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The great wall between democracy and development

  • Published at 12:02 am March 6th, 2019
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How China has perfected the art of controlling its citizens

When a society doesn’t feel represented by its politicians or believes that their rights as citizens are being violated -- protests and demonstrations are commonplace. Like the protests of the so-called yellow vests which unleashed a wave of violence and political rebellion in Emmanuel Macron’s France. 

However, despite being in a dictatorship, these revolts don’t happen in China. Which leads to a few questions: Why do we never see protests in China? Don’t the Chinese have more than enough reasons to feel dissatisfied? And perhaps, the key question is, how does the Chinese government manage to keep 1.3 billion people under control without any sign of discontent? 

Despite the reforms after Mao’s death, it was expected that today’s China would be very different. Many experts predicted that as Chinese economy began to prosper, within a short time social demands would cause a change in the political system towards a more open, free, and transparent system. Since then, the country has experienced an impressive economic take-off and the Chinese middle class is now composed of hundreds of millions of people. However, there’s little trace of mass riots.

A recent New York Times article talked about how the Chinese government has managed to turn their economic development into a way to legitimize the regime.

There’s a kind of tacit pact that exists between the Chinese government and a good portion of Chinese society. The government promises to do what it can to achieve better living conditions. In return, the society, or at least a good part of it, doesn’t question the government. So, how does the Chinese government change its people’s lifestyle? 

Firstly, the Chinese government put aside Marxism and freed the forces of private enterprise, competition, globalization, and capitalism. The other element that the government has used has been none other than education. And not only because they control the content. To make everyone feel like they had a chance, especially the almost 40% of the rural population that’s still mostly poor -- about 500 million people -- the Chinese government has created a social narrative by which anyone who strives, regardless of their economic level, can climb the ladder of social mobility and reach the highest echelons of success. 

How did they do that? Well, through universities and a system known as Gaokao. 

The Gaokao is a particularly hard test. If you pass it, it guarantees the opportunity to study at a higher education institution regardless of your income level or your family’s situation.

Each year, 9 million young people compete for only tens of thousands of places. And most young people know that a university can change their life. You can already imagine the incredible amount of competition that exists to pass this exam. In a country where corruption in institutions is usually part of the system, Gaokao is seen as an opportunity, a test that any student can access.

That way, the narrative that the Chinese government has built for years is that in this country, there’s full social mobility, any young person regardless of their family’s income level can progress up the social scale. And if they don’t achieve that progress, it’s their fault.

Gaokao allows the government to say that if you are not successful, you can only blame yourself. You did not work hard enough. That is a very powerful way of governing.

Political demands have a lot to do with the speed of change; social and cultural changes often happen much more slowly than economic and technological changes. Yes, China has experienced a huge amount of development, but not enough time has passed for political demands to emerge. This isn’t strange. If we look at the history of Western democracies, both in Europe and in America, we can see that political changes have always been much slower than economic changes. 

But, we can’t forget that countries such as Spain, Portugal, Taiwan, South Korea, and the nations of Eastern Europe, among many others, suffered under dictatorships of all kinds until only a few decades ago.

In other words, the Chinese are still moving from poverty to a more comfortable lifestyle. But, it’s obvious that we can’t talk about the Chinese government’s control over its citizens without discussing coercion. At the end of the day, China is still mostly a dictatorship. 

The Chinese government’s control is so great that they’ve basically been able to create their own internet. In China, this network is so censored that services like Google, YouTube, and Facebook along with millions of other web pages are blocked. The Chinese only see the information that the Chinese government allows them to see.

It seems that by 2020 the Chinese government wants to fully implement a kind of ranking that will classify each Chinese citizen based on many variables: Financial, social, political, legal, etc. That is, the Chinese government wants to create a ranking of good and bad citizens.

It will affect eligibility for loans, jobs, and even education. For example, citizens with low scores will not be hired by certain employers and will be forbidden from obtaining some jobs, including in the civil service, journalism, and legal fields, where you must be deemed trustworthy -- to the government of course. 

Obviously, political issues will carry a great deal of weight, so being critical of the Beijing government could place you among the most unreliable citizens, which would close most doors, both personal and professional. The political pact and the promise of prosperity and opportunity for all, the fact that social change moves more slowly than economic change, the huge amount of control and repression that the Chinese government uses are all reasons why there are no mass protests in China. 

But, the question we can all ask ourselves is: Will the Chinese government perpetuate its model, or is this country going to suffer a wave of democratic change and openness in the future? 

Arafat-Al-Yeasin is a freelance contributor.