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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Where China Goes Next

August 28, 2008

By Simon Elegant / Beijing
TIME Magazine
August 25, 2008

With the Chinese media gushing over the success of the Olympics, the
latest issue of Southern Window — a highbrow news magazine with a
circulation of 500,000 — caught my eye. The cover illustration
features a couple of law textbooks and a teacher with a wooden
pointer giving instruction to a businessman and a government
official. The coverline: "Rule of Law Starts With Limitation of
Power." Sounds boring? In China, it's almost revolutionary.

The Chinese Communist Party wasn't explicitly mentioned, but since it
holds virtually all of the power in China, the articles were clearly
about how to limit the party's all-pervasive reach and allow the
Chinese people some wiggle room. Anything that touches on limiting
the power of the party is extremely sensitive — and often very
dangerous. So amid the euphoria of the Olympics, it was pretty gutsy
of Southern Window to publish stories with headlines like, "When
Administrative Power Obstructs the Law" and "Putting 'Boxing Gloves'
on Police Powers."

The magazine's editors have fired an opening shot in a debate that
started the moment the closing ceremony's last firework exploded:
What now for China? Will party hardliners, emboldened by the world's
timid response to their brutal pre-Games crackdown on dissent,
continue to tighten their grip on power? Or will the spirit of
volunteerism and community that arose after the May earthquake in
Sichuan be revived? Could reform-minded party officials — like those
who approved the publication of Southern Window's special issue —
gain ground in their drive to loosen control over areas such as the
courts and the media?

Not all Chinese are asking those questions at this very minute; many
are basking in the residual glow from all those fireworks and gold
medals. Despite numerous controversies ahead of the Games -- turmoil
over the Olympic torch relay, the bloody suppression of Tibetan riots
in March, and so on — the Games went spectacularly smoothly. Senior
party cadres can give themselves a pat on the back for a job well done.

Not for long, though. It is hard to exaggerate just how important the
answers to those fundamental questions will be for China. Chinese
society has reached a point where maintaining the status quo is
simply not an option. Beijing is barely able to keep a lid on the
tremendous social dislocation caused by the country's pell-mell
economic growth over the past 30 years, and the consequent misery
suffered by untold millions — the unemployed, the landless, tens of
millions of migrant workers laboring under inhuman conditions, the
countless victims of widespread corruption. Government officials have
acknowledged that up to hundreds of so-called mass incidents occur
every day. These often violent eruptions of frustration occasionally
threaten to spread into chaos; as the Olympics loomed, they were more
tightly controlled, or often simply ignored by the media. Now that
the Games are over, it's a good bet that the turmoil will resurface.

"There are serious issues that have been accumulating, including
ethnic problems in Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as social issues and
conflicts that have been temporarily covered up by force to guarantee
a 'successful Olympics,' " says He Weifang, a Peking University law
professor and reform advocate. "I cannot predict whether there will
be an immediate outbreak of all these problems after the Olympics.
But there will be an outbreak if the government does not take steps
to tackle the domestic problems."

For President Hu Jintao, who made the successful staging of the Games
the centerpiece of his presidency, a moment of truth looms. He will
face mounting pressure to loosen the party's grip on power. Nicholas
Bequelin, China researcher for Human Rights Watch in New York City,
believes the pre-Olympics tightening of controls is actually
contributing to rising social discord. "The pressure is building in
the pressure cooker, and there's no current avenue for it to be
released. I believe we will see many calls both inside and outside
the party to put some sort of reforms on the agenda again," Bequelin says.

Nor is the pressure for change coming only from the marginalized.
Those who have benefited the most from China's booming economy, in
the swelling urban middle class, are also increasingly pushing the
authorities to grant them more rights and freedoms. It's a contagious
process. Last year's protests by thousands of citizens in the coastal
city of Xiamen against plans to build a billion-dollar chemical
factory ultimately forced the cancellation of the project. And the
protests directly sparked copycat demonstrations against planned
mega-projects in Shanghai as well as Chengdu in Sichuan province,
which occurred just a few days before the earthquake devastated the
region in May. "Chinese are trying to get government off their
backs," says Bequelin. "This has nothing to do with the legitimacy of
the Communist Party or debates about political systems."

The Games taught us that pressure from the outside world on issues
like human rights and civil society has little effect on Beijing. Now
it's up to the Chinese people to take matters into their own hands
and really begin the building of the new China.

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