By Zhang Dajun
The appeal of a revolution is gaining momentum.
Many in China are fighting for freedom. People with different worldviews have their own perspectives on how best to achieve this goal. These people fall into two groups. The first favors a gradual and linear transition from tyranny to freedom. The other sees no way other than overthrowing the regime. It’s a race between “evolution” and “revolution.”
This race between “evolution” and “revolution” has raged on for centuries. In China’s case, not more than a few years ago, the great majority of freedom fighters in China hoped for a smooth transition from dictatorship to democracy. Now, increasing numbers of thinkers, activists, and lawyers call for a more radical approach. Why has there been a change of heart and mind? And what does such a change mean?
The Communist regime’s pretense of “benevolent authoritarianism,” characterized by its program of “reform and an open-door policy,” has lost its appeal as it becomes more ruthless in dealing with the economy, foreign policy, and human rights. The Communist Party’s core beliefs are back in vogue. Economic reform measures are rolled back, militaristic attitudes are strengthened, and abuses of human rights multiply and intensify. To many in China, this backward move signifies the death of a gradual evolution, which used to be dearly cherished by broad segments of China’s intellectual class and civil society.
This assessment of the attitudes and policy choices of the Communist regime inevitably leads to a sobering recalculation on the part of freedom fighters in China. This means that those seeking change have to lower their political expectations and raise the political stakes. They understand that—as long as the Communist party remains—there can hardly be genuine freedom. The win-win supposition inherent in the first evolutionary approach is doomed. Hence, fighting for freedom has become a revolutionary zero-sum game.
It is also interesting to note the role of demographics in this political divide. People below the age of 40 tend to favor revolution while those above 40 are likely to stick to a more cautious route. There are two main reasons for this divergence.
First, this demographic gap can be ascribed to the different experiences between young and old. There has not been significant reform during the young generation’s adult lives. The tenets of the reigns of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao ensured stability and maintained the status quo. In other words, the young can be excused for their lack of enthusiasm for top-down, evolutionary, politics. The older generation witnessed and was excited by rapid political developments in the 1980s. Their youth was memorable partly because of the Communist party’s reform programs. This memory left in their hearts the hope for a more benign government.
The second reason for this is economic or social. The old have benefited from the Chinese government’s economic reforms more than the young have. Though in varying degrees, the older generation has been socially and economically established. Many of them have their own houses and cars. Their living standards have risen steadily. Furthermore, their childhood during the Maoist era was harsh. As a result, they believe incremental improvement can be achieved or is in order. On the contrary, the young, while not raised in poverty, are less able to appreciate the progress that has been made. The inflexibility of the system deters them from achieving the social and economic successes which have been taken for granted by the older generations.
Chinese society is changing, not just intellectually, but also politically, socially, and economically. As the Communist regime’s militancy in domestic and foreign policies continues, it is hard not to foresee the “gradual” radicalization of the Chinese opposition. It is time to prepare for a more volatile and perhaps more violent China.
Zhang Dajun (张大军) has an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and worked for several transnational corporations. In recent years, he has worked with the Transition Institute (传知行研究所) in Beijing, held forums on citizenry and social advocacy, and translated works about democratic transitions. His tweets (@ZhangDajun) about Chinese political and social affairs are popular and enlightening. He now lives in Arlington, Virginia. The author wrote the article in English.