The Incomprehensible China And Its Difficult Problems
(FT.com) Please try to understand China better. June 12, 2009.
I read a reader comment to the article <The New Political Model in China> that "this is a typical western style criticism. Although western societies are more reasonable in certain ways, they also have much social discontent and many political problems. If they can't even solve their own problems, then it is risible for them to go around howling over China. On the other side, it was not easy for our nation to reach this stage. Although the problems are many and complex, we should be more patient in considering and solving them. It is pointless to keep complaining and making accusations, which only serve other people."
I think that this user is very perceptive. That article lacked objectivity and kept complaining in a very western way.
The reforms in China have been going on for 30 years. These 30 years were spent on crossing the river by feeling for the stones. These 30 years of development are unthinkable in the western world. Everything was built up from nothing, both materialistic life as well as the regulations and systems. All this could not have been realized so rapidly without a government that is unified in opinion. The Party played a key role here.
I am not a member of the Communist Party and I have no intention of joining the Party. But I do not believe the Communist Party lacks mass support and only recruit and buy off the elite.
China is a one-party state, with the Communist Party leaders assuming important roles. Precisely because this is a one-party state, the consequences will be unimaginable if there are problems with the decision-makers. Therefore the Party has been introducing campaigns such as "Three Represents" and "Guarantee Progressiveness Education." They mean well, even though their results are debatable. But at least China is trying.
Corruption exists, but I dare say that they exist mostly at the local level and not with the central government. Our leaders may be said to be governing for the people. This is all about crossing the river while feeling for the stones. This is a maturation process. It is unfair to judge the Chinese Communist Party on the basis of these brief 30 years alone.
We are trying hard. We are learning. Please do not look at us with color-tinted glasses. Finally I hope that the author will try to understand the real China.
Note: The reader's letter represents only the views of the reader himself.
(Lipuman's blog) The Incomprehensible China and its Difficult Problems. June 22, 2009.
At FT.com, I read a reader's letter titled <Please try to understand China better>, whose tone matches the views of many Chinese people at this time. The author wrote about an article which commemorated the 20-year-old date which still cannot be mentioned today, and criticized the fixed prejudices of the western media against China. "You don't understand China," wrote the author. "Please do not look at us with color-tinted glasses. Finally, I hope that the author will try to understand the real China." The author believes that the Party does not lack mass support at this time.
I have to admit too that many westerners hold prejudices and erroneous views about China. The China that they see is the China that they want to see. But as people who are born and raised in China, can we say that we understand our country?
This reminds be about what V. P. Naipul said wistfully about India: "For me, India is a country that is hard to describe." As a person with Indian blood, he was saying that when he stepped on Indian soil the second time in his life. But when I read that reader's letter, I suddenly remembered his words. Then I asked myself, "Is China a country that is easy for me to describe."
I think that it is clearly not the case.
Let me begin with that sentence: "The Party does not lack mass support." I don't know how the writer came to that judgment. But clearly he is not alone in his view.
My colleague showed me an article titled <The Chinese government and its People -- the Return to Tradition in Chinese Politics>. The author discussed the current political situation in China and described the same phenomenon wherein the Chinese people showed a high level of support for the government.
If "not opposing" is regarded as "supporting," then this judgment is obviously fitting. But the facts that we see are clearly not so.
From the latest hot Internet issues -- Deng Yujiao stabbing the government official to death and the Hangzhou rich young man killing a university student in a traffic accident (the netizens believed that he was speed-racing in the streets) -- the lack of trust in the government has reached a very dangerously high level.
The manifestation of this danger is that whenever an organization with government background -- no matter whether it is the government, or the public security bureau, or the lawyers or judicial bodies with even a remote tinge of affiliation with the government -- draws a conclusion, they will be subjected to doubts from the people. It does not matter whether the conclusion is in accordance with the procedures or consistent with the facts, the people will think that there is the shadow of illegal interference by the government behind the scenes.
Under these circumstances, I obviously do not believe that it is true that the Chinese people support the government. At the very least, the Chinese government do not seem to have the total trust of the people.
Actually, my understanding is that the so-called "support for the government" is only the manifestation of people's indifference. To borrow Gandhi's description, this is a form of non-violent, passive cooperation.
For the majority of the common people, they do not expect that the government tp do anything great to change their own circumstances. On the contrary, they are willing to continue as long as things don't change or deteriorate significantly.
For them, food, work, housing and other mundane issues are what they are most concerned about. Although these things are related to politics in some way, they lack the political awareness and information to know that. For them, this is their life and it is unrelated to politics.
They form the bottom tier in society. They are the most conservative and compliant group. Some scholars believe that they are the group that can endure pressures the most.
Although they are large in numbers, they have weak group identity and they are only loosely connected with each ohter. Therefore, the price of resistance is higher than the price of endurance. Besides, it is true that their lives are becoming better, and it is an absolute improvement (but not a relative improvement).
For this group, their relative position is actually worsening. The gaps in income levels and disposable expenditures are widening, and rich-poor wealth inequality is getting worse.
Perhaps, this was not so obvious at the end of the last century. At the time, many people in the bottom tier were stuck in remote villages due to the relative lack of mobility. Communication media were backwards, so that they did not have many opportunities to learn about the outside world. Within a remote village, the rich-poor wealth gap may not be very big. The income sources and levels among farmers were more or less similar. They were happy to see their absolute incomes increase and they continued to live with this mirage of growth.
But as mobility became greater, more rural people went to work or live in the cities. Communication media improved, and people learned more about the outside world.
Inevitably people began to compare their lives against the lives of others. Absolute income is now displaced by relative income. People can see that the lives of the people in the cities are becoming better, whereas their own lives are not keeping the same pace of improvement. So the wealth inequality that was covered up in the narrow information channels is now placed on the table. People are beginning to sense the inequality and lack of justice in society.
In Aristotle's critique of political reform in Greece, he wrote: "In examining all these case studies, the reason for these uprisings and rebellions was always about unfairness."
But rebellion and resistance are not the best way to change the situation. Even though I may not know much about history, I know very well that it is the people at the bottom which suffers the most in a turbulent society. In the countless number of rebellions, disturbances, uprisings and revolutions, they were merely the tools of a small number of people who wanted to gain political advantages and privileges.
For many people, democracy is a good way to solve problems. Many Chinese intellectuals are paying attention to the recently held election in Iran. For us, it was admirable for a traditional theocratic nation to have a democratic system that even western nations have to acknowledge.
But I am personally worried about our present circumstances. What I considered to be mature democracy must be based upon the premise that the people have the qualities of democracy. The western democracy that we see today is not based upon the revolutions that were led by the elite class (and they have more revolutions than anyone else in France). Instead, it is based upon the irreplaceable Enlightenment movement. This cultural Enlightenment movement brought the most basic ideas of democracy, freedom and individualism into the hearts and minds of the most ordinary people. Democracy can only be realized with this foundation.
Let us discuss that movement which cannot be named. If we treat this as a movement to demand political reforms, anti-corruption and democracy/freedom, then such a movement would clearly exist among intellectuals and university students with little or no influence among ordinary citizens.
Perhaps you may point out that a bus driver had used his bus to shield the students from the soldiers, you may point out the tricycle drivers who carried the wounded students, you may point out the ordinary citizens among the marchers ... you point these out to me and you say, "Look, they also supported this movement."
In truth, I agree with Yuan Jian's view in <The Miraculous Evening>. The ordinary citizens did all these things at the time because they held a certain sympathy for the students and the intellectuals. This is a traditional Chinese attitude towards those who are weak and vulnerable. At the time, they may even have some misgivings about the economic inflation in China. But they did not share any common interests with the students. This type of alliance between parties without common interests is clearly unreliable.
The true situation was that the uniformity of the communication media at the time meant that the truth was unknown to the people who live outside of Beijing. For the majority of the people who lived in rural villages, television sets were rare and very few of them subscribed to newspapers. Therefore, information was limited. After the brief disturbance, the views and conclusions of the government came through the various levels of local governments to reach the people. They could not have identified with this movement.
When I went back to my hometown during the Dragon Boat Festival, I spoke about that movement with my parents who are almost 50 years old by now. My parents clearly knew very little about it. They only vaguely remembered that my uncle who was a university student in Beijing "came back and said that it was impossible to stay in Beijing any longer."
But when I mentioned a flashpoint (namely, Hu Yaobang) for the incident, my mother remembered that they had a nickname of that old man -- Hu Naobang (with the replacement word Nao (闹) which means 'making trouble'). I asked for the reason. She said that they felt that he was always running some kind of campaign or movement, so that was why they called him that. From this, we can see the gap between the intellectuals and the ordinary people.
Of course, this is just one special example taken from rural China and it is not necessarily representative. But I don't think that the indifference that they showed towards politics is restricted to this one place.
So this internationally famous event which continues to reverberate even today had little or no impact in rural China. In fact, it has been displaced by the reality and hope of the betterment of life. Doesn't this make clear what the problems are?
In a New York Times article, the author thinks that the bus driver who risked his life to protect the students and the ordinary citizens who carried the wounded students on tricycles were certainly touching. But the future of China is ultimately still held in the hands of political elite who are like Ma Ying-jeou. This is not hard to appreciate, because Taiwan headed towards democracy as the result of the compromise reached by the democratic warriors of <Formosa> and [then President] Chiang Ching-kuo.
But in truth while I think that the efforts of the political elite are important, it is more important that the ordinary people pay more attention to politics as well as cultivate better political and democratic qualities.
The political turmoil in Thailand over the past two years has almost given us a counter-example. Thailand is a small country with a much smaller population compared to China. What if China has a situation like that in Thailand? What would happen? And Thailand had once been described as a model of Asian democracy.
Perhaps everyone has his own explanation as to why Taiwan has not experienced the Thai situation. My understanding is that the political quality of the Taiwanese people is high, which meant that their political acumen is far higher than the Thai people.
This gets back to the issue of democratic enlightenment that was previously mentioned. We don't have to describe the democratic enlightenment process in the west. In Taiwan, the intellectuals who crossed the Taiwan Strait along with the Kuomintang in 1949, such as Hu Shi, Lei Chen, Yin Hai-kuang, Li Ao, Bo Yang and others and later on Chiang Nan, Lung Ying-tai and others also toiled hard to improve the civic quality of the people.
My meager knowledge allows me to list only the most shining examples of intellectuals, but there must be many more who took part in the enlightenment process.
But on the mainland, the power of intellectuals was almost completely annihilated in one after another leftist campaigns. The later intellectuals were either co-opted into the system, or became beneficiaries in other domains. How can we speak of the enlightenment of the masses by the intellectuals in China?
Besides, a practical consideration is that Taiwan is an island-state with just tens of millions in population. So it was easier to go through the enlightenment process. China has many more people in a much bigger landmass. People may joke about this, but it is an indisputable fact. How do we even accomplish this most basic enlightenment process for 1.4 billion people?
In Huntington's <Political Order in Changing Societies>, he spoke of developing education and media as a good approach. This is a universally applicable principle. The western world's Renaissance and the democratic enlightenment in Taiwan were all accompanied by the development of media. In the former case, it was through books and literary works; in the latter, it was through traditional media such as newspapers, magazines and books.
It was Huntington's opinion that changed my attitude towards the expansion of university education. To a certain degree, that has resulted in a lowering of the quality of university education as well as creating job pressures for university graudates in the short run. But from the viewpoint of enlightenment, it may lead to more people being enlightened. More matter how bad the quality, a university is better than a middle school as an enlightenment process.
Of course, it is very slow and inadequate to use education to improve basic qualities and political judgment for 1.4 billion people. Thus, we place greater hopes with the news media.
But the situation there is not optimistic. On one hand, the government controls the media. It is detrimental to stable governance to communicate ideas of democracy and participatory will.
On the other hand, the entertainment value of media is increasing continuously and this poses an obstacle to enlightenment. Even though there are no data, this judgment seems correct: people are far less interested in politics than in the previous century.
This is particularly true in rural areas, where they have almost the same media access as in the cities. The electronic media -- television, radio and the Internet -- are far more popular than the newspapers, which are better suited for enlightenment.
The rural family relatives and friends that I came across spend far more time on entertainment programs than on education or news. When I went home recently, I found that many people in the hometown had installed computers and the Internet. But they spend far more time on QQ chats and online games than seeking out information.
As Neil Postman said, compared to the story in <1984>, the modern world should be more concerned and wary about the situation in <Brave New World>. Totalitarian societies are gradually dying off, but the danger of "entertainment to death" is nearer.
This situation will no doubt exacerbate the "knowledge gap" between the intellectuals who want to change the political situation in China and the ordinary people. This gap renders the chances of these intellectuals being able to change China even more remote.
At least in the short term, I do not see any good prospects. Of course, the risk of social disturbance exists. But the hope of destroying the old order and building a new order seems very remote.
Finally, I must acknowledge that these are my somewhat prejudiced views. Prejudices exist inside the head of anyone. As I said before, we only see what we want to see and we think what we want to think. That is all.
Because my conclusions are so disappointing and discouraging, I hope that my prejudices and viewpoints will turn out to be wrong.