Friday, September 05, 2008

Up ahead

There are two views of what the end of the Olympics will bring for China. One is that a newly confident Chinese people will finally turn their attention to long-standing problems---and the government, no longer able to rally its citizens around preserving the national "image" for the Games, will have to begin to relent or face trouble. The other view is that the state will have no reason not to continue to rely on the tools that got it more-or-less-smoothly through August: high-tech surveillance of potential demonstrators and terrorists (to the extent that the two are distinguished in the government's mind), skillful handling of popular opinion through the media and internet, and selective use of the law (especially RTL) to lock up troublemakers---and that this will work just fine.

I really don't know what will happen (duh), but there have been some interesting developments since the closing ceremonies. Protests focusing on local issues, like the protest in Weng-an before the Games but for now largely non-violent, have erupted in Jishou City in Hunan and even in the Chaoyang District of Beijing. Journalists, meanwhile, have pushed new boundaries. Caijing Magazine reporters have revived taboo questions about collapsed school buildings during the Sichuan earthquake and Window on the South reporters penned a cover story on limiting government power. And the state seems to have responded mildly, if at all.

Beijing apologized for the pollution that drove Chaoyang residents to the streets. Xinhua ran a fairly low-key account of the Jishou incident, without the usual hyperbole about bad elements. And those newspaper articles were allowed to be published in the first place, no small feat.

Meanwhile, Secretary Wang Yang in Guangdong continues his push for "liberation of thinking" and the Shenzhen trade union appears to be stepping up to the plate with proposals for an active role in bargaining and dispute resolution---even dancing fairly close to acknowledging a right to strike---while Guangzhou's trade union is pushing for sharply separating unions from management.

It is far too early too tell. These examples may be too selective---countless counter-examples can doubtless be dug up. But I am not pessimistic that some meaningful political reforms are around the corner.

Correction: The Window on the South piece came out in the midst of the Olympics---maybe the loosening started early? Maybe I'm completely off?

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