Chinese middle class key to democracy

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By: Tian Yang <tyang@hilite.org>

If the words “democracy” or “Tiananmen Square Massacre” are entered into Google.cn, the search results usually generate no hits if the user is in China. A miniature cartoon police man will also pop up on the screen reminding internet users to obey online policies. In addition to the list of banned sites are political blogs, BBC News and Voice of America, according to “Staring Down the Censors” by Oliver August in Nov. 3’s issue of Wired magazine. This is the state of censorship in China, the same that was present while I was there this past August.

While U.S. consumers continue to grow aghast by the number of lead-tainted products or poisoned pet foods reported from Chinese exports, the average Chinese citizen faces the same type of danger every day. I experienced first hand the fear of eating poisoned foods in a family friend I traveled with in China. Due to corruption in government departments there is no reliable regulation for food and drugs in China. Yet Chinese citizens have no political voice. Stories about public disturbances usually go through government filters, which censor them depending whether the government feels threatened.

The Communist Party feels so threatened by the dissemination of information via electronic communication that its surveillance tactics make the Bush administration wiretappings look tiny by comparison. According to August, China has recently added a new technology to its surveillance called “The Golden Shield” (the Great Firewall of China). He reported that this giant firewall consists of many individual firewalls with central computers and servers. The internet traffic is then filtered through the shield which blocks out the “banned” urls and punishes users who try to access these sites with a 30-second to 30-minute “time-out.” With this new filter, the Chinese government continues to try to control information.

This desire for control has even extended to the tracking of foreign journalists next year at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. An article from the Associated Press on Nov. 12, reported that the Chinese government has begun compiling a database of around 28,000 foreign journalists who are expected to be in Beijing next summer. This report apparently contradicts the promises of greater media freedom made when the Chinese government first made its bid for the Olympics.

But what is perhaps most alarming is that in Time’s “China’s Me Generation,” Simon Elegant reports that of the 20-some-year-olds interviewed in his story, none of them would discuss politics. One of these people, Silence Chen, was quoted as saying, “There’s nothing we can do about politics. So there’s no point in talking about it or getting involved.” Yet, Chen is not some oppressed citizen who has been forced to give up his political ideologies. He is an account executive with a successful advertising firm in Beijing. Chen, a member of the emerging new middle class in China, is rather apathetic about the current political atmosphere as long as the party continues to provide him with the current economic growth. While this seems to mirror the current apolitical atmosphere in the U.S., the difference lies in that the citizens in China do not currently possess our political freedoms. This current picture of the middle class does not paint a rosy picture for further human rights in China. Without a strong middle class backing, no movement for democracy in China will succeed.

Although these issues may not concern Americans, it is important to keep in mind that China represents a growing world power that may compete with the U.S. hegemony in the world sphere. When this does occur, I believe that the U.S. would prefer to work with a democratic China rather than an authoritarian one. The key to a democratic China is again, the new middle class.

But mobilizing the middle class isn’t impossible. This past year, August reported that the Chinese government caused an uproar online over its decision to ban eight controversial books. After vigorous protests by their authors and supporters, the books were put back on the shelf and the official who had censored them was fired. This proves that if there’s enough agitation to the middle class, it will protest and the government will accommodate rather than risk another social upheaval.

The key to mobilizing the middle class, however, is information. The reason behind the government’s heavy censorship of the Internet and other electronic means of communication is the power of the masses. E-mail, blogs and forums represent a means to quickly disseminate information to many users. More and more people are airing their grievances with the government online and some complaints have sparked action.

According to August, in 2003 the death of a young migrant worker in police detention in Guangzhou led his friends to protest on discussion boards, which then sparked a campaign for migrant law reform and police accountability. Gradually tens of thousands of Chinese and even the mainstream media, which is controlled by the government, joined in. It eventually led the government to revoke a law requiring all migrant workers to have special identity papers.

These incidents prove that democratic progress in China is possible, but it requires a broad support. This will only occur when China’s “me” generation feels that politics is an issue to address and when it becomes agitated by government restrictions, it will lobby for change. Tian Yang is the Acumen editor for the HiLite. Contact her at tyang@hilite.org.

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