TWQ: Political and Social Reform in China: Alive and Walking - Summer 2008

On  June 1, 2007, thousands of people in the southern city of Xiamen went for a "walk" (sanbu). Organized by grassroots environmental groups using  mobile phone text messages, they carried banners along downtown city streets to protest the environmental and health risks of a planned joint-venture chemical plant in one of Xiamen's suburbs. In the wake of this walk, so called to dodge regulations restricting any public "protest march" (youxing), the Xiamen government agreed to relocate the plant. This result was a striking and widely discussed success for popular organization and expression in China.

A few months later, Shanghai homeowners began to voice opposition to the extension of  a magnetic levitation train line through their neighborhoods. The well-off Shanghai residents consciously imitated the Xiamen protest, conducting peaceful walks and a "group shopping trip" down Shanghai's Nanjing Road.  By early 2008, the city government agreed to delay construction and strengthen public review of this and future projects, although as in Xiamen, the government also pressured residents to stop further walks. These events and the relatively accommodating response of  the authorities garnered exceptional attention, particularly because they occurred while Chinese leaders were encouraging new discussion of political reform and debate about the role of "democracy" in China. The Xiamen and Shanghai walks illustrate how new social groups as well as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continue to adapt and experiment with ways to act on new interests while avoiding or preventing direct challenges to CCP rule.

To preserve its power, the CCP has chosen to revitalize itself  and to adjust to new social realities, efforts that have intensified since the leadership team of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao came to power in 2002–2003. The evolution of the party-state has included reforms to CCP ideology and institutions, the legal system, and  government administration. In addition to constituting an effort to revitalize its own capabilities, these reforms represent the CCP's gradual acceptance of the need to cede space to public expression and societal action.

These pressures and reforms remain uneven and  fragile. They have their roots in intense conflict, not just leadership  policy conclaves. The processes described here are unlikely to lead to a  transition to democracy at the regime level in the near term, if ever. They exist side by side with darker aspects of China's reality: deplorable corruption, abuse by local officials, strictures on religious  practice, and a penal system used against political as well as criminal  offenders. Yet, misdeeds and conflict, not just plans for more effective government, can provide the motivation that pushes political progress forward rather than snuffing it out. The trends described below  point to the most plausible way in which citizens can gradually acquire  the power to effect change. They have delivered practical benefits to the Chinese people, built constraints around state power, and laid foundations for potential further liberalization in the future. In this way, political and social reform in China continues to "walk," not march, forward.

George J. Gilboy and Benjamin L. Read