Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Pragmatism and Dissent in China

Westerners' concerns about a resurgent China boil down to this: a country which shows little interest in democratic values is in a massive economic upswing that will surely lead to its own values being increasingly influential around the world and even within the United States. My own concerns are, additionally, that this is happening while American conservatives, who are normally the watchful eyes of our republic, are distracting themselves with much less important domestic social issues; don't you think Chinese central planners sleep better knowing that we're convulsed in arguments about birth certificates?

It's worth pointing out that somehow, almost half of Americans have gotten it in their heads that the Chinese economy is the biggest in the world (which James Fallows appropriately called "crazy".) While this is way off base, it signals that paying more attention to China could be another big win for conservatives. It's all the more mystifying that this opportunity is being missed (along with other possible conservative big wins).

In any event, it's foolish to think that China's upswing will not continue. It is also foolish to try to slow or stop it. A prosperous China is good not only for Chinese people but for everyone on the planet. What is far better is a prosperous and democratic China, and that's not automatic. To play devil's advocate, a common Chinese attitude toward Western (and especially American) criticisms of China's lack of civil liberties is this: that what's important is economic growth, that China's people aren't ready for full democracy, that the Western obsession with civil liberties is a bit naive, and anyway what has all this freedom and openness gotten us lately? A recession, and a massive deficit that China is financing. So who are we to tell them what works and what doesn't? Ideally, the citizens of the West's liberal democracies should each have a well-thought-out answer for this.

While we shouldn't expect The Nation to contain eloquent defenses of capitalism, one article by Christopher Hayes does contain a very interesting discussion with former Shanghai Mayor Xu Kuangdi:

Xu argued that [the lack of civil liberties] is all part of the plan: "Let's look at our neighboring Asian countries," he said. "South Korea: its peak developing speed was reached using military rule.... Indonesia was successful during the reign of Suharto but recently it faces stalemate and difficulties." The reason that democracy is an obstacle to economic progress, Xu said, is that "the poor people want to divide the property of the rich people.... If we Chinese copied the directly elected situation today, people will say, 'I want everyone to have a good job.' Someone will say, 'I will divide the property of the rich people to poor people,' and he will be elected. It is useless: parity will not solve the problem of economic development. That is why we are taking a gradual and step-by-step approach in reform. As Mr. Deng said, we will cross the river by touching the stones. We will not get ourselves drowned, and we will cross the river."

Modern China is nothing if not rich with irony, and it's hard to overstate the irony of a Chinese Communist Party official arguing that economic growth relies on sustained inequality and silencing the dissent of the proletariat. But once we get past that, the fact remains (no doubt missed by Mr. Hayes) that the U.S., and many other countries, have sustained excellent economic growth with exactly those democratic values. I ask as a friendly challenge, why should China be unable to repeat this feat?

Later in the article Hayes talks about his conversation with Wang Hui, a dissident whose relative openness should be cause for optimism about the growth of dissent and Chinese civil discourse:

A participant in the Tiananmen uprising, Wang spent time in re-education camps before going on to edit an independent journal that criticized the government from, for lack of a better word, the left. We met for lunch in a restaurant on the campus of Beijing's Tsinghua University, and as Wang spoke about politics in China, our two chaperones grew more and more uncomfortable, staring down at their plates in silence as if Wang were sharing graphic details of his sex life. It was a reminder that explicitly political debates are taboo. But Wang's point is that there is a public sphere in China, cramped though it may be, and it's beginning to have an effect: if an issue seizes the public's attention, the government now finds itself forced to respond.

I particularly like the "for lack of a better word" apology for the use of "left"; but frankly, whatever position Wang is arguing from, if he's attacking the legitimacy of a regime that is based on an argument from authority, I really don't care which end of the spectrum he's coming from, and neither should anyone else who holds democratic values. I have to admit that I don't care for the odd allergy American conservatives seem to have to dissidents stirring up trouble for oppressive regimes. The formula seems to be "if it's a tea party, fine, but everyone else is just a damn hippie asking for trouble, even if they're elsewhere in the world protesting a corrupt regime". Ronald Reagan would not be proud of this lack of support for freedom fighters like Wang in an evil empire.

As a final point, the article throws around a figure of 800 million cars eventually being on the road in a developed China. Those will use a lot of gasoline. Another conservative knee-jerk that I'm also finding increasingly inexplicable is the reaction against any energy source but oil. When the oil runs out - and it will, especially because China is now at the pump - wouldn't you rather have America in better shape than China?

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