In 2004, I published Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China, a book that profiles three people who represent this state of dynamic tension. Since then, China has held the Olympics and become the world’s second-largest economy. But unchanged is this paradigm of a dynamic, changing society and a relatively ossified political state. Resolving it is still key to how China will turn out–as a peaceful, stable, and positive member of the international community of as an inward-focused country worried about tensions and unrest. Here’s an excerpt from the Prologue to Wild Grass, which I think is still helpful in thinking about this issue:

China’s rulers have a bad case of the nerves. Corruption permeates daily life, and relations with the outside world result in recurring crises. Often these tensions erupt in small protests, sometimes against the government, other times against outsiders. They usually end after a few days, often crushed, sometimes petering out when a few ringleaders are arrested and the protesters’ demands partly met. But they are never resolved, surfacing like a corpse that won’t stay under.

Where do these pressures come from? With prosperity and better education, Chinese people have begun forming independent centers of power outside government control–something that sociologists call “civil society.” It was the development of these autonomous groups, such as trade unions, churches and clubs, that helped bring about the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe last century. Now, these groups are eroding the power of China’s Communist Party.

It would be unfair to say that this cacophony of mounting demands has paralyzed China’s leaders. On key economic issues, which they view as vital to their survival, the mandarins can push through reforms. But even in this relatively neutral sphere, the range of permitted debate has narrowed. This is because economic reforms have progressed to the point where a true market economy is only possible by adopting political reforms–which, put simply, means some sort of end to the Communist Party’s monopoly over power. Only this step can pave the way to a true market economy, which requires a fair judicial system, less corruption and transparent regulations. Despite the government’s best efforts to separate the two, economics and politics make the same demands on the government. Political reform now tops every Chinese thinker’s agenda, but is virtually taboo.

For outsiders, China’s growing pains are apparent. Like other governments under stress, China’s has reached for nationalism as a solution. In this, it is similar to 19th century German–an economic juggernaut run by a backward-looking clique, its masses satiated by prosperity and nationalism. That manifests itself in periodic displays of national outrage at perceived slights. Generations of Chinese have been taught that the world is out to belittle their country and many take the bait. That allows the government to present itself as the defender of China’s best-interests and win support.

But nationalism is a temporary salve. The true source of unrest–the inability of Chinese to choose who rules them–continues to breed unrest. Problems continue to rise up, forcing leaders to juggle an increasing number of demands. The effort seems to exhaust the government; unable to lighten its burden through political reform, it resembles a person carrying an ever-heavier weight, its gait slowing to a shuffle, its stoop growing more pronounced.

It is a slow battle of attrition that the government is loath to lose. The police state remains, from the labor camps in China’s far west to the toy soldiers in downtown Beijing. The message is clear: we are nervous, possibly even weak, but do not meddle; we can still crush you.

I do not presume to predict when the crust will crack. Such predictions are usually wrong and I believe that China’s current political system can probably survive for many more years. But tectonic shifts are grinding away, making change inevitable and giving rise to eruptions felt in China and abroad.

These pressures come mostly from thousands of ordinary Chinese who in small ways demand more from their government than the current system can accommodate. Humans being such as we are, we expect that history will be made by people like us. Academics think change will come from daring thinkers, journalists look to brave writers,  while politicians are eager to meet China’s Gorbachev.

But the push for change comes mostly from people we rarely hear of: the small-town lawyer who decides to sue the government, the architect who champions dispossessed homeowners, the woman who tries to expose police brutality. Most of them are motivated by narrow interests of family or village, but some are pushed by idealism. All, successful or not, are sowing the seeds of change in China, helping to foment a slow-motion revolution from below.

Over two millennia ago, the Chinese philosopher Han Feizi wrote a treatise on political philosophy. In it he described the tensions inherent in an autocratic system: “Rulers and ruled wage one hundred battles a day.” As these stories show, the battles still rage.

–adapted from the prologue to Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China, copyright 2004 Pantheon.

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