A report by China’s ruling Central Committee, leaked to the press, reveals the Communist Party’s deep fears about a rising tide of protests and civil unrest. History shows that they are right to be fearful. Protests shaped China’s history throughout the 20th century, which began with the Boxer Rebellion and ended with a sit-in by 10,000 Falun Gong members and anti-NATO student demonstrations.
Protest patterns have, of course, evolved. In 1999, the ways in which Falun Gong members and anti-NATO student activists used the Worldwide Web were unprecedented. But enough has remained constant about protests in China to allow us to ask whether history can help us answer a pressing question: will today’s protests be remembered as minor flare-ups without lasting significance or as ominous signs that the regime was coming apart at the seams at the start of the 21st century?
Looking backward may provide no definitive answer but will help in understanding the issues involved. A good way to begin is with a timeless dilemma that many Chinese regimes have confronted. Namely, which of three strategies to pursue when protests start. Should they try to steer it in a loyalist direction? Attempt to defuse it? Or break its back through repression? Each strategy has worked at times, but each has backfired too.
The first option failed famously in 1900. The Qing dynasty threw its support behind the Boxers, a violent anti-Christian group. Foreign powers then crushed the movement and saddled the regime with an indemnity.
The second strategy backfired eight decades later when the Communist Party permitted the root causes of student discontent to remain in place for several years, which gave young activists a chance to grow bolder and more experienced. The small-scale student-led outbursts of 1985 through 1988 were sometimes tolerated, sometimes condemned, but never forcefully suppressed. By 1989, large contingents of workers were joining giant demonstrations led by educated youths well versed in the mechanics of protest.
Finally, repressive strategies failed frequently between 1919 and 1927. Warlords and colonial authorities who used force against protesters often saw this strengthen, not weaken, mass movements.
Which strategy has the regime pursued of late? The simple answer is: All of them. It tried to leap ahead of and guide the anti-NATO protests, destroy Falun Gong, and defuse labor strikes and tax riots. This mix and match approach has been used before by other Chinese regimes and has sometimes worked quite well.
Does this mean that China’s rulers can now rest easy? At the end of 1999, it appeared so. Now, however, it seems instead that each of the choices made in 1999 came with a cost. The resolve of many Falun Gong members has been strengthened by official efforts to discredit Li Hongzhi, their charismatic leader. It has become, indeed, a mark of honor to engage in risky public acts of defiance - and so public protests continue. Economic protests also persist. Moreover, in some regions such as Sichuan and Jiangxi, they have taken increasingly militant forms.
Efforts by the regime to exploit and channel protests have had unexpected consequences. Take the government’s efforts to exploit the nationalist upsurge triggered by NATO’s bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo War. Reawakened to the power and excitement of public protest, Chinese students are unlikely to content themselves in the future with taking to the streets only to pursue officially sanctioned ends.
A clear suggestion of a future source of trouble for the government came when educated youths in Beijing overtly held rallies to protest the way police mishandled the investigation of the rape and murder of a local student. Although this movement ended quickly and without incident, the fact that it occurred may be enough to make the regime regret its decision in 1999 to uncork the bottle and provoke, after a decade of dormancy, the unpredictable genie of student activism.
These observations are certainly not proof that the regime is on its last legs. They do suggest, however, that significant elements are in place for the rise of movements that could seriously threaten the state’s authority. All that is missing is a common thread to unite people from varying classes with divergent concerns and protest skills which have been evinced again and again throughout the past century.
We should remember - as China’s leaders do - that disgust with official corruption has often served as a unifying force. It galvanized protesters in the late 1940s (just before the Nationalists fell) and again in 1989 (when the Communists faced their last major protest movement).
Thus, despite high economic growth rates, China’s leaders cannot rest easy. They are aware that many citizens view the Communist Party as riddled by corruption, and they fear unpredictable and uncontrollable protests will once again end up shaping Chinese history in this new century - as it did in the last one.