BANGDONG, China — Last month, the NBA and China went head-to-head after Daryl Morey, manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted in support of the protests in Hong Kong, prompting the NBA to issue statements backing his freedom of expression. Beijing complained, all the NBA’s official Chinese partnerships were suspended and lifelong fans vowed to give up the cherished game in allegiance to their home country. China Central Television, a state-run media outlet, said in a statement: “We believe that any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech.”

Many Americans found such views incomprehensible if not reprehensible. That’s because the social contract between the Chinese government and its people is different than those of Western societies, based not on a process of participatory democracy but performance: the Communist Party delivers a stable and improving life, and the people give it leeway to accomplish that. Social stability is paramount in the Chinese psyche, and it affects the country’s policies and prospects for political reform.

Historical and cultural context help us understand why.


    A woman takes a photo of General Secretary Xi on China National Day at Lugu Lake, Yunnan


China’s prosperity gospel

In ancient China, social stability was a required sign of an emperor’s right to rule—his mandate of heaven—espoused by Confucian values that favor collective interest and hierarchy. Obedience to imperial authority was seen as a natural extension of fealty to the head of the family. Conversely, social instability signified the loss of that mandate and has been the hallmark of China’s recent history: the Opium Wars with the British in the mid-1800s; the violent Boxer Rebellion led by poor peasants at the end of the 19th century; the complete collapse of imperial rule and the Qing dynasty in 1911; Japanese invasion and occupation for almost a decade in the 1930s and ’40s; a prolonged bloody civil war between the Nationalists and Communists prior to and after Japanese occupation; Mao’s Great Leap Forward, an industrial experiment in which tens of millions died of starvation; and the Cultural Revolution, ten years of political campaigns and domestic turmoil finally ending in 1976.

“This experience, passed down to every Chinese citizen through highly nationalistic textbooks and government propaganda,” writes the Carnegie Endowment’s Michael Swaine, “has created both a strong sense of nationalism and a deep, enduring sensitivity throughout society to the fragility of political rule and the potential threat posed by external powers.” If government tyranny gave birth to American ideals of freedom, the turmoil of Chinese history begat the primacy of social stability, even at the cost of such freedoms.

The last 40 years of growing prosperity and military strength following a century of upheaval represents a stark difference showcased last month when the People’s Republic of China turned 70. President Xi Jinping surveyed troops and intercontinental ballistic missiles along Beijing’s Street of Eternal Peace. Colorful floats narrated China’s development since 1978—reform and opening, WTO accession, the 2008 Olympics—which has produced a flurry of economic statistics envied by the rest of the world: double digit growth for more than 25 years, a reduction in infant and maternal mortality rates to an eighth their 1980 levels, trillions of dollars in unparalleled infrastructure investment, and 800 million people lifted from poverty.

If government tyranny gave birth to American ideals of freedom, the turmoil of Chinese history begat the primacy of social stability, even at the cost of such freedoms.

This year, the once-impoverished rural village where I live achieved the formal classification of poverty-free thanks to a national campaign to eliminate abject rural poverty by 2020. Rural residents—still 40 percent of China’s 1.4 billion people—have new roads, new houses and “meat whenever I want it,” one told me.

“Without social stability, we can’t have prosperity,” Gewa Bingma, a young man from Yunnan province, told me over hot pot the night before China’s National Day celebration. He contrasted the deprivation his parents experienced under Party leadership with his own generation that has never known hunger—also under Party leadership. “We can’t even clean our plates,” he tells me, the pot still half-full. “Now we can anju leye,” he says in pithy Chinese—peacefully live and joyfully work. “Without the Party, we would have no new China.” These are the fruits of peacetime and Party policy since 1978, and the majority of Chinese, tasting them for the first time, are eager for their children to also enjoy them.

A confluence of interests

The National Day parade was a good-parts version of the Party’s record, of course.

There was no moment of silence remembering the hundreds or even thousands killed in 1989’s Tiananmen Square Massacre when tanks paraded down the Street of Eternal Peace and opened fire on its own citizens. Nor was there mention of the oppression of an estimated one million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang’s “re-education camps” or of the violent protests in Hong Kong.


    Gewa Bingma rehearses a coming of age ceremony with a spiritual leader from the Mosuo people group at Lugu Lake, Yunnan


No doubt that helps maintain opinion surveys’ consistent findings of a high level of regime support in China, “even after factoring in the possibility that some people hide their dissatisfaction for fear of political repercussions,” writes Neil Thomas at MacroPolo, the Chicago think-tank. Gewa Bingma, my hotpot friend, perceives that the Party has delivered on its end of the bargain while Western criticisms about police-state surveillance, media censorship and arbitrary rule of law have little relevance to his life.

Demographics also reinforce the primacy of social stability and support for the authoritarian regime. For decades, Washington’s policies and countless predictions of China’s collapse have assumed that as the middle class grows so does its demands for democratic reforms. But that well-known theory put forth by the social scientist and democracy scholar Seymour Martin Lipset is based on a “diamond-shaped” view of social structure, in which the middle class is the most populous.

However, Columbia University professor Andrew Nathan, co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers, points out that China’s middle class occupies a much smaller fraction of the population. Rather than a diamond, his representation of the social structure resembles a triangle with a small middle class sandwiched between a miniscule upper class and a massive base of farmers and blue-collar workers.

Not only are the lower classes materially better off—and tend to be happier with the government’s performance—in that analysis, but the economic interests of the middle class are also seen as intricately linked with those of the Party. No middle class existed before the first economic reforms in 1978, and the one that has emerged has largely depended on the state, with many of its members civil servants, teachers, health workers and employees of state media. China’s method of privatizing the housing market in the 1990s also resulted in most owners being public-sector employees. They feel it in their best interests that society remains stable with the Party in power.


    A geomancer plays the erhu under a sign at Kang’s Convenience that reads anju leye, or peacefully live and joyfully work. Bangdong, Yunnan


Social stability then, rather than any lofty notions of justice or freedom, remains the pragmatic metric by which Chinese tend to assess situations at home and abroad, and is heavily reinforced by the Party’s disinformation.

Those I speak with—an admittedly small sample size of urban elites and rural farmers—says the unrest and violence in Hong Kong exemplifies how instability destroys the economy and social welfare. They describe people frustrated by economic pressures and growing inequality. I’m often told that if Hong Kong had a stronger government able to push through economic policies, its residents would be better off. But those same people don’t acknowledge the underlying political frustrations in Hong Kong, and no one I’ve talked with has heard the protesters’ five demands.

Many Chinese also believe Xinjiang to be safer and more stable than ever before, evidenced by no terrorist attacks in the last three years, according to the Party mouthpiece Xinhua News. Even the tragedy of the Tiananmen Square Massacre is broadly viewed as justified by the need for social stability that has contributed to the prosperity Chinese enjoy today.

The United States is unsafe, I am repeatedly informed, because everyone carries guns. In contrast, “public security in our China is very good,” I was told by a gas station attendant after a US school shooting. Such common views are propagated and reinforced by patriotic education and state media. A Chinese friend, with tongue firmly in cheek, recently summarized the message delivered in each news broadcast: “Our leaders are busy, our nation is stable and foreign countries are in upheaval.”


    Xi is featured on a billboard urging citizens to clean up and protect Er Lake in Dali, Yunnan


Chinese democracy: who would’ve thought it figured

The carrots of economic growth and improving livelihoods plus the sticks of the state’s social control apparatus have yielded the desired broad stability until now. It’s not clear for how long, however. China’s stability is artificial, the Pulitzer-winning author Ian Johnson says. “It is held together by force, not by shared values, rules and laws,” he wrote me. “This is because China is still an authoritarian state, not one that allows civil society organizations, which are the true source of social stability.” So the question remains: If the Chinese value social stability so highly, why not press for democracy, which many, like Johnson, would argue to be a more dependable guarantor of social stability?

One reason may be that the Chinese themselves rate their system as already quite democratic (7.22 on a scale of 10), according to the Asian Barometer Survey (ABS), although of course that has never been substantiated by an election of common consent. Moreover, the Party has been “responsive enough to societal demands to keep itself in power for a long time,” Columbia University’s Nathan wrote over 15 years ago. The Party continues to do so, largely satisfying its social contract with the people and responding to China’s shifting hierarchy of needs.

According to President Xi, not only have the people’s material and cultural needs grown, but also their demands for democracy, rule of law, fairness and justice, security and a better environment. That’s why amid slowing growth in 2017, the Party’s stated priority shifted from a singular focus on fast economic growth to “high-quality development,” which includes more democracy and improved governance.

History warns that a transition to a full-fledged democratic system would unleash political turmoil and social instability. With the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Party hardliners maintained that allowing demonstrating students to “negotiate with the Party and government as equals” would be to “negate the leadership of the CCP and negate the entire socialist system.” The fall of communism that followed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union confirmed that lesson for the Party, something we see playing out in Hong Kong today. President Xi has made clear that “the Party leads all things,” including steps toward more democratic elements within China’s authoritarian system. That makes any sort of regime change more likely to occur through rupture rather than segue, Nathan says.

Chinese pragmatism posits that the best is the enemy of the good, and also comes at a prohibitively high price. Collective action would be an enormous gamble the Party bets citizens are unwilling to take. Therefore, a sufficient, if imperfect, political system replete with stability and improving livelihoods is preferable to an unknown and unstable alternative, even if it means no NBA and no Twitter.

“We’re not stupid melons,” one informed urbanite told me. “We see the outside world and want more freedoms. But don’t bring American thinking on how to accomplish that. Be patient,” he urged me further. “We’ve made a lot of progress in 70 years. We can make much more in another 70.”