Speaking to Chinese about reform in their own country is a bit like criticizing someone’s family: while they can be critical, they do not want to hear the same points from outsiders. My guide at the Dujiangyan irrigation system in Sichuan Province—the famous canal system hewn into the cliffs by hand more than two thousand years ago —demonstrated this. Dressed impeccably in high-heeled boots and a fashionable gray coat, she worked as a “VIP” government tour guide when I met her in December 2014. While visiting the site, I asked about her experience during the Sichuan earthquake—still a taboo subject because of the government’s clumsy response and reluctance to acknowledge how poorly constructed many schools and apartment buildings were.
She was forthcoming. “My entire apartment building collapsed,” she said. “Luckily, I was at work. My neighbors and twenty other people in my building were crushed by the rubble and killed. We all helped dig them out.” When I asked about the Chinese government response, she said openly: “The government didn’t help much, but we don’t expect them to.
Corrupt companies cut corners when they built the buildings that col- lapsed. I lost all my possessions, so I had to move back in with my parents for a bit, and then start over.” Like most Chinese I meet, she does not expect much from her government.
I asked her view of artist Ai Weiwei’s public advocacy on behalf of the Sichuan earthquake victims like her, and his criticism of the government’s response, which landed him in jail. Her face turned suddenly stony. “Ai Weiwei should not be talking about such things—especially to foreigners,” she insisted. “He made China lose face.”
Chinese millennials may grumble on social media, some ethnic and religious minorities protest openly, and citizens increasingly speak out about quality-of-life issues. At bottom, however, fiercely nationalist attitudes like my tour guide’s suggest the Communist Party’s propaganda works on most Chinese. Public shaming of the government, especially by outsiders, is clearly a sore spot.
How is the Chinese government responding to its disgruntled citizens? Chinese can’t show their displeasure by voting out the government. There is no democratic escape valve. So, to stay in power, the government en- gages in a perpetual race.
On one hand, it strives to fix the problems its citizens are concerned about—income inequality, corruption, pollution. Surprisingly, the government has even begun to solicit public input on proposed laws. For example, it placed drafts of a new food safety law online and invited public comments four times over the past two years. The law passed in April 2015 and is the toughest food safety law in China’s history. Rather than a real way to get input on proposed laws, several scholars believe that the Communist Party is using this more as a tool to understand what people are thinking, which is common in authoritarian regimes.
More ominously, the government ruthlessly preserves “stability” through its vast censorship apparatus and by jailing and often brutally beating protest leaders.
On the “light” end of this repression, it intimidates those who speak out and tries to frighten citizens into silence. In March 2015, police detained five young women for leading small groups in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Hangzhou that walked around in wedding dresses splattered with red paint to protest widespread domestic violence; although the Chinese government claims to support this issue. As journalist Eric Fish explained in an in-depth profile, the Party’s “stability maintenance” apparatus had already tried several other tactics to silence the group’s leader, Li Tingting.
After she led a small protest advocating for more women’s toilets in 2012 (a nonthreatening issue if ever there was one), plainclothes police- men bundled her into an unmarked car. To her surprise, they took her to a fancy dinner, where they warned her to stop her protests. They later encouraged Li’s father to pressure her to accept a job in the Chinese government. When that didn’t stop her, they began to tap her phone and hack her email. Li’s college professor was forced to tell her not to leave campus for any reason. Since threats, cajoling, and bribery didn’t work, in 2015 the Party arrested Li and her friends.
There was a predictable outcry. John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and other western politicians advocated for the women’s release. Many young Chinese supported the women’s cause by starting petitions on social media. A generation ago, the state could have dealt with Li and her friends by dis- patching them to a labor camp. As Fish remarked, “in today’s information age, Li’s network gave her a measure of security.”
When China’s censors tried to silence the students supporting Li by having university officials reprimand anyone who signed the petition, many weren’t cowed. One student insists that the government’s overreach helped publicize Li’s cause, saying that its response was “ridiculous and frightening. . . . We have our own independent personalities and ideas. Please respect us.” The Communist Party will have a hard time reining in its young, self-confident, only children. The more millennials learn how repressive their government is, the more likely they are to challenge it.