Watching China

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Brian Hennessy. An Australian in China. August, 2010  

Recently, a two-star Chinese General, Liu Yazhou, warned the Communist Party and his People’s Liberation Army colleagues that, “China must either embrace US-style democracy or accept Soviet-style collapse.” He continued: ”If a system fails to let its citizens breathe freely and release their creativity to the maximum extent, and fails to place those who best represent the system and its people into leadership positions, it is certain to perish.” 

Watching China


General Yazhou’s warnings were contained in an article he published in Hong Kong’s Phoenix magazine which is widely circulated in mainland china. Normally, such politically sensitive commentary would be extinguished immediately and the commentator jailed. However, somebody in the power elite is letting this general get away with murder. One wonders why. Particularly when his comments question the fundamentals of the state. Minor dissenters have had their careers and lives destroyed for less. 

Something else is going on here. 

Before commenting this issue further, lets take a look at some of the fundamentals of Chinese society today. As you will read, none of these fundamentals provide fertile soil for criticism of the government. Thus General Liu’s comments are both extraordinary and courageous. They remind me of two other courageous men in recent Chinese history – Prime Minister Liu Shao Qi, and General Peng De Huai who criticised Chairman Mao’s disastrous policies and who paid a heavy price for doing so. They were true patriots.


China is a one party state: The Communist Party controls everything and will not tolerate dissent. Historically, China has always been a one-party state – a top-down society governed by an emperor for over two millennia, and by the Party since 1949. Nothing much has changed. Confucian philosophy supports this type of political structure.

China is a collective: It has always been thus. The harmony of the group is regarded as more important than the rights of any individual. The stability of the state is more important than human rights. These are fundamental values held by most Chinese people.

Respect for authority: Most Chinese people think of the government as a parent who is responsible for the welfare of the family.  They expect the government to make decisions and to take care of them. It is only when the government fails in its duty of care that the people revolt.

Peasants: 700 or 800 million dirt-poor peasants in the hinterland of this vast country don’t care about politics. They only care about parish-pump basics. They never think about, let alone discuss, alternative systems of government. Should they ever become rich, their thinking would remain the same.

Wealth: Money – not politics or religion – is worshiped in China. I have friends here who are recent converts to Buddhism, not because they long for inner peace, but because they want to pray for wealth. Chairman Mao was right to label Buddhism in china as a superstition.

Middle-class Chinese: Many members of this growing segment of Chinese society swallow their dislike for the one-party system because at the moment they are benefiting from it. They are growing richer, and in China to be rich is glorious (Quote: Deng Xiao Ping). Wealth gives them access to government patronage. At the moment they are not about to bite the hand that feeds them. The middle-class is selfish. It will take a severe recession to get these cynics grumbling openly.

Educated and talented people: These folk who are not part of the power-elite, are the only group in china who are dissatisfied with the current system. In reality, they pose no threat to the existing structure because: (i) the government keeps a close eye on them and punishes any public expression of dissatisfaction; and (ii) they are an underground minority. Their numbers are such a small proportion of China’s 1.3 billion population, that they can generally be ignored. They have no power base.  

Educated youth: these young people are the hope of China. Young Chinese people are similar to young people everywhere. They are honest and idealistic. The saddest thing to observe however, is how quickly their own society corrupts them after they leave university. It’s the only way for them to succeed or survive. All the fight was knocked out of this cohort at Tiananmen Square. Now they are proud nationalists and materialists who support their government.

The system: Zhang Zemin defined it as ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ In my opinion however, he put the cart before the horse. The system would be better described as Capitalism with Chinese characteristics. China today is more capitalist than the good ole USA (but without the benefits of a US style constitution).



The only people who can speak out against the system these days are those individuals who enjoy some measure of protection. Either they are related to famous forebears (e.g., China’s revolutionary ‘immortals’) or they have the support of some high placed persons who use them as weapons in their internal power-struggles. Nothing is as it seems in China.

Perhaps there really is a debate going on within the party about reform. Perhaps some intelligent members recognise that the current rigidly conservative political system is incapable of managing the explosion of individual creative energy that has been released since Deng Xiao Ping introduced his policy of opening up and reform. 

In my opinion, General Liu’s outspokenness is the tip of an iceberg, and a sign of what is to come. If he has been allowed to publicly criticise, we can be sure that there is a faction within the Party which recognises the need for change, and that the internal debate has begun in all seriousness. This is the first shot.

Watch closely. It will be played out as the Party chooses the next generation of leaders. In the meantime, President Hu Jin Tau, Vice-Premier Wen Jia Bao, and their politburo colleagues will present a united front to China and the world. Political stability and an harmonious society will continue to be their mantra.

The internal debate is about to heat up, however. Old China hands like me will be looking for signs of heat and smoke.

We live in interesting times.




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