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.

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