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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Mission Accomplished. Now What?

September 1, 2008

By Simon Elegant/Beijing
TIME Magazine
August 28, 2008

As most Chinese media were celebrating Beijing's Olympics successes,
a magazine named Southern Window -- a highbrow biweekly with a
circulation of 500,000 — broke from the pack. On the cover of the
magazine's Aug. 11 issue, there is no photograph of the sparkling
Bird's Nest stadium, no triumphant Chinese athlete fondling one of
the country's 51 gold medals. Instead, there is an illustration of
law textbooks and a teacher with a wooden pointer giving instruction
to a businessman and a government official. The cover line: "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 are clearly
about curtailing the Party's all-pervasive reach and allowing 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."

Southern Window was effectively firing the opening salvo in a debate
that started the minute the closing ceremony's last firework
exploded: What now for China? Will Party hard-liners, emboldened by
the world's timid response to their heavy-handed pre-Games crackdown
on dissent, continue to tighten their grip on power? Or will the
spirit of civic activism that arose from relief efforts 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 ease control over areas
such as the courts and the media?

Of course, not all Chinese are asking those questions at this very
minute; many are still 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, crackdowns on militant
separatists in far-flung provinces — the Games went spectacularly
smoothly. Now they are over, and China stands at a critical juncture
in its tumultuous modern history. Many scholars and analysts say that
Chinese society has reached a point where maintaining the societal
status quo is no longer an option.

In recent years, China has barely been able to keep a lid on the
social dislocation caused by the country's pell-mell economic growth,
which has brought miraculous progress but also misery to millions of
people working in inhumane conditions or victimized by widespread
corruption and collusion between businessmen and local Party bosses.
Precise numbers are hard to come by, but government officials have
acknowledged that scores of so-called "mass incidents" — protests —
occur every day. These often violent eruptions of frustration were
bottled up by the authorities as the Olympics loomed. Some are now
worried they are primed to boil over. "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 Peking University law professor and reform advocate He Weifang.
"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."

In the past the Party has taken big gambles at moments like these. It
had to in order to survive. When China's economy lay in ruins after
the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping abandoned orthodoxy to
initiate sweeping economic reforms. His successor, Jiang Zemin,
placed some big bets of his own: joining the World Trade
Organization, allowing businessmen to become members of the Party,
pushing the economic opening of the country with near-reckless vigor.

So far, current President Hu Jintao has made only one issue the
centerpiece of his term in office: a successful staging of the
Olympic Games. Now Hu may have little choice but to gamble himself by
loosening the Party's grip on power. Some argue that Beijing
hard-liners — having carried out harsh crackdowns with no real
repercussions while under the international spotlight — believe they
can continue tightening controls with impunity and without risk of
backlash. But this isn't a realistic scenario, partly because not all
the pressure for change is coming from the weak and marginalized.
China's urban middle class is also pushing for greater freedom. Their
growing feeling of empowerment is contagious. 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 sparked subsequent copycat
demonstrations over proposed megaprojects in Shanghai and Chengdu.
"The pressure is building in the pressure cooker and there's no
current avenue for it to be released," says Nicholas Bequelin, China
researcher for New York City – based Human Rights Watch. Bequelin
believes there may be "many calls both inside and outside the Party
to put some sort of reforms on the agenda again."

These reforms are likely to come first in the legal system, says
China scholar David Kelly of the University of Technology, Sydney.
"Chinese people want rights over what they buy and where they live,"
Kelly says, "and at the moment they can't find that through the
courts." However, considerable progress has been made in the past two
years in resolving labor disputes through the legal system, which
could be a model for other issues such as property rights. Kelly
argues that the Party could also cautiously allow the expansion of
other rights that relate directly to people's daily lives, for
example by changing the hukou household-registration system that
makes second-class citizens out of economic migrants who can't obtain
official residency rights in areas they move to for work. These
so-called "citizenship rights" are not politically sensitive like
democracy or human rights, Kelly says, "nor are they inherent like
human rights. It's a negotiable area."

While the evolution of China's civil society was put on hold during
the Olympics, Bequelin and others say they think the longer-term
outlook is bright. "It's a battle in which 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." What's being fought for is access to information and
greater personal freedom, the "fundamental tools Chinese people need
to organize their lives in a market economy. I don't see how progress
on those fronts can be reversed or slowed down in the long term."

The Games showed that outside pressure on issues like human rights
and civil society has little effect on Beijing. Now the world will be
watching to see if the Chinese people take matters into their own
hands and really begin building a new China.

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