This is ChinaGeeks’ 500th post.
Originally, I had planned to celebrate this in the traditional fashion, with a barrage of upbeat statistics about readership and jovial promises about more exciting things coming down the pipeline. I still could, I suppose, but it just doesn’t feel like the time.
All day I’ve been ruminating on the story of Qian Mingqi and what it means for China’s future. I can’t say I’m particularly optimistic.
I believe it’s fair to say at this point that things are objectively worse in China than they were a year ago for most people. The economy may be growing, but so are prices, and salaries generally aren’t. Local governments’ budgets are so dependent now on profits from land deals that, combined with the wave of infrastructure being developed, more people than ever are being forced out of their homes, and many of them are unhappy about the terms of compensation.
Against this economic backdrop, the social situation has also worsened. The internet has brought increased freedom of speech, but with it, news of corruption and malfeasance has spread quickly, as has frustration with the increasingly obvious and draconian censorship ((You know it’s bad when even the country’s Premier is getting censored.)). Perhaps there’s no more evil happening than there was five years ago, but now when something happens, news of it is across the country within thirty seconds because someone there has a camera, a smartphone, and a Weibo account. People are growing jaded and, increasingly, angry.
This phenomenon is plainly evident in public responses to the case of Qian Mingqi, or to the case of Yang Jia before him. Empirically speaking, both men committed multiple counts of homicide. What Qian Mingqi did could even be considered an attempt at mass murder. Yet both men — murderers — have been embraced, by and large, by the Chinese internet as martyrs. Qian is even being compared to the revolutionary hero Dong Cunrui. Xia Junfeng’s case is a bit different in that his crime was allegedly committed in self-defense, but he too has become a kind of hero.
Most Chinese would, as I would, back away from actually endorsing the final, violent actions of Qian Mingqi or Yang Jia. But the fact that both figures have received such widespread sympathy is evidence that many, perhaps most Chinese people can relate to them and their stories. They may not agree with what Qian did, but they can understand how he got to that point. This is a decidedly bad sign.
After all, what Qian and Yang have in common is a history of mistreatment by the authorities, and when they attempted to redress their grievances through legal channels, they met with resistance, harassment, and ultimately failure. Their turn to violence arose from depression and desperation. Think about what it means that millions of people can relate to that well enough to take the side of mass murderers.
The Qian Mingqi-Dong Cunrui comparison is especially interesting because Dong’s death was (as he shouted before he blew up) “for a New China.” As the story goes, Dong’s sacrifice helped install the current regime. If people see Qian as a new version of Dong, what dream of China was he dying to protect (or project)? Whatever the answer, I feel quite certain it is not the China of Hu Jintao.
Perhaps I’m too involved in “dissident politics” to see what’s really going on. Or perhaps, as I’m sure some of our more fervent commenters truly believe, I’m actually employed by the NED or some other “Western anti-China force.” But everything I see, from the internet to my daily interactions with regular people, is telling me that things are getting worse and people are not happy. The atmosphere is very different from the way it was even a year ago. Some of that may just be me, but not all of it; even the apolitical Chinese people I know seem to be feeling it.
Debating this is pointless; debating it with people who haven’t been living in China for the past year is especially pointless, so don’t expect me to do that. But whether or not they admit it, I think even the naysayers can feel it this time. All you have to do is log on to Weibo, search for Qian’s name, and start reading the comments. Or search for “inflation”, “demolition”, or the name of whatever food has been discovered most recently to be poison. People, lots of people, are very angry.
Or, as veteran China watcher @niubi put it this afternoon:
[I’m] worried my thesis that weibo/internet wont lead 2 gradual change but something more explosive may pan out. Lot of anger, summer just starting.
Indeed. Of course, no one knows what this summer, or the years beyond, will bring. But there seem to be plenty of signs that things could get even worse than they already are. And the government, for its part, remains steadfastly dedicated to the idea that everything can be fixed if they can just continue developing the economy.
Even if they can, I have serious doubts that they’re right about that — cases like Qian Mingqi’s are caused by the lack of rule of law, not because Qian didn’t have enough money. But even if these problems were all caused by economics, with inflation continuing to wreak havoc on consumers’ wallets, it seems dangerous for the government to be banking all their credibility on development.
I have no doubt that China will continue to develop, but if the current situation continues, development could actually be worse than if the economy were to recess. Now, people are left to wonder why the GDP is climbing by 9% and prices are doubling but their salaries are staying the same. Mix that question with a hearty dose of tales of corruption fed via Weibo, and it’s no wonder that Weibo users — lots of them — are calling for executions of government officials every time a new food product turns out to be unsafe.
Looking back over the history of this blog, the change in mood is evident enough. Few current readers would likely believe that just a few years ago, I was an adamant defender of the Chinese government on many issues. This was before I had lived here, of course, and I felt that other “Westerners” just didn’t understand the Chinese perspective. Six months in frozen Harbin talking to an ex-cop had disabused me of that notion by the time this blog started, but even then the posts were much less depressing then than they are now.
Admittedly, my interests have skewed in a very particular direction. But, at the risk of stealing a thought from Stephen Colbert, so has reality. Many of the people I was following closely and citing as examples of China’s new open society when I started this blog are in prison now. Others have been detained, harassed, or otherwise cowed into silence. Many of the positions I once held have simply been crushed by the overwhelming weight of reality, and the more people I talk to, the worse it gets.
It seems like pretty much everything is worse, and to be perfectly honest, it’s fucking depressing.
Of course, we soldier on, both on this blog and in life. Our film continues, our writing continues, and China continues. But where are we all going? Three years ago I was sure we were headed somewhere good. Now…I’m worried.
I hope history proves this entire post completely, laughably wrong. We are, it seems, coming to a crossroads, and even the Party knows it. A conflict is coming. Whether it will continue to be played out in newspapers and PSB interrogation cells or whether it will spill out into the street is anyone’s guess.
But we know where Qian Mingqi wanted to take it. And from the reactions to his attack, it seems plenty of people are at least willing to consider following him.
Here’s hoping the future is safe and free for everyone, however faint a hope that may seem.
A Note of Thanks
This blog could never have come so far without the help of a number of people but chief among them are the folks who, like me, have toiled away at this thing for no pay and little in the way of other rewards. Please take a second to read my thanks to all of them and, if you haven’t already, enjoy some of their fine work (listed in order of the number of posts they’ve published):
三水 took risks beyond what any of the rest of us faced, and put immense time and effort into our Chinese version, which was ultimately destroyed by the GFW block put on this site this past fall. S/he has also helped out on many other projects, sometimes putting her own safety at considerable risk to do so.
Chris Hearne was the first person to step in and help out when this blog was still in its early days, and without his help it may never have lived beyond them.
Andy Yee quietly and regularly submits pieces that are so well researched and translated they make me feel uncomfortable about my own work.
K. E. David has also come through with crucial translations at moments when the blog desperately needs updating and I have got absolutely nothing to offer.
Alex Taggart is a fantastic writer and, it’s worth adding, a remarkably good singer in KTV situations. Beyond the blog he has offered his help and counsel on a number of related projects and (I hope) will continue to do so in the weeks and months to come.
Michele Scrimenti has translated some fantastic pieces and been of great help with other projects, including our film. He’s a pretty kickass KTV singer too, and together he and Alex make me feel very bad about my own vocal abilities.
K. Drinhuasen, like many of these other folks, writes pieces that make my own posts look short, lazy, and poorly-written. And like the rest of the Beijing crew, she’s shared drinks with us and offered her help with a number of side projects.
Max R. has only written a few posts — I think he’s too busy with chinaSMACK most of the time — but they’ve been good ones, and we were lucky to have them.
Beyond these people, we’ve had a number of guest posts over the years, and of course the vast majority of our website we owe completely to Chinese writers. Many of the people we translate show incredible courage, resourcefulness, and dedication, and they are the reason we continue to write this blog.
Personally, I am particularly inclined to thank people like Wang Keqin, Zhang Wen, Zhao Shilong, Li Yinhe, Han Han, and the entire editorial staff of Southern Weekend for their gutsy, heartfelt pieces, which are almost always worth translating. These are just a few names though; there are too many who deserve recognition. I am grateful to all of them to have had the pleasure of reading their words and translating them over the past two and a half years. I hope I’ve done them at least some justice.
Then, of course, there is you reader/potential commenter. Without your readership this site would have been dead long ago. I still don’t really know why so many people have come to read this site, but I hope you continue to enjoy it (or hate it, if that’s why you come here) and I hope more of you will share your thoughts and add some diversity to our active-if-divisive comments section.
So, thanks to everyone. It doesn’t really feel like a time for celebration, but perhaps it’s still a good time for gratitude.