We are probably witnessing the most expensive birthday party in history. On October 1, a military parade of 59 phalanxes, about 15,000 soldiers, 160 aircraft and 580 other pieces of weaponry and equipment was held in Beijing. Although these soldiers won’t demand overtime pay, the police officers, security guards and inspectors, who are employed by the government to check people’s IDs and to make sure no cooking knife and scissors are sold in shops, are unlikely to accept slave wage. This fanaticism does not only exist in the capital. Everywhere in China, students (some are forced to) sing patriotic songs and post their performance on WeChat; slogans such as ‘I Love My Country’ flash all night on the exterior of the skyscrapers (cities don’t suffer from fiscal deficit may also have wacky light shows); national flags are installed on almost every lamp posts, supermarket shelves, bus dashboards, and even nailed into some trees. And Internet censors unsurprisingly are working 24/7 to delete all the disharmonious opinions about the National Day celebration and all the uncensored news about the protests occurring in Hong Kong.
At the night before the Big Day, I passed a roadside shop that sells decorations and costumes and overheard the conversation of three college-aged women who were buying small Five-starred Red Flags: ‘Are they quality products?’ ‘Of course, only authorized manufacturers can make national flags so there is no fake.’ ‘And we can’t discard them after buying.’
And the next day I came across news reports that a 24 years man in Nanchong and a 37 year man in Anshan were arrested for humiliating the parade in WeChat groups. People in the same WeChat groups reported them. Their punishments are 7 and 15 days of detention respectively.
In his 2016 book The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century, Stein Ringen names CCP’s rule as ‘controlocracy’: The PRC is a sophisticated dictatorship under which citizens are granted many liberties, but only up to a certain point, beyond which the Party intervenes with all the force considered necessary. The Party is here and everybody knows it. If it doesn’t tell everybody what they can do, it controls in detail what they cannot do, read, or listen to. Obviously, this subtle system of indirect control is more profitable in the long run than the mere application of brute force (p. 137).
Recently someone (who hates the CCP) said to me that unfortunately the Party will rule for quite a long time and a quick collapse is like a tale from The Thousand and One Nights; because their system is indestructible from top to bottom.
But I think there are signs that can counteract our pessimism.
Some birds are not meant to be caged
It was Christmas Eve in 2010. I was in the inland city Changsha, which is known as the ‘Capital of Entertainment’. The weather was very cold, but it could not hinder the enthusiasm of young people to celebrate this western festival. Restaurants, shopping malls, bars, food stalls and other kinds of entertainment venues were all crowded. Though there are quite a number of beggars and little kids selling flowers, you can still call it flourishing age.
A live house located not far away from the city center was hosting a gig of Li Zhi, which was part of this independent singer’s national tour. The small venue was crowded with hundreds of fans and the only accompaniment was Li Zhi’s acoustic guitar. His famous song Square was played:
Please do not believe his love
You see the dawn has not yet arrived
Please do not believe his concern
His pistol is aiming at your chest
Nowadays this square is my grave
This song will be your elegy in the future
Their education will make you a bad person
With only animal instincts left but won’t help people in deadly danger
When Li Zhi was playing the interlude, the crowd shouted ‘Jiuhuche’, which means ambulance. The recorded version of this song includes audio sample from a documentary about the Tiananmen Square Movement and ‘Jiuhuche’ was the cry of the protesters in 1989 to call for help for their comrades who got shot by soldiers.
At the end of another song, a young voice suddenly shouted ‘Down with the Communist Party!’ The crowd squatted for half a second, then cheered and applauded.
That was a time when most people still genuinely believe that this country’s future would not be too bad — Shanghai just hosted the World Expo in the summer, Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, Google could still be accessed freely in the mainland, independent artists like Li Zhi were tolerated and could even become popular, and young people called out anti-Party slogan at gigs would not be reported and arrested.
Nevertheless, the feeling of the following years was like in a free-falling roller coaster — Internet firewall becomes higher and higher; more and more human rights lawyers, feminists, labor activists and political dissidents are jailed; the monitoring system consisting of tens of millions of surveillance cameras and all sorts of cutting-edge technologies has been built up; Liu Xiaobo died in prison; millions of Muslims are locked up in Xinjiang’s concentration camps; the constitutional amendment gives Big Brothers indefinite term of office; the establishment of social credit system means the state can punish ordinary people in a variety of ways; students who support workers’ rights are persecuted and kidnaped…
In 2019, Li Zhi and all his songs (most of them are not political) had been banned and eliminated from all the mainland platforms. But the first vital crack also appeared on this perfect dictatorship in this summer. On 9th June, over one million people hit the streets of Hong Kong to protest against the Extradition Law Amendment Bill, which preluded the largest anti-establishment movement in China since Tiananmen Square. In the following four months, the Party does ‘intervene with all the force considered necessary’ — verbal intimidation, police brutality, gangster attacks, disinformation war, and even ‘pistol aiming at chest’, but still cannot suppress the rebellion.
The Hong Kong people had successfully defeated the bill, but they are fighting for more: genuine democratic self-determination and justice for the protesters who were insulted and persecuted by the state. They understand that the Hong Kong government is not their sole enemy. This is why they escalate their actions on the National Day. And at least they have demonstrated this dictatorship is not that perfect.
We often have the impression that the vast majority of people in the mainland are patriots who never question the correctness of the Party and its leaders. However, if this is the case, why the state put such a large amount of resources to censor the Internet? Quite possible, if people can post freely on social media, we would witness great sympathy for Hong Kong.
Even in the current political environment, there are still people from the mainland showing their support in various ways. Some post uncensored news on social media, some debate with their pro-government friends, some covertly join the demonstrations in Hong Kong.
Chen Chun, who is a young scholar at Sun Yat-sen University, joined a march in July and post photos of it on his WeChat timeline. Chen Qiushi, who is a well-known and lawyer and oratist based in Beijing, went to Hong Kong to report the truth and posted the uncensored videos he made on various Internet platforms. Xu Xiaodong, who is a famous mixed martial artist in Beijing, expressed during YouTube live broadcast that the protesters in Hong Kong are compatriots and must not be cruelly suppressed. All three of them then became the targets of cyber violence and were harassed by the mainland police. They are people who have respectable lives — probably can make a fortune if they are willing to flatter the regime, but they choose to take a stand for justice. The very existence of people like them is the backbone of the Chinese people that inspire us not to surrender easily to authoritarianism.
Revolution of our time!
The protest movement in Hong Kong now has its own song, which is unsurprisingly banned in the mainland. However, from Taipei to Melbourne, from New York to Vancouver, from San Francisco to London, Glory to Hong Kong are sung proudly in all kinds of rallies by people not only from Hong Kong, but also from Taiwan and the mainland.
It is true that the Chinese overseas students from the upper and middle classes are predominately reactionary. Nevertheless, now more and more people migrate to Western countries in pursuit of freedom from fear. A considerable number of them have become the most severe critics of the CCP regime and you can hear their voices on Twitter or YouTube.
Even before the radical slogan of ‘revolution of our time’ became popular in Hong Kong, the exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui had named the struggle of him and his followers as the Chinese Exposé Revolution. He claims that the goal of this revolution is to extirpate the CCP and the latter will collapse in 2020. He is also the most noticeable supporter of the protest movement in Hong Kong who originally came from the mainland.
China’s nationalists denounce him as traitor and the running dog of America; many others think he is only a big talker. And the CCP tried to silence him ‘with all the force considered necessary’ — buying off, intimidation, massive cyber-attack, stigmatization, deprivation of assets, but none of them works. On the contrary, we can notice more and more Guo’s followers in the anti-CCP protests overseas.
Guo may have an agenda of helping the Chinese capitalist class to seize power, and he probably won’t support a large-scale social revolution in China, but his confidence, despise of the CCP and excellent propaganda skills are indeed encouraging many Chinese people, both in the mainland and overseas, to not fear the regime and become his comrades.
This psychological significance cannot be underestimated. If a large number of people do believe that there is a revolution around the corner and the regime is crumbling, the foundation of the perfect dictatorship is no longer solid.