TWO recent trends show the tensions that are growing at both the top and bottom ranks of Chinese society. The first concerns artist-cum-activist and all-round scourge of the Communist Party, Ai Weiwei.
After he was charged with a $2.4m tax bill, Mr. Ai’s supporters began sending him money. Some is even sent over his garden wall in paper airplanes. The Government, of course, doesn’t like it one bit.
The Chinese government, desperate to prevent such shows of support for a man it considers to be deeply subversive, has attempted to prevent the contributions.
And then, at the other end of the spectrum are those with disabilities. In China, they are usually kept out of sight, hidden away and doomed to a pitiful existence. And then suddenly this:
Chen Guangcheng, a blind activist being held under house arrest in the eastern province of Shandong. Mr Chen, who lost his sight as a child, became well-known between 2000 and 2005 as an outspoken supporter for the rights of the disabled in China.
He was jailed for speaking against forced family planning measures, and now his village is “guarded” by government thugs.
But in recent weeks, using their mobile phones and the internet to organise, groups of ordinary Chinese people have begun to show up at Chen’s village. Some, including one intrepid group of disabled people from Anhui province, have travelled hundreds of kilometres to demonstrate moral support for Chen’s stand.
What outsiders don’t realize is how dangerous it can be for an ordinary Chinese citizen to associate with a dissident. “Guilt by association” leads to prison time in China; there is no presumption of innocence.
So ordinary people are finally starting to take tentative steps toward standing up to the Communist government. In the cities, things are changing, too.
For the past several years the Communist government has relied on the rising wages and prosperity of the people to allay discontent.
The Chinese government has long relied on the anaesthetic of prosperity to keep urbanites happy and to keep them from mobilising politically. And, having seen how the movement was suppressed in Tiananmen Square in 1989, urban Chinese have been only too happy to stay clear of politics and concentrate on making money.
But among those at the very top, that is changing. Although they are not politically active in China, they are voting with their feet – and moving out, taking their money with them. Reasons for the exodus of the wealthy include the horrid pollution, corruption, and wanting a better education for their children.
So, not only is discontent bubbling up from below, but it is clearly fizzing at the top as well, where confidence that China can continue on its present path seems to be decreasing. The two segments of society, so different on the face of it, are in fact two sides of the same coin. They show that China’s model for development is increasingly unable to contain the society it has created.
How long will it be before enough people have “had it” with the Chinese government? What will happen then? Or will China change enough to prevent another revolution? Only time will tell.