To Revolt or Not to Revolt; That is a Dumb Question

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.

0 thoughts on “To Revolt or Not to Revolt; That is a Dumb Question”

  1. I agree with Li’s points that “asser[t] that China’s rise under the Communist Party has been relatively peaceful, [and] that the CCP has a good record of restraining the more strident forces of nationalism.” These are important, but are not pertinent to this particular Nobel topic.

    I grant that both Liu Xiaobo and color revolutions can have a great bearing on China’s international relations. But in themselves, they are firstly and intimately tied up with domestic politics, the very issues Li does not address. By treating secondary issues as primary ones, Li misses the point.


  2. Strongly agree Custer. Let’s at least have free speech and the rule of law for 10 years so that the Chinese people can become ready for democracy, instead of keeping them in a perpetual state of “not ready”.


  3. All this talk is under the assumption that democracy is the next ‘evolution’ within China. The question is that does China want democracy in the first place?


  4. @pug_ster: You think the old men in Zhongnanhai just sit around sipping tea and tapping on bongo drums? The only reason you can’t see the Chinese version of the above picture is because mommy government won’t let you take a look! Your government treats you like a little baby! Awwww, poor little baby… Maybe someday you can have big kid things like an independent media and the right to pick your own mayor….


  5. @Zhuge Jiong,

    I think you are talking about the American government, especially after what they are doing to wikileaks.

    Talking about inept politicians, at least those guys at Zhongnanhai have plans for what to do for the next 5 years at least. Recently Obama sided with the Republicans on the tax breaks for the wealthy that will speed up the financial collapse of America. These people we ‘elected’ only care about appeasing the public but have no plans for the next 5 years, 5 months, or even for the next 5 days.


  6. Another thing I have to say about these NY times op eds as well as articles in Western Media is how they portray the Chinese government as illegitimate or questioning the sovereignty of their government.

    As bad as China’s ‘propaganda’ is, they never question about the US government is legitimate or questioning the sovereignty of their government. Yes, you see the Chinese Media complaining about the anti-China rants.

    Imagine if some guy in GT decided to post an article about if democracy is the best way for America. Or talking about the collapse of America by the weight of its own debt. Or talking about America’s capitalism is a failure. These are the really nasty propaganda that China could’ve brought up. But you don’t see that, not in the news articles, or in its op eds because they really respect the sovereignty of US, whereas US doesn’t respect the sovereignty of China.


  7. At the end of the day it should be the wellness of the people, and not the style of the government which matters. The politically correct Western folks are typically afraid to say this though I would think many believe so: A failed democracy where millions live in poverty and violence is much, much worse than a brutal dictatorship where majority of the people live stable lives. People who argue otherwise are only pretending to care period.

    Now, the question of change depends on whether the Chinese people perceive their lives are getting better or not and its trajectory. This is the most important because political changes forced by external forces (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran Shah) tend to fail no matter what the style.

    I have written this before but in many ways the Chinese government is a lot more accountable to its people than many democratic governments. The reason for this is because there is no other party to blame. Censorship can only delay the reality but not for long. For example, if the unemployment rates goes through the roof you can bet that there will be revolts no matter much the Chinese government censors and jails. The Chinese government is forced to think and implement solutions at a rapid pace. The Western folks often look for changes in China’s leadership and government, but that is rather superficial because a change in type of government from authoritarian to democracy doesn’t necessarily induce changes in effective policies. The current Chinese government in effort to avert losing power, has been working hard to make changes to its policies so that its citizens can benefit more. That would explain why the Chinese have yet to revolt and probably will not until the Chinese government’s policies ultimately fail.


  8. @LOLZ

    I agree. The best test of idealism is reality, and in this false dichotomy, as Custer pointed out, you really can’t go all in on one ideal or another without running into problems when you look at our current situation. If there’s one thing history has proven is that communism is a damn tricky thing to get right, but I don’t think anyone would be opposed to it if it was peacefully successful. I like what you said, “At the end of the day it should be the wellness of the people, and not the style of the government which matters.”

    I also agree with Joseph Nye, who argues that the best way to make an enemy of China is to treat it like one. Putting the two together, I think that the best policy for Western nations is to begin treating China as an equal in all that it entails: equal respect and equal expectations. In other words, to be the bigger man and start humbly bridging the gap between the other false dichotomy, that between the East and the West.

    Two things to be cautious of, I think, are allowing the burden of duty to fall solely on a government less involved with its people than many Western countries are and allowing a stereotype to develop about the Chinese people that stems from the actions of a government that may be unrepresentative of its populace. While this may seem slightly paradoxical, this means that when an earthquake knocks down several buildings in a city we shouldn’t only say, “Look at how corrupt the government is, they let all those building be built so poorly,” but also “Look at how many people circumvented the codes put in place and put so many people at risk.”

    Similarly, when we get a Li Gang incident pop up with real evidence of corruption, the comments shouldn’t be, “China’s corrupt” but “There is corruption in China.” It’s silly to imagine that China is essentially corrupt because we know that corrupt nations don’t stand with such vitality as China demonstrates today, but it’s similarly ridiculous to argue that any country today is without corruption of one sort or another. (Ex. Sweden, of late)

    This is all really to say that the best system of change is to work within the system and that the system does really need change. Most importantly, China needs to be able to maintain face while taking responsibility for its problems, as there is far too much compensatory excess for all the bad things that need to be taken care of. More developed nations have the responsibility of treating the country with the world’s fourth largest GDP as an equal, while China’s responsibility is to understand that it’s per capita GDP is in the lower 50th percentile (to use just one indicator) and that becoming a developed nation takes more than a just 10% yearly economic growth.

    A an all-out political revolution is a terrible idea at this time, but so is the denial of universal human rights. The trick is to find a way to end the East-West false dichotomy without denying that the two are very different. China doesn’t have to become America, but it doesn’t get to pretend that an ocean and a continent’s separation suddenly means the world spins differently. The last thing we need is to equate human rights with being a “Western Nation,” for then the battle is truly lost.


  9. I’d say these two editorials represent a dichotomy I’ve noticed to be especially common in Asian politics: the naive idealist vs. the ruthless realist. Bao Tong’s column, while it says all the right things for an “idealist dissident”, includes this howler:

    “We do not agree with “power from the barrel of a gun,” blessed by Mao as a universal truth. We are willing to observe the principles of peaceful, nonviolent and legitimate struggle for a very simple reason: Using uncivilized means cannot achieve civilized ends.”

    While Mao’s quote is nice and pithy, it’s just summing up a basic understanding of the nature of government that goes back to Machiavelli and Hobbes, and is agreed upon by practically every political scientist since: a government is a monopoly of force.

    Likewise, violent revolutions are generally the only way to throw off a power that refuses to compromise. If George Washington had refused to pick up a gun, the Queen would still be on our money. If Lincoln had refused to wield “uncivilized means” against the Confederacy, the chains would have never fallen from the slaves of the south. If the PLO had sat around using methods of “nonviolent resistance”, Israel- backed by the full force of the US, and to some extent Europe as well- would have never given an inch. Gandhi’s “success” in using nonviolent means to end British occupation only worked because Britain was nearly broke from WWII and had lost it’s taste for empire. It would have never succeeded against a strong, vital power in a million years. Which is why Tibet and Xinjiang remain occupied.

    Until reformers can back their words with threats- violent or fiscal- the politburo will merely continue to laugh. Bao Tong, being a former central committee member, should know that as well as anyone. Freedom isn’t won by whining. It’s only won by blood and steel. Put up or shut up. Get the powers of the world on your side so you can back up your words with threats, or they will remain only threats. That’s Power 101.


  10. It seems I disagree with everyone, so allow me to retort. >:D

    It’s possible that Hu/Wen may be the most representative Chinese government in history. But they seem to just be racing one step ahead of the next riot (and often one step behind), and entire populations and ethnicities are shuffled around without their voice being heard. Forget about individual complaints and petitions being resolved. If you are a large enough threat, and its more efficient to pay you off then stifle your voice, you may get resouces allocated your way. This is hardly representative government. Certainly not more representative than Western governments, even the “broken” American system.

    Corruption in China is systemic and endemic. Whether you say “China’s corrupt” or “There is corruption in China” doesn’t change anything.

    @Nicholas M
    What a horribly simplistic view. You will have a hard time challenging other peoples national myths and propaganda when you’re still trapped in your own. I would suggest starting off with books like “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong”, or at least reading non-American media.

    On to your point about violent revolution, I strongly disagree. Do you think that if inflation, say, were to trigger a revolution (as Lolz posits in another thread), that the resulting government would be better than the current one? Strong civil society, an educated populace and the other foundations of a democratic system have a much better chance of developing through a reform of the system (as suggested by Bao Tong, Liu Xiaobo and other intellectuals) than by violent upheaval.


  11. @Some Guy:
    I’m an editor at a non-American (Hong Kong-based) publication; I regularly read British, Indian, Chinese, Singaporean, and American alternative media. I’m certainly not trapped by my country’s mythology- on the contrary, I see it as a useful tool (like all mythology, really). In fact, shouldn’t my case about PLO violently resisting the American-backed Israeli puppet prove that I’m not trapped by it?

    The thing is, no “peaceful” revolution has ever really succeeded. The “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Iran, Tiananmen, etc. didn’t accomplish much (and the first two have, as an American socialist friend of mine put it, the fingerprints of the CIA all over them). The revolution doesn’t have to be violent- little blood need be shed, if any. In fact, economic power would be sufficient. But a revolutionary who can’t back his “revolution” with either an iron fist or a fistful of dollars is not any kind of a revolutionary. I’d much rather see a George Soros-type lay the CCP low through breaking the People’s Bank than a violent revolution, really. A revolution requires a leader, and chances are the leader will either have to come from the top of the business community, or from within the party leadership, because those are the only power-hierarchies in China. Religion and academia have been effectively neutered.

    The thing is, if we’re not calling for revolution, how are we even disagreeing with Eric Li? I’m sure he’d love it if the CCP freed the presses, strengthened the legal system, and expanded the role of consultative bodies. All of those would be good for business. Either the CCP can reform, and thus should be left in power, or it can’t reform, and should be kicked to the curb as soon as it can before it vampirizes the country any further. There isn’t really a position between those two.


  12. “I also agree with Joseph Nye, who argues that the best way to make an enemy of China is to treat it like one. Putting the two together, I think that the best policy for Western nations is to begin treating China as an equal in all that it entails: equal respect and equal expectations. In other words, to be the bigger man and start humbly bridging the gap between the other false dichotomy, that between the East and the West. ”

    Actually it has been treated that way under Obama, and what happened? It’s still facilitating illegal weapons sales to Iran, still giving North Korea a free hand, still bullying and pushing around western europe (how dare anyone not kowtow to the mighty Chinese Empire). Just look at how badly it has mishandled the Nobel Peace Prize. The Foreign Minister has actually called the Nobel committee a bunch of “clowns”, yes, she actually said that. Does this sound like the actions of a nation worthy of respect? I think not.


  13. pug_ster: “All this talk is under the assumption that democracy is the next ‘evolution’ within China. The question is that does China want democracy in the first place?”

    Freedom of speech and enforcement of the law do not presuppose democratic reform.


  14. @ Nicholas M. Enjoyed your Power 101 and will pose this question the second time today.

    Foodbasket inflation is already a serious domestic concern within China.

    Could you speculate on what will take place if the govt is unable to handcuff this genie and put in back in the box.

    (All this bipolar PRC-US discussion is a bit of a talkfest cul de sac.)


  15. On food inflation:

    I don’t consider myself qualified to make a judgement on the subject, though I have a feeling it might turn out to be another case of false alarm. Yes, the CPI hit 5.1% this year, but that’s not the highest it’s ever been in China… and that’s in a year where real wages have been rising at 15-20% as well. I’ll wait and see what some of my colleagues who know more about the situation have to say about it.


  16. @ Nicholas M: The wage raise numbers are artificially inflated, though, among other reasons because they only sample wages at State-owned enterprises. Wages in the private sector haven’t risen that much, and as someone who works at an SOE, I can’t say anyone at my company has seen such a dramatic rise here, either.


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