A widening discontent was evident this month in the anti-censorship street protests in the southern city of Guangzhou and in the online outrage that exploded over an extraordinary surge in air pollution in the north. Anger has also reached a boil over fears concerning hazardous tap water and over a factory spill of 39 tons of a toxic chemical in Shanxi Province that has led to panic in nearby cities.
For years, many China observers have asserted that the party's authoritarian system endures because ordinary Chinese buy into a grand bargain: the party guarantees economic growth, and in exchange the people do not question the way the party rules. Now, many whose lives improved under the boom are reneging on their end of the deal, and in ways more vocal than ever before. Their ranks include billionaires and students, movie stars and homemakers.
Few are advocating an overthrow of the party. Many just want the system to provide a more secure life. But in doing so, they are demanding something that challenges the very nature of the party-controlled state: transparency.
More and more Chinese say they distrust the Wizard-of-Oz-style of control the Communist Party has exercised since it seized power in 1949, and they are asking their leaders to disseminate enough information so they can judge whether officials, who are widely believed to be corrupt, are doing their jobs properly. Without open information and discussion, they say, citizens cannot tell whether officials are delivering on basic needs.
"Chinese people want freedom of speech," said Xiao Qinshan, 46, a man in a wheelchair at the Guangzhou protests.
China's new leadership under Xi Jinping, who took over as general secretary of the party in November, is already feeling the pressure of these calls. Xi has announced a campaign against corruption, and propaganda officials, in a somewhat surprising move, allowed the state news media to run in-depth reports on the air pollution last week. Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor, said he believed that the leaders had decided "to face the problems."
Some Chinese say that they and their compatriots, especially younger ones, are starting to realize that a secure life is dependent on the defense of certain principles, perhaps most crucially freedom of expression, and not just on the government meeting material needs. If a ruling party cannot police itself, then people want outsiders, like independent journalists, to do so.
Proof of that can be seen in the wild popularity of microblogs in which ordinary citizens frustrated by corruption post photographs of officials who wear expensive wristwatches. It was evident, too, when hundreds of ordinary people rallied in Guangzhou to defend Southern Weekend, a newspaper known for investigative reporting, against censorship.
"What's interesting is that these protests were not over a practical issue but over a conceptual issue," Hung Huang, a news media and fashion entrepreneur, said in a telephone interview. "People are beginning to understand these values are important to a better life, and beginning to understand that unless we all accept the same universal values, things will never really get better."
Hung also said, though, that most Chinese were "very practical," and that calls to action here were "very, very far away" from the kind of revolutionary fervor that had gripped the Arab world.
The Guangzhou rallies were fueled by an outpouring of support on the Internet for Southern Weekend, where journalists were protesting recent censorship rules. Celebrity gadflies with big followings among China's 564 million Internet users urged the journalists onward. They included Yao Chen, a young actress who quoted Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in an online post, and Hung, who changed the logo on her microblog to that of Southern
Weekend, also known as Southern Weekly. They ran risks by voicing their support; security officers reportedly interrogated some of the outspoken celebrities.
On the air pollution issue, prominent commentators have also taken to the virtual ramparts.
Among those leading the calls for change is Pan Shiyi, a real estate tycoon. Pan's demands that the government publicly release data on levels of PM 2.5, a potentially deadly particulate matter, contributed to an official decision that 74 cities would start reporting that information this year.
These elites are not just speaking to one another; they are also giving voice to widespread concerns among the middle class. Last Monday, in the middle of the record air pollution spike, there were 6.9 million mentions on a popular microblog platform of the term "Beijing air," 6.7 million of "air quality" and 4.8 million of "PM 2.5."
"It's like never before, this consensus," said Li Bo, director of Friends of Nature, an environmental advocacy group. "It took us so long to reach this consensus that China's problems with the environment are rather serious."
Such popular outcries can send ripples through the party's upper ranks. Last Monday, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao criticized the Ministry of Environmental Protection and its cautious minister, Zhou Shengxian, in an internal discussion, according to an official with ties to the ministry. "This was a gesture that Wen had to make," he said.
A day later, Li Keqiang, the incoming prime minister, who oversaw environmental policy during the past five years, somewhat defensively announced that solving environmental problems would require a long process.
The environmental official also said the pollution in northern China had deteriorated to the point that senior party officials had been forced to loosen the reins on reporting of the problem in the state news media and on news websites. "Everyone is dissatisfied with the air pollution, even the Central Propaganda Department," he said. "They have to breathe this bad air, too, after all."
As frustration over the air quality grew, Internet users also waged an online campaign to demand official transparency on tap water. The spark came from a Southern Weekend article posted early this month about two married veteran researchers for government water safety bureaus in Beijing. The couple said that because of all the behind-the-scenes data to which they were privy, they had not let a single drop of tap water touch their lips in 20 years.
That unleashed a torrent of questions online about the government's ability to ensure clean tap water, and it even prompted Global Times, a newspaper that often defends the party, to run a lengthy article Tuesday with the headline "Watered-Down Truth."
Last Monday, The Economic Observer, a respected newspaper, ran a strongly worded editorial that said the recent environmental debacles underscored the need for officials to provide more information.
"Our hope is that the government treats this as a turning point and presses ahead with an overarching reform aimed at promoting transparency, effectively guaranteeing the public's right to know," it said. "By doing this, they can help to restore the public's trust in government."
Any official commitment to transparency, though, could be fragile. After Hu Jintao and Wen took charge of the state in 2003, they opened up reporting on the SARS virus, which raised expectations for a more liberal administration. But the leaders dashed those hopes by enacting conservative policies.
Propaganda officials could simply now be allowing the state news media to report on the air pollution and other sources of discontent among the middle class to shape public opinion and prevent anger from swelling. Those same officials took a hard line on the Southern Weekend conflict by ordering newspapers to run a harsh editorial denouncing the protesting journalists.
Other officials, including those in the security apparatus, are sticking to their own methods for containing outbursts. The anticensorship rallies in Guangzhou lasted only three days before the police began hauling off protesters. By the fourth day, Xiao, the man in the wheelchair, was nowhere to be seen.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service