BEIJING - There is a time for peace and a
time for war, a time for talks and one for
struggle, a time for stability and another for
revolution. As of now, it is not the time for
revolution in China, but it could still hit the
Certainly, nobody knows for sure
when it might happen, but also
certainly, in the next decade
or so we will enter a risky time for revolutions.
The key for determining whether there will
be revolution or peace, between a bloody crackdown
and a smooth transition, is not only in Beijing
but also in Hong Kong with its lively political
But first we have to take a step
A conference organized by the
People's Daily and the Society for Strategy and
Management and held in Beijing on February 17-18
claimed that in 15 or 20 years, more than 50% of
the Chinese population will live in cities. By
that time urban people might make up 70% of the
total population. Chinese scholars such as Wang
Jian of the Commission of Development and Reform
believe that currently some 40% of the population
live in the cities, some 30% if we consider only
the ones with a residence permit.
revolutions notoriously start in the cities; from
the countryside come only peasants' uprisings. The
model of Western revolution starts from organizing
disgruntled workers, the "proletariat" in Marxist
jargon, in the cities. As cities are the center of
an urbanized country, once the workers conquer the
main city, or cities, they have control of the
state and have won the revolution.
Zedong's "revolution" was actually a traditional
Chinese peasant uprising, endorsed by the
Communist Party only when the Western-style
revolution failed in Shanghai in 1927. Mao's
strategy was the correct one for the time. Too few
people then lived in cities for a revolution of
the Western model; China was a peasant society,
and so the government could be toppled only in the
traditional Chinese manner, through a long, tough
and opportunistic partisan war. And that is what
Mao did successfully after the Western revolution
model, which had been successful in Paris in 1789
and in Moscow in 1917, had failed in Shanghai. The
Chinese communists had to organize disgruntled
peasants for a protracted confrontation that would
besiege and stifle the cities and take them from
outside, since they could not be taken from
The communists knew then and still
know now how to handle, and suppress, the
peasants. This capability allows the party to
emasculate small uprisings at their beginning.
Many uprisings in small counties count for nothing
as they are not locally organized, and they have
no nationwide organization and no broad political
goal. Thus they can be nipped in the bud by
spreading some money around and arresting the
But cities are different.
There, social differences become stark, and
organizing opposition becomes easier, as people
are more concentrated and more difficult to manage
and control by the authorities. Clashes can then
become bigger, and more money has to be spent
buying off demonstrators and more "ringleaders"
must be arrested.
In other words, as China
becomes really urbanized, real revolution could
become easier. Yet it is unthinkable to stop
urbanization, as it is a byproduct of economic
development. At the same time, there is a large
consensus in the Chinese government that the
country needs a strong hand to continue its
economic development program, and that a leap
toward democracy would result in insufficient
authority to push this development ahead.
But once the time is right, democratic
reforms could be the best antidote against
From observing how development
has progressed elsewhere, it appears that
democracy begins to be a practicable option once a
country's per capita gross domestic product (GDP)
reaches US$3,000-$5,000. Analysts have said that
in Taiwan and South Korea, democracy finally
arrived when GDP per capita was touching $10,000.
In about 15-20 years the Chinese GDP could
have quadrupled and become larger than Japan's. By
then, Chinese scholars believe, friction with
Japan could have been reduced as Tokyo will have
recognized the larger Chinese role in Asia.
By that analysis, then, at least 15 more
years are needed for democracy to be considered
for China, with per capita GDP at about $3,000.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
envisages an orderly transition to democracy,
guided by the party. While the minimum time frame
for the change is 15 years, there is also a
maximum time frame, placing the transition around
mid-century. In 2047 Hong Kong fully returns to
"Chinese sovereignty" under the 50-year clause in
the Sino-British agreement that returned the
former colony to China in 1997, and it is highly
probable that Beijing will adapt to Hong Kong's
political system, not the other way around.
Furthermore, Taiwan has to return to the
motherland. But the island is an entirely
democratic territory and there is no possibility
for the return of an authoritarian regime there.
Therefore Taiwan's integration must coincide with
the democratic transformation of the mainland.
Beijing will not accept this as a prerequisite for
talks on reunification, but it is clear that an
authoritarian mainland will have problems uniting
with a democratic Taiwan. On the other hand,
imposing an authoritarian regime on Taiwan would
stir up huge problems on the island, in the world
and also on the mainland.
With all these
conditions there remains a problem: how to move to
democracy without causing grave social and
political unrest that will stop economic growth
and risk splitting the country. Nobody knows for
sure, and the Chinese are reluctant to test grand
theories without track records. Hong Kong,
therefore, can serve as a laboratory.
Beijing would like to experiment with:
A series of progressive reforms to enlarge
gradually the number of people directly elected
through popular vote.
Retaining a measure of "noble votes", certain
people who are not elected through direct voting.
This could control the potential demagoguery
rising from direct election, and also could help
to keep the CCP in overall control of the
If the experiment proceeds with
success in Hong Kong, it could be expanded
elsewhere in the country; if not, then corrections
could be introduced and the process slowed down.
For now, it is not proceeding as expected
because in Hong Kong many want to push ahead the
timetable of "Beijing's experiment" and attain
full-fledged democracy while Beijing is still
unprepared. Full democracy in Hong Kong could
bring in local rulers opposed to Beijing's
politics, and this could create much friction
between the government in Hong Kong and that in
Beijing. In that case Hong Kong could become a
fifth column of political destabilization in
China, something Beijing could not tolerate.
Therefore Beijing will try to avoid a hostile
government in Hong Kong to prevent things from
spinning out of control.
proceed as Beijing plans, not as Hong Kong plans.
Hong Kong, according to Beijing, will be
consulted, its opinions will be taken into
account, but Hong Kong people must understand it
is not only the destiny of their territory at
stake, it is the economic development and the
political transition of the whole of China.
Furthermore, Beijing fears three demagogic
trends that could take hold of mainland public
opinion and could be kindled by political
confrontation in Hong Kong. The main ones are the
Nationalism pushed by strong anti-Japanese
tensions. These could evolve into anti-Western and
Religious cults by pseudo-Christian sects
spreading in the countryside and the cities, and
pseudo-magical-Buddhist ones like Falungong.
Local power centers affiliated or organized as
triads, which could piggyback on the first two
These trends could bloom on the
mainland under two conditions that could create
tension and social unrest:
A slowdown of economic growth creating
unemployment and a whole group of strongly
discontented people, which could become a mass
movement for rebellion and revolution.
A fast urbanization process with growing
social disparities and dwindling opportunities for
new businesses or jobs. Rapid urbanization, as we
said, will occur in the next 15-20 years; the
question is whether this will take place in better
or worse conditions than now exist.
cities, social and political tensions are stronger
and more difficult to control than in the
countryside. In the countryside the unemployed can
grow food in the back yard as a sustainable good,
while in the city the unemployed starve.
Furthermore, in 15-20 years there could be
another population crisis. Under China's one-child
law, single offspring resulting from that law are
allowed to have two children of their own, and 15
or 20 years from now such people will be in their
30s or 40s and doing just that. And such couples
will find themselves having to support all four of
their elderly parents, plus two children. Two
salaries, then, will have to be enough for eight
Alternatively, pensions will have
to be provided for the elderly to take the burden
off the young families. But such pensions at that
time would have to be the result of wise insurance
investments now, and so far Chinese insurance
schemes have not been very effective in that
regard. Therefore social security of some kind
will have to step in to take care of the
unemployed, as well as education for the greater
number of children, as well as health care for the
greater number of elderly.
Add to all this
the likelihood that by that time China will be an
even larger importer of oil than it is today, thus
creating economic and geopolitical tensions with
other countries and forcing Beijing to have a
higher profile in the Middle East quagmire,
something that has brought glory to nobody. To top
it all there could be the international pressures
of many groups with an interest in the slowdown of
Chinese growth or even the breakdown of the
country, though of course it is impossible to
predict this with any accuracy 15-20 years hence.
So far, social instability and democratic
pressure are not pressing issues in China, but in
15-20 years they could become so. By then, one can
also expect a real slowdown in economic
development. By that time Chinese GDP might have
peaked as the second-largest in the world after
the United States', with a size 50-100% of US GDP
(this will depend on the revaluation of the yuan
against the US dollar and the relative speed of
economic growth in the US and in China).
Besides economic measures, such as
providing opportunities for personal betterment
and a more equal distribution of welfare,
political reforms could be a way to avert
political crisis, by providing Chinese people a
channel to express dissatisfaction and move ahead
the agenda of their particular interest groups.
Freedom to express one's political views preempts
the need to force one's political agenda into a
confrontation with authorities who do not want to
In a nutshell, political reforms
are the best way to guard against political
revolution. They could turn out to be a cheap way
to cheat those who want radical changes, ie,
revolution. The pace and the scope of these future
changes in China are being prepared now and are
being experimented with in Hong Kong.
this way, the importance of Hong Kong is coming
back: it is a bridge to the future of China. If
the political transition in Hong Kong has no
problems, or only minor ones, then the political
transition in China might also be reasonably
problem-free. But if in Hong Kong there are major
difficulties, Beijing will get the idea that
democratic reforms in mainland China could create
big trouble. In the first case Beijing could start
applying political reforms on the mainland
readily; in the second case, it could slow down or
even shelve the process.
People in Hong
Kong and the local political forces, then, hold an
important key for the future of China. Their daily
political struggles are not only about the local
constitution, but about the political future of
Greater China. So the issue is, what future do
Hong Kong people want for China, and how do they
want to achieve it?
Sisci is Asia editor of the Italian daily La