An Author’s Note: This blog post was developed partially based on an on-going research project on the 1989 Tiananmen Student Protest.
Two-Third of the U.S. Population on the Move?
Considering 325 million people in the U.S., would one visualize around two-third of them to migrate across the country and settle in major cities such as New York, Los Angles, and Washington D.C.?
Well, China is doing it. Domestic migrations between countryside and cities has been astonishing. A longevity study showed that, the rapid economic developments led to the growth of Chinese domestic migrations from 6.6 million in 1982 to 147 million in 2005. A recent official statistic reported 244.5 million of total number of migrants in 2017. Further analysis believed that adjustments of central policies, rapid urbanization, and coastal needs for labor forces were three main causes.
Alongside these demographic changes, western medias and academics has not given up on the discussion of Chinese democratization despite the setback in 1989. Speculations on elite politics, governmental utilizations of big data, and so called “China’s system,” have appeared to be fruitful and extensive. Chinese political dissents such as Wengui Guo and exiled students’ movement leaders have been vocal against Chinese leaderships.
The million-dollar question is: when all these migrants travel between cities and countryside, what will be a reliable foundation for a possible democratic reform?
From Local Network to Democratization
Unfortunately, general discourses on Chinese democratization have extensively underestimated the potential of local networks among communities. Analysts have spent considerable time on understanding Chinese economic and political structure but failed to approach democracy in its original form, the rule of people. This article is trying to refine those discussions through lenses of history and theories and to provide a concrete analysis on the importance of network.
One usually turns to the Tiananmen Students Protest in 1989 as one of biggest students’ pro-liberal-democracy movements in the world history. However, the Chinese government was not the only villain who ended the movement with military suppression. Students’ organizations during the movement did not establish any cohesive network between its democratic vanguards and the local population. Instead, they constantly battled with individuals, who tried to use extreme measures, usually radical agenda and violence, to take powers of representation. A student leader, Congde Feng, spoke about this in an interview:
Some students’ patrol groups were interesting… They went to the square, captured the central broadcasting station, kicked away other students, and the square belonged to those new students. Everyday we had to deal with those “coups” several times. I was joking about this: “I knew why Li Peng [Chinese premier] wanted to suppress us.”
The lack of cohesive network was extremely dangerous. During the movement, students’ organizations engaged in several rounds of negotiations with the Chinese government but all reached a deadlock. The conservative in the government weaponized these failed negotiations and accused the liberal for not producing meaningful outcome, eventually leading to a military suppression. After the collapse of student movement, social liberals, university professors, and sympathizers either chose to be silent or cooperate with the government for witch hunting students’ leaders. This unfortunate scenario happened because the students’ movement did not create any effective network or institutions to shield these individuals with democratic ideals. People were angry about the government, but they could not do anything.
The 1989 outcome showed a critical downfall of lacking cohesive institution, which was directly related to Charles Tilly’s distinction between “a social movement base” and “a social movement campaign.” In his book, Contentious Politics, the former “consists[ed] of movement organizations, networks…… that contribute to social movement campaigns.” The latter, however, “is[was] a sustained challenge to power holders” through various means. In the case of China, the failure of democratic reform should be directly related to failure of constructing cohesive network before ones challenging the state.
Let’s compare those two cases. The current migrants’ network is conceptually similar to the chaos of students’ organizations in 1989. As these migrants can only temporally stay in the city for economic developments, an integrated, cohesive urban community has not yet been established. At the same time, due to the Chinese infamous hukou system and underdevelopment in rural areas, these migrants have been closely tied to their indigenous communities. Migrants have been obligated to transfer their economic spillovers for educations of their children and social security for the elder. In some ways, these migrants are stuck between cities and countryside.
Furthermore, the extensive governmental spending and economic policies since 1978 has superseded the expansion of political participation. The Chinese government has not changed politically for certain, but its centralized policies has expanded its economy as an alternative to substitute people’s political agenda with economic prosperity. The nature of Chinese political institution has orientated toward economic development and prevented people from making any political alternation. The Chinese authoritarianism, therefore, is a given phenomenon.
Therefore, the rise of authoritarianism is not a failure of democracy. Instead, it is a failure to properly establish local coalition and community network for stable social advocacy as a precondition of democratization. If those ties and connections has been constantly shredded, an authoritarian state can easily exploit this gap and strengthen their own institutions.
One Bite at A Time
What will be the next step for democracy? The answer is network. This blog advocates for “a network erosion of authoritarianism,” where people have to establish these cohesive networks for sustainable social advocacy. For example, the neighborhood committee in urban and rural areas serves as an efficient model of representations. Specifically, these networks will need to persuade these migrants and the local that the urban environment is not only economically beneficial, but socially trustworthy. They should be keen on basic services provisions and interactions with other social factors that provide basic institutional shield from local authoritarian captures, rather than immediately demanding political rights. In this case, not only will migrants be more willingly to participate in basic levels of representations, but also these networks can slowly evolve as a community that genuinely looks after each other. They can start striping the state’s capability and bargain for their rights once at a time, transforming into a sustainable foundation for future democracy.
Lastly, while freedom of press, fair election, and check-and-balances are considered to be critical for democratic institutions, over-stressing these terms will be useless when a state has influenced by an authoritarian leadership for decades. Democratization as a political development must be contextually and carefully engaged. If one were to genuinely care about Chinese democratic transition, one might find that, those moderated, community-based, and welfare orientated urban migrants/middle classes will have a much greater impact than those celebrity-like political dissidents.