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?

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