Yang Rui and Me

Many people have asked me to write a follow-up to my original post on Yang Rui. For personal reasons ((Long story short, a legal case could have delayed our departure from China and forced my wife to go through the long and expensive process of US visa application all over again.)), I have been compelled to keep a low profile and refrain from speaking publicly about this for a little while, which unfortunately has given some people the impression that Yang Rui’s legal threats have cowed me into silence. I guess in a way that has been true. Anyway, enough silence.

(However, I will reiterate here that Yang Rui’s threats had nothing to do with my departure from China. My wife and I had decided to leave back in 2011, and she filed the first part of her US visa application in January of this year, well before Yang Rui made the weibo comment that launched all this in May.)

Since it has been a while, let’s review his original weibo post, which kicked off this whole thing (translation via WSJ’s China Real Time):

The Public Security Bureau wants to clean out the foreign trash: To arrest foreign thugs and protect innocent girls, they need to concentrate on the disaster zones in [student district] Wudaokou and [drinking district] Sanlitun. Cut off the foreign snake heads. People who can’t find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Foreign spies seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage and pretend to be tourists while compiling maps and GPS data for Japan, Korea and the West. We kicked out that foreign bitch ((There has been some debate as to whether bitch or shrew is the appropriate translation here. However, since Yang Rui himself stated that he originally accepted bitch as a fair translation, I’m sticking with it. Plus, it’s not like shrew is any less insulting or sexist, really.)) and closed Al-Jazeera’s Beijing bureau. We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing.

So there was that, and many people responded.

Shortly after writing my initial post, I was contacted by several other foreign bloggers in China about a campaign to draw attention to Yang Rui’s comments. We settled on calling for him to be fired, not because we thought it would actually happen, but because it would put some heat on him and possibly even his employers, and maybe cause someone up there to think for a second about the repercussions of extreme rhetoric like this. I happened to be the first person to post one of our messages on Sina Weibo, and although I expected that to go nowhere — I had barely 300 followers, and most of them were probably zombies ((typical posts on my weibo at the time attracted an average of zero comments and zero retweets))– Yang Rui himself picked up on my post more or less immediately, and retweeted it to his 800,000+ followers.

My message (see the image) was titled “Fire Yang Rui!” and contained a summary of his own post, an image of him labeled “Xenophobe,” and this: “These vicious lies do not represent the vast majority of foreign citizens in China. It is extremely insulting that an anchor on CCTV Dialogue, a show that is meant to be about intercultural exchange, would propagate such racist, hateful speech.” The language, I’ll admit, is a bit extreme, and if I could do it over, I might tone down the tone slightly. But I wouldn’t change the meaning of any of it.

Yang and I both made a few follow-up posts over the next few hours, but it was his re-tweeting of that initial post that really built up the attention. I started gaining followers, comments, and mentions on weibo like crazy, and most of them were negative. I was called everything from “foreign trash” to “Chinese traitor” (apparently not everyone was clear on my ethnicity), and urged to “fuck off back to” all kinds of places, from America (my actual home) to Saudi Arabia (not sure where that one came from). I don’t recall seeing any threats of violence, but I’m sure there were a few — I read only a tiny fraction of the comments.

There were also numerous calls for me to be investigated by the police, or just directly arrested, the first of which came from Yang himself, who wrote in his original post: “I suggest the Public Security Bureau investigate his [i.e., my] background.”

Yang Rui says the police should look into my background

But things really got out of hand when he posted these two follow-ups:

This person is named Charlie Custer. He has been interviewed by the China Daily, and has used our columns to translate Chinese blog posts to gain fame for himself on his ChinaGeeks site. It has been mentioned by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, shouting about Chinese topics to gain a little fame for himself. Now he’s burning bridges. The reason he’s so upset is related to his longtime criticism of China. He first worked as an English teacher in Harbin, and has no other skills. To be continued.

Custer has seriously damaged my reputation, and I reserve the right to sue him. This incident is all caused by his malicious attempts to hype himself and incite racial hatred. I have seen that his eyes are full of anti-China hatred! I hope he follows Chinese laws. Additionally, he was never up to snuff as a guest of my program, and compared to most of our foreign guests like James Fallows, his quality was very low.

He also gave an interview to the China Daily saying that he was “consulting friends about filing a lawsuit.” The China Daily also contacted me for comment on that story, but I declined.

On Monday, May 21, Yang deleted both of the posts quoted above from his weibo account. (I still have full screenshots, if anyone is interested).

These posts are a pretty clear attempt at character assassination. He mentions my teaching job, but none of my more recent work. (Apparently the irony of criticizing someone for teaching English when one’s own job is entirely based on one’s English language skills was entirely lost on him). He calls me a racist, and most bafflingly, suggests that I wasn’t up to snuff as a guest when I appeared on his show.

Of course, there’s no way to prove this now, but Yang was actually quite complimentary about my performance after my first Dialogue appearance ((on a taped episode of the show about the Wenzhou train crash that, as it turned out, never aired)). I was quickly invited back for a second appearance ((This time for another pre-taped episode on Chinese spokesmen which actually was aired)). Then, in March of 2012, I was invited back on the show again, though this time I declined.

Click to view full size

Yang Rui was the host for all three episodes I was invited to appear on. One wonders; if I was truly such a subpar guest, why was I invited back on the show not once but twice? Surely Dialogue can’t have been so hard up for guests that they’d intentionally bring on someone who sucked, right? And if Yang himself was so opposed to me, even if the show was hard up for guests and they just wanted to fill the chair, wouldn’t they probably have invited me to one of the episodes chaired by Yang’s co-host instead? It seems logical to conclude that Yang Rui’s statement about my performance on his show was pure fiction. That’s probably why he deleted it pretty quickly.

Just as things seemed to be winding down, though, came this op-ed in the Global Times by Tom Fearon. Clearly, Tom feels the reaction to Yang Rui was excessive, but the most stunning segment of his article is here:

Yang’s opponent in his Weibo war of words is the young American writer and filmmaker behind popular blog China Geeks, Charlie Custer. Custer labeled Yang a “xenophobe,” called for him to be fired and urged a boycott of foreign guests on his program, Dialogue. It’s an emotional, knee-jerk response that would further restrict free speech in our media and encourage TV hosts to be dull and unopinionated.

Now, certainly my response to Yang Rui’s post was emotional. No one, least of all me, could deny that with a straight face. But it would restrict free speech? Really? It’s depressing that I have to explain this: freedom of speech is about protecting speech from criminal prosecution. It does not mean that what you say has no consequences.

I did not call for any legal action against Yang, even after he suggested that I should be investigated by police and threatened to sue me. I did call for him to be fired (though I had no expectation that would actually happen), and there’s nothing about that that’s incompatible with freedom of speech. It certainly might serve to discourage TV hosts like Yang from making such extreme statements in the future, but it does not in any way infringe on their legal freedom to do so.

Moreover, would toning down the rhetoric really be such a bad thing? Fearon writes about how my comments could lead to “dull” hosts as if an exciting television program is more important to society than reasoned exchange. ((and as if Dialogue is currently a riveting program I’m attempting to steal thunder from.)) I think America’s current media environment ought to be evidence enough that encouraging extreme shouting instead of reasoned debate isn’t beneficial to society (although admittedly it helps sell ads).

If anything, Fearon should be making the opposite argument — that my phrasing in the initial post was too extreme and combative; that it provoked for an emotional response rather than a logical one. That is probably true, and if I could go back I would probably change the wording in a few parts of that post, if not the actual content of it. Regardless, there was nothing about the post I did make that encouraged dull television or hindered anyone’s freedom of speech.

Yang’s response to me, however, was absolutely an attack on free speech. By suggesting that I should be investigated criminally — his implication being that I must only disagree with him because I’m in China illegally — and by threatening to sue me, he sent a strong message to anyone listening: disagree with me too strongly, and there might be legal consequences for you.

Fearon also suggested implicitly that the uproar over Yang’s comments is somehow equivalent to disapproval of the Beijing government’s crackdown campaign on illegal foreigners. This is absolutely false. In fact, I have no real problem with the Beijing san fei campaign ((although I think requiring people to carry their passports at all times is a bit much)). Certainly, China has the right to expel foreigners who aren’t following its visa laws. But Yang’s comments, regardless of however he or others may be seeking to re-contextualize them, were not about that.

The Beijing campaign is about cracking down on visa violations; Yang was talking about espionage, human trafficking, and the sexual exploitation of “innocent Chinese girls.” He suggests that foreigners who criticize China are spreading lies to encourage emigration (why, exactly?) and says explicitly that those who “demonize China” should be expelled. That isn’t advocacy for a mostly-reasonable police campaign, it’s an assault on critics’ freedom of speech and on the character of China’s expat population as a whole.

It’s also, of course, unsubstantiated nonsense. While there are examples of foreigners doing everything from spying to trafficking, Yang’s post implies that these are common problems. In his first line, he invokes the Beijing san fei campaign, and then uses its legitimacy to suggest to his readers that the police are cracking down on foreigners because there are so many foreign spies using Chinese girls for sex while making GPS maps and spending their free time convincing Chinese people to emigrate ((because if there’s anything the terrible job markets in the US and Europe need right now, it’s a huge influx of Chinese immigrants)). Of course, the Beijing police are doing no such thing, and have never suggested that human trafficking, spying or any of the other issues Yang raises are significant problems in China’s expat community.

Then there’s Yang’s use of the term “bitch” to describe Melissa Chan and his suggestion that China should kick out those who “demonize” it — i.e., critics. I don’t think I need to explain how disgusting and spineless it was for Yang to curse Ms. Chan without actually mentioning her name or making reference to any of her reports. Al-Jazeera’s expulsion was not big news domestically, and Yang’s lack of specificity ensured that his followers mostly stayed in the dark as to what the channel was reporting on, or what made her such a “bitch.”

Certainly, Al-Jazeera ran plenty of negative (but truthful) reports on China. China’s unwillingness to grasp that this is just how the Western media works and not some foreign conspiracy continues to baffle me, as does the country’s insistence that the West ignores its side of the story while consistently denying the Western media access to the people who can tell that story. When they do grant access, it’s worth noting, the results are often positive. See, for example, this story Melissa Chan filed on Communist Party Schools after having been granted access to one and the freedom to talk to officials and teachers. Is this piece the work of a reporter or a network out to “demonize” China or its government? Quite obviously not. In fact, it is Yang Rui who was attempting to demonize Al-Jazeera and anyone else who does critical reporting on China.

Anyway, the controversy has died down now for all but the most extreme lunatics ((i.e. Larry Romanoff, the author of the linked piece, which is copired from a blog post of his on bearcanada.com)), and I’m not particularly interested in taking it any further than this post. Given that Yang deleted his lawsuit threat tweets and stopped talking shit about me in the media pretty quickly, I suspect he’s not all that interested in taking things any further either. Inadvertently, his retweeting of my message and his subsequent attempts at legal bullying probably did more damage to his reputation and his show among foreigners (his guests and his target audience) than I ever could have anyway. But I felt compelled to make this post if for no other reason than to make sure that Yang’s halfhearted attempt at legal bullying didn’t remain unanswered.

A Tangential Note

I think my favorite part of Yang’s original post might be the allegation that foreigners are actually government agents sent to China to encourage emigration. Why would foreign governments want a big influx of Chinese immigrants? Given the unemployment levels in the US and most European countries right now, I can’t imagine why any country would be wasting intelligence resources on “convincing people to emigrate” no matter how skilled the potential targets were. So what is the imagined endgame here? To steal all of China’s talented workers? Even if that were feasible, what country could handle that kind of immigration influx logistically, not to mention from a PR standpoint. An influx of any kind of foreign worker (highly skilled or not) in this economy would be a PR disaster for whatever administration was in power.

So if there are foreign spies in China working to convince people to emigrate the US, perhaps it’s not an anti-China conspiracy at all. Oh my god. I think I’ve uncovered an even greater conspiracy! Is the Bush family using its CIA connections to try to elect Mitt Romney by destroying Obama’s polling numbers via a spike in unemployment caused by a massive influx of Chinese nationals bent on working in the US after being convinced of America’s superiority by one of the Agency’s many English teachers/assets? Quick everyone, to the conspiracy-pondering chamber!!

Why I’m Leaving China

By the time you’re reading this post, I’m on a plane with my wife, bound for the United States, where we plan to live at least for the immediate future. I generally attempt to avoid getting personal with this blog, but in light of some recent events I thought I’d take a moment to explain my reasons.

First, let’s get one thing straight: this has nothing to do with Yang Rui. Yes, he did threaten to sue me and suggest that the police should “investigate my background” after I called for him to be fired in a Weibo post. (For more on his original post, see this). Although the outpouring of vitriol on weibo that followed certainly wasn’t pleasant, none of that had anything to do with my decision to leave, which had been made long before Yang Rui shoved his foot into his mouth (and halfway down his own throat) on weibo. I do plan to address the whole “Yang Rui incident” in a post in the near future, so stay tuned.

Anyway, why am I leaving? Obviously the biggest reasons are personal; I don’t want to get into any of it here except to say that I think it’s what’s best for my family at this particular moment. It’s not anything scandalous or secret, though, I just don’t feel the need to broadcast much about my personal life. However, there are other things that helped reinforce this decision that I think are worth discussing here because they represent major problems China has yet to fully own up to.

[Update: Oh, fine. Since everybody feels it necessary to speculate about my life, here are the personal details, as well as proof Yang Rui had nothing to do with it.]

I like breathing

The first is the air pollution. It’s almost cliche to complain about the air quality in Beijing; it’s terrible and everyone knows it. People here just deal as best they can. Some wear masks outside, and those wealthy enough buy expensive air filters for their homes. Most people just grin and breathe it. I wore masks from time to time, but for the most part, I just breathed it in, too.

Here’s the thing, though: as a foreign citizen, there’s really nothing forcing me to live in Beijing. It is, in many ways, a wonderful city, and it’s probably the most fascinating, exciting place I have ever lived. However, it was also killing me. That’s not really hyperbole; cancer rates in Beijing have risen 60% over the past decade even while smoking rates have remained steady. Studies this spring confirmed a link between air pollution and premature death, even in places far less polluted than Beijing. A World Bank report reportedly found that in China, poor air quality causes nearly a million premature deaths each year. That might not sound like a lot, but some back-of-the-napkin calculations based on China’s death rate show that more than 8% of all deaths in China are premature and related to air pollution.

I’m sure there are plenty of arguments to be made about those numbers, what defines “premature,” and whether or not scientists can really be sure those deaths are all linked to air pollution. But that doesn’t really matter. If you’re in Beijing and you have functioning eyes, you know that things are not healthy. Here’s a picture I took from my apartment last year. It hasn’t been doctored in any way, nor is this even a particularly unusual sight in Beijing (it was taken as part of a series of photos I took each day from the same spot for a separate project).

Looking at that and thinking about your own lungs is bad enough. But thinking about my wife, and thinking about having kids, it gets worse. If my wife were pregnant, would I want her breathing this? Would I want my small child breathing this?

Obviously there are millions of families in Beijing, and they deal. Certainly, we could deal, too. But the question I couldn’t stop asking myself was why should we? On a personal level, it’s a more difficult choice than you might think, at least for me. I like my lungs, sure — they’ve treated me well thus far — but I like Beijing too, and whatever else one might say about this city, it’s never boring. But adding a wife and hypothetical future kids into the mix, the question gets a lot simpler for me. Given the choice to be elsewhere, this just wasn’t the right place to put down deep roots.

Eating is also fun

The other big reason — and this applies to all of China, really — is food safety. Things have simply gotten to the point that it’s impossible to feel confident that what you’re eating is healthy, or even real, unless you’re on a farm. Check out this site, for example, which lists the food items that have been publicly reported in food safety scandals over just the last 8 years. I’ll wait a while for you to finish scrolling through that massive list, which includes basically any food item you can imagine. Oh, each name doesn’t represent just one scandal either, some of the more common food items have scores of reported problems associated with them.

Of course, that’s just what has been discovered and reported publicly. Buying only imported food is a solution, but it’s a highly expensive one; above my means, and above the means of the vast majority of Chinese. And while organic foods are gaining popularity here, they’re also expensive, and there have been scandals involving fake, not-really-organic “organic” food, so even that isn’t entirely safe.

Again, people can and do deal with this. I’ve been eating the food here on and off for four years, and while my stomach has protested from time to time, it hasn’t exploded. Again, though, when forced to wonder ‘why choose to eat this stuff?’ I don’t have a great answer. Not that the food anywhere is entirely safe, of course — certainly it isn’t in the US — but there are plenty of places safer than here. And again, thinking about kids and a family, why choose to put down roots in a country where milk power, in one form or another, seems to make kids sick in a new way every year?

I realize no one really gives a crap about why I’m leaving, but I mention this because I think it’s as significant a problem as economic and social factors when you look at the trend of Chinese elites leaving, or sending their families out of, China. Corruption is a huge problem, sure, and if the economic slowdown continues that’s only going to increase the flow of people leaving. But I think there are probably also plenty of people like me who are less motivated by politics and economics than they are by the safety of their families and/or their fondness for their own lungs and digestive systems.

Of course, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t affected by China’s political situation. For someone who truly believes China would be better served by a system that afforded its people, at the very least, a free press and the true rule of law, this has been a depressing couple of years. Depressing, soul-crushing and occasionally terrifying. But if I’m honest with myself, even with the political situation, I really think I’d be staying in Beijing if I felt like I could breathe safely.

I don’t think I’m alone there. I know plenty of families in Beijing, and it’s not my intent to criticize anyone else here; I’m just trying to explain my own rationale. But these are issues everyone here struggles with. And for those Chinese and foreign who, like me, are lucky enough to have the means to move elsewhere, some are going to make that choice. As the data on pollution gets clearer, perhaps more are going to make that choice. And while China has made some strides in agreeing to report things like PM2.5 publicly in some cities, I unfortunately don’t see the pollution problem disappearing anytime soon.

This isn’t really even China’s fault. OK, yes it is, but it’s also a fairly natural (if disgusting) stage of development. I don’t know if industrial-era London every looked quite this bad, but I gather it wasn’t the cleanest place ever. The thing is, though, would you choose to live in industrial revolution London?

That choice, I think, is part of China’s problem. As Chinese salaries go up and the education system gets better — and here’s hoping those things do improve despite what’s looking like a fairly ugly bump in the economic road — more and more people are going to have the same choice I have.

What does this mean for the blog?

Absolutely nothing. As longtime readers may recall, I lived in the US for part of 2009-2010, and my blogging output only became more prolific during that time. There are some impending changes — all for the good, I assure you — but it’s not quite time to announce any of that yet. In the meantime, regularly-scheduled curmudgeoning will resume as soon as I’ve slept off the last of the jet lag and dealt with the slowly-unfolding nightmare that is my life as the owner of a motor vehicle.

You may also notice a trend back towards more translations, as I tend to feel more inclined to translate things while I’m in the US just to keep my skills sharp…or make them less dull, anyway. However since I’m reading dozens of news articles in Chinese every day for my day job at this point, I make no guarantees with regards to more translations. (The other problem is that a lot of my favorite blogs have really dried up as their owners move to microblogging and weibo or Twitter, and there are already plenty of great blogs that deal with what’s being said on microblogs. Here’s one excellent one.)

Are you coming back?

Yes, obviously. I have written this fairly pragmatic post instead of an emotional, bittersweet farewell piece because I have every intention of returning with some frequency (visa permitting, of course), and every intention of staying fully engaged and more up-to-date than I have ever been before even while living in the US. This, again, touches on the big plans I mentioned above that I’m not ready to share publicly yet, but suffice it to say that China and I will never be strangers.

One Last Personal Note

I do want to take the time to apologize to many of my friends in Beijing, who may find this news a bit of a shock. I was trying to keep my departure plans very quiet on the off-chance that Yang Rui actually did have friends somewhere in the PSB and might attempt to fuck with me or my wife in some way. My email has been hacked before, so I wanted to be a little careful even with that — perhaps a bit paranoid but there were people out to get me. It’s terribly depressing to me that that’s the sort of thing I even had to think about, but if I’ve learned one thing from the whole Yang Rui experience it is not to underestimate that man’s ability to be a petty bully. I wish I had had the opportunity to thank all of you properly for all of your help, and for generally making my life here awesome.

But of course, I will have the opportunity to do that, the next time I’m back in China (or the next time you’re back in the US for a visit). Next time I’m back in the ‘Jing, the drinks are on me.

UPDATE: Because a bunch of people have asked, just to clarify: this doesn’t have any effect on the documentary film project either, we have already completed all the filming for that.

Village Democracy Actually Spreads the Wealth (Did Anyone Ever Doubt it?)

Last December’s spectacular ten-day confrontation between Wukan villagers and local CCP riot police in Guangdong amply demonstrated how organized grassroots protest can morph quickly into organized electoral politics.

Three months after the rioting, in which villagers drove out authorities and barricaded themselves against police, villagers went to the polls to elect a new seven-member village governing committee hailed by Al Jazeera “as a model for greater democracy in China following an uncompromising confrontation over land grabs and abuse of power.

In foreign media, Wukan was quickly held up as a village template for civic activism and democratic reforms. But though this Guangdong fishing village might be considered one of the exceptional models of rural rebellion —  villagers won unusual freedoms to hold new elections, install a respected rebel leader as the new Party secretary and reclaim portions of sold-off land –in actuality village elections in China have been going on for decades.

Since 1982, in fact, when the Communist Party began allowing local elections, villages throughout China have implemented polling in stages, then in waves. Timing of the first village elections was staggered over years and then decades, determined by local town, city, or county CCP officials who assessed the comparative “readiness” of the village to democratically elect its local leadership.

Today, though, village democracy in China seems to be working effectively — surprisingly so. In the largest study ever undertaken on rural village elections and their impact on local economies, a cooperative research team at The London School of Economics, Yale University,  Johns Hopkins, and Peking University’s China Center for Economic Research jointly concludes that local elections and village democracy are actually increasing public prosperity and “buy in” to better governance.

“We find that elections significantly increase public goods expenditure [and] the increase corresponds to [local village] demand and is paralleled by an increase in public goods provision and local taxes,” wrote Monica Martinez-Bravo (Johns Hopkins), Gerard Padro i Miquel (London School of Economics), Nancy Qian (Yale University), and Yang Yao (Peking University).  “We also find the elections cause significant income redistribution in the villages,” they continued.  “We show that the main mechanism underlying the effect of elections is increased leader incentives.”

Based on 2006 and 2011 surveys conducted by the authors along with economic and election data collected between 1982 to 2005, the study was published in May as a working (not yet peer-reviewed) paper of the National Bureau of Economic Research (Washington DC), a private, non-profit organization.  Funded by grants from Harvard University, Brown, Stanford, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), the study can hardly be called “transnational” at its source, but the authors claim independence from the opinions of NBER, or presumably, any other institution, whether Chinese or American.

Measuring both economic and social effects of local elections in 217 Chinese villages randomly selected from 29 Chinese provinces, the study’s major finding is that village democracy not only increases public expenditures for worthwhile projects  — examples include irrigation for poorer village farms or more spending for public school teachers — but that villagers themselves are willing to part with money to invest in these projects.

In fact, virtually none of the increases in public expenditure came from regional or central governments, the study found.  Instead, village residents “bought into” the projects and paid increased local taxes and fees, strongly suggesting that leadership and constituents were “aligned” in supporting the projects.

The numbers are also dramatic. Public goods expenditures increased by as much as 27% in the “democracy villages,” according to the study.  Moreover, the research confirms earlier studies suggesting that village elections, albeit in a fledgling state, actually reduce corruption because elected officials are held more accountable by villagers than appointed ones.

Spreading the Wealth in Farmland

The second major finding of the study is that elections result in redistribution of land and agricultural income to poorer families. “Elections increased the ratio of the income of the households that were in the poorest 10 percent over the households that were in the top ten percent by 21 percentage points,”  the authors stated. How? Elected village officials are prohibited from imposing recurring taxes on income and production. But they are empowered to redistribute farmland originally leased to enterprises (which disproportionately benefits village elites). Redistribution in turn affects agricultural income, helping the poor increase their share.

In addition, elected village officials have power of management over certain village enterprises which allows them to redistribute wage income.  This can directly benefit poorer village families — and apparently does.

Not that all elections (or elected officials) are alike.  According to the researchers, many first-time village elections generally have few candidates willing to run.  Some villages are run by rich families — clans and village chiefs sharing power.  It’s difficult to break their grip. In several cases, elections have been delayed because regional officials were dissatisfied with certain villages’ responses to centralized policy (i.e., One-Child policy).  And in others cases, local officials’ collusion with police and large land owners delayed or hampered the electoral process.

In addition, before the late 1990s, only the local CCP branch was allowed to nominate candidates for village elections.  Residents had little power of choice, and could only vote bad performers out of office.

In 1998, however, open nominations became national law. Villages were able to choose their own candidates, and many did — by the thousands. The more progressive CCP leadership believed that village democracy would actually promote public welfare. Further, elite power holders might be persuaded to relax their grip somewhat if local elections resulted in continued stability and economic prosperity.

So much for ideals.  How then, does this village democracy study square with the thousands of local “anti-corruption” cases and periodic sweeps of rapacious officials in local and regional government? If village democracy is working, how come so many Chinese towns like Wukan periodically erupt into demonstrations or even rioting? If village elections appear responsible for redistributing income with greater parity among rich and poor, why is China’s rural vs. urban income gap growing ever wider?

The authors haven’t addressed these questions.  But if elected officials indeed perform better for their constituents than appointed ones, the lessons of village democracy might certainly apply to larger government bodies in China.

We’ll wait and see.


A.Emmett is a Beijing-based professor of journalism.  Her personal blog, “China Through Blue Eyes,” can be found at http://shoutswedoubt.blogspot.com



Looking at the Track Record

Today I came across this interesting summary of a recent debate between Minxin Pei and Eric X. Li about Chinese democracy, moderated by James Fallows (thanks to @thats_mandarin for the heads-up). With the important caveat that I didn’t see the debate firsthand and thus am relying on the summary of Li’s position in this article, let’s take a look at some of his statements.

[Li conceded that] China is indeed not a democratic system. But should it become one? “I’m a venture capitalist,” Li said, “so I look at track records.” In 1949, the country had been suffering from years of war and economic stagnation. The average life expectancy was 41; the literacy rate was 15 percent; GDP was nothing. Now life expectancy is 75; literacy is at 80 percent; and GDP is a multi-trillion-dollar number.

OK, so let’s look at track records. Taiwan is a great comparison here ((Not a perfect one since the country is far smaller, but there are no perfect comparisons here)), since its government was in a very similar situation in 1949, having also just been weakened by decades of war and (in its case) an eventual defeat and forced retreat. My guess is that in 1949, Taiwan’s GDP, literacy rate, and life expectancy were quite similar to China’s. (Though I could be wrong. I couldn’t find much available data on Taiwan in 1949, although it appears the GDP was indeed very low, if perhaps not quite as low as the PRC’s).

So who has the better track record now? Taiwan — undeniably a far more democratic state than China — on every single count. Its per capita GDP is way higher than the PRC’s ($37,000 vs. $8,400). Its life expectancy rate is also higher than China’s (79.35 vs. 73.47), and it even has an advantage in literacy, albeit a very slight one (96.1% ((This number is from 2003, though; it may be higher now)) vs. 95.9%). ((Note that most of these numbers are from the CIA World Factbook, and I chose PPP GDP for this article, but the numbers from other sources are in all instances I saw very similar.))

But to see why this matters, let’s continue with Li’s argument:

Yes, Li said, monumental mistakes have been made (he didn’t specify what these were), but they’ve been dwarfed by China’s achievements. Here Li referred back to his role as a venture capitalist and the priority he puts on track records: If I’m at a board meeting, and the proposition on the table is to take a company that’s engineered an enormously successful turnaround and to fire that company’s top executives, replace the entire management system, and do everything differently, that doesn’t make sense. “The one-party system has taken China from 1949 to today. … I think the answer is clear.”

Li is not wrong that China’s one-party government has made some monumental achievements along with its monumental mistakes, although which dwarfs which depends very much on whether you’re (for example) a successful venture capitalist or a farmer whose land has been confiscated. Regardless, if we’re looking at track records, it sure looks like Taiwan’s government has a better one. And what’s more, Taiwan’s current government is the result of a successful stable transition from a one-party dictatorship to a more-or-less functional multiparty democracy (albeit one with the occasional legislative fist fight). As far as track records go, isn’t Taiwan’s comparative success in every category Li named, along with its successful transition to a multiparty system, evidence that such a transition could work, and might even be beneficial to China?

I think it’s quite telling that Li chose to use a boardroom metaphor, though. I think he’s right about the decision one would make when running a company, but China is a nation, not a corporation. When a corporation makes a catastrophic policy mistake, its stock price plummets and investors become angry and poor. Workers get laid off and have to find new jobs. When a nation makes a catastrophic policy mistake, there are deaths (sometimes millions of them).

Moreover, a nation’s goals should be entirely different from a corporation’s. Companies are out to make money, period. Nations should be out to make money only insofar as that improves the quality of life for their own people. Nations also have to consider an extremely complex variety of other factors; it’s not all just about the GDP bottom line, which is why running a country the way you would run a company is insane. ((I should note that I don’t think China’s leaders really are running China like a company; what I’m saying here is that Li’s comparison is pretty problematic.))

I’m not sure why Fallows or Pei accepted this metaphor as legitimate, but they apparently did at least for the sake of continued discussion, and thus, discussion continued:

It wasn’t that long ago, Li responded, that they said Apple was going to flop, because all personal computing would all be open-system. The history of real democracy is in any event very short: In America, it generously speaking goes back only to the post-Civil War, less generously only to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, if you take the “one person, one vote” definition seriously.

Li makes a fair point here, and one that he has made before, so I’ll counter with a point that I’ve made before: China’s system is even younger if we operate by the same strict definitions. Since the current system (which is responsible for most of China’s growth) is quite obviously not communist or socialist in practice, if we want to talk about this system’s track record we might generously say it dates back to the late 1970s. If Western democracy is unproven system, Chinese-style authoritarianism is even moreso.

Democracy has contributed to rise of West, Li said. But electoral politics is in disarray on both sides of Atlantic, and Western democracies are broadly incapable of dealing with the monumental challenges they’re charged with. Comparing public-opinion polling in China with that in the United States, Li noted the happiness and trust in their institutions that Chinese people report relative to Americans. Asking China to democratize? “It’s like asking Apple to turn itself into RIM.”

Ignoring the nonsensical smilie at the end ((but I’m happy to discuss why this is stupid in the comments if need be…)), one could easily make the same vague, unsupported argument about China, and in fact we see such arguments all the time. History will prove one (or both) of these arguments right, I imagine, but both systems are currently facing “monumental challenges” and whether or not they’re capable of dealing with them is very much yet to be determined.

As for the opinion polling, is that really an effective measure of the national mood in a country where dissidents and critics are detained and tortured? Or, for that matter, in a country where the prevailing cultural attitude is to keep one’s true beliefs to oneself and trusted family and friends, not to shout them at anyone with a microphone who will listen (as seems to be popular in the US)? I certainly know plenty of Chinese who are very frustrated with the government but would never ever tell that to a pollster cold-calling them over the phone.

Li does concede that corruption is a problem, but cites Transparency International’s global rankings as evidence that corruption is a developing-nation problem and not an authoritarian problem, per se. He may be right, but again it’s worth noting that Taiwan, whose government was starting from more or less the same place, ranks as significantly more clean than China on that scale. ((Although I’ll grant that Taiwan had the benefit of US aid to a greater extent than China had help from the Soviets.))

Lest anyone be confused, Li is most certainly not arguing that authoritarianism is the best system for China now; he’s in this thing for the long haul:

Fallows asked Li whether he saw the current system in China as being optimal in the long run, or whether he saw it more as the best system for now, pending future economic and social development.

“I am saying the former.”

The system will certainly have to adapt, Li said, but the country today would be unrecognizable to the Chinese people 63 years ago, and that entire transformation has taken place under the same one-party system. Not only that: On a global axis, the breadth of change that this one-party state has been able to embrace and oversee has been unparalleled in any of the world’s advance [sic] democracies.

I’m not sure I entirely agree with Li there. China has certainly changed a lot, but its one-party system hasn’t survived a civil war (America’s multiparty system did), and most of the reason China now would be unrecognizable to Chinese from 63 years ago is that things started out so terribly. I’m not sure that the fact that most democracies didn’t begin with millions of people starving to death should really be considered a selling point for the relative strength of authoritarianism.

And, as Minxin Pei pointed out, the political system itself has barely changed at all and would be quite recognizable to Chinese from the early communist period. Policies have changed drastically, but the men with their hands on the wheel still get there the same way. Li counters:

It’s a fallacy to say the system hasn’t changed, Li countered: There have been big changes the National People’s Conference — most conspicuously, it’s [sic] members are now younger, because of term limits and other reforms. There have been major changes to the composition of regional and municipal governments, as well. But these changes are not reported in the West, because, Li speculated, Western reporters aren’t interested in this kind of story; they’re interested in the dichotomy between dictatorship and democracy.

With regards to the NPC changes, I think he’s missed the point; as that body continues to be a relatively meaningless rubber-stamp legislature anyway; changes to it aren’t particularly relevant. With regards to local changes, I love ((sarcasm)) the cheap dig at reporters he throws in, but apparently he’s not interested enough in the story to mention any specifics, either, which rather undermines his positon.

Anyway, Li’s overall point was made quite clear during the question period:

In response to a question from the audience, Li also criticized the very ideas of political liberty and individual rights. Unless you think rights come from God, he insisted, you really have no theory of why any one view of political liberty any discrete set of individual rights should be sacrosanct at all. “If they’re from men, they’re not absolute; they can be negotiated.” It was only too bad there wasn’t time to discuss what “negotiated” means here.

“I want to break the spell of the so-called right to freedom of speech,” he added later. “Speech is act. It has harmed from time immemorial.”

I think it’s pretty clear to anyone who has been poor or powerless (or both) why individual rights are sacrosanct even if one doesn’t believe they come from god. It’s not hard to understand why Eric Li doesn’t give a shit about internet censorship in China, for example: after all he has a column in the Huffington Post. But it shouldn’t be too difficult for him to understand why free speech (or due process, or the rule of law, or the right to elected representation, etc. etc.) are important to a farmer who has lost his land and is trying to contact the central government to resolve the problem.

Rights certainly are a “negotiation,” Li isn’t wrong about that. Even in the land of the free, I don’t have the right to make libelous comments or murder people (among other things). I don’t think anyone would argue that how far any right goes isn’t a negotiation, part of the social contract for any society, and different groups choose differently. But without freedom of speech or the right to elected representation, who has what rights in China is not a negotiated dialogue between the rulers and the ruled, it is a one-sided lecture. Without representation or the right to represent oneself through freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, any real “negotiation” on rights is utterly impossible.