What's Next for China?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

It has been a long time since I have posted on China in any depth. Fortunately, there is a long article on the domestic situation there at Commentary Magazine which I found informative despite its sometimes very flawed analysis. Here are a few excerpts:

As Deng correctly calculated, shedding the blood of hundreds had the effect of intimidating hundreds of millions. There were few disturbances in the years immediately following Tiananmen. But the event irrevocably changed the People's Republic. By the end of the 1990's, Chinese society was turbulent once more as individual protests, both in the countryside and the city, began attracting tens of thousands of participants. In early 2002, two of them -- one by oil workers in Daqing in the northeast and the other by factory hands in nearby Liaoyang -- may have reached the 100,000 mark. In late 2004, in China's southwest, about 100,000 peasants protested the seizure without compensation of land to build a hydroelectric plant in Sichuan province.

Protests have not only become bigger in size; they are now more numerous. In 1994, there were 10,000 such "mass incidents"; by 2003 there were 58,000; in 2004 and 2005 there were 74,000 and 87,000 respectively. This is according to official statistics, which undoubtedly undercount. According to the legal activist Jerome Cohen, a truer figure for the last year may be 150,000.
This would seem to indicate a growing dissatisfaction with the regime. As we have seen with Russia, though, even the overthrow of the Communist regime, should that occur, will not guarantee that China will end up with a government designed to protect individual rights.
As Tocqueville observed, "steadily increasing prosperity" does not tranquilize citizens; on the contrary, it promotes "a spirit of unrest." In pre-revolutionary France, discontent was highest in those areas that had seen the greatest improvement; the Revolution itself followed a period of unprecedented economic advance. In the late 20th century, the same trends played out in Thailand, in South Korea, and in Taiwan. [Might Iran's effete upper classes disprove this "rule"? -- ed]

In China today, it is middle-class citizens, the beneficiaries of a quarter-century of economic reform, who are once again confirming the pattern. In Shanghai, homeowners recently fought a state-owned developer who had reneged on his agreement to keep an area of open land in the middle of a multi-building project; one group of residents tore down a fence to stop construction, and when the developer put up another, an even larger group demolished it. In Dongzhou in prosperous Guangdong province, riot police ended up killing perhaps as many as twenty people who were protesting the government's arbitrary seizure of their land for a power project and denying them the use of a nearby lake.

This is not like Tiananmen. In 1989, Chinese protesters were peaceful until attacked. Those in Dongzhou, however, used pipe bombs as an initial tactic, to break up police formations. In present-day China, the well-to-do act like hooligans, and will even resort to deadly force, if that is what it takes to defend their rights. [But do they really know what "rights" are? Or is this heightened violence only indicative of desperation? --ed]

Deng Xiaoping's strategy after Tiananmen was to buy off the people by means of economic growth. It was successful, but only for a decade. Change begat the demand for more change. Grievances that were once tolerable began to appear intolerable when people realized they could be remedied. Since the end of the 1990's, the laobaixing are no longer, to borrow one of Mao's favorite phrases, "poor and blank."

Paradoxically, it was Mao himself, the great enslaver, who in his own way taught the Chinese people to think and act for themselves. In the Cultural Revolution, he urged tens of millions of radical youths, who were then forming themselves into roving bands known as Red Guards, to go to every corner of the country to tear down ancient temples, destroy cultural relics, and denounce their elders, including not only mothers and fathers but also government officials and Communist-party members. The young radicals seized these "reactionary elements" and paraded them in the streets, barred local officials from their desks, tortured and killed millions. Urban residents were "sent down" to work in the countryside. In some places, Red Guard factions fought pitched battles with one another.
This section is very interesting. It would be confusing enough on its own without its author conflating the two cultural trends that seem to be affecting the intensity of the protests. I would be more favorably inclined to believe that China's unrest was a manifestation of an explicit desire to be free from tyranny if the "mass incidents" were better-organized and coordinated. Perhaps they are, unknown to the West, or they are not -- yet.

But to engage in violent protests apart from an actual attempt to at least overthrow the Communists seems more blind, and more anarchic than revolutionary. If Mao's "lessons" form any part of this, they are dangerously incomplete lessons. To win freedom through armed revolt and to simply overthrow a tyrant may look the same, but the former is far more difficult, and requires certain ideas that were held on shaky foundations in the West to begin with and seem to be in the process of being forgotten today.

It is interesting that China's increasing prosperity has become part of a positive feedback loop with concessions by the Communists. This reminds me of the last Days of the Soviets in Russia. Furthermore, if there are parallels between the end of Communism in Russia and in China, new technology provides an opportunity in China that Russia never had to avoid the path Russia has been taking of late:
It would be difficult to underestimate the role played by wireless communications and the Internet in this phenomenon. Societies change -- or reach a "tipping point," to use the contemporary term -- when enough people begin to think simultaneously in a new way. These days, Chinese thoughts and emotions travel through optical fiber at the speed of light -- there are 123 million "netizens" in China, and 34 million of them are bloggers -- and the Chinese are holding nationwide conversations for the first time in their history. Ideas -- like, for instance, the idea of representative government -- start out small and spread rapidly via countless chatrooms and online forums.
But this technology is just that: an opportunity. This is a point too many commentators very giddily fail to appreciate (search "An Army of Davids"). China has perhaps a greater opportunity to become free than Russia did. To desire more prosperity is one thing. To know what conditions such prosperity requires (i.e., for a culture to generally hold a political philosophy that will lead to freedom) is quite another. The Internet could help the Chinese learn quicker how to build a free society, but it cannot do their thinking for them. In the end, the Internet will be only as good for the Chinese as their own efforts to understand it are.

-- CAV

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