By Kelley Currie, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Kelley Currie is a senior fellow with the Project 2049 Institute in Washington. The views expressed are her own.
June 4 marks the anniversary of the peak of the People’s Liberation Army’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests that took place across China in 1989, crushing hopes throughout that country, and the world, that the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on political power might be giving way to a more democratic, representative and accountable political system. In the years since those heady and ultimately tragic days, China has emerged from its Maoist totalitarian nightmare to become a global economic and political power of growing strength and uncertain intention. Yet despite the decades of change, the Chinese political elite – or at least important elements of it – seems trapped in an authoritarian mindset only marginally less paranoid, insecure and shortsighted than during Mao’s rule.
The yawning mismatch between the forward-facing reality and aspirations of the Chinese people and the defensive, anachronistic thinking of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is putting pressure on China’s unstable operating systems, and the ongoing leadership transition has only appeared to exacerbate these pressures, as various sides battle for influence. Indeed, over the past week, as the sensitive Tiananmen anniversary approached, Chinese netizens have been buzzing in particular over a blog post that appeared last week in the Chinese-language Investors Journal (and just as suddenly disappeared at the hands of the censors). The post boldly compares the present debate about the Party and constitutionalism with references to the atmosphere around the Democracy Wall in 1976 and Tiananmen protests:
“[T]he war of words last week between Weibo and official media over ‘constitutionalism’ was of an intensity nothing short of, and perhaps surpassing, what we saw [in 1989] during the controversy caused by the World Economic Herald. At that time, it was possible for official mouthpiece [newspapers] to trumpet their own theories after summarily shutting the door on [the World Economic Herald].”
The debate about constitutionalism was precipitated by President Xi Jinping’s December 2012 comments that no organization or individual possessed a “special right to overstep the constitution and law.” A flurry of commentaries has since appeared among academics and in state media and social media forums. Yet while supporters of constitutionalism have seemed to have the edge in popular Weibo and Sina blog posts, a recently leaked internal speech given by Xi calling for the Party to be vigilant against spiritual pollution and the advance of “Western universal values” has dampened hopes that he favored reforms.
It’s a well-trodden path. Even the great reformer Deng Xiaoping, who took the helm after Mao’s death in 1976, continued to couch goals of “reform” and “opening up” in language that positioned policies as the ideological heirs to Mao Zedong though.
So what about Xi’s recent talk of the “Chinese Dream”? While on the surface, such rhetoric evokes the idea of the “American Dream” of personal and family achievement as being the bedrock of a successful society, it increasingly seems that the Chinese version is centered on something quite different: the reemergence of the Chinese nation to its rightful place through the assertion of its economic and military power. After all, not only does Xi’s “Chinese Dream” require the continued leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, but it also represents the logical conclusion of the Party’s life-long effort to conflate the identity and aspirations of Chinese and their state with those of the Party.
But in articulating a nationalist vision as the key purpose of the Chinese state, and using it as an argument against universal values and democratization, Xi is playing with fire. Since 1976, the Party has relied heavily on performance based legitimacy and coercive power to maintain control, but as both of those pillars become increasingly shaky, such appeals to nationalism are turning out to be the Party’s last refuge. Turning to nationalism in this way is dangerous for the same obvious reasons that it would be anywhere else. Yet there is an added degree of difficulty for China’s leaders, because invoking this kind of nationalism simultaneously invites public participation in the political life of the country while maintaining “forbidden zones” where the Chinese citizenry remains unable freely to express themselves politically.
In 1989, with the decision to violently suppress nationwide protests and shut down the possibilities of further political reform, Deng and his colleagues in the Politburo flatly rejected calls for China to move forward with the “Fifth Modernization” of democracy. Instead, they attempted to substitute that dream with a transactional bargain: go make money and live your life, and let us take care of the politics. Now, as that bargain is becoming increasingly frayed, the leadership is trying to negotiate another deal with some combination of coercion and reward. But it is cleverly portraying it in terms designed to uplift a nation that is increasingly searching for something beyond material comforts.
Unfortunately, the “Chinese Dream” is being used not only as inspiration for the nation, but as a counterweight to the growing appreciation and desire in China for universal values, including fundamental freedoms of expression, association and belief, and the right of the citizenry to choose their own government through democratic means. The Chinese patriots who were killed for these same aspirations 24 years ago should be all the reminder that is necessary of the lengths that the current Chinese leadership will likely be willing to go to maintain its hold on power.