Anxious Times in China: Lurching Toward a New Social Contract

Anxious Times in China: Lurching Toward a New Social Contract

On July 1, 2011, halfway through a speech commemorating the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, President Hu Jintao stressed the importance of a people-centered approach to governance. Going forward, he said, the Party must “follow the principle of putting people first…we must consult the people on policies, learn about their needs and seek suggestions from them. We must listen to their views, truthfully reflect their wishes, help alleviate their hardships, and protect their economic, political, cultural and social rights and interests in accordance with the law.” Hu called on officials to develop closer bonds with the communities they serve. Alienation from the people, he warned, “poses the greatest risk to the Party.”

That is true—but it also smacked of irony. For during the preceding four months, the Party had received many clear signals that multiple segments of the country’s population felt that it was ignoring their needs. Made jittery by uprisings in the Middle East that featured rallies demanding an end to autocratic rule and inflation, the Party had overreacted to vague Internet calls for similar demonstrations to take place in the central districts of major Chinese cities. Few people turned out for these rallies, which seem to have originated with scattered postings on websites based outside of China, but this didn’t stop the authorities from lashing out. According to the organization Chinese Human Rights Defenders, the government formally detained twenty-six people (most famously Ai Weiwei, the country’s best known artist), “disappeared” more than thirty others, and put another two hundred-plus under soft detention.

This crackdown undermined the Party’s ongoing global “charm offensive” (aimed at softening its repressive image) and made it seem scared of its own shadow. In the weeks leading up to Hu’s speech, a flurry of mass actions, some quite violent and none related to the “Jasmine protests” called for on websites, unfolded across the nation: rural riots by farmers fed up with official land grabs; strikes by truckers disgusted with rising prices; and even outbursts about Han Chinese infringement on the traditional way of life in Inner Mongolia, an ethnically diverse frontier zone that has been reliably quiescent in sharp contrast to perennially restive Tibet and Xinjiang.

The weeks after Hu’s speech saw more of the same, as well as two high-profile events—a July train wreck and an August environmental protest—that further underscored the chasm between official happy talk and popular unease. Could 2011 go down in history as the year that China’s Era of Bravado ended and an Age of Anxiety began, the year the new social compact between ruler and ruled forged in the wake of 1989’s Tiananmen protests and June 4 Massacre finally unraveled?

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