Students will Successfully Push for Democracy in China

By Liv Gwilliam

There are currently 123 democracies in the world out of 192 countries (“How Many Democratic”), will China be next? Throughout China’s history, there have been many movements to democratize which were all ended by the Chinese Communist Party. However, recently, as the rest of the world forges forward in the direction of democracy, and the Chinese Communist Party faces many major economic and social problems, it seems more likely that in the near future a push for democracy will be more successful than it has been in the past. The next generation of China’s youth control the political future of China. The urban intellectuals will lead the charge and successfully force the Chinese Communist Party to democratize.

Political protests lead by the Chinese youth have been occurring for nearly a century, but recently the students discontent has lead to confrontations in Hong Kong, and it seems likely that more protests will continue in the near future. Dating back to very early in Deng Xiaoping’s rule during the period when he focused on Four Modernizations, students pushed for democracy, referring to it as the Fifth Modernization. Later, the government and the students opinions collided once more during the incident at Tiananmen Square when the Chinese Army killed and imprisoned many of the protestors fighting for a more democratic government in 1989. Last October, students in Hong Kong rallied and protested, “In response to restrictions on Hong Kong’s 2017 elections for chief executive, the highest post in the semi-autonomous Chinese city” (Sheehan, “Hong Kong Protestors March...”). The Chinese mainland government had previously agreed to let chief executive be elected by the people in Hong Kong, however they changed their decision saying that the candidates would have to undergo a screening process first where they would have to be approved by party members. This decision kept power in the hands of the government instead of the people like they had promised. It lead to major protesting in Hong Kong by students. The students in Hong Kong made references to China’s pushes for democracy in the past, “Self-consciously linking their actions to those of previous generations of Chinese students. They held rallies right in front of a Tiananmen frieze celebrating the campus activists of 1919’s hallowed May Fourth Movement” (Wasserstrom, “No Tiananmen Redux”). Although all the movements for democracy have been different, they have all pushed for more rights for the people, and have all been shut down by the Chinese Communist Party. The protests in Hong Kong during this past fall were eventually all shut down by the police.

With more social groups beginning to have major concerns with the government, it seems that bigger protests will ensue that will be more difficult for police to shut down.

The social and economic problems in China are leading to feelings of discontent towards the government making it more likely that a student protest in the near future will gain more supporters and be successful. Since Deng Xiaoping improved the economy drastically in the early years of his leadership, the government and the people have had a sort of unspoken agreement; the government gives the people a booming economy, and the people respect the government and don’t ask for more freedoms and rights. Deng Xiaoping improved the lives of the people in nearly every social group in China by modernizing and industrializing, as well as putting greater emphasis on education and foreign technology. However, the economic growth, which once was growing at incredible rates, is now slowing down rapidly every year. Now, “The prospect of young college graduates not being able to find jobs, or of poor farmers migrating to new urban areas only to be unable to find work, or of large firms going bankrupt, triggering layoffs, worries China’s leadership” (Powell, “Is This the End...”). Many social groups within China are becoming unhappy with the government and how it is dealing with the slowing economy. In the past decades, the government was focused on exporting and manufacturing to boost the economy but that is no longer working. Now, the government needs to transition to a more consumer based economy that is self-sufficient. In order to do that, China needs innovators and creative people who will come from the next generation of students. The Chinese Communist Party needs the students and so if the students in China continue to protest like they did in Hong Kong, and they gain support from other unhappy social groups, the next democracy movement will likely be big enough to be successful.

Additionally, with increasing pressure to democratize from the educated youth in all of China, and the rest of the world democratizing, the CCP will be forced to accept some of the demands of the students as the protests continue. Even though the protests were stopped in Hong Kong, they made global news and turned attention onto the Chinese Communist Party. Experts Yu Liu and Dingding Chen explain that, “External actors usually influence a countries democratization process through pressure and persuasion” (56). Although the Chinese government has resisted Western influence before, the world-wide news coverage of the protests puts pressure on the party. Not only are foreign influences pushing for democracy, but educated people in all of China are trying to push for more individual rights. In Beijing in 2013, some young party leaders pushed to have China’s constitution enforced, recognizing that with economic growth, political reform was also necessary (Wong, “Reformers Aim to Get China...”). Small pushes for more individual rights like that one are occurring all over China. However, it seems that the reason a bigger movement like the Umbrella Protests in Hong Kong were not successful is because they were isolated from the rest of China. In example, “Hong Kong’s status as a Special Administrative Region […] has allowed the students to protest for more than a month under the protection of civil liberties […] [that are] unavailable on the mainland” (Forsythe, "Hong Kong Protestors Consider…") The protests in Hong Kong had their own special circumstances, but if the educated youth were to take their protests into mainland China, they could rally more people who are unhappy with the government to join their cause.

It is clear that people in mainland China aren’t very aware about the protests due to government censoring but it seems that when the rest of China is brought into the conversation, they will push for change as well.

Some might argue that since the Chinese government has been able to quell student uprisings in the past using propaganda and censoring techniques, they will be able to successfully continue isolating the protestors from gaining necessary support from the rest of China. The Chinese government has been censoring all social media about the Hong Kong protests, causing a massive lack of awareness of the issue in China.

Pictured above is two pictures of an Instagram feed. The one on the right is what the people in Hong Kong see when they click on their feed and the picture on the left is what the rest of the people in China see. The people in China are completely unable to see the pictures of what is going on in Hong Kong. CNN reports that, “The Chinese government maintains strict control over what can be seen over the internet and social media” (Park, “China’s Internet Firewall Censors”). The people in China have very limited access to the events occurring in Hong Kong and are unable to participate in the discussion. Similarly, after the image of The Tank Man surfaced during 1989, the government used propaganda and news to make the image which represented non violent rebellion against the government, into an image that represented the military’s restraint.

Although methods of censorship may have worked to stop the protests from gaining support in the past, with tensions building between the government and many different social groups in China, and national coverage of the democracy movement, the CCP won’t be able to censor the protests once they grow in scale. According to Yu Liu and Dingding Chen there is a, “Clear generational shift, with those Chinese Born after 1980 having significantly lower levels of trust in the government” (48). It seems that youth would trust the government even less if they all knew about the media censorship that occurs. The national coverage of China’s current situation coupled with the growing distrust of the government throughout China will be able to over power the government's attempts to conceal protests in the future allowing the students to be able to successfully push for democracy in China.

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