Thursday, March 8, 2012

Why China's Political Model is Superior..for Whom? Or, Something Polemic this Way Comes

Mr. Eric Li’s recent editorial, “Why China’s Political Model is Superior,” (link here) deserves a place in the New York Times.  His is an important opinion, as it is not only Mr. Li who feels this way: many of those Americans he claims suffer from a “faith-based ideological hubris” in democracy have recently come down with a contagious crisis of confidence In their political system.  Implicit in much of the Western coverage of China’s economic rise is an awe (or fear?) that China’s economic successes may reveal a political system that will inexorably prove more efficient than ours, and in this efficiency, superior.

I, too, agree with Mr. Li that we should get away from trite, absolutist, language and the pitfalls of hubris.  The question I would pose to Mr. Li, then, is “Superior for whom? And, superior for what?” These questions are important, for right now, I worry that the most probable answer to those questions is this: superior for venture capitalists and venture capitalism.

A critical flaw in Mr. Li’s editorial is his conflation of the delivery of public goods with the determination of public goods. Most of his anecdotes contrast the efficiency with which China achieve policy ends (even to the point of “crushing rebellions”) with the apparent paralysis of how Western democracies determine policy (legally regulated recalls and referenda).  But the endless referenda in California, gridlock in Congress, or recalls in Wisconsin have less to do with the delivery of public goods than with the determining of how and what we as a people determine what is just and right to deliver. 

China’s delivery of a limited number of public goods over the past 30 years has been breathtaking.  It has, as is often recorded, moved hundreds of millions out of poverty and improved their material well-being.  But it hasn’t improved it that much.  Mr. Li notes with pride that China is now the number two economy in the world, but neglects to mention that per capita GDP is still, at minimum, ninetieth in the world, or that its GDP numbers say nothing of environmental degradation,  He does not talk about GINI index number over .5 or the gap between the rich and the poor, the city and the country-side, politically-connected and not; and that theseare not just gaps, but chasms.  Many of the poor who have moved out of poverty hang precariously close to it, often times a simple statistical manipulation away…

Mr. Li has the advantage of profiting from the market, without suffering from its externalities, which have been grave here.  Were he writing his editorial from Wukan or Panhe  or Foxconn or with children in rural schools or countless other places in the center and west of this vast, magnificent place (or simply next to those living in the shadows of his office in Shanghai) it would indeed take hubris to state that China’s political system is superior.  It has done some good things for its people.  It is certainly superior for those who agree with its policy goals, especially those who have profited from them (perhaps us?), and we must assume that Mr. Li is one of those.  But is it capable of handling the myriad demands a sophisticated polity places on its government?  Is it capable of providing just resolutions to social discord and disagreement?

If we can leave aside provocation for a bit, the reality is that we all—East and West—are now firmly anchored to the international economy, and face a crisis in global governance, both domestically and internationally.  An unfortunate subtext to this year’s election primaries (or the financial crisis, or the Euro crisis, or the…) is the impotence of any one government to address domestic problems that are now inextricably linked to international markets, something that should have been made clear to all of us during the financial crisis.  

While conventional wisdom was that China avoided many of the most serious repercussions of the financial crisis, the psychological impact of the financial crisis may have been far worse than documented, but in a way few of us may have expected.   Far more devastating than any transitory economic losses was the creeping angst that has bloomed as China’s blueprint to prosperity for the past thirty years was tarnished.  China had, in many ways, treated Western industrialized history as a how-to guide for development, and one of the next things on the docket was reform of its financial system in the West’s own image.  Then came 2008, and a collective disillusionment the likes of which Holden Caulfield could scarcely dream about.      

Just like individuals react to psychological trauma in different ways, so too have Chinese responded in different ways to this “loss of innocence” in their belief in a scientific development that modeled itself after Western history and institutions.  Some, the reformers, have become dismayed, for what is the hope for China’s own reform if the West itself is so flawed?  Some others (perhaps more) have become emboldened, apparently assuming that this “fall” of the West doubtless heralds the ascension of China.  Mr. Li’s editorial exhibits many of the features of this mentality.  But what is ironic about this type of braggadocio is that it comes at a time that China is least sure about the direction it needs to take, politically and otherwise.  
Beijing, like Washington, now finds itself teeming with “lobbyists,” with uncounted moneyed interests pressing Zhongnanhai from within, and countless un-moneyed interests without, taking to the streets in as petitioners (and protestors), who bring every manner of grievance to Beijing from all corners of the Middle Kingdom.  Superior system or not, China’s administrative and legal systems currently lack institutional capacity (or will) to remedy the ills so many of its citizens suffer.  

But what is more obvious is that China’s system also lacks basic institutions for policy debate and determination.  Beijng has made laudable attempts to seek public input: expanding the size of the “selectorate” that consults on legislative drafting and offering draft laws up for public comment with increasing regularity, but there is still little transparency about whose opinion matters and why—an exceedingly important issue to the growing numbers of Chinese citizens who realize that interest groups haunt their corridors of power just as much as they do America’s.   Mr. Li believes the US government is paralyzed by an overrepresented, overwrought, and irrational population.  His country is not so different: it’s facing domestic paralysis from an underrepresented, overwrought, and irascible population.  

I do not believe Mr. Li’s portrait of American democracy is accurate or complete.  Our system of governance (democracy and its complement, rule of law) is far more flexible and sophisticated than he lets on, and has provided means for efficient, effective administration in times of crisis.  More impressively, for many centuries, it has prevented any of those crises from devolving into tyranny, a track record few countries can match.

The simple answer to Mr. Li’s op-ed is that China is in far too early a stage of development, with far too many challenges yet to face, to proclaim its system superior in any meaningful sense.  The flip answer is to ask him how many “naked officials” agree with him[1].  The sensible answer is to call for less rhetoric, less provocation, and more engagement.  These issues are too critical to dismiss through intellectual saber rattling. 

[1] []

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Why Tiger Moms are Great, but Not Great for Democracy

"Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night, 
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"

-William Blake

I suppose this post seems a bit dated, as the “Tiger Mom” meme has already put its girdle around the earth, planting itself safely and securely into the subconsciousness of suburban moms throughout the developed world. And what a meme it was, a strand of RNA perfectly fashioned to colonize the increasingly timorous Western DNA in a way that China's economic and military miracles could never achieve. It spoke directly to our most important demographic—our exhausted soccer moms: “While Chinese and American moms are both breaking their backs raising their kids, the Chinese are raising their children better than you are, and that is why we're seeing this tectonic shift of wealth, power, and influence to the East.”

I suppose I didn't write anything about the Tiger Meme when it first hit the news in part because I thought it would do some good. I haven't yet figured out what type of Shaolin Animal School parenting tactics my mother used on me, but it certainly wasn't not of the tiger-variety, and so I may suffer from a mild case of Stockholm Syndrome. More than that, after spending two years teaching English to American kids whose mothers were decidedly not Tiger Moms, I've welcomed a bit of fear if it meant a few more of my students would take Shakespeare to heart, or Blake, as this post hopes you have.

But my biggest “I suppose I didn't write” was probably the way we defended our mothers: “Sure Chinese kids beat the pants off our kids in math and science (while their moms are beating the pants off of them), but our kids are more creative, free-thinking, and [hopefully] happy.” Most spent their time trying to convince themselves that our system will win this battle just like we won the Cold War.  The responses were defensive and cliché (often displaying a woefully inadequate understanding of Chinese culture), belying the argument that “we” are better, more cosmopolitan, freer thinkers. Worst of all, they seemed to set up a dangerous proposition: we will know which child-rearing style is right by watching whose economic and political power proves ascendant.

And yet, they served their purpose: the fear was met and neutralized, if not eliminated. And so the latest case of our Orientangst came and went, or rather, eased uneasily back below the surface of our subconsciousness like the specter of the U-Boat after the Great War – we don't how to deal with them, but at least we won't have to worry about them for another twenty years.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Oceans and Mulberry Groves: A Hebei Middle School Girl's Tips for Dealing with Tragedy and Time

We are time's subjects, and time bids be gone.”
Henry IV Part Two

If you've been paying anything more than scant attention to China the past six months, you're probably aware that China's had a full plate of metaphorical problems of late (accompanied by metaphorical solutions to those problems): the proverbial dams bursting and the Han Brinker-type plugging of dykes; a pre-emptive cutting of (jasmine?) trees to save poorly defined forests; and plenty of (international and domestic) chickens coming home to roost. Of course, the particular resonance of any and all of the above idioms will depend on at least two factors: one, your own political ideology and, two, your understanding of what's actually happening “in China,” something I'd like to suggest that no one, Chinese or non-, can ever wholly grasp.

Of course, that's debatable, and I'm happy to debate it with anyone. Here's some provocative opening generalizations.
  1. Size Problems. China's simply too big and too complex.
  2. Media Problems. The media is either incapable of, or prevented from, publishing reports of consequence. Most reports of consequence aren't published, but supplied on a need-to-know basis.
  3. Bureaucracy Problems. People of need-to-know status are almost completely surrounded by yes-men and women who obfuscate information out of self-interest and/or a desire to please. People below the need-to-know-folks at the provincial, county, and village levels have no interest in letting anyone know what's actually happening on the ground.
  4. Sociological Problems. China's empirical tradition is not strong, and is complicated by the fact that most political/economic elites have little interest in real interaction with the vast majority of Chinese who dress/eat/live worse than they do. In short, well-entrenched stereotypes and prejudices regarding different regions and classes hinder true understanding.
  5. Interest Problems. And the kicker, most people just don't have time, energy or interest enough to care.
Of course, none of these stops anyone, including the author, from putting forward what may be wildly irresponsible claims, most centered on what “the left behind” population in China wants or needs. We're elitist populists, speaking for a population few of us know. This is dumb.  Most of the time, these opinions are based on careful reading of the media reports we deem to be the truth; “inside information” from people “in the know” who really aren't (again, also, our friends); and regional and class biases that make my Wisconsinite distaste for most (all?) things Illinois seem quite agapic.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What Egypt Means for China: Just More Boring Scientific Proof

(Photo from Evan Osnos)

I'm sitting in my apartment, inspired by what's just happened in Egypt, and wondering if the millions of Chinese living around me feel the same.

In one of my last posts (quite a while ago, I know), I asked: 

“What is still unresolved [in China]? [I]t's the question of whether or not the concept of “scientific development” extends to political reform, rule of law, and universal values.  Besides the overabundance of Greek-inspired architecture in China, another thing one notices if one spends a lot of time here is the (surprising?) belief, held by more people than you would think, that democratic progress is inexorable.  In many ways it makes sense.  The story of post-Renaissance Europe is a messy, violent, bloody period, but progress in science, culture, art and economics were intricately tied to political reform.  Enlightenment-era romantics certainly believed this was the case.  More than that, China's neighbors -- South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan -- are all excellent examples of how well democracy took in Confucianist countries when it was more or less imposed upon them (by foreign and domestic agents).  Perhaps their confidence that democracy is just another offshoot of their economic and social progress of the past thirty years is not too far-fetched.”

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Chinese Political Reform: A Question of Hu, Wen and How

Last week, I argued at considerable length (sorry) about my belief that China's fundamental underpinnings have not really changed that much, but rather, that it has adopted a Confucianist type of reverence for the “old white men” of Western science and economics.  Reading the Western experience as a road map, China's been able to develop rapidly, in part because the majority of its population has not adopted the pesky democratic habit of publicly questioning the wisdom of each particular action.  I believe this makes sense, it's much harder to blaze a trail than to follow it, and requires very different institutional capacities -- China's long tradition just happens to be one of the best at following the precepts of its venerated classes.

The problem for China, though, is just how far to go on this second journey West?  Wen Jiabao and a group of party liberals have recently made their case for universal values, made manifest in political reform and increases in the rights of speech and the press.  These leaders seem to hold to the notion, (surprisingly?) prevalent in China, that democracy is inevitable -- a striking imbibing of 19th century Europe's belief in the inevitability of “progress."  The star of last week's blog, Mao Yushi, has more to say about the necessity of political reform, and does so again in a forthright, hilarious way here: “nobody trusts the government.”

So, one group of China's patriarchs has spoken, but many have been wondering the following: where's Hu Jintao in all of this? I think to many of us in the West -- perhaps because we were reared on bianary conceptions of good and evil in popular movies and literature -- assume that for Wen's “Luke Skywalker” there must be a “Darth Vader,” and Hu seems the most likely choice (or rather, the default choice, because really, how many other members of the Politburo can you name?). Of course, Darth Vader wasn't a simple character by any means, and neither is Hu.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Your Old Men Will Dream Dreams: Wen Jia Bao's “Political Reform” and "Universal Values," Party Elders Calling for Free Speech, and the Addition of Old White Men into the Chinese Canon

There's an old, apparantely mis-attributed, quote by Winston Churchill that reads, “Show me a young conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old liberal and I'll show you someone with no brains.”  Whoever said it, I'd like to suggest that this is a kind of Western common knowledge.  We expect our children to feel, question, and explore – to make something new.  We expect that, through the process of maturation, accumulation, and procreation, those older than us will naturally become more conservative, as they have very important things – their children, choices, and dignity, among others – to protect.

Of course there are myriad exceptions to this rule, but I'd like to argue that this “common knowledge” is what makes dramatic actions, admissions, and changes of course by our elders so moving, and so persuasive.   Our fathers say things like this.  After twenty years of fly fishing with me and my two brothers, and after we'd just finished yet another day of scaring trout upstream with nothing to show for it, none of us expected my dad to sit down, sigh, and then laugh hysterically, saying, “We really don't know what we're doing, do we?”  We didn't, but never thought that he'd say that.  When the formally pro-death penalty Supreme Court Justice Blackmun stated, after twenty years of trying to formulate a just death penalty process, “I will no longer tinker with the machinery of death,” it caused even the most pro-death penalty law students to pause, and even the least wonder-prone to wonder.

I believe that in China, this “common knowledge” is exactly the opposite.  Tradition, pragmatism, and political necessity require that the young use their brains conservatively, nodding their way up professional and social ladders that don't want their opinions but only their obedience.  Only once one is at the top of the ladder can one be explicit about what her heart is telling her.   This, in some ways, is the essence of a Confucian, conservative society: learn everything that's been learned, experience everything that can be experienced, have children, wallow in life's complexity and contradictions, learn about hypocrisy, submit your will to the mass of greatness that has come before you, and if you still have something to say at 70, maybe we'll listen to you.

So while the common knowledge may be different here in the Middle Kingdom, the power of such admissions of elders may be even greater because their audience is better prepared to accept them (or, at least, less prepared to disagree).  Our elders here have said quite a lot of late.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Liu Xiaobo, Weibo, Beethoven, the Nobel Prize and Whether to Feel Happy or Sad


“There's a Chinese man named Liu, who has for a long time devoted himself to the non-violent human rights movement. Today he received an award.” -- Posted today on Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-type site.

I cannot read this phrase without emotion, and keep returning to it like one might return again and again to the notice of a death of a loved one.  The only difference being, perhaps, that I'm uncertain of whether I'm happy or sad.

It reminds me of when I was younger and would play Beethoven's simple piece for children, Lustig, Traurig (Cheerful, Sorrowful), a two-page song that had two themes -- one major, one minor, one happy, and one sad -- both beautiful.  Beethoven had you play Lustig first, then Traurig, and then finish with Lustig, intimating, at least to me, the romantic view that we can (and maybe, should) pass through difficulty to find an even greater, enlightened happiness.  And it's true, Lustig has another layer of meaning once you've played Traurig. I was less convinced though, in high school, and would keep playing through the coda, from Lustig to Traurig, over and over, in a kind of musical Russian roulette, daring myself to stop after Traurig, to ignore Beethoven's notation, but perhaps also his admonition, that finding joy amidst sadness is something we must do to stay sane.  It's why Dostoyevsky could write entire novels that depressed you, but would finish with two pages of exuberant (desperate) hope.  I still don't know if I'm convinced, but tonight I'd certainly like to be.


The man in the above quote, Liu, is of course, Liu Xiaobo, who was just announced to be this year's recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.  He is most likely not aware of this fact, however, as he has taken up an eleven-year residency in a Liaoning prison, sent there for subversive activities.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Something Forgotten in the State of Denmark? Crowding out the Mermaid at the Shanghai Expo

I went to the World Expo yesterday, to add my scalp to that of the 70-odd million others Shanghai plans to have notched to its belt when this whole thing is over.  Despite the fact that I have had many opportunities to go in the past and that I only live ten miles away, this was my first visit.   It had taken all of five months for me to overcome my cynicism; my childish urge to dislike anything too many other people like; and my fear of four, five, and even eight-hour waits to see single exhibits.  But China doesn't need you to approve or disapprove of anything it does, and it is this Taoist (?) desirelessness that assures that it wins most battles of wills.

So I went, holding firm to my mantra that it's better to have had mixed emotions and lost than to have never had your emotions mixed at all.

And mixed they were.  There's plenty of great things to see, and eat.  It was a lot of fun introducing the Chinese I was with to authentic Belgian fries, Thai food, and Turkish ice cream.  The architecture of many of the exhibits is really outstanding, breathtaking even.  However, the insides were often a different story. Or, rather, many different stories.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

China vs. Japan, Out of the Mouths of Babes

A few days ago I was walking along the road, weaving in and out of what must have been a kindergarten class coming back from a field trip. Chinese kids are cute. Not just in the way that all little versions of people-not-your-own are cute, but they've also got another quality that makes them even more endearing: Unlike children in (most parts of) the world, Chinese go to school to learn not just how to read and write but also how to speak.

Mandarin, while it's spoken by an increasing number of Chinese, is often not the language spoken in the home—especially here in Shanghai. This means that elementary school language classes are packed with pronunciation and oral Chinese classes. You even have to pass pronunciation tests to graduate from high school and college, which is why foreign teachers here are constantly asked if their English pronunciation is the “standard” pronunciation (and obviously, unless you're from Wisconsin, it's not). So, if you listen carefully to a young Chinese speaking Mandarin, they speak with a broken, self-consciously exaggerated enunciation, as if whatever they were saying was still part of the rote exercises they did in class, and also as if they're taking the first greedy bite of a candied apple. It's cute, trust me.

On the day in question, I happened to be eavesdropping on this phalanx of hyper-enunciators. From behind me I heard, “If I were a Chinese official...” followed by a dramatic pause. I knew this pause. This was a kid who wasn't talking to anyone, but rather, to some imaginary everyone. He was a transcendentalist, who had made up his mind about something and was going to proclaim it to the world, regardless of who was listening or how out of context it was.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Festival for Longing

Yesterday was Mid-Autumn Festival, the Chinese celebration of the fall equinox. Because it's one of those holidays related to the seasons and the harvest, it's very old, and potentially quite meaningful. I say potentially, because, in many ways, Mid-Autumn Festival could have all of the blissful simplicity of Thanksgiving, but the traditional holiday killers of modernization and commercialization haven't left Mid-Autumn Festival unscathed.

For starters, like Thanksgiving, Mid-Autumn festival is about reunions: all you really have to do for Mid-Autumn festival is get together with your family for a great meal, perhaps light some lanterns, and recite one of the seemingly hundreds of Chinese poems to the moon. The first problem is that a lot of people don't go home (talked about here), for a variety of reasons, big and small: My girlfriend's sister-in-law missed our meal because she was attending a class on how to dress fashionably. (Presumably for occasions of more import to her than 3000-year-old holidays.) The rest of us watched the Chinese version of Dick Clark's New Year's extravaganza. Which is fine, but for the fact that every Chinese holiday ends up nearly the same way, with a variety show that stultifies most meaningful familial conversation. (Come to think of it, it's just like Thanksgiving.)

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