“The largest protests in China since Tiananmen Square”.
You heard about those? The ‘A4 revolution’, the ‘White Paper protests’, as it were – the birth of a new Chinese youth movement, the heir to Tiananmen and May 4th, the moment where someone finally dared to say “down with Xi Jinping”. For a few magical days it all seemed to be in play – the Chinese people had finally stood up! Such went the hype. These protests, as we were reminded, were the largest since Tiananmen. But actually, “largest protests in China since Tiananmen Square” is already something of an admission of defeat. If we call a boxer the “greatest since Ali”, then there’s contained there, in the comparison, the fact that this boxer is the greatest since Ali. Ali remains untouchable, no matter how good your right hook is. Similarly, the A4 revolution was the largest series of protests since Tiananmen, and like Ali was for boxing June 4th remains for Chinese protest movements – at least from a western point of view. What happened in November 2022 in China was not a progression from Tiananmen, let alone from the real most dangerous authentic mass moment in Chinese politics of the Cultural Revolution 1966. It was perhaps an echo of the student movement of 1989, hyped up into something momentous by journalists and China watchers who have been waiting their whole careers to see 1989 happen for real again.
But even then, “down with Xi Jinping!” was an anomaly, a cry that was absent more than present; while in 1989 the energy existed to transform mourning for Hu Yaobang into a genuine – if incoherent – universal moment, in 2022 the transfiguration of opposition to dysfunctional zero-Covid policies into anything similar did not materialize. We’re reduced, from weeks ago gushing in joy at the sight of Chinese protesting in the streets like never before, to sullenly mocking the end of zero-Covid, provoked at least in part by said Chinese protesting, caught in the awkward position of being unhappy that the policy change we wanted is actually happening because we kind of hoped Beijing would keep on being a stubborn, unchanging autocracy and allow that single spark to start a prairie fire. Whatever it turns out the events of November 2022 mean in the long-term, they obviously have not heralded any kind of incoming liberal democratic revolution, A4 paper or no.
Alright then, you ask, what did they herald?
Like Zhou Enlai didn’t say about the French revolution: too early to tell. But I’m going to put my fifty cents up here anyway, to consider an option that is not “yes China’s youth are rising up I have tears in my eyes I’m literally crying soon the motherland will be free” or “CIA-backed colour revolution president Xi didn’t send the tanks in but he damn well should have anyway”. The immediate consequences of this flutter of liberalism are unclear. But one thing I’m going to say is this: the protests of November 2022 represent in the main one thing and one thing only, and it’s the beginning – the real beginning – of the New Era.
First we must look at what exactly did happen in November. It began in October; days before the opening of the 20th Party Congress in Beijing, on the 13th, a lone protestor hung two banners from the Sitong Bridge and set up camp with a loudspeaker nearby. The banners demanded ends to Covid tests, called for freedom and the resignation of “traitorous dictator” Xi Jinping. He disappeared, of course; a protest such as this in the capital days before a sensitive political event wasn’t ever going to end another way. But his slogans did not – the words of the “Bridge Man” spread, if not on WeChat than via foreign social media, and in private, and protests were held in solidarity at foreign universities across the world.
That was pretty big, in the stifling atmosphere of the time. But it was a month later when things got bigger; enormous protests occurred both in locked-down Guangzhou’s Haizhu District, where migrant workers in the district’s bustling migrant villages battled with once-beloved dabai (big white) Covid enforcers over their unjust lockdown (migrant workers, of course, enjoying very few of the protections of urban residents re: the right to food, shelter, etc. during covid lockdowns), and more dramatically at a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, where again migrant workers were cheated, here by the Taiwanese company first promising them extra wages for staying on at the factory during lockdown and then refusing to pay them, and in general by the shoddy treatment they were subjected to while trapped at the factory complex; and the provincial riot police battled with migrants in yet more dramatic scenes of escalating social tensions.
It was an accident that sparked off the next round – the tragic death of at least ten people in a residential area in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which itself had been under a gruelling three-month (!) lockdown at that time. Nobody quite knows if the fire was exacerbated by lockdown policies precisely, if it’s true that firefighters were refused access to the building due to lockdown protocols – but this tragedy occurring on top of the Guizhou quarantine bus crash, the deaths of numerous children and elderly who couldn’t get medical treatment across the country, and the mounting social and economic crisis of zero-covid’s fruitless whack-a-mole game with the virus as 2022 went on, allowed it to rapidly transcend mundane facts and become the catalyst for an explosion.
As in 1976 and 1989 it began with memorials, not for senior politicians but for those ordinary Uighurs killed in the fire – and the memorials spawned slogans and the slogans spawned gestures and all of this together spawned demands. The blank pieces of paper – the A4 in ‘A4 revolution’ – began as a mockery of official censorship, saying nothing but daring officials and police to read political defiance into it. In Shanghai on Urumqi Road people chanted “down with Xi Jinping” and sang the Internationale – in Beijing Tsinghua students showed banners with the slogans of the Sitong Bridge Man. All around China in the urban centres there seemed to be things aflame, politics alive again, danger in the air. Nobody knew what would happen next. Confident state media platforms and Party supporters decried foreign influence. Western media alternately cheered and predicted massacre.
And in the end December came. The police state did not move in with guns but with knocks on the door at night, with online censorship, with warnings and quiet arrests and officers stood as deterrents in the street – and the other side of the party-state heard at last the writing on the wall and rapidly began dismantling the Zero-Covid system that had brought things to such a fragile point, with such speed that everybody, probably even the protesters themselves, was taken aback. These two methods, carrot and stick, seem to have stabilised things. But there’s still slogans floating about online – the overseas Chinese and dissident networks, not to mention Falun Gong, have been stirred up. Young people who for the first time ever got to say “fuck the government” have probably not forgotten how good that feels, and the contradictions that led us here – not only Zero-Covid – remain grinding. But the fact remains that there has been no 1989 tragedy and no 2019 Hong Kong defeat. Certain people have compared it to 1976, when Zhou Enlai’s death led to mass protests in Tiananmen that ended similarly without satisfaction, and two years later Deng Xiaoping began the reform agenda, the leftists defeated for good – but that seems more rooted in optimism and personal preference than any concrete evidence of what will happen next.
Anyway, there’s no point discussing what might happen next. We must zoom in on events that have already happened, and try to figure out what happened in reality and what was only an illusion hewn from the fever-dream excitement of political motion in a country so often seemingly immune to it.
What happened was different from 1976 and 1989 in a crucial way. In 1976 China was still, formally at least, a Marxist-Leninist society built loosely on the Soviet model, in which social equality and the elimination of class were the goals; the ‘classes’ of China in 1976 were in simplified terms those of the peasantry, the urban proletariat and the shrunken, beaten intellectual and bourgeois classes, with the ruling strata of cadres and soldiers, the party-state, as vanguard. In 1976 a unified protest movement was much easier to coalesce, as although each class had different economic and political interests the lives of common people were not so different and even the cadres and soldiers didn’t have enough privilege as to live completely alienated from the people they served. And the Cultural Revolution, great and beautiful and horrible disaster of Maoism, unified many people easily around a singular rejection of something – Zhou’s funeral served as the catalyst for ordinary people, officials, soldiers and farmers all to express their discontent with the post-1968, faux-radical status quo. China at this time was much more politicised, having gone through the searing debates of the Cultural Revolution years in which the very forms of political social organisation were up for discussion. People used to having and expressing their opinions in a world where opinions were a matter of life and death went very easily to protest the Gang of Four as yesterday they had argued over Lin Biao, Soviet revisionism and the meaning of class struggle. Those who protested in Tiananmen in 1976 were from all walks of life and easily rallied around the singular point of grief for Zhou and rejection of the failed Cultural Revolution.
1989 too was built on this society – in 1989 the class cleavages were still relatively narrow, and the new rich were ‘rich’ not at all in comparison to today, and the students and workers who led the 1989 protests were not so far removed from the wild, all-encompassing political movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But even then if we look closely at 1989 there were divides that do not occur in 1976; the students who had been protesting on and off for all of the later 1980s felt themselves superior to uneducated workers, the workers and urban residents had solidarity for but did not always get along with the radical demands of the students, the intellectuals wished for the students to go ever further, the capitalists where they existed, still feeble and insecure, stayed put and checked the winds, and the farmers and rural residents were not even invited. And while in 1976 the political goal of the protests was a broad rejection of something, which was ultimately incoherent but more unified in its mourning Zhou and lashing out at the disruptions of the Cultural Revolution, the goal of 1989 was never settled, and indeed the meaning of it seems to vary depending on where you are politically even today.
The most radical students and intellectuals demanded democracy in the western meaning of the word, but as well some students and many workers only wanted less corruption and more transparency, or were simply angry at the malfunctioning juddering of the malformed hybrid economy and the mass inflation of the prior years, and other motivations as well swirled about; resentment of preferential treatment given to foreigners, leftist desire to abandon reform altogether, hatred of the Communist Party dating back to the Cultural Revolution and before breaking to the surface, and so on. This was still a universal event, a mass expression of discontent with the status quo that crossed classes and social strata and geography to present the Communist Party with its first real danger since the Cultural Revolution itself. But there’s that since; in mainland China Tiananmen remains today in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution. Why?
Basically, in 1966 the Chinese people at large were brought into politics for the first time ever in the country’s history, the promise of 1949 that Soviet-style bureaucracy and top-down management had broken, and were not only told their opinions mattered but told they mattered and they had the right to matter, and the leaders of the country could go to hell if they didn’t like it, and this thrilling, tragic, exhausting and terrible mode of society was still the one that drove on 1976 and, to a lesser extent 1989 – but by 1989 the dividing lines of a real capitalist society had begun to appear. The role of state repression in eroding this, from Deng’s dismantling of the 1976-derived Democracy Wall movement to the backlash against the Hundred Flowers campaign that brought down premier Hu Yaobang, and of course That Thing That Happened On June 4th, as well as countless other state-led campaigns to wall off potential routes of anti-Party politics, play a major role in the relatively apolitical society that was produced during the breakneck years of reform – but reform itself, and capitalism’s spread, is equally if not more culpable.
The return of class to China split the 1989 movement into differing interest groups that, although not quite aware of it themselves yet, could not mesh into a coherent set of demands because their class interests did not mesh; western-style democracy would have broken the Chinese working class as surely as reform eventually did, as shown in the former Eastern Bloc, and so the students who demanded this fundamentally were asking for something very different from the workers, and the negation of 1949 floated by some radicals did not fit with the patriotism of some students who sang the Internationale and the March of the Volunteers, and the capitalists had zero interest in any of this nonsense and only needed to keep quiet so reform could continue and money could be made.
Deng faced this disunified anger, a force uncertain of what it really wanted because its component parts all wanted different things, and acted to crush the protests and bought the Party time, and while patriotic education and state controls worked at one end so too did capitalism at the other; and by the time we reach November 2022 we see a China where class has returned full force, and society is indeed shattered, from The Masses of 1966 to a country of manifold interest groups, classes and factions, some with much more stake in the system and some with less but all divided against one another. Protests after 1989 occurred, and occurred often, but always isolated, over issues that mattered more or less to different classes, a disunited country where the Party was able to deal with problems one by one if it had to. What briefly united this country was the failure of Zero-Covid, or rather the omicron variant of the virus’s relentless shredding of what had in 2021 been a reasonably well-run and minimally-disruptive system. As with the collapse of the Cultural Revolution or the economic crisis of the late 1980s, this intolerable situation drove people to the streets, ordinary residents compelled to dissent by a situation that had been forced upon them. But it did little more than that. Fundamentally, while 1976 was a mass psychic convulsion in a broadly socially-equal society, and 1989 was a universal protest movement where the feelings of anger and hope were strong enough to override fledgling class interests, 2022 was only an intersection in which different class interests met for a fleeting moment. It was not in fact one event but three, at least.
The first was the Zhengzhou and Haizhu protests, led by working-class migrants. These protests were in the style of the limited protests that came to define Chinese political struggle in the reform era; no fancy slogans, no big demands, just a simple and carefully-worded question: why can’t we have what you promised us? In China the official – and only legal – trade union usually isn’t very helpful, and so these kind of angry wildcat strikes and protests are often the only defence of a working class the government tries very hard to keep atomised, punishing the formation of independent trade unions very severely. They carry with them traces of the legacy of the Chinese revolution’s militant and pro-worker origins itself, and are often remarked upon with critical irony by foreign observers – yes, it is kind of weird that the workers in the workers’ state have to try so hard to be treated fairly. But however we view them labour struggles in China are not a demand for democracy or freedom or for anything except what’s owed those who haven’t been given it. Dramatic as they were, the Zhengzhou and Haizhu events were not especially new or unprecedented in modern Chinese history. This chapter of the reform era has been in progress for some time, and will continue into the New, and one day the Party will have to deal with a working class it has tried very hard to prevent: but the 2022 segment of this chapter at least won’t really have much new to say.
The second event was the A4 revolution itself; the mingled despair and frustration of people not just at zero-Covid but at the entire system which had built it, at the Communist Party and most pointedly Xi Jinping himself, who was exhorted in some places to step down. This event was the flower the seed of the Sitong Bridge incident had bloomed into, and as well took much from Hong Kong 2019’s focus on sloganeering, memes and internet communication, and as well of its demographics. That Shanghai – wealthy international city – and Beijing – home of Tsinghua, university for the educated elite – were where this event was most visible is no coincidence. The first event – the working-class protests – was led by migrant workers of all ages, united in class anger. The second was also united in class anger but that of the first and second-tier urban middle class, the young people who have grown up in the liberalising China of the 1990s and 2000s, in endless prosperity, and now face the stiffening political climate of the Xi Jinping era and their own declining fortunes as the state-capitalist system of Deng Xiaoping runs out of easy growth.
This was not a limited protest but neither was it an organised political demand – these young people, grown up in the apolitical reform system, do not have organised politics. They do have VPNs. They learned English watching Friends a decade ago – they’ve travelled abroad and studied abroad and like Marvel movies and video games. They aren’t unpatriotic, and many of them on the other side of the coin form the ‘little pink’ online nationalists, but they’re disillusioned with how things are. Many harboured a dislike of Xi, of the Party, and etc. from before merely April 2022, and just only now found the courage to act upon it. And now – this is the key event of November 2022 – they are awake. The steady grumbling of the last decade – at excessive censorship, tighter political control, and the worsening economy – has struck against the defiant, pointless angry slogans of the Bridge Man and, yes, sparked something. And we must not discount this something. It is real, and for these people touched by it there’s no going back to how things were before.
But it is not the whole event. In western perceptions we often use catchall terms like ‘dissent’ to describe everything that happened in November, indeed to divide all of China’s increasingly complex society into a binary of pro-government and anti-government. But the working-class protests of Haizhu and Zhengzhou were not the same as the acutely political, media-savvy student and middle-class protests in Shanghai and Beijing. Neither of these events even really met one another – the Shanghai protestors were not concerned with working conditions for far-off migrant workers, and the Zhengzhou protests only wanted the fair shake from management and local government they weren’t getting and didn’t connect with the events in the first-tier cities. What intersected them was the third event – the universal anti-Covid feeling in Chinese society that spilled over into mass anger at the news of the Urumqi fire. This event was not limited by class interests, and did cover all strata of society, and blurred at the edges with the political demands of the A4 revolution in slogans like ‘give us freedom’, ambiguous enough to catch on anywhere – but by all appearances it did not cross into ‘down with Xi Jinping’. This event engulfed the migrant worker protests and the Shanghai/Beijing protests but was larger than both. And yet it did not ask for anything more. Its only unifying tenant was a rejection of zero-Covid; there was no class basis for a deeper alliance than this.
The removal of Xi Jinping – not possible in real terms, of course, but declared as a symbolic rejection of the last ten years – is not a premise that crosses over from the urban middle/upper-class youth to the majority of people in this polarised country, where in those ten years the government has in some places pleased and in others offended. To the children of the Jiang-Hu decades in Shanghai, we might speculate that they feel oppression has stifled the fun times of their youth, the hope of an ever-brighter future they were promised, and this is because of Xi – to people living under the horrifying corruption of those years out in the countryside, they could take the perspective that before Zero-Covid and even for most of the last three years the local government functioned now better than it ever had, and that this is also thanks to Xi. The death of elderly former premier Jiang Zemin last week represents, to some, the death of a freer era, when the premier would smile and joke and you could get anywhere you wanted if you had gumption, when there might have been democracy tomorrow – to others it represents the passing of a leader whose greed and corruption were legendary, when scandal after scandal eroded people’s faith that government existed for any purpose except to enrich itself. The image that perhaps captures this basic lack of unity is that of two protestors, one holding up a photograph of Mao Zedong – the other raising a middle finger to it. In 1989 broad unity on Mao might have been possible; in 2022 there would be no agreement except to disagree.
In 1989, the gap between the educated students and the workers and peasants they claimed to represent in the square was still small enough as to be concealed, and did not come out into the open much. But paradoxically the embrace of capitalism has not led to China’s transition to liberal democracy but made it less likely, by fragmenting society in such a way that even if tomorrow the Communist Party absolved itself of all its leading roles and vanished into thin air there would probably be nothing like liberal democracy as the outcome. The liberal event of November 2022 has captured the China watchers’ fawning attention, and does indicate the return of liberalism to China’s political kaleidoscope, and the children of 2022, fed by the overseas networks of Chinese and international students who showed solidarity, and as well by the basic class interest of being part of the upper-middle class who must lose out at the gain of the rural and urban poor population if the Party is to continue, will be with us for a long time to come. But emerging as it did from a more limited protest movement, concentrated largely in a slice of a slice of the youth probably smaller even than those who resort to ultranationalism or ‘lying flat’ apathy, it does not represent the primary force in any potential anti-Party or post-Party political situation. A spark sans prairie fire. Next time, who knows? But not today.
Once more, I don’t mean to say, of course, that “down with Xi Jinping!” is not an important moment; the meme it has created will likely come back and influence China’s future in many interesting ways. Sitong Bridge Man will not die just yet. But it is not the universal moment – no matter how much we might read about how it is, there is no mobilising impulse in “down with Xi Jinping!” that can cleave through the class boundaries created by reform and reach out to all of society. We can’t read its significance alone, then. We must fit this particular into a larger whole. Not the whole of liberal insurrection, that long moribund ‘Chinese democracy’ movement – the whole, rather, of the return of politics.
Once, in the Cultural Revolution, there was a slogan; “Politics in command”. What it meant was that, well, politics should be the deciding factor in all affairs, from military tactics to daily life to even romance – that politics should exist at all levels of society, permeating everyday affairs to the smallest detail, and that everyone had both the right and the responsibility to be politically engaged. In 1966 and 1967 briefly this was China – an Event, proper capital letter and all, too vast to be described here. But this was not only China – the 1960s around the world, an era of protest, political experimentation and radicalism, was the high water mark of politics in a sense, in mass engagement with politics and with the sense of things that could be changed and how to change them. We know this did not last – it led into the state repression and disillusionment of the 1970s, the repression of Japanese radicalism, the UK’s economic and political collapse, America under Nixon, the miserable Soviet Brezhnev years, the doughy figure of Mao’s successor Hua Guofeng framing politics not as living thing but as ritual catechism, his “Two Whatevers” (“We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave”) the death knell of Maoism even before reform and opening up was unleashed. And then the 1980s, and then the 1990s – the birth of neoliberalism, the Thatcherist free economy and strong state, pairing an ‘open’ market economy with a state machine rigid and unbending enough to enforce it, where politics was not even ritual but simply the management of things. From Clinton Democrats to New Labour, parties of the left let themselves get caught up in the post-Soviet mood, in which ideology was dead and politics was never going to be in command again, because that led to gulags and genocide and worst of all uppity normal people trying to exercise political power in their own interest.
The Communist Party of China was not immune to this. It could not, as the Cambodian communists did, rebrand as something blandly authoritarian like the Cambodian People’s Party – while it kept up Marxism in the form of socialism with Chinese characteristics, after Mao and especially after 1989 all of the old political language, class struggle, bourgeois/proletarian, etc., was dropped, and it was declared that the Communist Party, via Jiang’s Three Represents, now stood for all of society, and that capitalists could join the Party as ‘patriotic entrepreneurs’. Official language turned to harmonious socialist society, not class struggle; Jiang and Hu were managers of a vast technocratic system, not revolutionary icons. The economy was privatised and where it wasn’t state companies were reformed to run on market mechanisms as it was conceded that the market was superior to the plan, that there were economic laws that could not be questioned; “The superiority of the socialist system”, Deng said, “is demonstrated, in the final analysis, by faster and greater development of those forces than under the capitalist system”. In other words, in a parallel to Khrushchev’s shift from Lenin and Stalin’s goal of revolutionizing daily life to create a new Soviet man to simply promising to deliver consumer goods to the Soviet people faster than capitalism could, the Party was refashioned as the best manager of things that currently existed, not a revolutionary force for the creation of new things wholesale. Real politics disappeared – the left had been browbeaten into submission and the liberals cowed by June 4th and the conservatives embarrassed by the GDP growth rate, and after Deng’s Southern Tour and the invention of the term “socialist market economy” the trajectory of China into further marketisation was set, with only the speed and the quality of its progression up to be questioned. It was the perfect managerial politics, so it seemed, the hauntingly efficient marriage of alien Asian culture and capitalist dynamism that has stalked western nightmares since Japan’s Meiji period.
In fact it wasn’t, because of a very simple contradiction. No, not only the myriad amusing little twists of socialism with Chinese characteristics trying to justify stock markets and mass lay-offs with lines from Marx and Engels – the more fundamental contradiction. The Party in its reform era was almost a developmental dictatorship similar to Meiji Japan, Kuomintang Taiwan or South Korea under various dictators, fated to develop the productive forces under colourless bureaucrats with guns until the bureaucracy withered away into a superficial democracy so the west didn’t have to feel bad for sending them so much money earlier. But it was also the heir to Mao, heir to the long tradition of Chinese communism; it would not allow itself to be dissolved in 1989 or at any other time, and insists upon its own greatness, its booming propaganda and omnipresent hammer-and-sickle proclaiming: LONG LIVE THE COMMUNIST PARTY. And yet in the 1990s-2000s it was also attempting to do managerial centrism, with bland mush for ideology and a focus firmly on practical capitalism and, by moving on from class struggle to social harmony, attempting to present itself as all things to all Chinese. The Party has politics in its blood and yet by the 1990s had become dependent on pretending there was no politics, that all major political questions had been solved, but because of this as long as it remained the Party it would be vulnerable to the return of politics in any form.
This distinction haunted it as the contradictions of hyper-speed capitalism ravaged society, the environment and the economy, and came to a head in the Bo Xilai affair, as one ambitious official showed just how vulnerable the Party’s mealy-mouthed brand of government had become, by almost eclipsing it simply with a few Mao-era slogans and left-populist tricks. There were no mass protests; 2012 was an internal crisis, for with the prosperity of reform still ongoing Chinese society remained relatively apolitical and fractured, so much so that the vicious infighting at the top provoked mass gossip and interest rather than real engagement as in old Party struggles. But it was a crisis, a warning for what beckoned next, for the end that would – as the west had always hoped when it had poured money in – end in the withering away of the party-state. And Xi Jinping has been pushed to solve this crisis – to solve the issue of the Party’s waning legitimacy, its declining effectiveness, and the manifold disasters on the horizon of the motherland’s future – by hitting the emergency button.
And politics is back, baby.
The Party has been saved by Xi’s reorganization of it and reorientation of its priorities. Some of China’s most pressing problems have been lessened, the fatal pressure of 2012 eased. And the price is that this has dropped the cloak from the Party’s shoulders; no longer can it pretend to be the vast, disinterested technocracy it once was, as impossible to challenge as God. Balancing impartially between the fractured interest groups of society, acting as an invisible behemoth, was a task rapidly becoming beyond even it; so by rebuilding itself and the government, placing itself front and centre with ‘red culture’ on full display, it has proven able to please some interest groups more and in the process angered others. It is not the return of class struggle, because Xi is not the man with the vision to do such a heretical thing – he is a bureaucrat trained in the language and ideology of the reform-era, plain and simple.
But it is the return of political choice, as the Party made the choice after 2012 to really deal with corruption and made a choice to anger the veteran cadres, made the choice to regulate the market and to anger the capitalists, made the choice to crack down on free speech and to anger the liberals – to focus on rural redevelopment, developing lower-tier urban areas and punishing the worst excesses of the reform era, winning it lots of friends amongst people who don’t do interviews with the New York Times and lots of enemies amongst those who do. And as well, Zero-Covid was a choice – the biggest, most dangerous choice of Xi’s tenure, to choose to protect the old and poor and vulnerable while telling the international-facing middle class and youth they couldn’t go outside, and to choose, eventually, to push on with this until it reached breaking point. These were all not only choices but political choices, obviously so, and if the Party can make them – why can’t anyone else?
This is what has led to the return of liberalism. But as well in the last decade it has also led to the spread of ultranationalism, neo-Maoism, ‘lying flat’ – it has brought sexism and racism to the fore online, as well as debate over LGBT rights, feminism and religion, manifold solutions to a rising sense across all of society that things are in trouble, that they’re going the wrong way, that a solution must be found. All of these ideas of course existed in pre-Xi China, but were not allowed into ‘sensible’ politics, which was a narrow spectrum from more market to slightly less market, submerged in official jargon, and the varied interest groups of society then could be pacified by the party-state’s vision being so broad and vague anyone could imagine it would eventually embrace whatever you wanted it to; now we are seeing the beginning of a process in which the Party, unwillingly broken free from the chains of attempted apolitical managerialism, has to face existing as a political actor and not only as a stage, and has to justify itself and deal with opponents and arguments, if not yet in ‘sensible’ politics than in the opinions of the Chinese people.
Xi probably didn’t plan for this, and he might not like it very much. But it was his appointment and his leadership in which the developmental dictatorship was shelved, a period in which the Party has recognised that it was running out of road and out of ways to prove its own legitimacy, and so has thusly begun to stake out newer, more overtly political means of doing so. Despite engaging in this transformation – as it would always need to do, caught between the dead end of developmentalism that killed its twin the Kuomintang and the hyper-political, beautiful terror of its own founding vision – it has not yet convinced itself to put politics wholly in command. The cadres are still technocrats, the economy is still the awkward compromise of the socialist market economy, and you’re still not allowed officially to ask too many questions about anything. That same socialist market economy is faltering, or at least out of the stage of easy GDP to be had through privatisation of state assets and large-scale foreign investment – capitalist alienation is here to stay, with all the social problems it brings, and yet the party-state remains locked into the system that has brought it while being more visible and overtly political – more exposed to criticism – than it has in decades. This is the uncomfortable middle ground, between failed past and unknown future. We’ll be here for a while, I predict.
Where we are not at is Cultural Revolution 2, and Xi is no Mao, and so on. But the people who say he is grasp a shadow of the real truth, which is that Xi has both saved the Communist Party and returned a little bit to Mao in that he has made it mortal, a class actor not above the social fray but suddenly part of it. There is danger in this for all sides. There is also opportunity, for politics of all kinds. This is the New Era – but I’ve written before that Xi, despite leading us here, really might be the last leader of the old era. There is a new generation of Chinese, of all classes, which will grow up politically in his last term and through the years of whoever succeeds him. The young people of today don’t have the automatic faith in the bright future of communism the Maoist generation did, or the automatic faith in the bright future of the free market their parents did. They face a world in crisis, no longer wowed as much by blue jeans and cheap TVs and foreign faces and ideas, but also hail from a China that is not immune to that crisis, where their disagreements with their government can’t be buried behind endlessly rising GDP, where going back won’t help and the meaning of “going forward” isn’t set in stone. Their solutions to this will have to be their own – and, sure, the eventual ideological winner might hark back to 1989, as the west expects, but might also hark back all the way to the original moment of modern Chinese democracy, to 1949 itself, or even to its attempted realisation in 1966. These ideas and many others are going to be in conflict for a good long while, without any clear answers. But the return of politics at least gives some of them the chance of resolution.
I once asked a teenager in suburban Guangzhou: “Do you think China will have a good future?”, and her very blunt answer has always stuck with me: “Yeah!” she said brightly. “Only when all the old people are gone.” Or as Mao Zedong put it: “The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis it is yours. You young people, full of vigour and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you. The world belongs to you. China’s future belongs to you.” The November 2022 protests in China are a sign of something new in China’s future, certainly; a sign of the uncertainty to come as the country passes from one generation to the next, leaving reform behind – the fear and the hope of an unknown tomorrow. Reduce it to only “down with Xi Jinping” and A4 paper and Sitong Bridge man and you miss all that for a fantasy of imminent collapse, to later be put in the drawer with all the others; reduce it to some kind of colour revolution, or blaming spoiled middle-class youth, and you end up in the fantasy of Deng’s perfected socialism, the frozen-in-amber party-state that can do no wrong. Me? I’m hopeful, despite everything. I sure don’t want a middle-class liberal democratic China – but a lesson that should be learned worldwide is that any kind of politics, after all, is better than the lack of it.