Thursday, March 22, 2007


From Egypt, we have this NY Times report on a protest by villagers threatened with eviction that is strikingly similar to stories from China:

"The Gurna standoff... illustrates the challenges facing an authoritarian government that for decades imposed its will on the people, keeping them poor but fed, underemployed but employed, but now seeks to adjust the social contract without sparking widespread unrest...."

"Political analysts say the dynamics here are similar to those all over the country as the government tries to transform a centrally controlled economy. In recent months thousands of workers in bloated state-owned factories have staged wildcat strikes, out of fear that privatization will take their jobs, or demanding pay raises."

While I appreciate that the reporter, Michael Slackman, sees in the old Egyptian system a "social contract", his article still misses something of the deeper sense of fairness that underwrit "bloated state-owned factories" in many systems, the sense of being in something together and of workers having a priviliged position in society.

This feeling will be hard to recapture, whatever efficiency gains privatization may yield.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Wen Jiabao on political reform--important?

I've been off the internet for a while, so I don't know if the foreign media have been making much of Premier Wen Jiabao's recent comments at the NPC / CPPCC meetings. Conversations with friends--who are usually given to cynicism about any and everything related to the CCP--have given me some hope that these comments have at least opened a space to which others can lay claim.

At any rate, at the risk of redundancy, here are some of my translations from the March 19 issue of "21st Century Business Herald" (Ershiyi shiji jingji baodao). The original was a paper copy, so no link I'm afraid. Direct quotations are marked by, naturally, quotation marks. All else is summary.

1. Premier Wen Jiabao, "when replying to a reporter's question, promised that the central government will push forward political reform, reduce the over-centralization of power, increase the people's oversight of government...."

2. According to Premier Wen, "socialist democracy" means "making the people be masters of their house, which requires ensuring that there be rights to democratic elections, democratic decision-making, democratic governance and democratic oversight, that is to say creating the conditions for the people to oversee and criticize their government..."

3. The paper also noted that Wen had said in November that creativity is important to any progress and that "there is a direct link between liberated thinking and creativity / innovation; liberated thinking is the cause, while innovation is the result."

Less impressively, the Premier also indulged in "online democracy" by replying to some of the "more than 100,000" questions put to him by netizens. Of course, this is a) a rather inefficient form of democracy and b) a form with little of the "cause and effect" he mentioned earlier---there is no guaranteed result to putting forward the questions, not even that Wen will read them. He can pick and choose.

These things, again, may or may not matter in and of themselves. Premier Wen Jiabao, like this whole administration, is quite media savvy. His comments on Tibet and Taiwan departed little from formula.

But Wen's words on political reform have the potential to restart a discussion that has been practically frozen in official speeches since Zhao Ziyang.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Uh, I meant intuiting the "will of the people..."

From China Digital Times:

When a reporter asked Minister Li about China's policy on Taiwan, Li answered: “All policies follow the will of the motherland and will of the people."

"Do you mean you want them to vote?" a female Taiwanese reporter asked.

Li Zhaoxing (laughing): "This question is a tricky one. The answer is No. No!"

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Mines and authority

A recent piece on Shanxi coal miners in Time by Simon Elegant and Zhang Jiachang hits the nail on the head with this remark on Wen Jiabao's efforts against mine deaths:

"In a country famously assumed to be authoritarian, like China, you might think such repeated investment of personal authority by a top leader would produce rapid results."

Pei Minxin's explanation for this seeming paradox makes the most sense: authority is so dispersed and the central government is so hesitant to grab that authority back (other than in tightly military-guarded places like Tibet and Xinjiang) because there is rent seeking behavior up and down the chain of command that MUST BE SATISFIED.

Without corrupt local officials on its side, the government not only loses any presence at the village and township level, but it is faced with a potential new enemy, as Kevin O'Brien and others have shown. Local officials can bolt and go populist.

The potential for this is shown most strangely and tragically in the cases of mine bosses and small town despots who are able to rally workers to STOP the shutting down of unsafe mines.

PM Abe on Korean comfort women...

Prime Minister Abe is quoted (link) as saying: "The fact is, there is no evidence to prove there was coercion" (a repudiation of his own government's apology in 1993).

Like President Reagan on the Vietnam War: "Those Americans who went to Vietnam fought for freedom, a truly noble cause" (link).

Tidying up history can deliver political dividends far down the road, clearly. But I wonder if it doesn't end up distancing people from their own countries in the end, all that white paint makes for a history that's rather hard to access. Surely pain is a part of living in a country, feeling a part of something, thinking of responsibilities.