Will China's Communist Party prove James Madison wrong? Unlikely.
Ruling in China used to be like hammering a nail into wood. Now it is much more like balancing on a slippery egg. Whether the authorities can sustain their present balancing act seems doubtful.
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Messages easily morph into conversations, illustrated with pictures. If the authorities try to block posts, then users typically have time and technology on their side. Instantly forwarded posts tend to keep ahead of the censors, whose efforts at removing online material are countered by re-tweeted screenshots.Skip to next paragraph
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The aggregate effect is that conversations readily go viral, as happened (to take a well-known recent example) when a citizen nicknamed “Brother Banner,” a software engineer in Wuxi, was catapulted into online celebrity status overnight after holding a banner that read “Not Serving the People” outside the gate of a local labor relations office.
In desperation, he had been protesting its failure to intervene in his pay dispute with his former employer. The banner challenged the Party’s slogan, “Serving the People.” Department officials were deeply embarrassed by a one-person protest that won national prominence through the Internet and, eventually, coverage in official media.
The great significance of citizens’ initiatives of this kind is the way they put their finger on hypocrisy. They call on the authorities to listen, to live up to their promises of bringing “harmony” and material well-being to people’s lives.
The upshot is the authorities now find themselves trapped in a constant tug-of-war between their will to control, negotiated change, public resistance, and unresolved confusion. They may pride themselves on building a regime that seems calculating, flexible, dynamic – constantly willing to change its ways in order to remain the dominant guiding power.
Yet they also know well the new Chinese proverb: Ruling used to be like hammering a nail into wood, now it is much more like balancing on a slippery egg. Whether the authorities can sustain their present balancing act, so proving James Madison wrong, seems doubtful. Within the China labyrinth the spirit of monitory democracy is alive and well. Whether and how it will prevail against the crafty forces of surveillance is among the great global political questions of our time.