When the young Mao Tse-tung agitated for revolution, he found a vivid way to get his point across to an uneducated audience: He picked up a single chopstick and snapped it in two. Then he picked up a handful of chopsticks: They would not break. Thus he showed that so long as everyone stood side by side, no force could withstand the tide of revolution. By gathering together China’s scattered, indignant chopsticks, Mao finally was able to ascend Tiananmen — the Gate of Heavenly Peace — on Oct. 1, 1949, and announce the establishment of his republic.
Whether chopsticks come singly or in a handful is now an issue in China again. Mao’s successors, however, do the opposite of what he advocated, mobilizing immense resources to keep chopsticks from gathering together. The government knows that angry chopsticks are everywhere, but as long as they stay scattered, it believes it can break them in two, whatever their numbers.
Thus it is that “stability maintenance” has become a key term in contemporary China. The government does not make public what it spends to maintain stability, but popular estimates go as high as 600 billion yuan. As mass protests become more frequent, that figure can only increase.
Most of these incidents are triggered by something relatively minor. A young woman’s unexplained death in 2008 in Wengan County, in Guizhou province, led to the burning of 160 offices, the destruction of 40 vehicles and injuries to more than 150 people. When a cook in the town of Shishou, in Hubei province, was found dead in 2009, his family, rejecting police statements that it was a suicide, refused to allow an autopsy and laid the body out in the foyer of the hotel where the cook had worked, attracting a crowd of thousands. Many clashes with the police followed, leaving the hotel damaged, police officers injured and fire engines and police cars overturned. Such incidents are a signal that China’s scattered chopsticks are angry. Sometimes all it takes is a family dispute or an argument between neighbors to get people venting their rage at the government.
Maintaining stability, we’re told, is more important than anything else. Our government likes to stress the rule of law, but when stability needs to be maintained, the law goes out the window. Now that human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng and his family have been confined to house arrest in their home village, many people have attempted to visit them and express their support. But as soon as they get anywhere near his home, they are waylaid by toughs who beat them up and steal their wallets. “What happened to the rule of law?” people ask online. The rule of law must be taking a vacation up in heaven, too far away to hear.
Sometimes stability maintenance reaches truly comic levels. When the Jasmine Revolution roiled North Africa this spring, the traditional ballad “Jasmine Flower” was banned in China. A friend of mine who had used the song in a just-completed TV program was told to remove it, and a substitute song about peonies got the thumbs down too. In the end, he learned that no song involving flowers of any description would be permitted.
Everywhere threats are seen. When the Occupy Wall Street movement began in the U.S., our official media reported on it with relish, thinking it had found a stick it could use to beat Western society. But when activists called for a worldwide protest Oct.15, some Chinese began to contemplate occupying China’s central bank and securities regulatory commission. The government finally realized that protest movements in Western democracies are just as capable of inspiring revolutionary sentiments among Chinese chopsticks as protest movements in dictatorships. And so Occupy Wall Street, like “Jasmine Flower” before it, was blocked on the Web and in the media.
When China’s leadership saw how Moammar Kadafi was shot in the street, how Saddam Hussein was marched onto the scaffold and how Hosni Mubarak was tried as he lay in a cage — when they saw, as those autocrats lost power, how their families lost everything too — they must have sensed, I think, that it is not democracy they should fear but revolution. As the relatives of our high officials grow more wealthy, they emigrate to democratic countries (never to dictatorships); they know that the possibility of revolution in China is growing by the day. They know that revolution is never reasonable, that it drips with blood.
When chopsticks group themselves together into handfuls, revolution will erupt. Although our top officials dislike democracy, democracy is actually the key to their being able to hold onto their wealth and protect their lives. That’s because in a democracy right and wrong are never entirely clear-cut. These people have money to burn, and in a democracy they can always hire some smooth-talking lawyers to plead their case and get them off the hook.
So in my view, there are only two roads ahead for China: democratization or revolution. Either road is likely to be long. In the first case, the Communist Party will never willingly relinquish its privileges but will only give them up incrementally, under pressure. In the second, it’s no easy matter for the scattered, isolated chopsticks to consolidate in the face of lavishly financed stability maintenance.
On July 1, 1921, 13 representatives of the Chinese Communist Party slipped away from Shanghai in an effort to avoid arrest by the Kuomintang police. They convened their party’s first congress on a boat in Jiaxing’s South Lake. On July 1 this year, a meeting was held to celebrate the party’s 90th anniversary, and Hu Jintao gave the keynote address, listing the party’s many great achievements. At the same time, a post began to circulate on the Internet.
“If I could go back in time,” someone says, “I’d want to be at the South Lake in Jiaxing on July 1, 1921.”
“Why’s that?” he is asked.
“I could have called the police.”
Yu Hua is a Chinese author whose first collection of essays in English, “China in Ten Words,” was just published. This essay, like the book (both unpublished in China), was translated by Allan Barr.