Crash a symbol of China reform struggle


BEIJING – It was as if a bomb exploded in Saint Peter’s Square before a conclave or there was detonation in front of the White House before the presidential inauguration. This is the situation now in China, where a car crashed in Tiananmen Square on Monday at noon, before a Party Plenum that is expected to announce extraordinary reforms.

A vehicle caught fire, killing three occupants of the car and two bystanders and wounding dozens of policemen and passing tourists. Several hours after the event, it was still unknown if it was an accident or an attack. Some witnesses said they heard a blast, but it could have just been the noise of the car slamming against a heavy metal guard-rail at the edge of the square. Others reported that the vehicle rode close to the curb for many yards. The popular Global Daily newspaper wrote it was a suicide car-bomb of Uyghur terrorists, but why three passengers in a suicide car-bomb rather than just one?

In any case, the event is unprecedented in Chinese history, and if it was a planned action, it seems to symbolize all the drama of the far-reaching economic reform agenda being pushed by President Xi Jinping. State media reported on Tuesday a Politburo announcement that the Communist Party will hold a key four-day meeting in Beijing from November 9-12, a much-anticipated event that could serve as the venue for the announcement of reforms.

The reforms should eventually cripple the large and inefficient state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that pollute and distort the market, and instead provide fairer conditions for the private enterprises that have been driving national development for decades, but are officially only Cinderellas at the court of the Chinese state.

Tiananmen is indeed a symbolic and sacred place for the People’s Republic of China. The square was designed by Mao Zedong, who wanted a larger space than the Red Square in Moscow. It was to be the setting of huge mass gatherings held to show off with the Soviets. Here in 1966, the Great Helmsman launched the Cultural Revolution before millions of young Red Guards drawn together from every corner of the country. Here, Mao’s reign effectively ended 10 years later, when thousands flooded the streets to mark the death of premier Zhou Enlai in a gesture of defiance against the Cultural Revolution.

Here again in 1989 students demanding democracy rose up, and still here in 2000 activists from the outlawed Falun Gong sect attempted to set themselves on fire. Since 1989, gatherings in the square have been prohibited, and since 2000 in every corner there are fire extinguishers and plainclothes policemen ready to take action against any act of protest. But you could not predict someone driving into a guard-rail.

Starting tomorrow, security will be doubled and new preventive measures introduced. But the fact remains that total control is impossible. Even without considering political protests, it is impossible to avert the actions of a madman when you are surrounded by about 1.4 billion Chinese citizens.

Paradoxically, only greater openness and transparency will lead, if not to prevention, at least to better post-incident management. Awkward hours of official silence and difficulty in communicating – as happened in this case – make it very difficult to understand what occurred and believe the official story, whatever it is. There is also the symbolism to keep in mind. After 30 years of reforms that were at first timidly introduced to promote private enterprise, Xi is preparing to pass revolutionary changes.

Granting equal access to the market for inefficient state-owned enterprises and more efficient private companies means condemning the state-owned enterprises to a smaller role. Xi has said that SOEs will lose the privileges of the various monopolies they now hold; their special access to credit will dwindle and more competition will be introduced in many sectors.

This step is crucial to ensure that China’s growth continues to be rapid in the coming decades and doesn’t get bogged down around 2020, when a Soviet-style meltdown of the economy could otherwise become inevitable. However, the reforms are already creating legions of enemies for Xi. Many state officials, large and small, rightly fear in a reduction in their power and their sinecures.

For months, opponents have been waving the ideological banner of Maoism and raising the specter of a few private entrepreneurs preying on those who remain at the bottom of the social ladder of development. This opposition openly trumpets its legitimacy and strength, obstructing the reforms. So Xi must use the banner of Maoism in order to take it away from his enemies, to placate and muzzle public opposition, and to avoid a coalition of forces from grouping against the reforms in progress.

The car on fire in Tiananmen becomes a real or accidental gesture of protest against the reforms, and it is the symbol of the many and great difficulties that Xi has met and will meet in changing the country’s deep economic and political structure.

In China, leaders could be preparing possibly for years of hard political struggle. If Xi succeeds in creating a strong private sector-based economy within 10 years, the country could have a fully convertible currency (as should be announced in the Plenum) and then also some form of political democracy. In that case, development could continue at a rapid pace for more than half a century. If Xi instead is defeated, the Soviet-style path of implosion is already drawn politically and economically.

Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. His e-mail is

(Copyright 2013 Francesco Sisci.)

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