Wednesday, July 25, 2007

False Promise of Reform in China: Part I

Oftentimes in the academic community, scholars commit the intellectual crime of “going native.” Basically, it is when a scholar becomes so attached to a culture/country/theory/ideology that he/she is researching they become converts and ideational ambassadors of the culture/country/theory/ideology they have spent years studying. It is sort of the academic form of the Stockholm syndrome, which is why most academics should find multiple interests of research--so to maintain some semblance of reality in hyper-specialized fields. It is also why you will see such a closed-minded attitude from many of these scholars on critical issues concerning their research focus, bordering on that of a medieval theologian.

As for my own focus of study (Chinese political economy), I am not without criticisms of the Chinese government. Unlike some of my friends in the business community, or even a few of my academic colleagues, I believe China may be sowing the seeds of its own future hollowed status as an economic power, in spite of my many visits, research endeavors, and the fact it was the subject of my dissertation, as well as any likely upcoming publications. I felt then and now that it is in essence a market authoritarian regime, much along the same lines as so many countries in Southeast Asia (South Korea before 1987, Taiwan before 1996, LDP-led Japan, etc.). This may not sound remarkable to people from the West, reared as we are on the twin virtues of individualism and democracy, but China’s opening (since 1978), however gradual, is a huge change. Regardless of its conditions, the PRC’s current situation is certainly more livable economically and politically than thirty years ago.

The quandary of studying China, especially from an American (and one from a non-Chinese background) perspective, is that it has become ridden with political and ideological perceptions that are at best distorted. Americans, in particular, have amnesia about China and its history since 1949. This is no longer a party-state (meaning that all political, economic, and social life is controlled and organized by the dominant “guiding” party [obviously, the Communist Party of China]). From its totalitarian roots of the Maoist era, the PRC has become over time an authoritarian regime, one in which the evolution from the party-state has led to a separation of sorts of everyday economic and personal life from the official ideology (i.e., Marxism-Leninism-Maoism). This is a vast alteration in how people live in the People's Republic. I can go to the mainland and freely talk to people in business, even in government, without fear of getting anyone in trouble, and I can hold frank discussions with them, covering political and economic issues that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. We take these things for granted today, and probably even many younger Chinese that grew up after 1989 do, as well, but it is a recent phenomenon.

Incrementalism Chinese-style

The liberalization of China, to be sure, has been an extremely slow process. Deng Xiaoping wanted it that way. He feared both the internal chaos of the last mass movement that swept the country (the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s [to which Deng was targeted and arrested several times for holding "capitalist deviationist" views]) and the social explosion and political implosion that occurred in the Soviet Union following Premiere Gorbachev’s glasnost reforms in the late 1980s. What is also missed is the gradualist nature of the CPC, particularly after the death of Mao in 1976. The economic reforms that the editorial boards at The Economist and The Wall Street Journal praise to the stars, as stockholders tend to do when they are making money from a given venture, were implemented in a piecemeal fashion over a period of decades, starting with the marketization of agriculture, before moving towards a liberalization of foreign ownership laws, creation of contracts enforcement, and privatization of mass sectors of the PRC’s economy (excepting some traditional industries).

Political liberalization has been even more gradual than the economic opening. Again, this is usually ignored in much of the Western media, but China already allows local elections in villages and even in some urban areas, at the sub-municipal level (what we would refer to as wards in the US). Not all of these candidates are members of the CPC. The parliament in Hong Kong (yes, it has a Legislative Council with multiple parties), is freely elected, dominated by non-CPC parties, and they are harshly critical of the mainland. The media is free in Hong Kong much in the way that it is in the West (free access to internet sites censored in the mainland, allowance for human rights campaigners, even Falun Gong organizers, etc.).

This opening of the government to non-CPC members should not surprise anyone. In 2003, the CPC opened its membership to economic elites and capitalist entrepreneurs, an act that would have certainly earned the ire of old Chairman Mao. Now, the government is openly appointing non-CPC members in its ranks (most recently, Chen Zu as the government’s new Minister of Health).

Problems Still

This does not exculpate the government’s continuing political problems. This is a state that has no qualms about killing people, even its own elites (most recently a food safety chief). There are a whole slew of offenses that can land you the death penalty in China that would not be considered offenses worthy of capital punishment in most other countries (rape, drug dealing, gangsterism, bank robbery, as well as the garden variety murder). And while you can be critical of the government, if you try to use it as a means of politically organizing against the CPC you may well become acquainted with the coercive ways of certain members of local law enforcement.

It is also a government that has little regard at times for its own people. Like with the recently executed food safety minister, the government typically will act only after a catastrophe, one in which large numbers of people died. It is after such tragedies that the government reacts by arresting some official or executive, accusing them of permitting the incident(s) to take place and either imprison them for long periods or kill them (theoretically, executive command responsibility for causing death in China equates with murder and can be punished periodically with the policeman’s bullet). For example, over 5,000 miners die in Chinese coal mines every year (over 80% of the world’s mining deaths). Most of the mines in which these accidents occur in are not sanctioned and operate in either in legally questionable or outlaw status. The government knows this, but chooses not to act until a mining accident has killed a few dozen workers, the mourning families demonstrate, and officials feel the need to react. Preventive action is still a burgeoning concept in the PRC. Hopefully, as it increases its state capacity, this problem will resolve itself.

There is no guarantee that China can negotiate these problems, however, which is what my subsequent posts will address.

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