Oh boy. Take a look at this essay by Wang Wen that appears in Eric X. Li’s column in the
Global Times Huffington Post.
Before we begin, it’s worth noting that the HuffPo piece fails to mention that Wang Wen is an editor for the Global Times. It does specify that he’s an editor for a major paper, but conspicuously fails to mention that the paper in question is the State-owned Global Times. That seems questionable — doesn’t someone working for the government have a vested interest in its perpetuation, and isn’t that a conflict of interest worth noting? — but let’s move on.
The piece begins with a rundown of the recent coup rumors and a regurgitation of the Party line: China is not the Middle East, there will be no Chinese Arab Spring, the Chinese people want stability, etc. Nothing you haven’t read before a hundred times. But then there’s this:
In my discussions with those in Beijing’s elite circles I find a wide range of opinions. Some are resentful of Bo’s removal and even feel betrayed. Some are euphoric as they see the central government has finally made the right decision. Regardless of the seeming intensity of their views, no one wants to take to the streets. On the contrary, they seem all worried that such a controversial event might drive others onto the streets. In China, without the instigation of the elites, it is impossible for ordinary people to have the channel and willingness for meaningful political protests. As for the Chinese elites, the memory of the Tiananmen Square incident 22 years ago is still fresh in their minds. Radicalism, in the name of any political ideal, has no appeal in reality.
You may want to stop and read this sentence again: “In China, without the instigation of the elites, it is impossible for ordinary people to have the channel and willingness for meaningful political protests.” Absurd classism aside, apparently Wang didn’t get the memo about the protests in Wukan, which were sustained and quite successful despite the lack of patronage from any of Beijing’s elites, or any elites at all. Yet I feel certain they would consider their protests — and the outcome — quite meaningful.
I think Wang is right that intellectuals ((It’s worth noting that the Global Times and other Party-line folks frequently disparage China’s intellectual elite as being out-of-touch with the common people precisely because they DO express interest in fairly radical political change, but Wang seems to have flipped that on its head here because it fits his argument better.)), at least, might be necessary at some point for another Tiananmen-like massive-scale protest to occur. And he’s right that ideals alone aren’t going to get people on the streets. That said, what has that got to do with anything? It wasn’t ideals that sparked the protests in ’89 either, it was the death of Hu Yaobang. By all accounts, the actual protests started rather organically among students ((students attending elite universities, yes, but that doesn’t make them elites)), not as the result of some call to arms from elites. In fact, the strongest early call-to-arms came from the Party itself in the form of the April 26 People’s Daily editorial, which paradoxically attracted more people (including elites) to the cause. The idea that large-scale protests must be organized and channeled by China’s elites is absurd.
Moreover, I’m not sure what the fact that China isn’t about to see large-scale political protests is meant to prove. It’s as much a reflection of the effectiveness of China’s authoritarian controls as it is a reflection of the national mood.
However divisive people’s opinions are, there is one thing they have in common: they all put their hope in the Party to solve problems facing Chinese society. China’s one-party governance structure has matured to a state in which groups with intensely opposing views and interests fight to influence the Party, not to subvert its rule. What they all want is reform that would favor their positions, not revolution that could overturn the entire system. Many aggressively vent their dissatisfaction and satirize the government. There are even many incidents of mass clashes. Yet even the most dissatisfied take their grievances to the authority of the central leadership for redress. It is a reality that can be counterintuitive to the eyes of an outside observer.
What a shock — the people in power don’t want to destroy the system! If Li bothered to talk to any of the non-elite regular people, he might have discovered a different story. In most cases, he certainly wouldn’t have found that the common people are on the verge of overthrowing the government — that’s not what I’m suggesting. But for everyone I’ve talked to who puts all their hope in the Party to solve China’s problems, there’s someone who has completely lost hope in the Party to do anything other than bulldoze houses and drink baijiu. And, of course, most people lie somewhere in between those two extremes. The idea that all Chinese people put all their hope in the Party to solve China’s problems is an absurd fantasy.
Wang is right that the Party is not facing an imminent physical threat of overthrow — there is no mass movement or revolt coming. What it is facing is increasing cynicism, dissatisfaction, and despair. Wang writes, “…yet even the most dissatisfied take their grievances to the authority of the central leadership for redress,” but he wisely leaves it at that. This is probably because he knows discussing the results of that process wouldn’t help his argument much. Yes, almost anyone in China with a serious grievance will attempt to bring it to the central leadership for redress, and when they do, they tend to be met with utter indifference, if not violent repression (see: black jails, etc.).
Based on the parents we’ve spoken to for our film, as well as other former petitioners I’ve spoken with for other projects, the process of petitioning is precisely how faith in the central leadership gets killed. People go into the process thinking theirs is a local injustice the central government is unaware of and doesn’t allow. Generally speaking, they come away with the knowledge that what happened to them is happening in many other places, and that the central government is not at all interested in hearing what they have to say.
Moving on, Wang’s essay seems to alternate between what I’d consider to be a few pretty reasonable points and bizarre lapses into near self-parody.
China in the early 21st century is not dissimilar to the U.S. during its Progressive era of the early 20th century. We see a society frequently plagued by chaos and bad news, which has the effect of making people feel hopeless. Yet reality prevails just like it did in America then. Just like the young and growing America weathered its ills 100 years ago and developed, China will, too, enter a new period of long-term prosperity and stability.
Yes, because if there’s anything the Progressive Era in the US is famous for, it’s being followed by long-term prosperity and stability (You know, except for the Great Depression and those two World Wars).
As a matter of fact, those who are familiar with Chinese history might have noticed that political struggles, even at the highest-level, have become increasingly less a matter of “life and death.” Compared with what befell losers in previous political struggles, such as Lin Biao, whose forced defection resulted in a plane crash that killed him and his family 41 years ago, today’s political infighting is much more moderate. Chinese people, as all peoples, like honest and upright officials. They hope that good political leaders end well, and even the not so good ones do not get destroyed completely. I’d like to wish the same for contemporary China that has created the miracle of leading 1.3 billion people out of poverty in one generation.
Well, I’m sure Bo Xilai is grateful that he hasn’t been taken for any plane rides (yet). But the piece ends with a ridiculous straw-man implication — that anyone who doesn’t agree with Wang wants to see China destroyed completely — and a dramatic overstatement. China’s economic policy deserves plenty of credit for lifting most of the population from poverty, of course, but it has taken a little more than a generation, and there are still more than 100 million Chinese living in poverty. I doubt Wang ran into any of them on his survey of Beijing elites, but they do exist, and it is troubling that people like this seem so willing to pretend that 100,000,000+ people don’t exist whenever their existence would be inconvenient for the argument.
It’s especially galling because it’s not like anyone could fault China for only raising 1.2 billion people from poverty in the last 30+ years. That’s still pretty good! I’m not sure why it’s necessary to exaggerate or to suggest that anyone who disagrees with you wants to see China “destroyed completely.” This sort of thing is par for the course in the Global Times, but it is sad to see it creeping into the outside world, especially when it’s not disclosed that the author works in an upper-level position at a state-owned company and almost certainly has personal ties to the Party he is so adamantly defending.