31 January 2009

The Chinese government has managed to overreact to Charter 08 by making one author an international martyr for free speech by jailing him, requiring Beijing law students to renounce the document in meetings, and perhaps shutting down Chinese blog provider Bullog.cn, or at least that’s what many believe is behind the current anti-vulgarity campaign, as well deleting the new blogs by Bullog refugees like Persian Xiaozhao. There are some, such as Han Han or Ai Weiwei, who seem to be considered “too big to censor”, but that’s only so far.

On the other hand, a fair amount of Western media seems to have placed an outsized bet on the importance of Charter 08. Considering how much well informed he is, I can only assume this quote by Xiao Qiang of China Digital Times got butchered by the Washington Post:

“This is the first time that anyone other than the Communist Party has put in written form in a public document a political vision for China.”

If “public” means widely disseminated on the Internet, perhaps. But there have been other documents - by people on the Mainland, never mind overseas dissidents. I can’t believe that Xiao Qiang would omit the Chinese Declaration of Human Rights posted on Democracy Wall 30 years ago this year, an anniversary that seems to be forgotten even in Western media, a bulletin board before BBSes. Much like Charter 08, it calls for freedom of speech, elections and transparency. Also on the Wall was “The Fifth Modernization”. Weren’t these public documents with political vision? Or how about the 2007 open letter for pre-Olympics reforms (also signed by Liu Xiaobo)?

The Washington Post also appears to have taken a government officials quote completely out of context. After listing other recent challenges like the CCTV boycott letter, they state the following without any evidence linking it to these events:

“The present situation of maintaining national security and social stability is grave,” Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu warned China’s leaders this month, according to state media.

Let’s get something straight. Reports in state media have Meng stating that the situation is serious because of the economy. He hasn’t said anything, during a series of inspection tours he’s been conducting since last year in which he’s been repeating himself, about the Internet, Charter 08, or intellectuals. Also, its part of the stump speech for his position and he’s been saying it every day for years. Unless there’s an article hiding somewhere on this, it looks like the Washington Post is insinuating something for which there’s no proof.

But it looks sexy, don’t it?

Richard Spencer of the Telegraph mentions this blog as one stating that “at best Charter 08 will pass into history leaving its surface unrippled and at worst that it is a distraction that proves the authors to be divorced from the reality of modern Chinese life.” That’s not exactly what I said. My point was more that there is a Western tendency to frame these things in terms of some inevitable Chinese revolution, and that’s a tired way of looking at these things. The idea that the Communist Party is living on borrowed time is still a predominant viewpoint. As Ian Buruma has just articulated it “As long as people felt that they were getting richer, demands for more freedom of speech, better protection of human rights, and the right to vote could be postponed.” That presupposes that Chinese citizens see liberal democracy as something they traded in for cash, and Charter 08 is seen as proof that this assumption is correct.

For all we know, Charter 08 will have a slow burn and its relevance will only be visible after many years, as Spencer suggests. Or it might have a bigger impact in Iran. As Rebecca MacKinnon says, too early to tell. But that doesn’t stop us from talking about some of the relevant factors in Chinese society.

So let us start by borrowing the social class breakdown Roland Soong borrowed in turn from a DWNews blogger. Nine groups: political bigshots, the economic elite, the middle class, state-sponsored thugs, laborers, peasants, criminals, intellectuals and young students. The Charter comes from the intellectuals, and as ESWN points out, they are not homogeneous. There has been bitter and pointless bickering - they are, after all, intellectuals. But a long term consequence of the Charter and similar actions could be a consolidation of the intellectuals. In general, its great to see intellectuals debating this sort of thing and it points in the direction of such issues becoming more and more public.

ESWN narrows down the other groups in play to the middle class, laborers and peasants. Students are out, he argues, because they’re more concerned about tuition than revolt. I agree, but I think that this places them in the same position as the middle class - if the situation deteriorates enough, they’ll protest vocally, although anecdotal evidence says they haven’t heard of Charter 08 yet. And there’s alot of evidence that the economy will deteriorate substantially this year. That’s what I think is driving the rush to provide new healthcare reforms. Some have argued that healthcare reforms are an attempt to stimulate domestic spending by providing a social safety net and freeing up personal savings. But that doesn’t make any sense - the program will provide $17 per person by 2010, which can cover things like prescription drugs and doctors visits. But people don’t save up for regular care, they save up for catastrophic health problems. No one in China is going to stop saving up for when Grandma has a tumor, and they are definitely not going to stop saving for her funeral. While reforming healthcare will stimulate parts of the economy, it’ll be in technology, construction and all the other sectors Chinese infrastructure investment tends to stimulate. The big payoff for the Chinese government will be saying “we understand this needs drastic fixing. We are on the case. Please be patient. We are all in this together.” That’s not an uncommon message from the Party, and its worked for 20 odd years.

Jeremiah Jenne points out that in past eras of Chinese history sometimes laborers, peasants and middle class people take to the streets in solidarity, or at least in tandem, with bursts of intellectual defiance - the May 4th Revolution. But let’s remember in 1919 China had just had a centuries, if not millennia, old political system collapse, the loss of territory to Japan and others, decades of humiliation, famine, war, opium, etc. etc. May 4th intellectuals were grappling with a immense crisis of Chinese modern identity that was felt through every layer of society.

And what do we have now? A China with nearly two decades of unprecendented growth, with many accomplishments to be proud of, but still prickles at the memory of past chaos and revolutions that it doesn’t want to repeat. It’s not simply nationalist indoctrination that’s made Chinese people want to avoid that, it’s real and tangible memories and experiences. It’s not even necessary to invoke the tarnishing of the American image. Even if the U.S. had just spent eight years under some sort of Gore-naissance, had China progressed the same way the U.S. example would have little influence.

The difficulties that China faces now are not existential like those of the past, and the overthrow of the government would bring about precisely that: an existential crisis. Would corruption stop, or would it increase? Would government services continue to operate to the degree they manage now, or would they unravel? Would local officials simply acquiese and surrender their power? It’s unlikely that Chinese citizens are prepared to demand a liberal revolution should the Party fail to enrich them, because they know those trade-offs and the trade-offs are too great. Not because of liberal democracy per se, but because of the costs of political transformation in general. The present government would have to screw up pretty mightily and brutally betray the public trust to make those costs worthwhile.

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