Chinese Democracy

Politics, The Environment

Three interesting quotes about democracy in China. Each pointing in a different direction:

The first from a Rick Perlstein review of Mann’s The China Fantasy in The Nation:

Nicholas Kristof dishonored the fifteenth anniversary of the massacre in 2004, Mann points out, with a column titled The Tiananmen Victory.” The democracy activists had won: After the Chinese could watch Eddie Murphy, wear tight pink dresses and struggle over what to order at Starbucks, the revolution was finished. No middle class is content with more choices of coffees than of candidates on a ballot.”

There haven’t been any multiparty ballots for China’s middle class to mark yet. And there won’t be, Mann argues in an elegant formulation: The urban middle class is a tiny proportion of the country’s overall population,” and in any election candidates representing their interests would be swamped by those of the peasantry; thus it is just as easy, or easier, to imagine them as a driving force in opposition to democracy.”

The second from a former Tiananmen student activist, Chaohua Wang, in the London Review of Books:

A different criticism that has often been made of the students is that they did not merge with the citizenry, once the population of the capital took to the streets in vast demonstrations. Had the student organisations consciously sought to lead a mass movement, it would certainly have been the wrong approach. What their exclusivity’ showed was their reluctance to abuse their power: they were aware of the limits of their own legitimacy. Not all the student leaders were flawless — how could they have been? — but I am certain that if the government had fallen, no student-led autocracy would have followed. Instead, student organisations would have asked the people to elect their own representatives, not least to reduce the already unbearable burden of responsibility. The National People’s Congress would have been the most likely agency for the next steps in a long process of democratisation.

What of the citizens themselves? During the 20 days of the student occupation of Tiananmen Square, huge numbers of them paraded under the banners of their different work-units and affiliations, as if this helped to justify their actions. But when night fell, they went out on the streets individually, representing only themselves. Many confronted government officials face to face. These different ways of participating, by day and by night, gradually merged. Once the government declared martial law, and stepped up control of all workplaces, people realised that the socialist structure tying their economic and political rights together into their work-unit was collapsing in front of their eyes, and took a clear stand as citizens, casting off the ambiguous safety of their institutional affiliation, confident that the government was in the wrong.

What brought the people out onto the streets was not only the wish to express sympathy with the students, but also the denial of their rights as citizens. Whether it was the unexpected success of the 27 April march, the proclamation of martial law on 20 May, or the first gunshots on the night of 3 June, the largest response was always in reply to the government’s toughest measures. Without this huge outburst of energy, the upheaval of 1989 would never have taken place.

And third, from Christina Larson’s piece about how decentralization and corruption have limited the ability of Beijing to implement national policies, and how this has forced them to turn to civil society as a partner:

The kid-glove treatment China’s environmental activists receive is not a sign that Beijing is willing to relinquish political control. The Communist Party’s agile leaders are well aware of the role that civil society groups have played in the fall of other authoritarian systems. Rather, the government is taking a calculated risk. It is opening space for political participation in the hope of preventing what it sees as an even greater threat: that the country’s rapidly deteriorating environment will imperil China’s vibrant economy—and perhaps, one day, the party’s own hold on power.

… The dilemma is enforcement. The central government’s decision to open up the country’s economy has simultaneously undermined its ability to impose its will on far-flung provinces. Since 1980, China’s economic strategy has been one of decentralization. State-owned enterprises have been partially privatized; provincial governments have been given more authority; entire sectors of the economy have been deregulated.

In economic terms, this strategy has been wildly successful. But it has also diminished the central government’s reach. Gone are the days when Beijing could easily disseminate party dicta—or orders such as not dumping trash into the river—to every citizen through clearly delineated work units. Perhaps more significant, the central government has a dwindling ability to make regional and local government officials follow its lead. Although laws are promulgated in the capital, provincial authorities are responsible for implementing them. But provincial governments depend on tax revenue from local industries, so shutting down polluters often runs counter to their interests. Local officials are no longer beholden to the party patronage machine as they once were. They can make good money by selling land to developers, or taking bribes to protect a private factory. A promotion from Beijing is no longer the only route to upward mobility.

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