As I ran around our local athletics stadium last night, overlooked by a range of Hong Kong mountains, I thought of my urban concrete box in London. I’m just back from a weekend in the beautiful Cotswolds but it’s in one of the world’s most densely populated cities that I live 3 minutes from the nearest vehicular access and ten minutes walk from the nearest tarmacked road. The path I take home has passing spaces for people; wild pigs and feral cows rootle about in the undergrowth. It’s not how most people think of Hong Kong and this time around it’s all the better for me getting to enjoy it on student hours.
I bumped into a classmate on her way to the university library yesterday. She was off to dig out some books, excited that she gets to read so much in Hong Kong for which she would be disciplined in China. Given my own internet surveillance experiences and inability to buy anything vaguely critical about the CCP on my Kindle I shouldn’t have been surprised. In these days of Chinese abroad it seems somewhat Quixotic to ban books onshore, but she has friends whose bags have been searched as they cross the border at Shenzhen and any contraband books removed. I wonder how they choose their targets or indeed their books: in 1990 I bought George Orwell’s 1984 in the Beijing Foreign Languages bookstore and read it with a weird feeling like I was living the movie, but not in the good way you get in New York.
My friend seems to have had more than her fair share of Big Brother experiences: as recently as 2007, aged sixteen, she and a group of classmates on a school trip to Taiwan were shadowed by a Party spook. Subsequently at university she got hauled into the university dean’s office one day to explain what she had been doing jumping the Great Firewall via a VPN. She was only trying to get onto Facebook to say hi to her friends. Such a heavy handed response, needless to say, can have the opposite to the desired effect.
She went to university while Chongqing was governed by Bo Xilai. While he acquitted himself well in court and has a reasonable base of support among the Chongqing populace, she detests him. Under his regime, university students were woken at 5am to sing revolutionary songs before class; in the holidays they were sent down to work on farms. A new generation of students in the modern day receiving a Cultural Revolution education is a scary thought and explains why the moderates were so keen to get rid of him: he threatened the status quo both by his actions and his popularity with the common man.
My classmate says her peers are not very politically motivated and she can’t discuss politics with her parents as they are pretty pro the Party. She does seem to have some views of her own, unlike the broad swathe of students who have been deliberately depoliticised by the Party. Still in split pants they are taught “I love my parents, I love my country and I love the communist party”, enough to put anyone off more in depth investigation.
But in spite of their best efforts, or perhaps because of them, the Party is politicising some of this generation after all. Still, the numbers remain too few to make a difference. The girls in one of my study groups chorus “we are not critical thinkers”, rather like the followers of Monty Python’s Brian protest their individuality. Mostly, they are intrigued by the stories they are now hearing about torture and repression in their system, but not outraged and possibly even slightly incredulous. One of the few boys in class said he thinks China is too big to have a workable democracy.
So far, the improving opportunities presented to the Chinese society are working as intended: no one wants to fix what ain’t obviously broke. It also seems unlikely that the rampant corruption currently under fire will be the Party’s downfall even if they fail to stem it: ever since 1949 the leadership has had campaign after campaign to prevent that rot from spreading. Each time they fail by any long term measure but they always manage to find a way to shore up their legitimacy anyway, usually by injecting a few more economic sedatives.
I sit in my comparative politics class and make typically Western-biased comments about the Chinese regime, but it’s been remarkably tenacious and wins grudging respect from democracies – albeit often motivated by economic pragmatism – despite their ideological differences. With the US currently an example of how democracy doesn’t work, it looks like nothing will change in China any time soon.