There has been some discussion about Thoman Friedman’s most recent op-ed, “Our One-Party Democracy“. In it, he compares China to the US favorably, arguing that China’s autocratic system is more efficient and responsive:
There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.
One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.
In point of fact, Friedman’s column isn’t even really about China, it just uses China as an example. And in terms of the things he’s talking about, it’s pretty hard to argue that China isn’t in a better position than the US. But, God forbid, he said something good about China, so someone was sure to take the bait.
In “Thomas Friedman Demands Communist Revolution” (clearly, they’re going for subtlety here), Gawker takes aim at the straw-man argument that China’s political system is unequivocally better than the US:
And why are things better in China? Because the current “reasonably enlightened group of people” in charge of China, at the moment, can just impose “politically difficult but critically important policies” like raising gas prices to encourage clean power investment and so on.
So, yes, the party may be increasingly corrupt and full of the Princeling children of former Communist party officials, the party may stoke violence against ethnic minorities [this link was included in the original post on Gawker], it may censor the media and lock up journalists and cheerfully ignore human rights, but at least they can get cap-and-trade passed.
Yes, the Party does do an awful lot of those things (Friedman admitted in his column that there are downsides to autocracy). But “stoke violence against ethnic minorities”? The text in their post links to this article from the Toronto Star, which questions the claim that a Uighur conspiracy was behind the recent stabbings (pokings?) in Xinjiang.
Astute readers may recall that we, too, were skeptical. We were skeptical specifically because there was a lack of empirical evidence linking Uighur groups to the stabbings, many of which were themselves unsubstantiated reports.
For the same reason, we’re a bit skeptical of the idea that the government is intentionally “stoking violence against ethnic minorities”. There just isn’t any evidence.
What Happened in Xinjiang?
Granted, truth in this case seems to be a moving target. But as far as we can tell, the panic started from a police text message sent to residents of Urumqi that read: “”Recently, several residents were attacked by hypodermic syringes. Local police security departments have also uncovered a case in which assailants used syringes to attack passers-by. Please don’t panic over the incident, and inform police officers if you find any suspects.” Note that there’s no reference to the ethnicity of the suspects.
Of course, despite the urge not to panic, people did. Suddenly overwhelmed with reports of stabbings in a region that had barely a month earlier erupted in separatist riots, officials reacted predictably, blaming the stabbings on Uighur separatists. But were they really stoking the flames of ethnic violence? They also imposed yet another ban on unlicensed protesting in an attempt to prevent vigilante revenge mobs like the ones that sprung up around Urumqi after the July riots.
Of course, in the past few days, it has become clear that the initial reports of attacks were largely overblown. Many of the “victims” showed no evidence of having been attacked, and many of the actual “wounds” ended up being attributed to harmless things like bug bites. Only three people have actually been prosecuted thusfar. What’s perhaps more significant is that this evidence, debunking the previous reports of some widespread Uighur conspiracy, has come entirely from Chinese state media sources.
The three prosecuted people were, indeed Uighurs, and Western reports say that the government has indeed indicated that the crinimals motives are separatist, but is that really stoking ethnic violence? It seems pretty clear both from the anti-rioting measures and from the general tone of the Chinese media reports that ethnic violence is the last thing the CCP wants. In the most recent Xinhua report, there is no mention of “separatism”, or even “Uighur” aside from an early reference to Xinjiang being a “Uighur autonomous region”. Is it really accurate to suggest that the government is stoking violence against ethnic minorities? Even the Toronto Star article Gawker originally linked didn’t suggest that.
Why the Little Things Matter
We suspect that some people might wonder why it really matters? After all, the Chinese government does do plenty of the other things Gawker listed. Others might wonder why we care so much about one sentence from a Gawker post anyway.
This post matters for two reasons. One, the knee-jerk “how could you say something good about the CCP?” reaction misleads Western readers. It contributes to the widespread perception that China is run by unequivocally evil overlords who kill puppies for fun and pit ethnicities against each other for…well, Gawker never actually said what the motivation for that might be. If Westerners are to have any hope of understanding China, for better or for worse, they’re going to need to have a more nuanced understanding of the CCP than “evil.” Otherwise, communication is impossible.
That leads into the second reason this post matters, which is that it gives more fodder to the army of Chinese netizens hunting for evidence that there is some kind of Western vendetta against China. That, in turn, invalidates any valid criticisms Westerners might make. Why the hell should China listen to us on human rights if we’re making up things about the government trying to incite ethnic violence (or making up things about “crackdowns” in Tibet, or making up things about “crackdowns” in Xinjiang)?
Westerners who want to say anything about China ever have to fight pretty hard against allegations that we “don’t understand”. But real communication — and can we all agree that China and the West communicating effectively is a good thing? — is going to necessitate actual understanding. And it’s hard to see how we can understand China, or why China would care about understanding us, if we keep implying things happened in China that didn’t.