Sunday, June 28, 2009

More democratic now or then?

I've been reading Anita Chan, Richard Madsen and Jonathan Unger's expanded edition of Chen Village Under Mao and Deng. Throughout, I've been struck by how incredibly participatory governance in rural areas was during the Mao era.

Of course, it was a participation driven by the great tidal waves waves of mass campaigns, each of which left behind new victims in addition to the pitiful villagers of "bad" class backgrounds, who were hauled out and made to pay for their pre-revolutionary crimes again and again and again with every movement. And freedom of opinion, while unleashed in a devastating way during the Cultural Revolution, was on the whole much more restricted than today. The book vividly depicts the fatigue that constant mobilization created in ordinary people, a fatigue that ultimately overwhelmed their faith in the Party in many instances.

But compared to the unaccountable rural officials, opaque finances and land battles one reads of every week these days in the Chinese press and in books like Zhongguo nongmin diaocha or the research of Yu Jianrong, the battles of Maoism seem remarkably evenly fought, with leaders rising and falling, agricultural brigades and teams forming the centers of lively debates, and farmers jumping on evidence of corruption.

Those aren't particularly original insights, I suppose, but they've pushed me beyond my skepticism of calls for further privatization of land to think about what kind of arrangement, exactly, would be best for China's farmers. Yes, village elections should be strengthened (and matched by livelier People's Congress elections at the township level, as well as direct elections for township chiefs). But how to ensure that production, too, is guarded by laobaixing?

ALSO: On an unrelated topic, I haven't read the whole of the Washington Post's take on the battle over healthcare reform within the Democratic Party, but I must say---and, again, this isn't fair having not read the whole article---that the opening strengthens charges that the paper tends to see everything as a beltway power battle in need of "moderate" compromises, rather than as real issues. I mean, really? Baucus and health reform groups should be natural allies and are hurt by silly efforts by "outsiders" to impact legislation? Huh?

Monday, June 22, 2009

The New Left--what a relief

Popular online forums give the impression that ideology in China is sharply divided between "liberals" who champion political liberties but uncritically praise the U.S. and free markets, on the one hand, and, on the other, "leftists" (more accurately described as populist nationalists or fascists) who lash out at foreign critics, while maintaining an ambiguous stance on social justice, waffling from social darwinism ("the weak must suffer for China to get ahead") to outrage at the arrogant rich.

It is therefore refreshing to read the essays of Chinese thinkers who espouse a more true leftism, with nuanced views of the country's socialist past, salvaging successes from the Mao era like rural health care but not whitewashing the brutality of the Cultural Revolution; concerned about the corrosive effects of commercialism and social stratification; and driven by a real passion for democracy--but adamant that democracy must be truly popularly based, not a game for the well-educated.

Wang Hui, the editor of Du Shu, in particular, makes powerful arguments. He describes as self-serving those liberals who champion freedom of speech and rule of law but seem unexcited about local elections and positively hostile to the idea of greater democracy on factory floors.

Wang is clear that markets are not "natural" but the result of decisions, ultimately enforced with guns: "All-out marketization in China did not originate from spontaneous exchange but from acts of violence--state repression of protest." The protest Wang refers to is, of course, the one that resulted in the June 4, 1989 crackdown, violence which, according to him, not only crushed the Tiananmen students' campaign for democracy but also ordinary people's resistance to price reforms (reforms pushed, incidentally, by Zhao Ziyang, who ultimately lost power because of his unwillingness to back martial law against the protesters).

Not content to keep things on a domestic scale, Wang continues:
... the Open Door policies of Deng Xiaoping demanded a much deeper insertion of China into the world market. How did that happen? A key step in the process was China's invasion of Vietnam in 1978--the first war of aggression by the PRC after 1949. The only reason for this otherwise senseless attack on a small neighbor was Deng's desire for a new relationship with the United States. The invasion was offered as a political gift to Washington, and became China's entrance ticket to the world system. Here too violence was the precondition of a new economic order.

I don't know that there's any consensus that a desire to please the U.S. was "the only reason" for Deng Xiaoping's decision. China waited until after it had resumed diplomatic ties with Washington before it launched the invasion, suggesting that Beijing was actually worried that America would not support the violence--but then, I'm no expert on these things.

However, I admire Wang's stubborn humanism, with his insistence that liberalism doesn't offer an easy ticket out of China's dilemmas and that authoritarianism and unfairness must be dealt with together and are equal challenges.

Again, I can't recommend Chaohua Wang's collection One China Many Paths (from which the quotes above come) enough! It places Wang Hui alongside thoughtful liberals like Zhu Xueqin, who acknowledge the dangers of China's rising inequality, as well as people like Gan Yang, who argues for national elections as a means of creating national cohesion and checking local despots. The book is a good survey of debates from the 1990s to early 2000s---and a good corrective to the blues one can get reading too many blogs.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Iran and Tiananmen

Obama's cautious approach to the Iranian protests, refusing to "meddle" in the election but voicing concern about violence against demonstrators, makes sense for the reason that he gave at a press conference today: a more assertive stance is "not productive given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations...."

However, looking ahead, Obama would do well to remember another piece of US foreign policy history, namely America's relationship with China in the months and years immediately following the Tiananmen massacre.

In 1989, Bush the elder did not allude to past US intrigues as a reason for a less forceful stance on the events of June 4. In fact, he didn't really do any explaining. He simply at once condemned the crackdown and assured China (privately, via Brent Scowcrowft, at first) that relations, while bumpy, would continue more or less the same.

This double-message is praised in foreign policy circles as the perfect balance of principle and realism, but it led to a zig-zag, confused few years of Sino-US relations. Bill Clinton bluffed that he would tie trade with the P.R.C. to human rights progress, then flipped over to the other extreme and rammed through PNTR.

The effect was to make clear that America only deals with rights when it has less pressing matters on its mind (something Hillary Clinton reiterated recently on her first trip to China as Secretary of State).

Chinese dissidents abroad are brave but their prescriptions often seem out of touch with reality at home. Not so Yang Jianli's advice last year. In an interview with Foreign Policy, he said:
Many people wrongly assume that pressuring the Chinese government on human rights triggers ill will toward Americans on the part of ordinary Chinese citizens. In fact, it is the United States’ constant seesawing that reinforces the popular belief that Americans only act for their own material gain. The lofty statements followed by inaction have led the Chinese people to conclude that some American politicians, scholars, and businesspeople are hypocrites. Their self-imposed censorship when dealing with the Chinese government is disappointing. I have never opposed trading with China, but I cannot support a policy that is so wholly inconsistent.

Obama would do well to heed Yang's words when approaching Iran in the months and years to come. Not "meddling" is fine, whether literally or rhetorically, and there's no reason to cut dialogue entirely with the Iranian government if the current movement fails. But the U.S. should continue to be clear with the Iranian people about what calculations it is making and it should continue to speak clearly about its own ideals and not pipe up or quiet down depending on the winds of war and money. It should also be ready to make some sacrifices for democracy in Tehran.

UPDATE: The more I think about it, the more I think Obama should begin doing more.

Liu Yongyi's dismissal

China Labor News Translations has just put up some material on an interesting and extremely frustrating situation:
The story of Liu Yongyi, trade union chairperson of the Guangdong Trade Union Building workers’ union, [who] was fired after pushing too hard for workers’ interests is a familiar one; this sort of thing happens every day in China. What makes this story particularly galling is that the hotel that Liu works for is not only directly owned by the GDFTU, but is also where actually occupies the same building as the trade union’s office. This has led many to ask the question, if unions cannot operate without fear of illegal retaliation by management in companies owned by a trade union, where can they? The answer has to be, nowhere.

CLNT has usually maintained a tone of cautious optimism about the prospects for the All China Federation of Trade Unions as an avenue for worker mobilization. That last sentence in the quote above thus has a particularly strong kick to it.

The fact that Chinese media have gone to town on the story is hopeful. If anything good comes of this, it is that the public will now have been given one more lesson on what a union is and isn't (or should and shouldn't be). Unfortunately, unlike other episodes, this one might not serve to raise people's expectations of the ACFTU---and thereby force better performance---but instead could merely deepen cynicism and disengagement.

On a different note, I've just started reading One China, Many Paths, edited by Chaohua Wang. Really interesting and much recommended.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

New rules for courts re: mass incidents

China has just asked courts to help prevent protests. On the face of it, this seems like another outrage in a long stream of reversals of progress on rule of law by the new, Wang Shengjun-led Supreme People's Court. And that's how a Forbes article sees the situation:
According to the internal handbook of the Chinese communist government, China's legal system is defined as its exclusive tool to safeguard one-party rule. This week, to make this clearer to potential troublemakers, Beijing asked courts across the country to help curb rising workers' protests.

But it's not clear that Forbes is entirely right. I don't mean they're wrong. I mean the facts just aren't all in yet.

Specifically, the new rules call for a) tracking trends in labor disputes, b) thinking about the broader social consequences of cases involving big companies, c) more mediation and d) more coordination with local governments.

There's nothing wrong that I can think of with item "a". Presumably plenty of countries' courts take note of patterns in the cases they receive. But "b" could both mean adopting measures, as the American government has (though not through court rules), to tide over weakened but "too big to fail" corporations or... it could mean protecting companies from workers' cases if it seems like those cases could spread. As China Daily says:
In Fujian and Guangdong provinces, recent disputes over such issues involved hundreds of workers dragging companies to court.

"It is very important to handle such cases carefully as some large enterprises have divisional companies across the country. Court decisions in one place might lead to mass incidents in other places," Liu told China Daily.

Item "c" is also troubling. Neighborhood mediation committees in particular, which are used to sorting out domestic disputes and the like, are ill-equipped to handle labor law questions and liable to simply split the difference between employers and employees.

Finally..."d" does give pause rule-of-law-wise. Not sure what it would mean in practice, though.

"You want my vote, I want yours"

The last few moments of this video are beautiful. Specter is going on about different jobs he's brought to Pennsylvania and people keep interrupting him about the Employee Free Choice Act. As TPM reports:
"You want my vote, I want yours," heckled one of the activists....

"I understand your job's on the line," Specter told the crowd, which shouted back, "your job's on the line!"

The point is not that Specter is a complete scoundrel and that he's getting his comeuppance---he's not a scoundrel, really. It's that labor is finally asking politicians for a straight answer: do they support a conscious, assertive working class or do they just want to create jobs and pay lip service to a dying movement? It's moving.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Iron Man II

I commented earlier on the return to Chinese pop culture of "Iron Man Wang Jinxi," the famous Daqing model worker whose life is depicted in a new movie hyped by a whole special section of Workers Daily.

It seems like the section was more than a coincidence.

Now, the paper is reporting on screenings of the film by local branches of the All China Federation of Trade Unions. After one such event in Fujian, Workers Daily says that workers were moved by the "spirit of Iron Man" to "join in the construction of Haixi." Apparently, Haixi is a new economic zone with special "fiscal system, tax and industrial policies" designed to attract Taiwanese investment.

It seems cynical in the extreme to use a hero of a what Ching Kwan Lee calls the old "socialist social contract" to promote an SEZ. But there might be something else at work here: a bid by the ACFTU for relevance by appealing to a time when it enjoyed the trust of workers. Given the alternatives---the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, etc.---this might not be such a bad thing.