The Democracy Wall Lives!

Democracy Wall was a remarkable experiment in China’s political history. As the Maoists were pushed aside reformers around Deng Xiaoping allowed not just economic reform, but also political liberalisation. People began to post their views on a wall. That was in 1978. In 1979 there was a political crackdown. And so it has continued. Economic reform has been a constant, but political liberalisation comes and goes in China. Any serious challenge to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power is not tolerated. Certain phrases – “Tibet independence”, “Taiwan independence”, “Tiananmen Square” – are banned from public discourse. But some degree of political discussion is sometimes allowed. Political censorship is sometimes relaxed and sometimes tightened.

It has long been assumed that, one day, China is going to have to choose. Either it abandons economic liberalisation or it abandons political control. There comes a time in terms of economic development when political control is no longer tenable. Countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Chile long ago moved to the point where repression was no longer possible without serious economic consequences. They all chose economic development and sacrificed central political control.

The questions that have hung over China for more than 30 years now are these: if the Communist Party has to choose, which way will it go? And if it chooses to maintain political control at the expense of economic growth, will it be able to make that choice stick?

Common Sense has long believed that the internet changes everything. The price of information has fallen. The price of publishing has fallen. The price of control is shooting up. For years young people in China have been evading the restrictions on things they are allowed to discuss. In China’s internet chatrooms the banned phrases simply do not appear when you type them. But if you type “Tiibet independence” the phrase appears.

The events of the past few months suggest that China is going through one of its liberalising phases. Maybe, just maybe, the Communist Party has decided that it is willing to relax, or even abandon, political control in order to maintain the country’s spectacular growth rate.

The Wenzhou train collision on 23 July this year was a significant turning point. At first, the government reacted in the traditional way. All media coverage of the even was banned. But, within weeks, it was obvious this wasn’t working. People were getting to hear about the disaster anyway. So, instead, the country announced that three officials with the railway ministry have been dismissed. There is a two month review of rail safety underway.

Could this be the moment when China decided that diversity of thought and opinion were essential to its future growth? Could this be the time that China realised the free exchange of ideas is necessary for the free exchange of goods and services.

Just as you can’t have political freedom without economic freedom, you can no longer have economic freedom without political freedom. Those days are gone. If China wants to be part of the twenty first century, it needs to engage in political reform. It needs to adopt the rule of law. It will need to have free elections. Wathcing the fall of Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi – as well as the coming fall of Assad, Saleh and Boutefika – the Communist Party may, right now, be planning its slow handover to democracy.

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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