Getting Up Before the State: China and Change Since 1989

By Poppy Sebag Montefiore


Made in the late 1990s, underground filmmaker Zhang Huilin's personal documentary Hi Guys traces his friend Gao who sells pirate DVDs in a downtown Guangzhou department store: the improvised economy operating within the formal one. At Gao's home, he and his wife playfully enjoy time together and the company of their friends. They are able to breathe outside the system while existing within it.

The film culminates on a beach. The friends travel together to an island in the South China Sea, they dance, light a fire. They are euphoric. It is a celebration of warmth and friendship, not of freedom as we know it, but of autonomy.

Five years later, in 2003, Zhang Huilin makes a second film, Ice Games. A different group of friends play themselves, according to a script they have written together. We meet them first in a bar where they pass a cube of ice with their lips from one mouth to the next. The last pair to touch the ice cube before it melts must go home together. Long Kuan had been a punk singer in the ’90s and is now signed up by a commercial label. "You need to be aware of your image now, soon you will be part of the mainstream," her friend tells her. In the night she sleepwalks on Beijing's multi-lane highways with a girl. The group of friends – all artists, musicians, filmmakers – were pioneers of their generation in their commitment to express themselves. Now their expressions are drowned out, meaningless to the mainstream. The past has been airbrushed away. They cling together in a desert of concrete. Sleeping with each other only intensifies their alienation and loneliness.

People may imagine that, as across the world in 1968, after 20 years of relative peace and prosperity, the introduction now into China of television and (unlike ’68 of course) the internet – bringing more contact with the outside world, or at least with some of its news – the Chinese people may be taking increasing action against their authorities. But in China today, student protest is at its weakest for the last 20 years.

While, 10 years ago, many students were quietly proud of their 1989 alumni, today the majority of university students look at the actions of the 1989 protesters as self-interested. They see them as troublemakers and the event as crowd-mania. They say they agree that the government had little choice but to bring the tanks to the square. Otherwise China might not be as rich as it is today.

Many successful young people are now looking for greater meaning and rights. They think that the rest of the world still sees them as coolies. Anti-Japan demonstrations have been the largest protests semi-organically conducted by young people over the last few years. Pressed, many young nationalists admit that their lack of rights at home that makes them feel oppressed, like modern day eunuchs, but raising this against the state is impossible. Articulating their beliefs through the sounds of state propaganda, they disconnect from honest conversation.

Since 1989, the mantra of the Party has been stability and economic growth. The post-Tiananmen pact with the people has been one of economic liberation, so long as politics are left alone. The government states a need to catch up with the West, and has declared a special time period when certain values can be frozen for the sake of development. The environment can be cleaned up, and families can be sewn back together in 15 years time when China has made some more progress.

This doctrine of war for a time of accelerated peace intensified around 2001, in between the making of Hi Guys and Ice Games, when China joined the WTO, embedding its economy with those of the powerful nations, allowing greater floods of international capital to circulate China. Around the same time the Chinese state dismantled the communist work unit system, giving people the freedom to chose their spouse, their home, to set up a business and to travel and removing most access to welfare.

Previously people found clever ways of splitting their minds, keeping a place for their own thoughts and a place for the rhetoric they could spout if needed. Today you are allowed to say and to think what you like. But the new campaign for economic development at all costs is loud and dazzling and seemingly full of fruit. Individual voices are marginal, no one can hear them, or has time to listen. Without welfare every day is a struggle. Most people need to participate in the system just to cover their basic costs.

This commercial war has no enemy, but creates winners and casualties. For those who have made it too much is at stake to protest. Resistance reveals itself in distorted ways. The government responds to the demands of city elites who take 'group walks' in the streets against polluting industrial plants near their properties. Officials plan to move the plants someplace more remote, where demonstrations are less visible and disruptive and can be more simply suppressed. However, many personally hit by injustice risk everything in battle for their rights. Over a hundred thousand groups protested around the countryside last year against illegal sales of their land. One in Dongzhou in 2005 ended in police opening fire and killing four demonstrators. The project, for which their land was sold without compensation, had World Bank funding.

Peasants who have taught themselves the law explain that the system fails because their representatives are responsible to officials above and not the people below. By disseminating educational pamphlets and standing for election as independent candidates they try to penetrate the system from within. During major national events they are put under house arrest.

Millions of people came to Beijing last year to petition against a specific miscarriage of justice. Local officials trying to cover up their own misdeeds hired thugs to beat and detain them. Sometimes they put them into mental asylums claiming that they were clinically insane. Many of these petitioners camped out in underpasses by central government offices do indeed go mad (although these are usually not the same people who are sectioned). Losing everything, even hope, all they retain is a hope for hope. This fiction disconnects them from the world they inhabit.


Young people with prospects, but who struggle to keep up with their classmates, disappear inside Internet games. The military have opened a clinic to try to 'cure' internet addiction. Whereas, 10 years ago, people may have tried to leave the country for the USA, now it is not that they fear for their lives, but that life itself is too difficult. The Internet becomes a place to seek asylum, to play at being a different warrior.

Each time a Chinese man or woman wakes up a few hours before the system starts, walks to the park, practises his tai qi, warms his vocal chords, or walks his bird in its wooden cage, he says to himself: I am not engaging in your petty monologue of politics. I am connected to something universal and, in relationship to that, I cultivate myself.

Older people continue to adapt a method of resistance that has been developed in China for thousands of years. People intimately consider the needs of the body in what, when and how they eat, in the ways they order their space and let air into their homes and hearts Resourcefulness is an art form where pleasure comes in discovering delicious ways to prepare the hard green ends of spring onion leaves. People take pleasure in playing games together, in the textures of counters and cards and the sounds they make as they throw them down. Stories hang light, become meat and drift like aroma through the day. People take care of even the most vexing parents and in-laws because the darkness within feels safer and more easily negotiated than the darkness outside.

Autonomy is resistance from within. It is a place where passivity is also action and where silence contains strength. In an environment where each person's life is affected by trauma, fear and injustice, instead of petitioning for one another, people hold onto themselves and remain open to each other.

This is a public sphere not of debate and discourse, but one of a close, critical and considered bodily intellect, frankness and communication through all of the senses. Touch has a million shades between the sexual and the violent and becomes a currency of kindness and equality. Leaning your body weight on a stranger queuing at a market stall carries no affront nor intrusion. These are urban communities where you know your neighbours, and the person who cleans your road.

A man scratched his cart full of onions against the side of a woman's BMW in a market in late 2003. She angrily reversed into the heaving crowd, killing the farmer's wife and injuring 12 others. The judge's verdict of an "accidental traffic disturbance" froze the nation. Rumours circulated on the web that her wealthy husband was related to court officials. Chat rooms and internet bulletin boards filled with dissent.

Guanxi (relationships) are ways of exchanging favours with someone who has revealed their humanity to you, perhaps though sharing a meal or a journey. People reclaim practical life in a totalitarian bureaucracy this way. But the BMW case revealed that, co-opted by the alliances between government and business, guanxi is no longer a way to resist the system, but to extend its power.

Where freedom is the ability to make choices according to our wants, autonomy is an intimate understanding of our needs, realising them in balance with the world around. The friends in Ice Games have many more choices than those of Hi Guys, but they have lost connection with themselves and each other, retaining only manufactured associations with the world around them, from which they gain little nourishment.

Whether concerted or not, the possibilities for autonomy and sensory community in China are under attack. High-rise living; pollution of air, water and food; the exploitation of migrants – all disturb and disorientate the individual’s sensory relationship with body and community.

Worried about increasing labour prices in China and recessions abroad, the Chinese government wants to encourage domestic consumption. This will mean installing a much needed security system to release people from the need to save. But the stimulation of consumption implies a distraction from an intimate listening to the body and the surrounding world of the senses, which people in China have fine-tuned simultaneously to resist political oppression, cultivate their health and share joy.

Poppy Sebag Montefiore is a Sinologist. She lives in London.