Post-Tiananmen China wields iron fist in golden glove

BEIJING (AFP) - China's Communist Party has a tighter grip on power than ever, analysts and activists say, courtesy of its economic boom and vast surveillance mechanisms, rather than the tanks and bullets of the Tiananmen crackdown.

Shaken by the 1989 democracy demonstrations that ended in a bloody and globally condemned crackdown, Beijing resolved to thwart any remotely similar threat to its power by reinforcing its huge "public security" apparatus, and raising incomes and living standards.

There has never been any repetition, and any fledging citizens' reform movements that do emerge - let alone an overt pro-democracy campaign - are rapidly crushed in the bud.

"Today the Chinese government, Chinese Communist Party has a better technique than 1989 in controlling people's unrest," said Wu'er Kaixi, a student leader at the time who became the government's second-most wanted person before fleeing to Taiwan.

"They just strike a deal to say - we give you economic freedom, give us your political cooperation," he said.

"They are also growing their grip, their strong-hand police force, the riot control force and the more precise control of social elements." China's breakneck development - launched more than three decades ago with its Reform and Opening economic overhaul and redoubled in the years after the crackdown - has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

With that has emerged a tacit social contract in which Chinese citizens have enjoyed hugely improved livelihoods and more personal social freedoms, but left political power to the party.

The rising wealth has not put an end to protests - at least 180,000 incidents broke out in 2010, the state-affiliated Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found - with flashpoints ranging from land grabs and pollution to labour rights and censorship.

Inflaming the popular anger are not only the grievances themselves but also the rapid spread of information online.

"People's hunger for information is enormous," Wu'er said. "They are also pushing the envelope from each and every direction." Yet while the rumble of discontent remains a serious concern for authorities, only a tiny fraction directly demand an end to one-party rule, said University of Sydney professor David Goodman.

"There are people who say, 'No, no, the root of the problem is the Communist Party, it has to go', but they're not a majority, not by a long way," he said.

"While there's no economic challenge to the system, society isn't falling apart, and the regime can fund growth and infrastructure and development, there's no problem," he said. "There's no challenge."

- Carrot and stick -

Besides making steady progress on its pledge of prosperity, the ruling party also avoids unrest by deploying an enormous "stability maintenance" force to limit and prevent protest - conducting surveillance on a grand scale, censoring the Internet and locking up the loudest trouble-makers.

A huge incident that erupted in April at a shoe factory in the manufacturing heartland of Guangdong - the southern province which has driven much of the country's tremendous growth - illustrated the carrot-and-stick approach.

As tens of thousands of workers went on strike for nearly two weeks over unpaid social security contributions, authorities ordered the factory to accommodate staff demands, but also detained protest leaders and intimidated the rest into returning to work.

Beijing was scarred by the Tiananmen backlash and today prefers not to use violence, although the option remains on the table, said Wang Dan, another student leader who topped China's most-wanted list and was jailed twice for a total of five years before being allowed to go to the United States.

"When a government uses its military to put down its own people, then how much does it really represent its people? Of course its legitimacy suffers a huge blow," he told AFP in Taiwan.

"I believe that if it happened again, the government would of course not put it down immediately. It would definitely try to handle it peacefully at first," he said.

"But if that didn't work, then I think it is still very possible it would mobilise troops."

- 'Dirty Harry' strategy -

Yet even in 1989 the leadership was split over whether to send troops into the crowds, until hardliners backed by China's most powerful figure Deng Xiaoping eventually won out.

Any violent crackdown today would be harder because news would spread quickly over the Internet and mobile phones, said Steve Tsang, a China politics expert at the University of Nottingham.

But mass movements have so far proven containable using China's less-confrontational methods - reinforced by the ever-present threat of force looming in the background.

"The party is essentially telling people, don't push your luck," Tsang said, calling the exploitation of uncertainty a "Dirty Harry" strategy.

"'Maybe we will not do it. But are you going to count on it?'" Tsang continued. "'You want to push your luck, make my day.'"

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.