By J. Michael Cole
Amid news that millions of migrant workers are roaming the Chinese countryside unemployed, a severe drought affecting eight breadbasket provinces and state authorities admitting that 2009 could be a year of unprecedented social unrest, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials must be looking left and right these days for ways to retain their grip on power. After all, much of the CCP’s legitimacy rests on its ability to promote economic growth and pull millions of Chinese out of poverty, which in the past two decades or so it has managed to accomplish with some success.
However, failure to sustain such growth, the pessimistic theory has it, could result in serious social unrest, rebellion and, in the worst-case scenario, the fragmentation of the country.
While, given the strength of the state security apparatus, a complete breakdown of the CCP is a disputable outcome, this year nevertheless represents a daunting challenge to Chinese authorities. To the abovementioned troubles we can add the 60th anniversary next month of the Tibetan uprising and, on June 4, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, both of which could result in demonstrations and potential clashes.
If the past is any indication, the CCP will attempt to mollify its restive population, or pre-empt trouble, by reinvigorating the nationalist spirit, an approach that, in China’s case, has two principal, if seemingly antipodal, components: victimhood and pride.
The victimhood component has been used on many occasions, from Beijing complaining that the “feelings of the Chinese were hurt” whenever officials from another country met or gave awards to the Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama, as we saw last week when he was made an honorary citizen of Rome. Beijing has also used this card whenever the US has agreed to sell weapons to Taiwan, or when, during the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999, a US missile accidentally destroyed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, sparking “spontaneous” demonstrations across China.
It has also made recourse to victimhood whenever a Japanese leader has visited the Yasukuni shrine, which commemorates Japan’s war dead, by resuscitating the emotionally laden keywords “Nanjing” and “Manchuria.”
All told, this tactic of “externalization,” of channeling discontent outwards at a foreign agent, draws on the decades-long resentment at, and persistent fear of, Western imperialism and meddling in China’s domestic affairs. It also stems from a nagging inferiority complex vis-a-vis the West, which, rise as it might, China has yet to exorcize.
The second aspect of Beijing’s nationalistic strategy is pride. From its hosting the Olympic Games last year to, until recently, sustained double-digit economic growth, the CCP has tapped into global admiration to sell itself to its citizens. The Chinese government’s naming Zhang Jianyong, the fireman who died in a spectacular blaze in Beijing last week, a “revolutionary martyr” — an honor normally given to Chinese who sacrificed their lives for China’s communist revolution — is also part of that strategy of turning nationalistic pride into an opiate. Zhang was no “martyr”; he was simply doing his job.
As a counterpart to its “exceptional rise” propaganda strategy, Beijing has used censorship and, when necessary, the security apparatus to prevent “negative” news reaching ordinary Chinese lest the information undermine society’s faith in the CCP. As such, anything relating to the health of CCP cadres, natural catastrophes and social unrest now falls under the “state secrets” category, meaning that anyone who reports on, disseminates or possesses such information is subject to arrest.
Might is simultaneously an object of pride, a means to right historical slights and a tool of repression, a warning to Chinese that under certain circumstances the security apparatus can be turned on the people, as happened at Tiananmen Square in June 1989 and during the uprisings in Tibet in March last year.
It was with this in mind — the poles of pride and fear — that the CCP’s Central Military Commission on Wednesday announced that the military parade to celebrate the 60th anniversary on Oct. 1 of the People’s Republic of China would be an “unprecedented” display of troops and weaponry, with more arms and weapons than in any previous parade.
Beijing didn’t even attempt to hide the object of this “unprecedented” parade: “As the international financial crisis is still spreading and there are still some critical problems in the domestic economy as well as many uncertainties in international society, holding such a parade will significantly increase the people’s national pride and ¬¬self-¬confidence,” the commission said.
The inherent message behind the parade — which moviemaker-turned-state-propagandist Zhang Yimou will organize — is that Chinese should celebrate their military and conveniently forget the hardships they face; failing to do so, they risk tasting its sting.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.