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Boom and gloom: The struggle for a country's soul

Continued from Page 3

As Communism declines, the regime is using Chinese nationalism as the new unifying force. Its media have given massive publicity to China's first astronaut, its surging gold-medal count at the Olympics, its reunification with Hong Kong and its constant demands for reunification with Taiwan. Disputes with Japan and the United States are quickly turned into rally-round-the-flag causes. Patriotism has become a powerful tool for mobilizing the masses and diverting the reformist urge. Political rights and multi-party elections are portrayed as “American” ideas, alien to China's needs.

One night, in an apartment in a Beijing suburb, five friends have gathered to talk about the future of China. They describe themselves as supporters of democracy, yet almost all of them accept Beijing's definition of democracy as a vague notion that the rulers should represent the people's needs. Four of the five do not expect China to hold national elections within the next generation, nor do they want such a thing.

Wei Jiang, a wealthy 42-year-old businessman, smokes a cigar and sips a glass of red wine as he denounces the idea of elections. “Western people are always telling China what to do,” he says, his voice rising angrily. “Democratic reform shouldn't follow the propaganda of the West. When the Americans massacred the Indians, were they thinking of democracy?”

Mr. Wei says he quit the Communist Party after the military crushed the Tiananmen protesters in 1989. But today, he praises the leaders and expresses faith in their policies. Indeed, for people like him, those policies have been successful. He proudly gives a tour of his $125,000 (Canadian) luxury condo - one of six he owns - with its hot tub, wine bar, stone floors, antique furniture and rooftop garden.

Among the group of five friends, the only one who wants free elections is Li Baiguang, a legal activist who represents landless peasants in court actions. In 1989, he spent several days with the protesters on Tiananmen Square, before he was forced to return to his provincial home. Since then, he has been arrested several times for his campus activism.

When he hears Mr. Wei praising the stability and “low costs” of China's autocratic government, Mr. Li disagrees. “Despotism has a lower political cost, but in China it has produced a small elite who enjoy greater privileges than anyone else,” he says. “The purpose of a government is not just to bring political stability and low costs. If you consider our lack of freedom, the cost is not so low. If we cannot elect our leaders, we're no different from savages in caves.”

But as the evening continues, Mr. Li is drowned out by the loud shouts of the government's supporters. Soon, he falls silent.

One of the dominant voices in the conversation is Wang Yiqun, a female lawyer who drives an expensive jeep and works as a wine marketing consultant. After the military crackdown in 1989, her husband was jailed for six months for “anti-revolutionary activities.” Yet today, she criticizes the student protesters and insists that the government had to “restore order” in Tiananmen Square.

For her, and for most of the emerging middle classes here, China's economic boom is proof of the correctness of its policies.

“In 1989, we were shouting for democracy while our stomachs were empty,” she says. “There's no big need for elections now. We need to develop our economy first. I'm confident that the 21st century will belong to China.”

In this affluent corner of Beijing, at least, the government's strategy seems to be working. For now, the urban elites are willing to postpone their political expectations.

But in the villages and the rural heartland, and even in the hushed rooms where a tycoon lingers over his porcelain collection, the restlessness grows.

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