The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has escalated its repression of dissent to maintain a firm grip on power 25 years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, but social and economic tensions stoked by the party in recent years could ultimately lead to its demise, experts say.
Activists say Chinese authorities have launched the harshest ever crackdown on dissidents ahead of the anniversary of the pro-democracy protests, with 41 criminal detentions and two confirmed arrests as of Tuesday, according to the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD). Authorities have actively worked to purge memories of the events of 1989 from the public consciousness and censor any discussion of the events online.
Chinese troops entered Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, and killed anywhere from several hundred to thousands of citizens, though the government has never released an official death toll.
Criminal detentions in China spiked last year to more than 220—a nearly three-fold increase from the previous year and the most since the late 1990s, according to CHRD. The crackdown was widely seen as an attempt by President Xi Jinping to consolidate power.
Ellen Bork, director of democracy and human rights for the Foreign Policy Initiative, said in an email that the continued presence of activism in China despite government repression shows that its citizens still have doubts about the CCP.
"The Party is committed to crushing dissent or the advancement of alternatives to its rule, but I believe Chinese people, like everyone, will make the connection between stability and democracy, and between good government and sustained economic growth," she said. "It is troubling that the world's leading democracies are not making this case and not building their China and Tibet policies around it."
Jinping has taken some measures to address citizen concerns about corruption and the billions in wealth owned by Chinese lawmakers. However, his campaign to rid the CCP of "both tigers and flies"—corrupt higher and lower-level officials—threatens to expose rifts among party officials.
Bork said Jinping’s rhetoric about combating corruption rings hollow after courts sentenced several members of the New Citizens’ Movement to multi-year jail sentences earlier this year. The movement led by prominent rights activist Xu Zhiyong called on party officials to be more transparent and disclose their assets.
"For the Party, formal exposure of the level of corruption would be delegitimizing, so it has lashed out at the New Citizens’ Movement, locking up several of its core leaders," Bork said. "This suggests that Xi Jinping's own ostensible 'anti-corruption' campaign has other objectives—shoring up the Party's control and image, and eliminating political rivals."
Although the CCP has appeared to strengthen its rule, experts say profound social and economic problems linger beneath the surface.
China’s blistering pace of economic growth in the last quarter-century—an accomplishment the party constantly touts in its propaganda—is likely to slow in the coming decades. The country’s aging population and shrinking cohort of working adults will exacerbate the economic pressure.
Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist and demographer with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said in an interview that China’s troubling demographic trends are largely attributable to its one-child policy. While the party recently eased this policy, practices such as forced late-term abortions continue in some areas—adding to the more than 336 million forced abortions that have been performed under the policy, according to pro-life women’s group All Girls Allowed.
Eberstadt said the party’s policies are creating a "rising generation in Chinese cities with only children begotten by only children," a phenomenon that is disrupting traditional extended family and business networks. Without the rule of law, families will struggle to conduct business and form social ties—making politics "more unpredictable," he said.
"Maybe China will become a society under the rule of law … but maybe it won’t happen," he said. "If it doesn’t happen, atrophy of the Chinese family will still occur. That could turn into one of the biggest social disjunctions that China will face over the next generation."
China’s leaders have also sought to bolster their domestic support by cultivating a "cult of nationalism," said Michael Mazza, an AEI research fellow and expert on Chinese military modernization, in an interview. China uses military web sites, popular among younger generations, to boast of its military advancements such as its new guided missile destroyer or stealth aircraft.
However, Mazza said China’s increasingly aggressive actions to secure territory in the Asia-Pacific region—also aimed at maintaining domestic legitimacy—could backfire.
"We may be entering a prolonged period of heightened tensions across the region," Mazza said. "Whether or not [China] can actually manage this in the way they believe they can is very questionable."
Activist Chen Guangcheng, the iconic blind lawyer of the dissident movement, spoke at AEI on Tuesday. Chen was jailed for four years in 2006 and then placed under house arrest for challenging forced abortions and sterilizations in a rural area in eastern China.
"They tried to silence me, but I will not be silent," Chen said, the first time he spoke publicly in English.
He urged foreign governments to send Chinese citizens technology that can help them bypass Internet censorship and to stop receiving party officials that were involved in the June 4th crackdown.
‘The whole world must stand firm," he said. "If we speak loudly and clearly, a free China, a democratic China, a China with a constitutional government, will come to pass. It must. It must."