Monday, October 25, 2010

In China, Economic Livelihood Far Outweighs Political Reform

The recent awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned political activist and intellectual Liu Xiaobo, combined with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s speeches over the past few months calling for political reform, have set off a renewed interest in where China is headed politically.

Many China-watchers and Western governments hope China would become a liberal democracy.

Wen has been speaking of political system reform, the Chinese phrase for which was first used by the late Deng Xiaoping in 1986.

Deng believed that political reform should accompany economic reform, but he never had the chance to articulate the substance of such political reform.

The Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent crackdown in 1989 decisively changed the course of political reform in China.

As a result, non-economic reforms post-Tiananmen have focused on increasing administrative capacity and accountability.

Wen has been somewhat more forthcoming with his thoughts about political reform.

While his calls for political reform are noble, it is difficult to define whether his words signify a departure from past political reform, and more importantly, what his words mean within a government where it is more often what is not said that matters most.

Recent commentary on Wen’s calls ignore the fact that many ordinary Chinese people are simply uninterested in politics, for three reasons.

First, there is the uniquely Chinese social contract between the government and its people.

As long as people can strive to buy their own flat, a BMW and a Louis Vuitton handbag, the government has their support.

It’s a social contract built on attaining material wealth through continued economic growth or the ability to realize the “Chinese dream.”

The government exists to provide a means to achieve this material wealth.

When growth threatens to falter, the government takes any and all steps to put it back on track.

This social contract has reoriented the population’s focus from seeking political ideals through reform to issues of consumption and consumerism.

The government is under no pressure at the moment to undertake any political reform deemed unnecessary to uphold this contract.

Second, the Chinese government has managed to depoliticize the majority of the population.

A large number of Chinese people find politics to be uninteresting and express bemusement at how consumed Westerners are with politics.

Many do not find political reform in the vein of liberal democracy to be relevant to their economic livelihood.

The third factor is closely tied to the second, which is the 1989 Tiananmen protests and subsequent crackdown on the student-led movement.

Tiananmen was a fulcrum for political reform in China; if successful it could have placed China on a very different political trajectory.

Instead the government crushed the movement, either arresting the intellectuals who took part like Liu Xiaobo or forcing them to scatter around the world.

In its wake, a generation of Chinese intellectuals emerged who are extremely proud of China’s rise as a global superpower.

Any concerns that China’s authoritarian regime is holding the country back has been supplanted with strong support for the government and its accomplishments.

Young people today know nothing about Tiananmen or what the students were asking for in their protests, except for what might be whispered in passing by those who remember.

The lack of widespread knowledge about Liu’s Nobel Peace Prize, let alone who he is, should remind China-watchers how uninformed most of the population really is.

The long-term effect of Tiananmen was the loss of a voice of a generation of intellectuals who could have risen to the ranks of power and primed the population for significant political reform.

Any talk of political reform is nothing more than a shibboleth designed to appease those both inside and outside China who cling to the hope that liberal democracy will come to China sooner rather than later.

It is easy for Wen to talk of a government that should be bound by its laws and constitution, but it should not be lost on China-watchers that most Chinese know little about their rights supposedly enshrined in the Chinese constitution or are even aware of recent current events affecting their country.

The government’s string of successes have left the majority of the people more inclined than ever to support the current regime and less willing to engage in the boring talk of political reform.

Until the majority of Chinese people care enough to alter their social contract to encompass Western-style political reform, such talk will remain at best a theoretical tug-of-war played out behind the scenes at the highest echelons of government.

Peter M. Friedman is a lawyer in New York who recently returned from teaching at Linyi Normal University in Linyi, China.

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