Why China’s ‘coming of age’ is ‘catastrophic’

Written by By Grace Peng, CNN Shanghai, China Written by Grace Peng, CNN

China has long been the most authoritarian country in the world. But Beijing’s rhetoric during its hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics in February put the nation in the unlikely position of pushing forward the idea of democracy.

“We want to be a model of how society can coexist and thrive with democracy,” President Xi Jinping told the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, during a meeting in Wuhan, at the behest of the Games’ organizing committee.

The April issue of People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, had a special section titled “Coming of Age: China’s Democracy.”

Grace Peng, Beijing correspondent CNN

The article addressed an article published last November that predicted the Chinese Communist Party’s demise , citing a decline in central control of industry, change to its institutional culture and the elimination of civil society.

“The historic victory of democracy in 2011 brought a great change, albeit imperfect,” the article said. “There is also a rising base of opposition parties and people’s movements, which are becoming increasingly vocal and bold in demanding fair representation.”

It also featured an interview with Ai Weiwei, an icon of anti-government protests and one of China’s most celebrated artists, who told the newspaper that “China’s system of democracy is extremely weak, even though some small (democracy) towns are quite successful.”

‘Impossible’

Shimon Padan, deputy director of the Beijing office of the New York-based nonprofit Human Rights Watch, called the attitude of the People’s Daily and Olympic committee “catastrophic.”

“This was a very damaging error,” he told CNN. “The most sincere regret is that it gave some illusion to some people that China was on the cusp of social change … It was a real opportunity for (Chinese authorities) to reassure the international community that (they) are looking to open a new era of reform.”

Yiqun Li, a geographer and visiting scholar at Harvard University, told CNN that Xi’s words rang hollow given how little reforms there have been over the past decade.

Yiqun Li, senior researcher CNN

“China’s Olympic performance was absolutely not based on a common understanding about democracy,” she said. “It was an athletic competition, and they wanted to show the world that the Chinese regime was on the level of the west. They could use the Olympics and the publication of the People’s Daily to tell the public that everything is moving forward under Xi Jinping.”

But she believes the restrictions on civil society following the June 4, 1989 massacre will hinder China’s development.

“If you don’t have an independent civil society, then people will be unable to articulate their demands and otherwise they will be isolated from the political arena,” she said.

Beijing residents still deeply divided

Reuters reported that at least 80,000 people were detained during the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, while Western diplomats said that major cities were severely restricted, especially during the early morning of June 4.

When CNN visited Nanjing’s Beihai Street last month, the area — a symbolic focal point of the 1989 protests — looked unlike any other the city saw on that June day.

Many buildings are absent from the picture, while new skyscrapers overshadow the footprint of what is still the only approved memorial: the seemingly indistinct steel sculpture of a man carrying an umbrella made from trucks’ remains.

A number of streets in the heart of the city have been renamed, and many remain blocked off by yellow electric fences.

But at Linxing’s restaurant across the street, the vibrancy of Ping An’s multicultural makeup was apparent.

“This is not the same area it was before the 1990s,” Linxing said. “People here today are not familiar with the events of 1989, but it is clear that the section of Beihai Street in particular is a victim of the Great Leap Forward.”

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