For decades, China has been on everyone’s mind. Observers, economists, investors, and scholars have all been watching the country’s incredible pace of change and transformation. To my mind, what China is doing can be described in the words of Italian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: ”For things to remain the same, everything must change.”
They came with the night. They did not knock, they banged and kicked the door. They gave inhabitants little time to pack before they sealed their homes, forcing the people out on the freezing street with most of their belongings inside.
It happened several nights in a row, in the Liqiao township, in Shunyi district, the home to about 60,000 people working at Beijing Capital International Airport, according to the South China Morning Post.
Liqiao is not the only Beijing outskirt where these evictions are happening. Beijing authorities are targeting thousands and thousands of the city’s migrant workers, who live in precarious conditions in the only housing they can afford. The apparent reason for the most recent crackdown, which will last for a month the media reports, is the tremendous fire that killed 19 migrant workers in Xinjiancun, in Daxing district, south of the city, near an area that will soon host the biggest airport in the world.
Xinjiancun is another scrappy outskirt that is planned to disappear soon. And with it “the menial workers who keep the Chinese capital going — cleaners, couriers, factory workers, stall owners — are migrants from villages who live on the fringes of the city because of high housing prices and government policies that have been forcing them out of downtown,” Chris Buckley reported from Beijing.
They have been forced from downtown to the fringes of the city, and now further and further out, back to where they came from, or to other places that offer job opportunities. The expelled have done their jobs, the city no longer needs them. Less than a week after the fire, cranes, and bulldozers came roaring, converting the area into a rubble heap, as a video (in Chinese) shows. It’s as if the authorities were waiting for the fire to start the campaign, aimed at capping the Beijing population at 23 million, a decision discussed and planned some time ago by the country’s leadership.
China never changes. Its methods, as they were in the past, are rude. There are reports, for example, “that police often acted most violently and sometimes without warning, officers have mounted raids in areas where many of the city’s migrant workers have rented housing, leaving tens of thousands homeless at the start of winter. There have also been multiple reports of water and electricity being cut to force occupants to move out.” The evictions of the migrants, however, has triggered some protest among the Beijing middle class. It is not often that people show solidarity in such a competitive society like that of China. But this time the people who live in relative comfort in the area expressed their fury about the iron-fisted way the eviction campaign has been carried out. This finally forced Beijing Party Chief Cai Qi to address the issue, promising that the evicted would be given time to move out.
This little promise, of implementation, can never be verified. However, regulating the fast-growing capital of the future empire is a complex issue. Compared to Washington DC, New York, Paris or Rome, Beijing always wanted to be impeccable. It is about the image. I remember when the city was competing for the Olympic games in 2008 and the top delegation of the International Olympic Committee arrived in Beijing to negotiate. It was a cold and grey winter, and yet the hosts, eager to impress the guests with the look of the city, painted green and flowery colors all along the roads the motorcade was driving. A mirage.
Whoever has spent time researching the history of China, or having the privilege to work and live in China, is aware of many rapid and radical changes the country went through after the fall of the last Qing dynasty. In these last hundred years, China experienced and tested almost every social model known to human history; there was a period of iconoclasm that tried to rid of Confucian society, with a strong push to change the traditional outlook and build a fresh identity. Chinese society opened up, as Spain did much later, after the death of Franco. In addition to booming literature, written for the first time in vernacular, the film industry was equal to Hollywood, while the art scene in Shanghai was reaching French existentialist levels of decadence. With a newly-opened gate, Chinese society became a fertile land for socialist ideas and a more just society.
Those ideas soon sparked patriotism and triggered the war against colonialism, followed by civil war and the triumph of the organized group of people around Mao, the ruling Communist Party. The new regime made a disastrous attempt with the Great Leap Forward, trying to industrialize and modernize the country overnight.But China back then was 99 percent rural country and in the midst of a clash with the Soviet Union, its former brethren in the Communist cause. It was a disaster. The cultural revolution, with its invitation to the youth to storm the headquarters, was an effort to correct this mistake and perhaps give the country a new start.
At its very beginning, it was an experiment of direct democracy, but it turned into terror as soon as the party’s factions were able to regain some of the control over the movement. They did this with the help of the migrant workers who were brought to the cities in order to compensate. Social experiments like the Shanghai Commune, which was established following the example of the Paris Commune, were dismantled in the similar and efficient way as Beijing suburbs now. Some historians say that stepping on the breaks of the cultural revolution was the first opera omnia of the Gang of Four.
Perhaps, but in 1989, a completely different kind of terror, against the growing civil society and against the lesser role of the Communist party, took hold. Tiananmen and the killings on the streets of Beijing were a consequence of the court of intrigue, the plot of the gerontocracy against the young, creative society. The clampdown was terrible and bloody, its reprisal lasting for years. The present Xi Jinping regime is the outcome of that tragedy, the result of the choice of the people in power who in 1989 opted to continue economic reforms with repression, the sacrifice of social reform and people’s rights.
The tension between the two social models has run through the brains of many people during the last two decades. For many years, western China-watchers and economic experts were preaching that with the development of a more complex economy, Chinese society (or better, Chinese Communists) will have to concede to some social reforms. Without those, the experts said, China will break, its economy will collapse. You cannot run a global economy without reforming society, they swore. China did not break. It is marching ahead, gaining new position daily. What is breaking is the West, its prevailing conservatism trying to hold positions that no longer exist.
The game is not over yet. But the challenge between the two different models of development – the democratic and the authoritarian – continues, despite Trump’s arrival on the political scene. The situation is not bright, but not all hope is lost. The Chinese authoritarian system seems to be more efficient and prevailing while the two of them are almost equally corrupt. But if one day China succeeds in liberating its social forces, the world would already be a better place.
For the time being, the reason why China can be considered more efficient is exactly the point where this story starts. What Chinese police are doing these days in Beijing is nothing new. They act not because they are violent, or because they like guns, but because they feel that they are part of the power, that they belong to the cause, empower the national interest, act in the name of nationalism. This is the same mindset we see in Imperial, Republican, and Communist China. It reflects the relationship between power and grassroots (laobaixing) on Chinese soil; it may as well stay there when China becomes the world’s dominant power. As Mao said when he spoke at the World Communist Representative Meeting in Moscow in November 1957, in his famous speech “American Imperialism Is a Paper Tiger”:
I’m not afraid of nuclear war. There are 2.7 billion people in the world; it doesn’t matter if some are killed. China has a population of 600 million; even if half of them are killed, there are still 300 million people left. I’m not afraid of anyone.
Xi Jinping uses the same kind of power the emperors Mao and Deng used in the past. Perhaps the love and adoration for Xi of the crowds are less than it was for Mao and Deng. But Xi has better tools and more modern means of control. He does not need to be loved, he needs to be feared, knowing that this is the only way to achieve the goal China has demanded of itself. And while the Chinese masses, deprived of any political rights, share the same goal, Xi is safe where he is, sitting on the top of the world. Can anybody claim that this is not Maoism?