Andrew Mertha is director of the China and Asia Pacific Studies Program at Cornell University and author of “China’s Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change.” He warns that increasing dissatisfaction with the government’s economic promises has the Chinese people ready once again to call for more political power.
“There are several reasons why the Chinese state is taking even greater measures this year to ensure that this year’s anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown comes and goes without incident.
“First, the relatively new Xi Jinping administration, which has defined itself thus far by an increased preoccupation with security, wants to ensure that its first term is not marred by any ‘embarrassing’ events which might undermine its authority.
“Second, the fact that this is the 25th anniversary will certainly bring about more attention than, say, the 13th anniversary, although the standard operating procedures of arresting and detaining activists is by now well-established.
“Third, I have sensed among my students an intense hunger for knowledge about the events of 1989; the extent to which Chinese authorities deny their existence only feeds this yearning to learn more among these young people.
“Perhaps most important, in my view, the Tiananmen crackdown was, among many things, a brutal reminder by Chinese authorities of the social contract that the reformist leaders made with Chinese citizens in 1978: We will allow you to get rich as we develop economically, as long as you do not meddle in politics by seeking political liberalization. Brutally reminded of this contract in 1989, many Chinese subsumed these political aspirations under the goal of becoming better off economically. However, over the past several years it has become increasingly clear that all this economic development has not led to happiness or satisfaction among large swaths of Chinese people.
“Indeed, many of them share the sentiment of ‘is this all there is?’ Recall that the significance of 1989 was twofold: citizens joined the students in protesting against the government, and these protests occurred in every major city in China. My sense is that many, many Chinese who were willing to ignore 1989 as they amassed greater wealth perhaps now realize that there are certain quality-of-life aspects to their lives that simple economic development cannot manage or provide, only greater political participation, and that this frustration is palpable. If I were among China’s leadership, this is what would keep me awake at night.”
MEDIA NOTE: Mertha’s course “China Under Revolution and Reform and the World” was named the top U.S. college class on China by Yale’s China Hands Magazine: http://www.chinahandsmagazine.com/features/inside-the-classroom
Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews.