Yesterday’s New York Times — or maybe it was the day before’s, I get confused by the time differences — carried two very interesting op-ed pieces. In a way, they seem to be meant to read as a sort of point, counterpoint-style discussion. One is an impassioned call for political reforms, and the other, a reasoned call for the status quo. Of course, a closer look brings out some of the finer points.
Specifically, I’m interested in Eric Li’s piece, which rejects the notion of a “color revolution” as a positive step forward for China, and instead argues that the status quo is a better alternative. It’s a well-written argument, and Li asserts that China’s rise under the Communist Party has been relatively peaceful, that the CCP has a good record of restraining the more strident forces of nationalism. The whole article is worth a read, but I’d prefer to focus on his closer:
In effect, the Chinese Communist Party leveraged its moral authority as the vanguard of the common man to hold back the egalitarian impulses of the Chinese people and guide a rapid and unprecedented expansion of individual liberties and private property rights.
Further, its unquestioned role in redeeming China first from the humiliating subjugation by Western powers and then from Japanese aggression gives it the unique ability to moderate Chinese nationalism toward the outside world.
Maintaining this moral standing — hence the slogans of socialism and nationalism — is crucial for China to continue on this path. Western-style electoral democracy, as advocated by the West and some inside China, could only lead to tyrannical populism and its twin brother, extreme nationalism.
Today, respect for liberty and private property are at their highest in China’s entire history. It is unprecedented that the rise of a nation of China’s size at such speed is taking place largely in peace. Let’s allow it to continue. If it means that the chair in Oslo will remain empty for decades and generations, so be it. The alternative is far worse.
I have, on occasion, made similar points to the one Li is making here — overall, things are better now than they were in the 70s, and things would probably go badly if there was a revolution tomorrow — but he’s ignored a rather huge issue, which is that “status quo or all-out revolution” is a false dichotomy.
There is no reason to limit any discussion of Chinese political policy to these two extreme choices, and in fact, virtually no one does. Despite what the propaganda suggests, even the ‘vicious, subversive traitor’ Liu Xiaobo never seriously advocated revolution. What he, and other rights activists, advocate is generally a combination of reform and real implementation of the rule of law to ensure that current government policies (many of which are quite good on paper) are actually enforced.
Li argues that “respect for liberty and private property are at their highest in China’s entire history.” This is probably true. However, that’s more of a commentary on the miserable state of both of those things throughout history than it is a complimentary fact about the current government. Respect for liberty extends only to those who obey, unquestioningly, authority. And complimenting “respect for private property” in a country where no one can legally own their own house and people are frequently violently evicted from their homes to make way for development seems almost satirical. Yes, the situation is better now than it was under the Nationalist Party, or under the Imperial system. But it’s 2010. How impressed are we supposed to be that China is doing slightly better at respecting rights now than it was prior to World War II?
In a sense, I agree with Mr. Li. Revolution is not going to help anyone; a war would be devastating to the Chinese people and maybe also the global economy. And he’s right to suggest that the China that emerged after a revolution might not be any more West-friendly than the CCP is. But to suggest that means we need to live with the “empty chair in Oslo” — essentially, that Westerners and Chinese must accept the Chinese government’s fragrant human rights abuses — is complete bunk. One can push for reform and the rule of law without revolution. There is room in China for the Communist Party and Liu Xiaobo to coexist.
So, why is Eric Li so interested in maintaining the status quo in China and not rocking the boat? I can’t be sure, but the skeptic in me wonders if it isn’t somehow connected to the fact that he runs an investment firm with millions of dollars tied up in Chinese companies. Certainly, a revolution in China would cost Eric Li an awful lot of money. But would reform? Would having true rule of law? I’m not sure, and we may never know the answer, because these are questions Li’s article inexplicably ignores.