Civil Society in China

JONATHAN POWER

September 03, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

London. -- China should not get the Olympic Games for the year 2000. This is something the outside world decides to give China when the time is ripe; it is not China's right, as the Chinese leadership appears to think. It is a bonus, a present -- of a different order than the much-resented sanctions, which are a punishment whose degree of severity can be honestly disputed.

Why should China be rewarded with such a plus when its human-rights record is so abominable? Forget 2000, about which a decision is imminent, and dangle the games of 2004 under Beijing's nose on condition its behavior improves. Of course, politics, race or religion should never intrude into who is selected to compete. But choosing the site is a rightly political matter.

The Chinese leadership is only one factor. The other is how hard the Chinese people themselves will push. As Berkeley professor Elizabeth Perry observes, ''The anti-climactic outcome of Chinese protests is often attributed to the relative weakness of civil society in contemporary China.'' Karl Marx explained that the stagnation of imperial China owed much to the lack of a

strong bourgeoisie. And for the last 40 years, it's been assumed that all that China had was the monolithic Communist party and a few dissidents here and there, mainly students.

But is it true that civil society is so weak? Of course, there's nothing like the Catholic Church of Poland which was the prime force in catalyzing the overthrow of communism in eastern Europe. Nor is there anything resembling the old democratic parties of Hungary, or the large dissident intellectual circles of Czechoslovakia, all of which played a major role in the momentous events of the last decade.

Yet China does have a revolutionary heritage rooted in its intellectual class, dating at least to Sun Yat-sen, founder of the post-imperial Chinese republic. The lesson of Tiananmen Square, which becomes clearer with the passing of time, was that the students failed, not so much because of the ruthlessness of the repression, but because they made the mistake of refusing to build alliances with other social groups.

The students laid the foundations for a return to civil society. They built up a number of associational networks. One of the most important was the ''Democracy Salon'' at Beijing University, which regularly invited leading Chinese intellectuals

to talk on democracy. The Democracy Salon was the inspiration for many who became prominent in the Beijing Federation of Autonomous Student Unions, which, in turn, inspired other autonomous unions around the country.

Nevertheless, their snobbish exclusivity was their undoing. During Tiananmen Square, the students linked arms to prevent outsiders from joining the protest. Even after 40 years of communism, the old Confucian values rating mental labor above manual remain intact. For all the communist propaganda about the revolutionary vanguard of workers and peasants, these classes have never predominated in the National People's Congress, China's nominal legislature.

Not until the final week of May did the students, aware that the army was likely to be brought in, seek support in the factories.

Despite the airs and graces of the students, sections of the working class did mobilize, founding their own autonomous associations. As the official newspaper Workers' Daily reported, ''so-called 'workers' organizations' sprouted up everywhere in various disguises.''

More surprisingly, entrepreneurial groups also mobilized, able to engage in political action without fear of losing jobs or grants. They even bought the students fax machines. They, too, were given the brush-off by the students who, doubtless unconsciously, fused Confucian prejudice against business people with communist claptrap on capitalist exploitation.

Tiananmen Square showed that China does have a civil society in the making. It is bound to progress as the unstoppable economic reforms create a middle class. Taiwan, where democracy has advanced greatly over the past decade, shows that the Confucian heritage is no barrier to modern cross-class alliances. Once China's young intellectuals understand the importance of this, they'll start to win their battles.

The outside world can help the process along by criticism and sanctions on particularly outrageous occasions, and even by offering the sweet inducement of the Olympics for 2004. But in the end, the real push must come -- and will come -- from within as Chinese civil society reaches maturity.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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