIC: But how long can the government keep pumping money into stability maintenance? What happens if economic growth slows and they can’t pay the policemen overtime to keep people under house arrest, for example?
BP: Abrupt social changes are usually triggered by unpredictable factors. At any given time, there are factors at play that are predictable, and factors that are unpredictable. The economic situation is something that is predictable. For example, if inflation is high, generally people on the bottom will be hurt the most because their only income is from wages, and the wages are in the form of currency. So if the currency inflates, they feel it the most.
There are also other factors seemingly unrelated to the situation in China but nonetheless have an impact on China. For example, what’s happening in the Middle East. The Middle East unrest that erupted over highly charged issues really did reach China, and is an example of a random factor that causes politicization. Another example is the issue of imported beef in South Korea.1
Normally, you couldn’t imagine why this issue could cause huge rallies in the streets, yet it did. And the timing of random factors is unpredictable. They could happen tomorrow or next year.
HRIC: Let’s say another food scandal, or a disaster that affected a lot of people, happens in China, and there are mass demonstrations and protests. How do you think the authorities would react?
BP: They obviously have been ready for the last 20 years. They will use coercive power, and they will crack down. That is predictable because that is the way that they react. Ever since 1989, the authorities have learned the benefit of cracking down on popular protests. But the result of the crackdown is largely unpredictable. There’s only one result that we can predict: it will generate a lot of suffering.
HRIC: So what you’re saying is that going forward the situation in China is likely to become more volatile and less stable.
BP: Right. Deploying coercive power didn’t make the dissidents go away, and the government knows that. If you beat people up, that probably means you’ve given up trying to reason with them. If you convince them to leave, you know, why would you beat them up? So once it gets to the point where you have to beat people up, it will generate more discontent. And the authorities who deployed coercive power also know that.
HRIC: So what you’re saying is that the authorities actually don’t have any other way of solving these fundamental problems than beating people up?
BP: Exactly. It’s the style of the desperate. They basically have given up resolving the issues at a fundamental level.
HRIC: That is very worrisome, as it means they will only go on using the methods that they have always been using.
BP: Before they thought: “OK, if we keep the GDP figure high then we will buy some time.” Well, they probably did buy some time, but time is up now. The initial hope was that during this time, they would tackle the fundamental issues – but obviously they didn’t.
HRIC: Do you think that in general the people in China feel that what is happening in the Middle East has a real connection to them?
BP: It doesn’t take a high education level to realize that the social problems that actually triggered the Middle East unrest are all present in China. What are they? High inflation and income disparity, accompanied by high growth. The countries where these abrupt social changes started all had political systems similar to that in China. These countries in the Middle East are not the poorest countries in the region. They are relatively well off in terms of economic development and trade. It doesn’t take much to realize a connection between these countries and China.
HRIC: Do you feel that the Internet is an empowering technology for the Chinese people?
BP: It’s certainly evolving and it provides new possibilities. It is a very new thing, and we don’t know how the Internet will contribute to social change as it continues to evolve. Two years ago, I didn’t even know what a blog was, or what a so-called “weibo” [微博, micro blog] was. We didn’t know the social effect, but now we do. However, I have to stress that the Internet is not a driving force — it is only a tool.
The government also benefitted from Internet in terms of social control. It has the resources and communications technology that allows them, for example, to track 20 million cell phones at the same time. The government has all of the resources necessary to use the technology to increase their means of control. We cannot underestimate that as well.
1. In May and June 2008, massive demonstrations erupted in South Korea to protest the resumption of American beef imports there. The South Korean government’s lifting of the ban, which was originally instituted in 2003 over fears of mad cow disease, was perceived by many to be emblematic of the willingness of the government to cave to U.S. pressure on all issues. ^