Editor's Note: This story is part of a series from PRI's The World, China Past Due.
When the workday is over and the sun is slung low in the sky, people drift over to the Chengdu People’s Park, and dance away the stress of the day.
They waltz and chacha under willow trees — couples, old women, a mother with her toddler — all moving together in rhythm.
On the other side of the park, over a bridge and past a pond, they’ve found a more individualized way to express themselves.
There’s a long, red carpet lying on the ground, and anyone who wants to can strut their stuff down this ersatz catwalk. One young guy swivels his hips. Some middle-aged women in sunglasses and tight slacks slink down like the models they’ve seen on TV. One of the women, a stockbroker named Wang Chuanyin, says she feels really confident walking down the catwalk.
“I feel a sense of achievement — of expressing my value as an individual," she exclaimed with a smile.
Chinese society, under Communist rule, started out more like the ballroom dancers — all in sync, all expected to dance the same steps to the same tune. These days, more and more Chinese are like Ms. Wang — wanting to express themselves as individuals, and wanting their value as individuals noticed.
One of the other catwalk strutters, who asked that his name not be used, has seen that whole trajectory.
He says he was five years old when the Communist Party came to power, and he believed in it — even while he was starving and eating tree bark during the Great Famine, and suffering through the Cultural Revolution. He says he was in the military, then worked as a technician for a weapons project. He learned Russian, married a Russian woman, and thought China should follow Moscow’s lead.
He believed in it all — until he didn’t.
“I sacrificed everything for Communism,” he said. “When the dream was broken, it was really painful for me.’
Now, he says, he believes in having a more open and free society — and in that, these days in China, he’s in good company.
“In the past 10 years, or more broadly in the past 30 years, the public consciousness for rule of law and constitutionalism has risen, but our system has kept (stayed) the same, and so has our leadership,” said Zhang Qianfen, a law professor at Peking University. “There’s no fundamental change in the past two decades. So, it’s the institution and leaders who lag behind. And there’s a dramatic gap between the public expectations and our official existing situation.”
Zhang says corruption and abuses of individual rights are rife, because there are too few checks and balances on power. That's why Zhang, in December, drafted and circulated a call for political reform — for allowing the freedoms of speech, press and assembly granted by China’s own constitution, as well as rule of law, and some kind of electoral democracy.
The petition, or initiative as Zhang prefers to call it, stopped short of calling for a multi-party democracy, or the end of Communist Party rule. That’s probably why, though censors scrubbed or blocked all mention of it from China’s Internet, Zhang and the hundred or so lawyers, academics and activists who signed it are still walking free. The originator of a similar petition that went that extra step further — calling for multiparty democracy — is now serving time in prison. That would be Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who wrote Charter ’08.
“I don’t think the ’08 Charter received the desirable effect,” Zhang said. “It sort of exceeded the bound that our current regime is willing to accept. So, it invited harsh reactions, which created fear and hatred. We agree with the charter itself, most of the proposals made in the charter. But we also think we need to use a different strategy. Especially, we need the ordinary people to be able to express themselves freely, without so much fear, and without necessarily touching the bottom line of the government, so we can have a healthy dialogue between the government and society.”
China’s new leaders say they want such a dialogue. They’ve said they want the public and the press to exercise “more supervision” over the government. But President Xi Jinping also made it clear at the end of the National People’s Congress in March that he’s not open to challenges to the Communist Party’s authority.
“People of all walks of life should be centered around the party more closely,” Xi said. “We should be more modest, and diligent, in moving toward a modern, prosperous society.”
In other words, when it comes to reform of a political nature, Xi is more interested in purifying and strengthening the party, than in dissipating its power through allowing the kind of checks and balances and freedoms that Zhang and many other Chinese had hoped the new leaders would allow. At a National People’s Congress news conference unveiling what very limited internal reforms, even journalists with state-run media sounded disappointed with the limited reforms announced by the State Council’s restructuring team.
“Good morning, Vice Minister, I’m with CCTV and CNTV,” one reporter said. “I’ve read the draft plan that has been made public, and it seems that the government reform ... falls short of what the society previously expected.”
The deputy director of the State Council restructuring team, Wang Feng, asked for patience.
“A lot of issues cannot be solved with just one single reform,” Wang replied. “We need to see the conditions, whether they are mature enough to carry out the reform. We need to see whether there is a consensus.”
And finding a consensus is hard when vested interests are at play. How do you get everyone to agree to give up a monopoly on power that’s worked so well for them for so long?
Part of the answer might be found on a balcony, high in an apartment tower in Chengdu. A man sits in a bamboo chair, with his laptop on a little table in front of him, and a pot of tea nearby. His mobile phone rings constantly.
Blogger Huang Qi fields calls from people all over China who have grievances with the government. He gives advice — he tells this caller to keep the protests peaceful and not do anything brash. He takes down details, and he puts them on his website — a catalog of discontent around the country. The name of the website, 89tianwang, includes a salute to the year of the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests.
Huang Qi cheerfully admits that the authorities aren’t always thrilled about what he’s doing.
“This is the 19th place I’ve lived in the past two years, since I was released from prison,” he said. “In the other places, the local government would pressure the neighborhood police to drive me away. It was really annoying. ”
When visiting, guards at the gate of his apartment complex radioed to police in his building, who turned off the electricity for the elevators.
But this is all pretty Mickey Mouse stuff to a guy who’s spent time in solitary confinement, for using his blog to try to help families of those killed in the Tiananmen crackdown. And for all the hassle, Huang Qi actually thinks things are getting better.
“There’s been a dramatic change in China’s human rights situation over the past 14 years or so, since I first went to prison,” he said. “Now, many ordinary people dare to expose the government officials’ corruption, and about how their own human rights were violated, using their real names. They talk about freedom, and democracy — and so many of them are doing this online! This is real progress, he says, but it’s not a gift from the authorities — it’s a result of our own efforts.”
And such efforts are increasing pressure for political reform that a growing number of Chinese feel is long past due.
“In China, with the change in our society, people should have the right to know, and you cannot change it back,” says He Jiahong, a crime fiction novelist, and law professor at People’s University.
He Jiahong says he was inspired to write this kind of fiction by Sherlock Holmes, and by studying law at Chicago’s Northwestern University 20 years ago. He says the Chinese Public Security Bureau has bought his novels in bulk, and hands them out to its investigators as primers on criminal procedure. He Jiahong also does direct training on criminal procedure to Public Security investigators as well as to his students. As a former public prosecutor, he speaks from experience about China’s need for greater rule of law, and transparency.
“Transparency of the government is very important for making political decisions,” He Jiahong said. “But in China, the tradition went the other way. Because in China, we have been in so-called feudal society for a thousand years. So the mentality of the people, especially among the public officials, is that the leaders should have more privacy. The important decisions should be made secretly. But this should be changed. Because in a modern society of democracy and rule of law, the people’s right to know is more important than the leaders’ privacy.”
One of He Jiahong’s novels illustrates this. It’s about a fictional city in southern China that once had its share of problems with corruption. But that all changed once government officials were required to declare their private assets, government policy-making meetings began to be televised live, and government records became publically available.
“Many of my readers asked, 'where is this place? There’s no such city in Guangdong,’” he chuckled. “There isn’t. But perhaps sometime in the future, there will be.”
For now, the government seems none too keen to lift its controls on information, much less voluntarily share it. Internet censors only seem to be upping their game. And Chinese journalists have grown frustrated with the barrage of directives from censors, telling them what to do, to the point that protests have broken out.
One of the higher profile protests was at the newspaper Southern Weekly, in Guangzhou, in January. Journalists were angry that the censors had rewritten a frontpage editorial, that had started as a call to honor the rights in the constitution — including freedom of speech and the press. Once the censors got through with it, it ended up as bland party-speak, praising the new leaders. Southern Weekly’s journalists went on strike. Eventually, the government and the journalists reached a truce, without anyone being fired or imprisoned. That’s progress, over what might have happened in years past.
And that’s how political reform will come in China, predicts He Jiahong — gradually, through people knowing their rights, and speaking out for them. He wants China to move toward rights-based rule of law, but he’s not in a huge rush for multiparty democracy.
“The Chinese people are not ready for that kind of democracy, because political struggle in China is not so civilized,” he said. “The Chinese politicians don’t have the tradition of civilized political struggle. For civilized political struggle, it’s just win, or lose. In the West, if you win, OK, you’re very happy, you get political office. If you lose, you can still have a very good life in society. But in China, especially at quite a high level, if you lose, it means not only you lose the office. You may lose everything. The tradition in China is that the winner is the king, the loser is the thief. This needs time to change the culture for political struggle.”
It’s an open question whether Chinese people are willing to wait for such change. Meanwhile, they’re changing themselves. The old man in the park, who didn’t want to be named, says he reads constantly, challenging old beliefs formed under a system of political control that China’s Communists learned decades ago from the Soviets. He quotes Voltaire and Rousseau, and especially the novels of China’s own Mo Yan, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 2012.
”I understand Mo Yan’s books,” he said. “He suffered from hunger. I suffered even more. He spoke the truth. In the past, everyone lied and I believed it was the truth.
The old man says he prefers the American system of freedoms, now, but he’s still fond of Russia. On the catwalk, he bursts into a remembered Russian ballad.
Some of the other catwalkers stop and join in, with smiles of recognition and nods of nostalgia. It’s another world, now, in China — from when those of a certain age here learned this song and all that went with it. China has moved forward, and the Chinese are now, increasingly, asking the Party to do the same.