Give Me Stability or Give Me Death12 min read

China’s aversion to social unrest and a farewell to the village – Matt Chitwood

“Without social stability, we can’t have prosperity.” Gewa Bingma, a young man from Yunnan province, told me this over hotpot the night before China’s 70th National Day celebration, last October 1. He contrasted the hunger his parents experienced under Party leadership with his own generation that has never known hunger – also under Party leadership. “We can’t even clean our plates,” he tells me, the pot half-filled with food. “Now we can anju leye,” he says in pithy Chinese – peacefully live and joyfully work. “Without the Party, we would have no new China.” These are the fruits of peacetime and Party policy since 1978, and the majority of Chinese, tasting them for the first time, are eager for their children to also enjoy them.

When the People’s Republic of China turned 70, President Xi Jinping surveyed troops and intercontinental ballistic missiles along Beijing’s Street of Eternal Peace. Colorful floats narrated China’s development since 1978 – reform and opening, WTO accession, the 2008 Olympics – which has produced a slurry of economic statistics envied by the rest of the world: double digit growth for more than 25 years, a reduction in infant and maternal mortality rates to an eighth their 1980 levels, trillions of dollars in unparalleled infrastructure investment, and 800 million people lifted from poverty. This year, the once-impoverished rural village where I live achieved the formal classification of poverty-free thanks to a national campaign to eliminate abject rural poverty by 2020. Rural residents – still 40 percent of China’s 1.4 billion people – have new roads, new houses and “meat whenever I want it,” one told me.

Social stability is paramount in the Chinese psyche”

The National Day parade was a good-parts version of the Party’s record, of course. There was no moment of silence remembering the hundreds or even thousands killed in 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre, when tanks paraded down the Street of Eternal Peace and opened fire on its own citizens. Nor was there mention of the oppression of an estimated one million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang’s “re-education camps,” or of the violent protests in Hong Kong.

Many Americans find Chinese nationals’ support for the Communist Party incomprehensible, if not reprehensible. But the social contract between the Chinese state and its people is different than those of Western societies, based not on a process of participatory democracy but performance: the Communist Party delivers a stable and improving life and the people give it leeway to accomplish that. Social stability is paramount in the Chinese psyche and it affects the country’s policies and prospects for political reform.

China’s prosperity gospel

Popular wisdom holds that disease, famine and uprisings foretold the end of Chinese dynasties. Social stability was a required sign of an emperor’s right to rule – his mandate of heaven. Instability, however, signified the loss of that mandate. And, ironically, it has also been the hallmark of China’s recent history: the Opium Wars with the British in the mid-1800s; the violent Boxer Rebellion led by poor peasants at the end of the 19th century; the collapse of imperial rule and the Qing dynasty in 1911; Japanese invasion and occupation for almost a decade in the 1930s and 40s; a prolonged and bloody civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists prior to and after Japanese occupation; Mao’s Great Leap Forward, an industrial experiment in which tens of millions died of starvation; and the Cultural Revolution, ten years of political campaigns and domestic turmoil finally ending in 1976.

“This experience, passed down to every Chinese citizen through highly nationalistic textbooks and government propaganda,” writes the Carnegie Endowment’s Michael Swaine, “has created both a strong sense of nationalism and a deep, enduring sensitivity throughout society to the fragility of political rule and the potential threat posed by external powers.” If government tyranny gave birth to American ideals of freedom, the turmoil of Chinese history begat the primacy of social stability, even at the cost of such freedoms. Forty years of growing prosperity and military strength have followed.

Opinion surveys consistently find a high level of regime support in China, “even after factoring in the possibility that some people hide their dissatisfaction for fear of political repercussions,” writes Neil Thomas at MacroPolo, the Chicago think-tank. My hotpot friend, Gewa Bingma, perceives that the Party has delivered on its end of the bargain – a point that nationalistic education and state media reinforce – while Western criticisms about police-state surveillance, media censorship and arbitrary rule of law have little relevance to his life.

China’s demographics also reinforce the primacy of social stability and support for the authoritarian regime. For decades, Washington’s policies and countless predictions of China’s collapse have assumed that as the middle class grows so does its demands for democratic reforms. But this well-known theory put forth by Seymour Martin Lipset, a social scientist and democracy scholar, is based on a “diamond-shaped” social structure in which the middle class is the most populous.

A geomancer plays the erhu under a sign that reads anju leye, or peacefully live and joyfully work (Bangdong, Yunnan)

Columbia University professor Andrew Nathan, co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers, points out that China’s middle class occupies a much smaller fraction of the population. Rather than a diamond, it is more like a triangle with a small middle class sandwiched between a massive base of farmers and blue-collar workers and a miniscule upper class. Not only is the lower class materially better off than before and therefore happy with the government’s performance, but the economic interests of the middle class are also intricately linked with those of the Party. No such class existed before the first economic reforms in 1978, and the one that has emerged has been largely dependent upon the state: civil servants, teachers, health workers and employees of state media. China’s method of privatizing the housing market in the 1990s also resulted in most owners being public sector employees. They feel it in their best interest that society maintains stability with the Party in power.

Social stability then, rather than lofty notions of justice or freedom, remains the pragmatic metric by which Chinese assess situations at home and abroad, and is heavily reinforced by the Party’s disinformation. Everyone I speak with – an admittedly small sample size of urban elites and rural farmers – says the unrest and violence in Hong Kong exemplifies how instability destroys the economy and social welfare. They describe people frustrated by economic pressures and growing inequality. I’m often told that if Hong Kong had a stronger government able to push through economic policies, its people would be better off. But no one I’ve talked with acknowledges the underlying political frustrations, and not one of them has heard of the protesters’ five demands.

Many Chinese also believe Xinjiang to be safer and more stable than ever before, as evidenced by no terrorist attacks in the last three years according to Party mouthpiece Xinhua News. Even the tragedy of the Tiananmen Square massacre is broadly viewed as a justified act to maintain the social stability that has contributed to the prosperity Chinese enjoy today. The United States is unsafe, I am repeatedly informed, because everyone carries guns. In contrast, “public security in our China is very good,” I was told by a gas station attendant after a US school shooting. Such common views are propagated and reinforced by patriotic education and state media. A Chinese friend, with tongue firmly in cheek, recently summarized the message delivered in each news broadcast: “Our leaders are busy, our nation is stable and foreign countries are in upheaval.”

Everyone I speak with says the unrest and violence in Hong Kong exemplifies how instability destroys the economy and social welfare”

The people’s democracy

Until now, the carrots of economic growth and improving livelihoods plus the sticks of the state’s social control apparatus have yielded the desired broad stability. It’s not clear for how long, however. The problem for the authorities is that China’s stability is artificial, the Pulitzer-winning author Ian Johnson says. “It is held together by force, not by shared values, rules, and laws,” he wrote me. “This is because China is still an authoritarian state, not one that allows civil society organizations, which are the true source of social stability.” So the question remains: If the Chinese value social stability so highly, why not press for democracy, which many, like Johnson, would argue to be a more dependable guarantor of social stability?

One reason is that Chinese themselves rate their system as already quite democratic (7.22 on a scale of 10), according to the Asian Barometer Survey (ABS), although of course that has never been substantiated by an election of common consent. Moreover, the Party has been “responsive enough to societal demands to keep itself in power for a long time,” wrote Andrew Nathan over fifteen years ago. The Party continues to do so, largely satisfying its social contract with the people and responding to China’s shifting hierarchy of needs.

According to President Xi, not only have the people’s material and cultural needs grown, but also their demands for democracy, rule of law, fairness and justice, security and a better environment. That’s why amid slowing growth in 2017, Party priority shifted from a singular focus on fast economic growth to “high-quality development,” which includes more democracy and improved capacity for governance.

Xi is featured on a billboard urging citizens to clean up and protect Er Lake (Dali, Yunnan)

History warns that a transition to a full-fledged democratic system would unleash political turmoil and social instability. Before the Tiananmen Square massacre, Party hardliners maintained that allowing demonstrating students to “negotiate with the Party and government as equals” would be to “negate the leadership of the CCP and negate the entire socialist system.” The fall of communism that followed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union confirmed that lesson for the Party, something we see playing out in Hong Kong today. President Xi has made clear that “the Party leads all things,” including steps toward more democratic elements within China’s authoritarian system. That makes any sort of regime change more likely to occur through rupture rather than segue, according to Nathan.

An imperfect political system that provides stability is preferable to an unknown and unstable alternative”

Chinese pragmatism posits that the best is the enemy of the good, and also comes at a prohibitively high price. Collective action would be an enormous gamble that the Party bets citizens are unwilling to take. Therefore, a sufficient, if imperfect, political system that provides stability and improving livelihoods is preferable to an unknown and unstable alternative.

“We’re not stupid melons,” one informed urbanite told me. “We see the outside world and want more freedoms. But don’t bring American thinking on how to accomplish that. Be patient,” he urged me further. “We’ve made a lot of progress in 70 years. We can make much more in another 70.”

A nuanced benediction

Most Chinese I’ve spoken with are not stupid melons. For the last two years I lived in a remote mountain village and traveled extensively in Yunnan. I visited rice paddies, tea factories, garbage dumps and tourist traps, and talked with everyone along the way. Throughout, I have been overwhelmed by people’s hospitality, their willingness to open their homes and hearts to me and let me peer into their ordinary lives, which I found extraordinary. And whether my neighbors in the village or an urbanite off the beaten path, I learned to appreciate the pragmatism of their politics.

I am writing this coda from the comforts of quarantine in the US, having left Bangdong village last December, after two years living there. Though nothing seems certain anymore, my life here remains a stark contrast to the vulnerabilities of my previous neighbors’ lives in the village. Yet, thanks to decades of breakneck economic growth, infrastructure development and a concerted campaign against rural poverty, they are materially better off than ever before. They are living their best lives.

The Communist Party has drastically improved the livelihoods of people in rural Yunnan, including my friends and neighbors in Bangdong village. It has maneuvered economic levers to grow the economy while also maintaining social stability and its grip on power. And an overwhelming majority of Chinese people are proud of what their country has achieved under Communist leadership. Most recently, that includes an effective response to Covid-19, especially vis-à-vis other countries’ results, even despite initial missteps by the Party.

Many of those same people are also frustrated at limitations on their freedoms and have concerns about stronger Communist control since Xi came to power. The Party prioritizes its power over the people’s interests and uses “rule by law” as an enforcement mechanism. Taken to extremes, that yields gross violations including Covid cover-ups and the internment camps in Xinjiang. And when projected onto the global stage, China’s growing influence becomes disconcerting. Yet we often vilify the Party in a simplistic way, which isn’t helpful, and declare ourselves righteous, which isn’t accurate. Then our only explanation for how 1.4 billion people can tolerate Party rule and infringement of their basic human rights is that they are brainwashed by state propaganda.

We prefer clear-cut good and evil. But award-winning China author Evan Osnos compares good journalism to photography, which demands a balanced contrast of light and dark. As we respond to the virus in the US, there is a delicate balance between unemployment, civil liberties and human lives at stake. Light and dark. And the more I talk with Chinese about their views of social stability, Chinese history and the Communist Party, the more I recognize the complexity of the issues with which they themselves wrestle. Light and dark. 

May we, together with our neighbors near and far, find the wisdom and compassion to navigate the complexities of our time.  ∎

Header: A woman takes a photo of General Secretary Xi on China National Day at Lugu Lake, Yunnan. All photos courtesy of the author.
A version of this dispatch first appeared on Matt’s blog for the Institute of Current World Affairs.
Read all of Matt’s posts in this Bangdong series at the China Channel here.