China has long been a one-party Leninist state with extensive censorship and perhaps the largest secret police establishment in the world. Xi Jinping became President in March 2013, having already assumed office as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) four months earlier.
Initially, there were hopes that he would be a reformer, and that as China continued to open up economically, a new era of political liberalization would follow. It has become apparent, however, that the opposite seems to be the case.
Xi has overseen the harshest crackdown on dissent since the Tiananmen massacre, arresting lawyers, academics, workers, and civil society activists, intensifying clamp downs on ethnic, religious, and regional groups, and tightening controls over the media and access to the Internet.
Perhaps the most blatant example of the deterioration in human rights in China is the crackdown on lawyers and human rights defenders that began on July 9, 2015 (known as the ‘709’ Crackdown). Human Rights groups record a total of 317 individuals affected by this crackdown. These include lawyers, their associates, para-legals, pastors, independent intellectuals, opinion leaders, and their relatives. After an initial period where hundreds were arrested, many were subsequently released, but at least 21 have been formally charged with specific crimes (including the very serious crime of sedition) and many others have been subjected to constant harassment, monitoring, interrogation, and threats.
The Xi Jinping regime has acted as it did not out of confidence, as itself claimed, but out of insecurity; the Chinese activists and intellectuals, people like those affected by the 709 Crackdown, have been making progress in recent years in broadening the social base of the democracy movement toward forming a viable democratic opposition, which is one of the four key necessary contributing factors for the erosion of the dictatorship and transition to democracy. The other three are: general robust disaffection from the people, split in the dictatorship, and international recognition of and support for the viable democratic opposition.
The CCP regime treats every citizen as a potential enemy and it has successfully made them enemies–dissidents, independent intellectuals, land-lease peasants, victims of forced demolitions and eviction, victims of forced abortion, veterans, migrant workers, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongolians, Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, you name it. The CCP regime does not lack enemies. With slower economic growth, the grievances of the powerless will be laid bare and social unrests can only mount.
The unity of the Party’s leadership has also disintegrated, as shown by the purge of Bo Xilai, Ling Jihua, Zhou Yongkang, and their cronies since 2012. To be sure, growth is slowing; the party is in disarray, because the rules it has established to limit internecine political warfare have collapsed; Beijing’s foreign policy is driving the Sino-US relationship toward conflict; middle-class acquiescence is beginning to erode.
At the same time, the concept of democracy has prevailed in the minds of the general public, thanks to the dozens years of efforts made by the pro-democratic activists both inside and outside of China.
As citizen forces grow and the civil protests escalate, struggle for power among different factions within the CCP regime will become public. Especially, once the external pressure reaches a critical mass, the rival factions within the CCP will have to take the citizen force into serious account and seek or use its support.
That said, I want to emphasize that we still need an overall, viable democratic opposition to force the dictatorship to crack open. A milestone to meet that objective would be the formation of a group of citizen leaders able to represent the general public, integrating the middle class and lower class people in demanding democracy, and to at least partially disrupt the current political order — a group that will catch attention and support of the international community and can call for and carry out effective negotiations with the ruling regime.
The major impediment to establishing a viable democratic opposition has long been the leadership issue, namely, forming a stable and recognizable group of citizen leaders. The jailed Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, as a widely accepted human rights and democracy champion both at home and abroad, will surely play a unique role.
Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November of 2010 and that was the beginning of political reform in Burma. I believe Liu Xiaobo’s case will have a similar significance in China. Therefore, working toward his freedom is vital for a democratic change in China.