The title of this chapter should be enough to give away that this will not be an easy topic. Interesting, undoubtedly, and perhaps controversial. Chinese style democracy is sure to fall short of the hopes of some, and higher in the expectations of others.
This passage is perhaps one of the longest so far, as Li spends more time covering pre 1949 history than anything too contemporary. He does this in order to explain the answer to a question he once heard from a senior manager in a top accounting firm: is there any chance or risk that large, wealthy cities like Beijing and Shanghai – given their significance – may break away and declare independence from China?
The short answer is no. Li’s longer answer between the lines says, ‘how could one even think of something as silly as that?’ Throughout Chinese history the central government, whether it was placed in Nanjing or Beijing, has held strong control (for the majority of the centuries) over every province and city in China. There was a time when the Chinese imperial court controlled further afield, with surrounding countries in South-East Asia paying homage to Chinese power and rule. But one doesn’t need to look into history to find the answer. Look at the China of today, who is unwilling to withdraw its territorial claim on Taiwan and the South China Sea Islands. Given that, why would it allow two of its own largest cities to leave its country? The UK can leave the EU and Scotland can attempt to leave the UK, but the Chinese political system is not built in the same manner.
Li is cautious about what he details in his book:
“Should I review the full political history since 1949 and risk getting my book banned in my own home country, or should I leave a few blanks there? Should I voice my true feelings and take the risk of offending some people, or should I maintain a careful political neutrality and leave those people undisturbed?”
He leaves the 1989 Beijing event untouched other than his earlier mention of his older sister’s hype then sudden silence. 30 years on and it’s still a sensitive topic – there was strong speculation that Taylor Swift’s China tour in 2015 would be cancelled because her merchandise bearing her initials T.S. and the name of her album – 1989 – might have been thought to be a reference. The Great Firewall has got better at detecting real and skewed references so in this case of pure coincidence, the pop stars concerts went ahead. But searches for information regarding it on Chinese internet and through social media remain heavily filtered.
Moving from 1989 Li passes mention of a 1999 event that also caused many people to leave China and seek political refuge elsewhere. I didn’t know what this event referred to. Searching ‘Beijing 1999 event’ brings me to information about the Falun Gong, a group following a system of spiritual practise that seems benign but is considered a great threat to the security of the Central government. Li states that they are “well funded; even today they remain active in every major Chinatown around the world. They publish newspapers and hold many gatherings.”
Despite occasional political instability, China has seen hyper economic growth in the past decades, during that time projecting the image that the “uninterrupted growth of the Chinese economy depend[s] on absolute political control.”
Photo taken in Beijing, January 2017. Not a photographer – just going through the photos I have and finding a new purpose for them.