A couple of weeks back Matt wrote a piece asking whether the Chinese political/economic system (i.e., a single-party dictatorship combined with relative economic freedom) should be considered an alternative to liberal democracy and the free market which might appeal to people in other countries in the third world where democratisation has seemingly brought little benefit. I have a few problems with this.
First off the current Chinese political/economic system is one that has been formed pretty much accidentally after the death of Mao. There is no way that any sane person would wish to put their country through the various stages of political oppression, strife, and brainwashing, merely to arrive where China is now. Basically only countries which have already suffered under a single-party system can hope to reproduce China’s current system. The Chinese Communist Party even tacitly admitted this in its recently promulgated “6 Whys” saying (in what is also obviously a classic expression of the Marxist dialectic) that:
“The guiding role of Marxism in China has not been decided by any certain person or by the will of one party, rather it is a choice and circumstance of history”
The whole point of the Chinese system is that it is supposed to be suited to China and not transferable to other places, and that examples from other countries are not applicable to China. The Chinese leadership has long abandoned support for communist rebel groups in other countries using this exact excuse. The current Chinese system is in fact an increasingly-obvious anachronism rather than a new and revolutionary development.
Secondly, whilst it is fashionable to talk of China as almost a former-communist country now under a new system of its own devising, this ignores the way in which communism is both an economic system and a political system. Essentially whilst socialism has been abandoned, Marx-Leninism is still the basis of the political system. China is still run by the ‘democratic centralism’ of the ‘revolutionary vanguard party’, or, in plain speak, a single-party dictatorship. As such there is nothing new about China’s political system, and for this reason it is unlikely to be attractive to people who have not grown up under such a system.
Thirdly, this ignores the essential glue that holds together the Chinese state under circumstances not dissimilar to those which tore Yugoslavia and the USSR apart: nationalism. Firstly under the nationalists and now under the communists China has been subject to the greatest and most successful program of nation-building ever seen. Whilst in India there are reportedly still whole villages in which nobody has ever heard of the country ‘India’, since 1912 the Chinese nation has steadily been built up, with ethnic and regional loyalties largely subsumed into the Chinese identity or race (中华民族). Whilst it is generally believed in China that this identity has existed for thousands of years, it is in fact an invention of nineteenth century theorists like Liang Qichao (梁啟超), intended to replace an imperial system fairly similar to the one that existed in the Austro-Hungarian or Russian empires. This has largely succeeded, and it is only in those areas with ethnic identities so entirely different to that of the majority as to be incompatible (such as Tibet and Xinjiang) that it has failed. The high level of nationalism in China (Australian China-hand Ross Terrill described it as “the nearest thing China has to a national religion”) has allowed the Chinese state to survive pressures which would shatter other countries, as such the Chinese model cannot simply be transplanted to countries with strong regional identities.
A far more important question to ask, therefore, is what system will be adopted once the anachronism of communist rule is finally done away with?
I recently came across this interesting article by a Chinese author with the pen name 云淡水暖 (roughly “Pale Clouds and Warm Water”) on the economic and political reforms in Vietnam, a country whose development mirrors that of China, but where inflation has been breaking double figures for some time now. Before Vietnamese inflation became a problem some in China were minded to find lessons in Vietnam’s reforms which have created a slightly more liberal political system than that currently existing in China. Writing in the The Observer-Star, in an article called “Vietnam’s Reform is Worthy of Attention” Zhou Yanjin (周瑞金) went so far as to say:
“. . . we can see that the Vietnamese Communist Party’s political reforms are on the right track, produce results, have effect. The student is already ahead of the master. At a time when Vietnam is ever more courageously and determinedly turning towards broad, open minded, and total reform, China’s reform is entrapped in backward thinking and disorder. From this can’t we see that Vietnam’s reforms are deserving of our attention?”
However, since inflation took off, hitting a year-on-year consumer price high of 28% last August, Chinese observers have been inclined to deduce a different lesson – that Vietnam went too far. Here’s Guo Zhongxiao (呙中校) in an article in Southern Metropolis Daily entitled “Who took Vietnam from heaven to hell?”:
“Since the implementation of reform and opening in 1986, economic reforms have been effective. From the system of agricultural contracts and national planning reform, to the socialist market structure of the economy, it was not hard to see the deep imprint of China. However, Vietnam’s reforms have been quicker than China’s, and steps were taken ahead of China’s reforms, no matter whether the reforms were economic or political in nature.”
It would seem that even the moderate political reforms introduced by Vietnam (such as multiple candidate elections for communist party chief as opposed to single-candidate rubber-stamping) are now firmly off the drawing board in China.
[Update] Here’s a nice round-up in English of the argument as it stood before the on-set of high inflation.
Despite weeks during which hashtags consisting of various expletives follow by the acronym GFW (or Great Fire Wall) first topped the trending charts on Twitter as a sign of protest against the Chinese government’s blocking of various website, and were then, ironically, censored by Twitter for profanity, the Chinese government is not likely to pay much heed to China’s Twitterati. Of course, the wave of blockings that have taken place since February this year, including at various times Google, Hotmail, and Twitter, and still covering all the main blogging services as well as Youtube. Particularly noteworthy has been the blocking of two very prominent China blogs: Danwei.org and PekingDuck.org. Both of these blogs are written by long-term China expats who have only rarely and seemingly accidentally been blocked in the past but who are now both subject to purposeful and permanent blocks, whilst both are in their own way critical of the Chinese government, both are also amongst the most objectively sympathetic monitors of modern China. The writer of Peking Duck, for example, was previously an editor for the Global Times, a state-owned publication. This appears even more illogical when you consider that foreign media such as the BBC and the Wall Street Journal remain available in English.
However, this may not be as illogical as it seems, and may indicate a definite strategy. Last year’s disturbances in Weng’an, to the surprise of many, relatively uncensored discussion of the incident was allowed on government-run websites whilst being suppressed on other websites. The reasoning behind this is not hard to grasp – fulfil the people’s need for discussion whilst maintaining and directing the flow of the argument. Hence rather than the patchy and easily avoided blocking of the past in the future the government will allow access to foreign media sites up to a point whilst indoctrinating the Chinese public to thoroughly distrust them as weapons of foreign powers (a line now generally accepted in China), and simultaneously block any fora in which people might discuss Chinese issues but which are beyond Chinese government control. The objective has switched from the mere blocking of information to the control of discussion so as to run along lines favourable to the government.
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I don’t want to get into the general discussion on race in China, an old one on China blogs which has been done to death here, here, here, here, and here. However, this translation by Roland Soong of a story on today’s protests in Guangzhou following the death of an African trader trying to evade the police, perhaps the first instance of an anti-government protest by foreign immigrants in modern China, is certainly big news as far as I am concerned. The idea of foreigners in China, who make up only a very small number of mainly short-term residents who do their best in the main to avoid any trouble is quite extraordinary.
The fact that it involved the African population in Guangzhou, who from my experience are mainly small-time traders resident on short-term visas (i.e., working illegally), and who suffer all the disadvantages of being a foreigner in China without most of the advantages enjoyed by those obviously from rich countries do, is not surprising. The violent language used in the article to describe their protest is not supported by the photographs, but typical of many articles written about foreigners, especially black people. I will be especially interested to see how the people at the demonstration are treated by the authorities, because whilst this kind of thing has happened at least once in most countries with immigrant populations, race relations (rather than trying to subsume all races into a single Chinese race) is an entirely new thing in China which the authorities may be unprepared for. Some may be inclined to find proof of Chinese racism in this story, all I will say is that Emmanul Egisimba is just as dead as Amadou Diallo, Steven Lawrence, or Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, and it will be the response of the authorities which will show their true attitude, especially if they choose to simply deport those who protested.
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“Deadly date” here doesn’t mean “a nice little tete-a-tete that goes tragically wrong when you get a humongous fish-bone stuck in your throat and end up getting rushed to the hospital”, although this has happened to me (twice – nowadays I stick to the salad). Instead it’s the predicted date for Communist China’s attempted annexation of Taiwan, at least according to former Canadian intelligence operative and current Taipei Times columnist J. Michael Cole. His reasoning?
“. . . . after more than a decade of major investment in its military and new weapons systems, such as second-generation nuclear submarines and anti-ship ballistic missiles, Beijing is in a much better position to intimidate not only Taiwan but also the US, should it feel compelled to dispatch carrier battle groups to or near the Strait amid tensions.
During the presidential election campaign in 2011 and early 2012 the KMT could also exploit public fears of renewed tensions with Beijing to its advantage and accuse its opponents of risking war. A divided polity will by that time face a choice between irreversible political annexation or military attack.
Another factor that makes 2012 such a dangerous time in the Strait — especially if there is a possibility of the KMT suffering defeat — is Beijing’s awareness that time is not on its side, and that the longer Taiwan remains separate from China, the further Taiwanese identity will consolidate and more so under a pro-independence government.
Just as dangerous would be Beijing sensing that it had come close to realizing its dream of annexation only to see the chance slip as the result of a democratic process. Chances are that rather than admit defeat, it would use force to complete its agenda, an option all the more attractive given the cuts the Ma administration has made to the defence establishment.”
Let us be under no misimpressions here: China’s Communists have not abandoned their threat of ‘reunification
through non-peaceful means’, in fact this remains enshrined in the mind-bendingly bad-faith “Anti-Secession Law”. Nor has China’s program of military expansion slackened: official 2009 spending is set to increase by 14.9% (about twice the predicted rate of economic growth) to US$70 Billion, an official figure exceeding that of any country bordering the PRC, and the real figure may be far higher.
In the meantime, whilst official Taiwanese defence spending as a proportion of GDP is slightly higher than the PRC’s (2.2% as compared to 1.7%), in real terms it is about 1/7th of China’s outlay, and is unlikely to increase in the next few years.
My big problem with Cole’s analysis is not his description of China’s military growth, but his assumption that the CCP would wish to do a replay of its failed 1996 intimidation campaign, which instead of helping pro-reunification figures on the island actually led to a backlash in favour of the pro-independence KMT candidate Lee Teng-Hui. The more muted warnings of 2000 and 2004 also helped pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party Chen Shui Bian win, in fact, if anything could have saved the DPP from defeat in 2008, an aggressive PRC proclamation would have been it.
I understand also that Cole here is attempting to counter some of the excessively laudatory commentary from Washington-based analysts who were always more comfortable with the old KMT, but I think he goes too far when he drags out the often-referenced but never substantiated allegation of a KMT-CCP deal. Furthermore, whilst the risk of invasion increases as Chinese military strength increases, there is no substantial proof is offered of any reason beyond this as to why 2012 is a year of danger. At current rates of growth, Chinese official military spending will be roughly US$110 billion in 2012, and even taking the highest estimate of current spending (US$ 150 billion) is unlikely to amount to more than a third of the spending of the United States – Taiwan’s principle guarantor, nor is the Chinese government likely to be less distracted by internal unrest or external dispute away from the strait than it is now.
Finally, it must be said how often these kind of predictions have been made in the past decade without actually coming to pass, you need only think of Lee Teng-Hui’s warning about 2008, or the warnings of trouble ahead of each of the elections since ’96, to see how often they are proved wrong. I know Mr. Cole won’t like me making this comparison, but this is all rather reminiscent of the on-going crisis surrounding the Iranian nuclear program, where pundits feel free to make regular predictions of the inevitability of military action against Iran, and never seem to learn from the failure of their predictions to come true. Just as with Iran, the most likely outcome is that in three years time we will be roughly where we are now.
Despite incidents like yesterday’s shootings, it seems that the lid has been firmly fixed back on the boiling kettle of Xinjiang race-relations, so perhaps now is the time to take a look at how this situation developed and was covered by the media, especially as compared to the ongoing situation in Iran. Obviously the situation in Xinjiang is very different, as it involves a revolt within a minority making up less than one percent of the Chinese population rather than the enraged outcry of the majority, but in both we saw autocracies attempt to control information potentially harmful to their rule.
Whilst both the Iranian rebellion and the Urumqi disturbances started with peaceful demonstrations involving university students, the young Uyghurs of Urumqi totally failed to set the agenda in the way that their counterparts in Tehran did. From the first internet access and mobile phone communications in the city were restricted, nor has any video come out yet that I have seen showing the police to have been the drivers of the subsequent largely anti-Han violence. In contrast to Tehran as well as last year’s troubles in Tibet, foreign journalists were allowed limited access to the region almost immediately, and their reports largely meshed with those of the local government.
Despite being widely heralded as a potential weapon against autocracy, Twitter had little effect in spreading news about the disturbances unfavourable about the government. Blocked in Xinjiang and now the entirety of mainland China, the reports that were relayed from Xinjiang via it using the rapidly dwindling number of un-blocked proxies were largely repeats of Chinese state media, or reports from Han within the region. I have been unable to find even one Uyghur twitterer in Urumqi (although I would be happy to be put in touch with one) – this is not surprising, whilst China has a good number of people using either Twitter or the Chinese Tweet-a-like FanFou, these are almost entirely east-coast Han Chinese. Essentially, even the Twitterers who managed to get around the block were still largely repeating the governments line, nor has any evidence come out to disprove this line. Uyghur separatist movements carried reports which were, frankly, fanciful, and not borne out by independent reports, neither Rebiya Kadeer nor anyone else in the separatist movement was able to convey a credible message.
Even more impressive were the Chinese authorities actions to prevent a back-lash against the Uyghur. Websites like Anti-CNN.com, a site highly critical of the western media and supportive of the Chinese government often quoted approvingly by state media, were reportedly blocked in an effort to prevent inflamatory anti-Uyghur invective in the wake of the disturbances and the reports of attempted vigilantism by the Han in Xinjiang leading to violence. People’s Daily even scrubbed editorials written in the immediate aftermath of the Xinjiang disturbances describing the rioters in excessively condemnatory terms. Compare these actions, those of a dictatorship secure in its position, with the continual accusations of treachery directed at Musavi even before the Iranian elections, and you can see just how expert the Chinese Communist Party’s control of information really can be.