Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Asia Times article on reform

Following up on the previous post, Asia Times has an interesting article wondering if modest but still significant systemic (tizhi) reforms are around the corner for China. The piece puts a lot of weight on a speech by the current head of Hunan Province:
A pointer to the shape of future changes came recently in the form of explicit remarks about "political reforms" by Zhang Chunxian, the CCP head of Hunan province.

At a televised conference of Hunan officials on August 31 held to mobilize a province-wide campaign for further "emancipation of minds", Zhang said reforms in the past 30 years had focused on how "to return li [economic interests] to the people". The focus now would be on how "to return quan to the people" , with efforts devoted to "developing socialist democratic politics". The Chinese word quan has a double meaning and could refer to rights or (political) power or both.
Asia Times then rattles off various ways that the comments could be interpreted---land reform, "public opinion" surveys as effective votes on cadre promotion, as well as more ambitious stuff---and notes that Zhang appears to be in the process of being groomed for higher posts, so it is unlikely that he "made a slip of the tongue."


I for one am extremely nervous about the prospect of premature land reform. The free market crowd loves the idea for all the usual reasons: farmers being given incentives to invest in the land, land being used as collateral for loans, bigger and more efficient farms, etc. But without courts that will actually protect farmers' rights, it seems likely that land reform would just yield more, not less heartless land grabs by officials and developers with no more push back than today.

Land grabs are serious. Any more of them and a critical social safety net, the ONLY social safety net in many areas, will be lost to hundreds of millions of rural people who would no longer have any "right" to a patch of (leased) property for their families. It is not hard imagining landlords returning. Worse yet, there is the possibility of a phenomenon that China has largely avoided but that other countries at its income level in Latin America and Southeast Asia endure: shantytowns.

Therefore, on top of all the reasons for political reform on its own merits, I hope elections and press freedoms and freedom of association (such as for farmers associations) will move ahead so that rural people can gain a stronger check on local authorities---before literally the ground beneath them is torn up.

Let's hope this is what Mr. Zhang has in mind. More importantly, let's hope this is what his superiors have in mind.


wuming said...

Reform is always extremely tricky affair because even you know where you are going; often the most crucial decision is made about the order in which various steps are implemented. It is important that institutional framework must be established to carry out reform as well as resolve potential conflicts that are going to inevitably rise from the reform.

For example, it is commonly accepted that free speech is a good thing, it increases transparency and makes government accountable to public opinions. But if there is no actual mechanism to address injustices exposed by free speech, it is only going to destabilize the society. Therefore the better enforcement of the rule of law should come before the freer speech.

Another example is the puzzle of the longevity of Indian democracy. I don’t think that Indian voters’ ability to vote out the incumbent regularly did much to improve its citizens’ lives and its society’s smooth functioning, except in confirming a temporary legitimacy to the newly elected government; while I believe it was the leftover colonial institutions did the trick in the stability of the India.

In these random thoughts I wish to convey the idea that the horses of social institutions must be put before the carts of goodies such as democracy, free-speech, human rights, labor rights (OK, I put it here just to appease you) and environmental protection.

Old Tales Retold said...


Thanks for throwing labor rights in there with the others! I appreciate it and am nearly appeased. Haha.

More seriously, I agree that various freedoms (in the Amartya Sen sense) have to be mutually reinforcing to work. In India's case... I admire the vibrancy of Indian democracy. And I still am happy (especially in these dark days for the U.S.) that though when I traveled through India everyone assured me that the BJP would win, the Congress Party, relying very much on the votes of the poor, kicked those scoundrels out.

But, like you say, elections are not enough. India has long needed real social reform, i.e. real pro-poor policies, not just a semi-state economy, to match its political openness. The same might be said for the United States. And certainly for much of Latin America. Openness is hollow without something for everyone to stand upon.

Where I disagree with you most strongly, perhaps, is that I don't see there being a clear, developmentalist scheme for these things. I think progress works in a dialectic form: more democracy tugs one way, more enforced redistribution in another, then back and forth and back and forth etc.

That's not to say that sometimes one thing shouldn't come before the other. I think, for example, that land reform or the "freedom to own land"---if it is indeed a necessary freedom at all---should come after political reform. Without some sort of oversight, it will be a free for all and the poor will hurt more than they do now.

But I think an overemphasis on sequence rather than complementarity is dangerous. Sequencing might not always send things into chaos (as you allege it has in India when democracy was put before social this and that) but it can lead to stagnation. I don't agree with Pei Minxin on everything, but I think he might be right that if China doesn't move on political reform this will be it's fate.

And sequencing---in either direction---too often leads to those worst off losing out yet again.

Old Tales Retold said...

P.S. Thanks for posting! I need more discussions. I feel my head growing fuzzy and slow these days.

Anonymous said...

Regards, OTR!

I once read a very enlightening (at least for me) article called "The smart mass". This was a play of words in German ("Die schlaue Masse" as compared to "Die graue Masse" which is a synonym for the brain).
The essence of the article was that with complex problems solutions averaged over a number of specialists from all fields will generally be better than that of a particular specialist.
I found it fascinating because although it was relating to scientific research, when you applied it to the human social environment, it actually read like a great argument for democracy, media freedom etc.

Why do I write this?
Because I have heard too much of wuming's "(Chinese) people are too stupid to be trusted in giving them free access to information, free speech and so forth".

The arguments are so obviously flawed... How do you get better enforcement of the rule of law *without* free speech first?
It is ridiculous, isn't it?
Exactly because there is no media freedom, there is no rule of law in China! If the government runs the judiciary as well, what do you expect? And if all decision-making is taking place behind closed doors?

How many Chinese care for those few (in their eyes stupid) conscientious objectors who are sent to re-education camps, torture and death by the CCP? Or for a whole people like the Tibetans who suffer that destiny?

Seriously, I find this attitude sickening and I can get quite upset about it because it is at the cost of so many innocent people.

The following is a quote from an interview that Ai Weiwei gave to a German newspaper:

法兰克富汇报 2008 年 3 月 31 日
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, March 31, 2008.
Time to reveal the truth

Many Chinese are curious as to why so many western people are interested in Tibet. And
conversely we can also ask: why are so few Chinese people concerned about Tibet?

Customarily in China, there's a lack of sympathy for the weak. The weak and injured have no
toe-hold in this society. This is a society for the successful, for the power-brokers. There is
little empathy. The west is another world, where people naturally stand on the side of the
weak. Many Chinese people regard Tibet as a holiday destination, somewhere to go and
sightsee. These minor businesspeople from Shanghai and Beijing will happily and obliviously
spend a holiday there, but they don't understand the local people and they have absolutely
no qualitative interaction with the local people whatsoever.

Yes, that is my experience with China too. And that is why I have never liked China from my first stay in 1992 up to now...

Free Tibet! And free the Chinese too (if they ever care about it)!


Anonymous said...

Actually, I am sorry. On re-reading my posting, I realized that it comes across like a lecture... ;-)

As I wrote, I *do* get upset by pretty much *all* Chinese bloggers - except you! So it was not at all aimed at you.

In fact, as I wrote earlier on CDT, I appreciate your thoughtful posts a lot.
Are you, if I may ask, a Chinese born and brought up in the US (as you indicated somewhere earlier)?
I cannot see how you would have come to the width and depth of your political understanding (which surpasses that of most Americans that I know) based on a CCP upbringing...

Old Tales Retold said...


I'm afraid that I will disappoint you. I should have said this before: I am not Chinese at all, though I speak Chinese, have lived in China and travel there fairly often.

I was similarly struck by the truth of some of what Ai Weiwei said in that interview (particularly in regards to Chinese attitudes toward Tibet). But I also found he was off, pretty far off on a couple things. In particular, I think he was wrong in his assertion that Chinese have no sympathy for the weak.

If anything, public reaction to the Yang Jia case (Mr. Yang killed six police officers for an unknown reason and received widespread backing) shows almost too much support in China for underdogs--I say "almost" because I, too, have sympathy for Mr. Yang and can't see how under the present circumstances anyone wouldn't.

The frequent web exposes in China of rich people hitting poor people with their cars (the "BMW incident"), or rich people talking crap about migrant workers while bragging about nice cars, or rich celebrities forgetting Chinese history, all point to an anti-elitism that's similar, I think, to America's or England's.

The problem is that, as in America, there are limits, blind spots in people's sympathy. Public sympathy doesn't often extend to illegal immigrants or Middle Easterners in the United States or to Tibetans or Uyghurs in China. And, as in America, people in China rally to the state and the powerful on the mere condition that they take on the appearance of anti-elitism, not necessarily its socially-leveling substance.

Anyway, thanks again for your support! These conversations are really useful.

Anonymous said...


I suppose the question is: whom do we call "the weak"? I remember, in 1992, just about the only animals I saw in Guangzhou were those in little cages and in a miserable condition waiting outside restaurants to be selected for cooking. And when I heard a few birds sing near Emei Shan, not soon afterwards I saw a man with some gun shooting after them... I have seen open and disgusting abuse of power, even at the lowest level, like a ticket sales woman refusing to sell a railway ticket to a French lady who even spoke Chinese and who started crying after that...
My first word in Chinese was "meiyou!"
I had just come from 9 months backpacking around India (then my 3rd extensive stay in India), and I found China to be "the opposite" of India in just about every way, and loving India that meant that I pretty much "hated" China...

It didn't stop me from falling in love with my wife-to-be and so destiny has led me back to China frequently afterwards. And yet, my gut feeling every time has been "I don't ever want to come back to this country..."

I often found that primordial negative human emotions like greed, envy, hatred and ignorance were on open display - like in some bad movie. I am not saying that it did not get somewhat better, but still...
Therefore I do hold, like Ai Weiwei, that Chinese society does not have much compassion neither for animals nor for their own lot (and still less for others like Uighurs or Tibetans who are only "nominally" Chinese). On top of that they have been brainwashed into a conformity of thinking and feeling that truly is deplorable...

Well, that is my "experience" of China, certainly looking through the prism of my values and therefore ultimately "biased" like any other.

How did you come to speak Chinese and to travel to China often (and apparently at times to India as well)? Is that your profession or your "special interest"?

How do special interests come about at all? I mean, if I didn't love India and if I were not related to China family-wise, I probably would have never got as emotionally involved in the Tibet issue as I did. I remember that in my early days in Dharamsala I used to find the lectures on Tibetan Buddhism at the library boring as compared to Zen or Indian teachings and I couldn't relate to the Tibetans as being refugees. Only by being "caught up" myself with the Chinese, their case has become my case...

Surely, something will have triggered your "interest" in labour rights as well...

I am not a professional blogger and I don't want to sign up with Google. So please excuse me for posting as "Anonymous".

wuming said...


Ironically, the 'hatred' part of your narrative is the most honest and compelling stuff among all of your argument. It is perfectly natural to develop an attachment to one culture and contempt for another. Imperfect human beings as most of us are, all the learning and knowledge is often not sufficient to prevent this kind of raw emotion from popping up and overwhelm. In most cases, the best we can do is to acknowledge the existence of such.

China is like that, it is sausage making in the open. The problem is that the moment you think you got it, it has already changed. Take this melamine poisoning scandal for example: on one hand, it is a tragedy that happens all too often in China; on the other hand, the supposedly impenetrable Great Firewall is burned to cinders on the matter and the internet is performing the role of the social monitor of the government and big business, which is not really the case in the democratic west.

Anonymous said...


thanks for your sympathetic comment. You are quite right. I myself feel that beyond all reasoning and argument it boils down to one's "gut feeling" in the end...
Often people lead arguments for the arguments sake, e.g. so many Chinese bloggers "fight to their teeth" about Tibet belonging to China without ever having set a foot into Tibet nor having any Tibetan friends or any first-hand experience about the issue.

We really have to ask ourselves why we are interested in an issue.
Without first-hand experience and some serious emotional involvement what is the point in arguing at all?
On the other hand, we also should not get carried away by emotions...

For me, China is my own private "cooking pot". It brings up more - admittedly negative - emotions in me than any other place in the world. And I have pretty much backpacked most of the world in my young days...
So I do have an issue with China (i.e. with contemporary Chinese civilization). Only after having spent time in China myself it became obvious to me why the Tibetans risk their lives and that of their children to escape into exile in India. I would do the same...

So, definitely it *IS* an emotional issue for me.
And that means I do feel strong sympathy with the Tibetans who have been caught up "on the wrong side of the Himalayas" and who are struggling to maintain their own culture in the face of an all-out onslaught by China.

I have been all across the Indian Himalayas, too. So I know people there are a much happier lot because they are fortunate enough to live on the other side of the Himalayas.
But what I have also noticed there, is that as the borders to the North and their ancient trade routes have been cut off, these places have been "robbed" of their cultural heartland which was Tibet.
Although there is no direct assimilation pressure, they can only look south for their future which means learning Hindi and migrating to Indian cities. This is regrettable and I do think, for this reason alone Tibetans should be fully independent and not only a minority within China.

Tibetans are no Chinese, and they don't want to be Chinese either. Their cultural impact reaches south of the Himalayas and North as far as Mongolia and Kalmykia.

Yes, Tibetans are late in asserting their nationhood. But does that mean that they do not deserve it? I say no. And I do *feel* so strongly...


Anonymous said...

Your assertion that "the internet is performing the role of the social monitor of the government and big business" is valid, I think, and it is a sign of hope for China.

In fact, I have no doubt that China will further open up as a society. The Chinese as an ancient civilization have more to offer to the world than Walmart goods!

My personal question is:
How much more will Tibetans, followers of Falun Gong, dissidents, Uighurs and so on have to suffer until then?
And what can I do to hasten this process?