As the acceptability of protest grows in China, the popularity of the Chinese government slides. “I don’t know anyone who believes in the party anymore,” one Shanghai resident said to me a few years ago. The strength of the Communist Party has been eroded by widespread disenchantment, occasional crises, continual restructuring, and the enervating effect of the passage of time. Although it is big, it is also corrupt, reviled, and often ineffective. In some parts of the countryside it no longer operates, having been replaced by clans and gangs with loose ties to officials. It’s doubtful the party even commands the loyalty of its own members. Many cadres are opportunistic careerists and many, for good or ill, disregard orders from the center. “Now, no Communist official is loyal to or will sacrifice for the party,” said democracy activist Peng Ming, just after he was released by the regime. “When I was in jail, the prison warden and guards were very respectful to me. Even when I criticized them, they would not criticize me back. Why? They said, ‘This regime will not last long. Who knows you won’t be our next leader? If we mistreat you now, you will come after us when you come to power.’”
People’s intense devotion to their rulers—evident during the eras of Mao and Deng—is noticeably absent from China today. The change in attitude has even affected the People’s Liberation Army, last line of defense for the party. Last July, in an extraordinary incident, junior Chinese officers openly complained about the corruption and failings of their country’s civilian leadership to their Russian counterparts during joint “antiterror” exercises.
If revolution is merely “a trivial shift in the emphasis of suffering,” as playwright Tom Stoppard once noted, the silent, slow-motion crisis of legitimacy in China could have real consequences. Anything can happen in a country filled with secret societies, revolutionary cells, private armies, illegal political parties, underground congregations, and clandestine triads. The risk for the regime is that one of these groups will launch an insurrection—some mass incidents already come close to rising to that level—or that some minor incident will trigger a fight that becomes a conflagration.
Under such a scenario, the party could be confronted with another million singing, shouting, chanting souls in Tiananmen Square. Deng Xiaoping preserved the regime last time by employing brute force, but it’s unlikely that a weakened party would have the ability to get away with another slaughter in the future. Ordinary soldiers probably would not kill fellow citizens on behalf of a regime that has lost the love and loyalty of most of its people.
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There number of protests will increase in China: