As most Chinese media were celebrating Beijing's Olympics successes, a magazine named Southern Window a highbrow biweekly with a circulation of 500,000 broke from the pack. On the cover of the magazine's Aug. 11 issue, there is no photograph of the sparkling Bird's Nest stadium, no triumphant Chinese athlete fondling one of the country's 51 gold medals. Instead, there is an illustration of law textbooks and a teacher with a wooden pointer giving instruction to a businessman and a government official. The cover line: "Rule of Law Starts with Limitation of Power." Sounds boring? In China, it's almost revolutionary.
The Chinese Communist Party wasn't explicitly mentioned, but since it holds virtually all of the power in China, the articles are clearly about curtailing the Party's all-pervasive reach and allowing the Chinese people some wiggle room. Anything that touches on limiting the power of the Party is extremely sensitive and often very dangerous. So amid the euphoria of the Olympics, it was pretty gutsy of Southern Window to publish stories with headlines like, "When Administrative Power Obstructs the Law" and "Putting Boxing Gloves on Police Powers."
Southern Window was effectively firing the opening salvo in a debate that started the minute the closing ceremony's last firework exploded: What now for China? Will Party hard-liners, emboldened by the world's timid response to their heavy-handed pre-Games crackdown on dissent, continue to tighten their grip on power? Or will the spirit of civic activism that arose from relief efforts after the May earthquake in Sichuan be revived? Could reform-minded Party officials like those who approved the publication of Southern Window's special issue gain ground in their drive to ease control over areas such as the courts and the media?
Of course, not all Chinese are asking those questions at this very minute; many are still basking in the residual glow from all those fireworks and gold medals. Despite numerous controversies ahead of the Games turmoil over the Olympic torch relay, the bloody suppression of Tibetan riots in March, crackdowns on militant separatists in far-flung provinces the Games went spectacularly smoothly. Now they are over, and China stands at a critical juncture in its tumultuous modern history. Many scholars and analysts say that Chinese society has reached a point where maintaining the societal status quo is no longer an option.
In recent years, China has barely been able to keep a lid on the social dislocation caused by the country's pell-mell economic growth, which has brought miraculous progress but also misery to millions of people working in inhumane conditions or victimized by widespread corruption and collusion between businessmen and local Party bosses. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but government officials have acknowledged that scores of so-called "mass incidents" protests occur every day. These often violent eruptions of frustration were bottled up by the authorities as the Olympics loomed. Some are now worried they are primed to boil over. "There are serious issues that have been accumulating, including ethnic problems in Tibet and Xinjiang as well as social issues and conflicts, that have been temporarily covered up by force to guarantee a successful Olympics," says Peking University law professor and reform advocate He Weifang. "I cannot predict whether there will be an immediate outbreak of all these problems after the Olympics. But there will be an outbreak if the government does not take steps to tackle the domestic problems."
In the past the Party has taken big gambles at moments like these. It had to in order to survive. When China's economy lay in ruins after the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping abandoned orthodoxy to initiate sweeping economic reforms. His successor, Jiang Zemin, placed some big bets of his own: joining the World Trade Organization, allowing businessmen to become members of the Party, pushing the economic opening of the country with near-reckless vigor.
So far, current President Hu Jintao has made only one issue the centerpiece of his term in office: a successful staging of the Olympic Games. Now Hu may have little choice but to gamble himself by loosening the Party's grip on power. Some argue that Beijing hard-liners having carried out harsh crackdowns with no real repercussions while under the international spotlight believe they can continue tightening controls with impunity and without risk of backlash. But this isn't a realistic scenario, partly because not all the pressure for change is coming from the weak and marginalized. China's urban middle class is also pushing for greater freedom. Their growing feeling of empowerment is contagious. Last year's protests by thousands of citizens in the coastal city of Xiamen against plans to build a billion-dollar chemical factory ultimately forced the cancellation of the project and sparked subsequent copycat demonstrations over proposed megaprojects in Shanghai and Chengdu. "The pressure is building in the pressure cooker and there's no current avenue for it to be released," says Nicholas Bequelin, China researcher for New York City based Human Rights Watch. Bequelin believes there may be "many calls both inside and outside the Party to put some sort of reforms on the agenda again."
These reforms are likely to come first in the legal system, says China scholar David Kelly of the University of Technology, Sydney. "Chinese people want rights over what they buy and where they live," Kelly says, "and at the moment they can't find that through the courts." However, considerable progress has been made in the past two years in resolving labor disputes through the legal system, which could be a model for other issues such as property rights. Kelly argues that the Party could also cautiously allow the expansion of other rights that relate directly to people's daily lives, for example by changing the hukou household-registration system that makes second-class citizens out of economic migrants who can't obtain official residency rights in areas they move to for work. These so-called "citizenship rights" are not politically sensitive like democracy or human rights, Kelly says, "nor are they inherent like human rights. It's a negotiable area."
While the evolution of China's civil society was put on hold during the Olympics, Bequelin and others say they think the longer-term outlook is bright. "It's a battle in which Chinese are trying to get government off their backs," says Bequelin. "This has nothing to do with the legitimacy of the Communist Party or debates about political systems." What's being fought for is access to information and greater personal freedom, the "fundamental tools Chinese people need to organize their lives in a market economy. I don't see how progress on those fronts can be reversed or slowed down in the long term."
The Games showed that outside pressure on issues like human rights and civil society has little effect on Beijing. Now the world will be watching to see if the Chinese people take matters into their own hands and really begin building a new China.