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Foreign Policy

Garvan Walshe: What do the protests over "Southern Weekend" mean for China?

Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser for the Conservative Party until 2008. He is now studying for a PhD at the University of Manchester, and is managing partner at The Research Department, a consultancy.

He will be editing this new column focusing on foreign policy every Tuesday.

Here in Manchester, “Southern Weekend” sounds like a magazine delivered to mansions in Cheshire advertising weekend breaks to vineyards near the South Downs, Michelin-starred restaurants near Oxford and the odd hospitality suite at a football match (Manchester’s teams now seldom encounter opponents like Millwall, with their fans’ chant of “Nobody Likes us and we don’t care!”). In fact it hails from the Chinese city of Guangzhou and specialises in what, by Chinese standards at any rate, is racy investigative reporting. The authorities there had nearly had it shut down in 1993, but its journalists more or less managed to evade the censors’ red pen for another twenty years. Until, at the beginning of this month, its editors had planned to publish this call for political freedom:

“Only if constitutionalism is realised and power effectively checked can citizens voice their criticisms of power loudly and confidently, and only then can every person believe in their hearts that they are free to live their own lives. Only then can we build a truly free and strong nation”

This proved too much for the censors, who replaced the editorial with something more compliant. What’s new you might ask? China censors a newspaper. The pope reaffirms his Catholicism. Bears…

It is not the fact of the censorship, but the reaction to it, that appears unusual. Protests outside the newspaper were allowed by the authorities, with no evidence of police brutality. The journalists were allowed to return to their jobs. Astute tactics by a regime that knows it’s easier to arrest people later, when the world’s attention has moved on? Perhaps, but support for the newspaper was much broader. Famous mainstream actors actors like Yao Chen and Chen Kui, who between them have 58 million followers on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, have also stepped in. Yao, by quoting Sozhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Chen with the more blunt I am not that deep, and I don’t play word games, I support the friends at Southern Weekend.

Now for a long time there’s been a conventional wisdom about China. Its government, analysts like to say, enjoys “performance-based legitimacy:” as long as people are getting richer, their lives are getting better, and they can enjoy prosperity and opportunities their parents would never have imagined, the regime is safe. There’s a lot going for this kind of argument, deployed by authoritarians since Hadrian and the Medici, and until recently quite popular in the Middle East.

Stability is always important: more so to people living in a country where the Cultural Revolution succeeded a twenty-three year civil war, so it’s no surprise that the Chinese government takes this analysis seriously. Beijing has spent untold amounts of money on construction and infrastructure projects to keep young people in work. In the West we like to marvel at the numberless new airports and train lines that China’s building. We forget to ask whether anyone’s using them. No matter to the Politburo, people were paid, and usefully occupied, in their construction.

China’s leaders are doubtless right to worry about an economic slowdown. They are surely aware of what both Marxist-Leninist doctrine and ordinary English call the “contradictions” between their ideology, their lavish lifestyle, and capitalistic policy. Though they take pains distract from it — Xi Jinping’s new slogan is the frugal “four plates and a soup” — the leadership’s vast wealth is common knowledge. They may censor any official mention of it, but they are surely too wise to think that people haven’t heard the rumours. Absent economic growth they can guess their subjects would start to ask “I see what’s in it for them, but what’s in it for me?”

The Southern Weekend incident hints at something more alarming for the regime: what if economic growth, prosperity and stability aren’t enough? A growing number of Chinese have had it with the corruption and bullying of the State and those connected to it. Their dignity demands they don’t put up with a country where senior leaders’ children behave like the playboy sons of strongmen from lesser nations.

Well-wishers and apologists alike observe all this and conclude that China must change, both in the Chinese national interest and to the benefit of its population. Rational and efficient stewards of their nation, untroubled, as they might put it, by the short term demands of febrile public opinion, would see the need for greater openness, pluralism, and political competition (they avoid words like “democracy”). Yet despite Beijing’s attempt to persuade us of the orderly rationality of their leaders’ deliberations, Bo Xilai’s ugly defenestration revealed glimpses of a politics closer to that practices during Renaissance papacy. As the American journalist James Fallows has written, though “China must change”, it also, sadly, “can’t change,” because the private interests defending the status quo are so strong.

All authoritarian regimes eventually run into this problem. Almost all fail to confront it. Very few escape coups, revolution, the dictator’s death, or the end of foreign support on which they were dependent. But China could be, at least in this way, different. It’s enormous. Its domestic market of 1 billion people could power growth and economic development. Such an economy, no third-rate protectionist backwater, could sustain the military forces it needs. A feeling of encirclement, fostered by decades of indoctrination, would bolster patriotism, and at least balance the scepticism of the liberal-minded middle classes. To the extent that it lacks oil, bilateral deals with friendly dictatorships in the Gulf who won’t ask any questions about human rights could be struck, and if not, there would always be the South China Sea.

This path isn’t without its costs. China’s economy is still heavily oriented towards exports and international trade. Many of its leaders, who hope it can become not only powerful, but also respected as a “responsible stakeholder” in a “rules-based international order,” would be opposed. It would be anathema to those growing, liberal-minded, middle classes. Its neighbours, and of course the United States, would take steps to contain it. Nevertheless, autarky would allow the system to survive and stem the opening that would put it at risk. It may be less than optimal for China as a whole, it’s far from crazy.

After all, reducing dependence on international trade, and increasing domestic consumption would make China’s economy more stable; and it’s not only journalists at the Guardian who remember that those rules on which the international order is based have all been written in the West. The Middle Kingdom’s efficient internal security forces should make short work of the liberal-middle classes. Could we see a Great Millwall of China emerge?


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