the urgency of now . . ."
It's now more than 32 years since China launched its program of "Reform and Opening", and in three days it will have been 22 years since the death of Hu Yaobang, which lead eventually to the Tiananmen uprising. Both of these events stand as sign posts in recent Chinese history although at the time the true significance of these events would have been very unclear. One of them marked the beginning of economic liberalisation. The other the suspension of real hope for political liberalisation, and the transformation of China into its present form.
At the risk of making a hostage to fortune, I'm going to hazard a guess at saying that this year marks another such inflection point in Chinese affairs. The events this year so far in China auger the final abandonment of political change, and the beginning of the end of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in its present part-dynamo, part-dinosaur form.
Why do I say this? In the career of every prize fighter there comes a point when the crowd, which a moment ago was roaring approval, draws a little breath as a jab sails through thin air and misses it mark, and a doubt is planted in the mind of all those watching that can only grow as time does its work. The CCP as it stands today has, I believe, reached this point with its latest crackdown.
Whilst they were simply imprisoning nobodies, quixotic individuals who even China politics geeks like myself could hardly remember the names of, none of these arrests rocked the boat, even if they did involve Nobel laureates. The arrest of Ai Weiwei, though, is a different matter. In contrast to Liu Xiaobo, Ai Weiwei is well known, both as an artist and as an eccentric.
The economic crimes excuse that is being pushed right now will not convince many - even if it were true, the questions would then be asked: Why Ai? Why now? A line of thought which leads to some familiar questions: Who? Whom?
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which for years has walked a tight-rope between along the line between inflicting so much repression on people that they rebel and so little that they become unafraid of the party, now shows signs of over-balancing itself. People who it had managed to silence, like Zhao Lianhai, have now redoubled their criticism, perhaps seeing that they have little to lose in doing so since they stand to be next in line after Ai.
This crackdown risks exposing the CCP leadership as never having genuinely supported reform, at least not in the past ten years. Without the carrot of reform, the CCP has only the crude stick of oppression and the bitter offerings of nationalism with which to coral the populace. This will convince some, but not all.
It is easy to see where the impetus for this crack-down is coming from. We may be more than a year away from the beginning of Xi Jinping's reign, but it is hard not to see the same crude artlessness in these arrests that Xi has betrayed in many of his public pronouncements.
I hope I'm wrong, but I cannot rid myself of the idea that Xi's rule is going to be disastrous for both the CCP and China. It is hard not to think that we are seeing the end of the balancing act that the CCP has so successfully conducted these past 32 years, and the beginning of an unashamed totalitarianism which few in the CCP ranks want, even if their new leader apparently does. The relatively subtle touch introduced by Deng in 1979 risks being undone, if not the economic reforms of that year and later.
[Picture: Deng Xiaoping with President Carter during a visit to the United States, 31 January, 1979. Via Wikipedia]