The Egg and the Wall

Japanese author Haruki Murakami said in his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize in 2009, ‘Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.’ Under the context of China’s numerous social problems, such as forced demolitions, petitions, corruptions, injustices and suppressed freedom, Murakami’s logic is one which easily finds its way in public discourse and forces everyone into this mindless choice: you are either ‘for’ the people, that is progressive, liberal, grassroots, the ‘egg’ which breaks against the stone wall, or ‘not for’ the people – that is the conservative, the rich and powerful, the ‘high, solid wall.’ An example of this mindset is the popular saying by an urban planning department vice director from Henan province in 2009, ‘Are you prepared to speak for the Party?  Or are you prepared to speak for the common folks?’, a reply made in response to a reporter investigating how come a real estate developer, having permission to build economic housing only, erected 12 villas and two mid-rise buildings instead on the piece of land concerned.

‘I speak for myself’

Huang Jiping, an economics professor at Peking University and formerly an economist at Citibank, recently mounted a defense against accusations that he is a speaker for the government and the powerful. He is of the view that this mindless stereotyping is harmful to any serious, rational discussions about public policy in China. Excerpted from his Caixin Magazine blog:

I used to work for Citigroup in the past. Those who criticize me did not point out errors in my opinions, but directly accuse me of being a speaker for foreign capitals. Now that I am in Peking University, I should be more neutral, right? Those who criticize me say now that I am receiving state’s money, I am a writer for the government. I need to clarify that part of my salary does come from the state education bureau. But isn’t it too far-fetched to say that I am a government speaker just because of this?

It’s indeed a low input, high productivity strategy to stand on the moral high ground and blame all those who hold a different opinion from you. The problem with this strategy is that people with differing opinions can no longer engage in rational discussions. The truth is no longer important. The result is that opinion leaders will increasingly cater for the sentiment of the public.

I once joked that it is very easy to become an enemy of the Chinese public or the netizens’ community. To be drowned by the spits of netizens, you only need to write an article predicting that housing price will still continue to rise. Conversely, those who predict a housing market collapse will be popular. Emotionally, those looking to buy a house will want the market to drop a bit. But the fact is that no one is questioning experts who predict a collapse of housing prices, when the market rises year after year. We can hence see that apart from emotional factors, economic theories are also very important.

He finally concludes for whom he is speaking:

My job is to analyse China’s economic problems based on my interpretations. If you need to ask who I am speaking for, I can only say that as a scholar, I speak for myself. I truly hope that people having a different opinion can debate with me on the problems, instead of saying that I speak for foreign capitals or the government. If you are still not satisfied, then you can say that Peking University professors are of mediocre quality. But you just want to frame me instead of discussing concrete viewpoints.

The reverse food chain of the media

Wang Shuo, chief editor of the Caixin website, was sympathetic of Huang Jiping’s experience. Voices from the grassroots are becoming increasingly common in the Chinese media, but it is also true that market reform without a check-and-balance mechanism has polarized public opinion into various groups, based on how much they support the regime, how much they gain or benefit, or whether they are winners or losers. Wang describes how this brings about a cynical atmosphere in the society, which in turn leads to the strange ecology of the media:

In contrast to the ecological food chain logic of the survival of the strongest, the media food chain logic is the survival of the weakest. Viewed in isolation, the media is not considered to have credibility, but not if it criticizes professors. Professors are not considered to have authority, but not if they criticize school leaders. And who will believe school leaders? But they too will gain credibility if they criticize officials from the education bureau. Education bureau officials have few targets to choose from, but they still can go for officials from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).

Yes, NDRC officials lie almost at the bottom of the media food chain. The public opinion will definitely choose to side with the egg but not the stone. The contents of discussions do not affect the existence of this food chain. But even NDRC officials lie almost at the bottom, they still have targets to go after. They are the traitors of the country, especially those who are close to Japan. Traitors are absolutely at the bottom of the food chain.

A return to rationality

The polarization of public opinion can be linked to the political culture of China. In every society, it is normal for opinion to be divided into left, center or right. But in China, there seems to be a tendency for things to evolve into extremities: you are either the rich and powerful, or the poor and powerless. Wu Jinglian, Senior Research Fellow for the Developmental Research Centre of the State Council, recently points out in an article at the magazine China Reform how this polarization can pull China back into its historical cycle:

The cronies in the far right are not only hurting the interests of the weakest groups, but also those of the middle classes (professionals, entrepreneurs, etc) which do not have political powers. Nevertheless, ‘extreme leftism is a punishment to extreme rightism.’ Under this situation, leftist forces are utilizing public dissatisfactions about authoritarian capitalists to advocate for a return to Mao’s tactics like the Cultural Revolution and People’s Dictatorship. This is apparent from signs of violence linguistically as well as physically, and is a dangerous trend.

Some people think that China has been like that for thousands of years. As an entrepreneur said, two extremities of violence have dominated the political culture of China: one is the tyrant, the other is the mob. They take power in turns. When the tyrant’s rule is too much to bear, the obedient mass can turn into violent revolutionaries, and replace the tyrant ruler. When the mob has ruled for sometime, it too will decay into tyranny. Therefore, we have this cycle of ‘tyranny – revolution – new tyranny’ in Chinese history. The history of ‘ousting the emperor and become the emperor yourself’ has been repeated in China for thousands of years.

Nevertheless, Wu shows optimism in the article by pointing out that China’s social transformation is leading to the emergence of a middle class composed mostly of professionals and white-collars. They are an important component in China’s modernizing society. And even though they are demanding improvements, they basically approve of the current social order and do not wish to completely overthrow it. China’s prospects of escaping from its historical cycle lies in this group which represents not only stability but also gradual improvements.

As Wu points out, this group is still small in numbers, and their sense of civil values and responsibilities is weak. And at this time of great social transformation accompanied by injustices, it is easy for public opinion to fall into the trap of choosing between ‘egg’ and ‘stone wall’, or ‘left’ and ‘right’. What China needs is not populism and violence, but common sense and rationality, as Xu Youyu, Chinese philosopher and public intellectual, commented in an interview with Southern Weekend back in 2009:

Some people hold the same viewpoints as the New Left in the West, but many of their viewpoints expressed in rights defense cases are also approved by neo-liberals. I think it a good phenomenon that in the New Left community, there emerges a group which whole-heartedly defend their leftist stance, but at the same time make concrete contributions in public affairs. I admire their sincerity. This also illustrates that we can abandon the debate between left and right, and return to basic conscience and responsibility. In fact, things are not as complicated as we think, and we should do what we ought to. Moral consciousness can help most of us to make the choice. This is not the result of so-called reaching a consensus, but just a show of sincerity in us all.

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0 thoughts on “The Egg and the Wall”

  1. It’s not only the angry Chinese netizens who hope that China’s real-estate will fall, but many of the anti-China folks from the western worlds as well. Their reasons are different though, the average Chinese citizens are simply fed up that they can’t afford housing. They are genuinely upset at the financial between the rich and the poor. Where as the sinophobes are upset that the Chinese economy is doing better than they hoped in general. For them the Chinese will not listen to their “superior western ideologies” as long as China continues its economic growth. So to the Western China bashers, the only way for them to feel good about themselves in regards would be hoping for China to fail. Hence if you write anything good about China, you will often be labeled as “CCP puppet” even if what you have written are the truth.

    On the article itself, I think Wu Jinglian makes a good point. You do see a cycle in Chinese history of oppression and revolution. This is where I do think Democracy can benefit China, as it diminishes the chaos and war which is inevitable between the phases. Of course, there are many downsides to democracy as well, such as coming to agreement on important issues.

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  2. Great job Andy. I had always thought Murakami’s comment was nice-sounding but devoid of subtlety.

    I don’t think democracy could pull China out of this cycle as much as the expanding middle class. With a politically aware middle class, you’d get people who have bought into the system enough to oppose a bloody revolution but have the power to not accept the status quo.

    On another note, this blog is also often given the “egg/wall” treatment. We are either China-bashers or panda-huggers.

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  3. @lolz
    lots of non-chinese have their money tied up in chinese property as a way of making money through the rmb’s appreciation against the dollar and they certainly have no interest in seeing property prices collapse. it may be true in some cases that people are just jealous of china, but in my experience the majority of people making prophecies about bubbles (whether in china or elsewhere) do so for attention. (not to say that there is no bubble in china – after all, the people who forecast the real estate bubble in the us were also accused of being jealous foreigns, attention whores, whackos etc).

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  4. @teffy & lolz

    Teffy – indeed. The whole reason Australia avoided any significant slowdown in the global financial crisis was due to China’s demand for Australian resources. Nobody in Aus wants to see that demand drop. As for Chinese house prices, people overseas are nervous about them – because if that bubble pops and Chinese demand slows it’s going to affect a lot of Australians’ wealth.

    I don’t think anyone apart from extreme nutjobs hoped that the Chinese economy would have failed in the last couple of years. The global economy was too close to meltdown as it was.

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