On Wang Wen’s HuffPo Essay

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.

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0 thoughts on “On Wang Wen’s HuffPo Essay”

  1. To me, the line about needing elite support sounds just like the standard thinking that protests without such support would/might simply be gunned down, and therefore aren’t workable (especially while you have a better chance at getting rich with a party membership).

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  2. what a waste of time to respond to Li. what is this “Elites”? please can someone who can actually think a bit stand up? both sides we have just geeks and nerds and hippies, and wannabe Edgar Snows, our film, our film, please man, you do a good job, just don’t get hooked on whatever Eric Li wants to say at a whim, he’s a player, not a lover!

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  3. Well articulated response to the Huffington Post piece. I was surprised to see such a blatant work of party rhetoric peddled as a rational voice from someone in the middle of things.

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  4. People have drawn parallels before between the CCP in China and the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) in Mexico, and I couldn’t help noticing how Wang brought up this gem:
    “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.”
    The same happened with the PRI: anyone who wanted their snout in the trough joined the PRI, pretty much regardless of ideology.

    One major difference between the two systems was that at least the PRI allowed the pretence of multi-party democracy. Sure they stole elections, surveilled the opposition, intimidated or killed opponents (outside the PRI and even inside it), but it was the fig-leaf democracy that matured (with the encouragement of a tiny number of PRI figures who were true believers that the Party should put the country before themselves), to the point of an opposition party actually winning a presidential election and PRI rule coming to an end without a civil war.

    I see no such fig-leaf growing in China let alone maturing into something that allows genuine peaceful competition of ideas for running the country, so when change comes I doubt it will be peaceful…

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  5. I realise I was a bit harsh on limiting motives for joining the party (PRI) to solely personal financial benefit. Many did join out of a genuine desire to improve the country, feeling the only way of having an impact was to become part of the system, despite not liking the system. Talking to people in China, I know several CCP members have joined out of the same motives.

    But in the end real peace doesn’t come from a system where monopoly, in-fighting and purges decide policy, it’s got to come from an open debate and competition channelled through a transparent system like a multi-party democracy.

    No doubt a 50-center can endlessly point out flaws in multi-party democracies but as has been said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms of government that have been tried.”

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  6. What I’m seeing is a perfect time for Eric The 50-cent Venture Capitalist and his sidekicks to enjoy not a cup but a whole barrel of STFU. Their main thesis is as dead as a certain business partner of Madame Bogu.

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  7. Great post. Loved the detailed point-by-point skewering.

    It must be said that the nature of an opinion that Eric Li would personally request and submit under his own banner would be entirely predictable. And in that regard, Wang does not disappoint. Wang’s personal position and conflict of interest (not to mention Li’s) merely serve to explain why someone might actually espouse such an opinion. If nothing else, these good gents are wise enough to know not to bite the hand that feeds them.

    And as usual, Wang’s argument is circular. It is true that there is no groundswell of “expression” of discontent with the CCP system. But that same CCP system…ummm…how shall we say it…actively “discourages” any such expression. So an absence of expression of discontent does not mean an absence of discontent. And as others have suggested, a survey of Beijing elites may not necessarily be representative of the pulse of the entire nation…does this Wang guy work for Pew on the side or something?

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  8. @ Cultural Imperialist: I have a few friends, or perhaps had is a better word, who joined the CCP, all because they said it would be advantageous in their business careers. It’s amazing how quickly that culture changes you, though. In the last conversation I had with one, she was explaining to me why it made sense for Party members to be treated differently and receive benefits that elevate them socially above regular people….

    “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

    Depressing.

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  9. I like this:

    “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. ”

    Perfect example of the strange breed of doublespeak you hear coming out of those attempting to even DESCRIBE the actual political structure of the CCP (and at the same time defend it, i mean). How, in any way, is what he described different from a multiparty system? (I know how its actually different, because what he described isn’t precisely the truth). Substitute ‘government’ for ‘Party’ and you have the good old US of A.

    It’s the same kind of nonsense that leads them to say things like ‘China is a multiparty government; the CCP just decides what the other parties’ consensus is.’ Or that whole ‘China is a democracy; just within the Party.’ Or the silly rubber stamp that is the National People’s Conference.

    There’s something fundamentally wrong with a government when it can’t even begin to describe how it works without contradicting itself.

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  10. As a Chinese, I understand that Chinese people want stability but not revolution. Chinese people have suffered a lot from the past revolution”S”. My concern is, stability is NOT just a WANT or WISH.
    People have to work towards it. The ordinary Chinese has to be involved with the reform—they have to learn: protest peacefully and negotiate effectively.They have to learn how to earn their rights or even how to implement their current rights. They have to learn ways to defend themselves but not to rely on the central government to redress their grievances.
    Taiwan sets a good model for us: it didn’t come at the cost of a bloody war.
    I believe if we don’t actively work towards, even struggle towards
    stability, opposite outcomes might happen—the least we won’t to see and we would all suffer.

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  11. @Brian – The thing is, the CCP already describes pretty accurately what its political system is. Yes, Marxist economic theories have been jetisoned, but the China’s political system remains Leninist. Political power in China is still concentrated in the hands of the “vanguard party” (i.e., the CCP) exercising “democratic centralism” (i.e., internal decision-making).

    The problem for pro-CCP hacks is that this sounds way too much like exactly what it is – a one-party dictatorship. Hence the bull-shit about China’s political system really being Confucian (except for the fact that it doesn’t at all resemble anything to do with Confucianism) or about the CCP having an ‘internal democracy’ (except nobody outside the Politburo has a say, and Politburo membership is not decided democratically).

    @Custer – I used to date a girl who was a CCP member, from a long line of CCP members. Like nearly all party members she did not at all believe party rhetoric (in fact, I think true belief in Communism may actually be something of a bar on membership), but was perfectly willing to spout it to others for the sake of her career – even giving lectures on studying Lei Feng to the staff at the hospital she worked at. She was a dear girl, but when I asked myself whether that was something I wanted in my life, the answer was “no”.

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  12. Oh, and Lin Biao may well have been shot down or bombed. There was never a proper investigation into his death, or if there was it has not been published. You might say that Lin’s death was simply the fortunes of war, but innocent people died with him – and their relatives have never been allowed to know the whole truth of what happened.

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  13. If we pursued ” stability ” in a wrong way, we would suffer the extreme turmoil. You cannot suppress people forever. But the problem right now is, how many people in China are Party Members? The figure must be terrible. Those people don’t seek any changes but to protect their own interests.
    It is interesting to image if majority of Chinese were Party Members, would they still have “convenience” to ” Party only” privileges? And would they also have some intensely conflicts among themselves? If they split,then what?
    I am worried as a Chinese.

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