THE Chinese “princeling” screamed with rage. The gates to the very fast train from Beijing to Shanghai had been closed for a minute, but the wealthy member of the Communist Party elite demanded to be allowed through.
He threatened the smart young railway officer in her steward’s suit, even banged wildly on the metal barrier between them as his face turned puce.
She stared him down. She barely raised her voice but her meaning was perfectly clear to the several hundred of us gathered at the vast Beijing station waiting to board the next train. “Not a chance,” she said. Finally, he admitted defeat and the Chinese people around us fairly glowed. A murmur rippled through the crowd. It seemed to say: “Nice one.”
This is a China changing before our eyes. We have been visiting our big neighbour since 1999 and each time it has been to a different landscape as China has physically transformed itself. But now a new dimension is apparent.
In the past, the Chinese people have been as bedazzled as the rest of the world as their pent up entrepreneurial spirit burst forth in a pyrotechnic extravaganza of growth. But now there’s a hunger for the kind of natural justice that we call the “fair go”. While we have largely institutionalised our national catch-cry, the Chinese people still have a long way to travel. But in the end they will not be denied.
”I hate harmony,” said one of the students after my lecture at one of the three universities in Shanghai and Xi’an that hosted me last month. It was almost as startling as the raging princeling. Harmony is the Chinese Government’s watchword and it’s everywhere. They even call the very fast train “Harmony”.
”They use it to stop us from protesting,” said my student friend. “Harmony is a bad thing if it means you have to accept everything the government tells you to do.”
It would, of course, be quite wrong to suggest that some kind of rebellion from a newly awakened middle class is imminent. There is a great (and thoroughly justified) pride in what has been achieved under the banner of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”. But for very good reason, President Xi Jinping has been making great play of “self-criticism” sessions among party officials and at least acknowledging the widespread corruption.
Many Westerners believe it will not be enough, that the pressure for change will continue to build. China’s long history, they say, reads like a series of revolutions against repression. Progress towards an open society and moves towards democracy will come in fits and starts like steam through the valve of a pressure cooker… just enough to stop the lid from blowing while inside, undetected, the stew bubbles in agitation until one day… bang!
Maybe. I suspect the new leadership is cleverer than that. They won’t turn democratic overnight; but the real breakthrough will come in the growing application of the rule of law and firmness of bureaucratic purpose – the kind that keeps the puce princelings in their place.