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.

First of all, following last week's Confucian logic, it is quite rare that one speaks out without the approval of one's superior.  How likely is it, really, that Wen would speak out so regularly about the need for political reform without having consulted Hu, who is, after all, his “political father.”  Also per last week, I'll let someone older, more Chinese, and far more in the know than me corroborate this, a former aide to Zhao Ziyang, Du Daozheng:

A: On several occasions Wen Jiabao has openly spoken on the issue of political reform, and these I’m afraid were not incidental. In my view, he recognizes on the one hand the current predicament facing reforms in China, and on the other hand he has suggested that this is not [merely] his personal view. I personally believe that Hu Jintao supports Wen Jiabao. On a number of important questions this year, [Hu] has loosened his hand and let the Premier [take the lead]. Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳)once said to me, “Wen Jiabao is a good person, and Hu Jintao is a sensible person.” I think this assessment is right on. I think Wen Jiabao should be given more support, creating the conditions enabling him to make use of his abilities. This would benefit the country and benefit the people. Protecting Wen Jiabao is about more than protecting an individual – it means protecting the claim to political reform, and protecting the forces [that might promote] political reform.
Q: Still, many people have noticed that contrary to Wen Jiabao’s speeches, Hu Jintao made little mention of political reform in his speech during celebrations [of Shenzhen's anniversary], so perhaps these two have different views on this issue.
A: I’m not completely in support of this interpretation. I’m a Party member who has lived within this Party for some 70 years, and speaking in terms of the structural nature of the Central Committee, Wen Jiabao’s speeches should represent the spirit of the Party. The key points emphasized by Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao can be different, but in [their determination to] unswervingly carry out reforms they are on the same page. Since Hu Jintao became General Secretary he has raised the issue of political reform and promoted democracy on numerous occasions...While he may not have spoken of political reform so openly as Wen Jiabao, toward reform and toward the SEZ’s role in striking out ahead [his remarks] have still contained much about political reform. Besides, Hu Jintao is the General Secretary, and when he speaks it is more wide-ranging, and it is natural that he accommodates all the various aspects of reform.
...[T]hey are not laboring separately for their own agendas, playing their own political games, but are launching a converging attack, that they working together to slay the tiger that guards the road to reform, and together opening the door to change in China.” This sentence represents my own views very well.

In a grassroots poll of every smart Chinese person I know, almost all of them have agreed with this.  Still, just what has Hu said?   Of course, he's in the news nearly everyday, but something he mentioned a few weeks ago has caught my attention, first reported on by Duncan Innes-Kerr at China Translated.

There has been some discussion in the Chinese press recently over a new slogan that President Hu Jintao came out with ahead of the APEC summit last month, advocating “包容性增长” (baorongxing zengzhang). This has usually been translated in the English language media as “inclusive growth”, but this is something of a simplification. My Chinese colleagues suggest that it also contains elements of everything progressing together in the appropriate order, not getting out of step. The new phrase has caused a stir of excitement as it is being paraded ahead of the crucial party meeting that will settle the 12th Five Year Plan (for 2011-15), and many suspect that the term may work its way into the plan as a sort of guiding slogan, along the lines of “和谐社会” (hexie shehui, or harmonious society) and “科学发展” (kexue fazhan, or scientific development). 

I wholeheartedly agree with this interpretation, and also believe that this statement echoes a lot of what Du Daozheng said about Hu Jintao, Hu is more “sensible,” has to consider a larger range of actors, and may even be providing “cover” for Wen here while they commence their “converging attack.” At the same time, just like the calm, rational, “come on, guys” friend requisite to any group, Hu may also be restraining Wen here as well.  This becomes clearer as we unpack the wonderful ambiguity of the term, baorongxing. Baorong has two basic meanings in Chinese, “to contain or hold,” hence “inclusive;” but it also has another meaning, “to forgive or to pardon.”  I'd like to focus on the second of these, and then, perhaps, on the nexus of the two definitions.

Connotation One: “Inclusive Growth”

I think that the above excerpt from China Translated covers the “contain” definition pretty well, and there's much more worthwhile commentary in the rest of the article.  I'd just like to add that the “let's not get out of step” connotation could also be construed as an answer to Wen, to the Party Elders calling for free speech, to Mao Yushi and the others: Hey, first things first, a quarter of the country's living a pretty good life right now, let's make that happen for everyone else first and then worry about political reforms.

Connotation Two: “Forgive us, or at least, tolerate us.”

But it's the other definition of baorong that interests me most, and when you add the xing (“nature,” or “dispostion”) on the end of it, it could easily connote the idea of forgiveness and toleration.  In some ways, it raises the specter of an abusive relationship, with a crummy guy constantly asking for another chance he doesn't deserve; in other ways, what we're hearing is one of the most stirring appeals for tolerance of a flawed, but effective utilitarian policy I've ever heard.   If Hu is really implicitly asking for forgiveness, perhaps it's this connotation that best answers Mao Yushi, and even Liu Xiaobo and his supporters.

Yes, you don't trust us. Yes, the massive gap between the rich and the poor, between the developed coasts and the far-from developed interior was intentional, but we believed it was the best way to grow, and grow we have. Yes, we kind of looked the other way when local governments and the capitalists/robber barons took your land for pennies on the dollar, used your labor in sweatshops to enrich themselves and millions of foreign investors while you had to ask your parents and grandparents to watch your children grow up without you. Yes, corruption hasn't been tamed and awful things have happened in the past. Yes, most of us have looked out for ourselves, our children and our friends in spite of our public duty. But please, life has actually gotten better for a lot of people while we've been in charge. Please forgive us, or at least, understand why we did what we did.

I'd always thought that Dostoyevsky's (?) argument against utilitarianism was pretty convincing. If you could take all of the world's sadness, all of its suffering, and put it on one child in the middle of Africa, would you do it? Could you handle doing that to one person? The more I learn about the China miracle, the more it seems that this kind of deal, in fact, did happen here over the past thirty years. The miracle cost lives and happiness, or perhaps, transferred happiness from one group/generation to another.  But what if we were to ask the child, Are you willing to do this for the greater good? Or, even if you weren't, can you at least forgive us? Can you at least understand why we did it?  Does that, in any way, change the equation? More pragmatically, could that plea at least get people off the streets?

Connotation Three: “Be patient.”

I think when one considers connotation one (inclusive growth) and connotation two (forgive us) together, we get the closest to what this actually means, “be patient and trust us.” There are probably very few officials who are asking for forgiveness in any meaningful way (save, of course, Li Gang, and most people don't believe his remorse is real). However, while connotation two's a long shot, it's highly likely that the true meaning of baorongxing is more than just a cold order for more inclusive growth, Hu's also asking for patience, which of course, has elements of forgiveness in it. It's a deal: the government will do its best to think more holistically, more inclusively, you, well, you just sit tight, and don't go off and nao shi (cause trouble).

If this is right, this is already a big step in the history of Chinese politics. It's my understanding that the public works projects of the Great Wall and the Grand Canal (feats equally impressive as China's recent economic growth, but that also came with similar utilitarian casualties) were not accompanied by a plea for forgiveness, tolerance, or peace by the ruling classes. (Even if they weren't, they were also followed by revolutions.) Perhaps Hu here is showing marked improvement in recognizing the value of an individual life, or, at least, the pain of an individual's suffering. Or maybe while Wen's been reading Western classics, Hu's been re-reading the histories of the Qin (Wall) and the Sui (Canal) Dynasties.   


  1. Loved the essay on Liu Xiaobo, was confused about the old men dreaming dreams, and (in my ignorance) wonder if "Hu, Wen, and How" might be simplified a bit.

    The last two refer to "progress" being an article of faith in China, but lost in the west. I can't figure out if this specifically refers to representative democracy, technology, Christianity, or society's average concern for a fellow man.

    I also don't know if you're thinking of these ideas as they live in an intellectual's head, or the form they take in a general population.

    Plato wasn't obviously wasn't big on popular opinion after it put Socrates away, and the founding fathers tried building walls against tyranny of the majority. Christianity, in intellectual circles, was reeling ever since the enlightenment. Maybe the wars put it over the edge with the european populace, but maybe state support, or the prosperity achieved in the 50's and 60's made people too comfortable. There are still intellectuals like Robert Wright that firmly believe in global moral progress.

    With all these facets, I'm not sure how China can have more or less respect than Europe or the US for the greats of western civ. Might it be that there is just more self-consciousness of the east-west divide in China?

    I agree with the anti-utilitarian part... But maybe from a more practical perspective - that in life there's no guarantee that transferring suffering will actually work. The child in africa might suffer more, but everyone else still has the possibility of suffering.

    Could Wen and Hu be hedging by trying utilitarianism, but also by recognizing the value of an individual? If progress fails history could remember them for introducing rights (of course in a carefully managed, party power preserving way). If progress succeeds, well, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.

  2. Thanks Artie, I think this may be a failure of communication on my part, and on the part of our representative disciplines. Many people in the humanities are far less bullish on the legacy of the greats of western civ than I would imagine those in the sciences would be, after all, a scientific theory is either right or wrong, useful or not, there's very little moral judgment that takes place.

    The reason I use "old white men" so repeatedly, is that it symbolizes, first, in the humanities, a condemnation of a literary canon dominated by nothing but white men, but I think more than that, it also symbolizes an increasingly vitriolic critique of the political actions taken by those and other men in the name of progress: colonization, mercantilism, nationalism, social darwinism, and ultimately the massive destruction caused by the nexus of these with advances in technology in the great wars. See People's History of the US, why people hate Christopher Columbus now, etc. (Although some put the blame more on religion and greed.)

    Anyway, a lot of this has put a damper on the idea that reason will necessarily lead to the "progress" of mankind, as it's become quite obvious that being technologically advanced doesn't make a person (or country) moral. In many European circles, this has led to a lot of hand-wringing (I think I remember Tony Blair talking about this), where there's just not a lot of certainty on just what they can be proud of/export in terms of values.

    My general belief is that China, no fan of colonialism of course, has more faith in the inevitable progress that will be brought about by Western science and reason than many who ascribe to the above historical analysis. In many ways, it's adopted a 19th century France view of "progress," which saw nothing but good for humanity guided by reason, and thought that it was bearing a torch for the rest of the world. I don't know if you'd get the same certainty from modern France (or any other Western country), although, of course, there are some people who still believe this.

  3. You don't necessarily have to agree with that to agree with the thrust of my last two posts, though. In these, I've been trying to connect a number of things that have puzzled me over the years with recent developments.

    1) Since I first came here, I've been trying to figure out what's happened to traditional Chinese culture, and how it fits into the development picture. I now believe that it hasn't changed that much, and in fact, that the best way to understand the Chinese miracle is by recognizing that it's not a miracle, but rather, science plugged into a culture that's been refined over thousands of years. It was almost always a powerful, successful country, and part of what made it successful was that it was extraordinarily good at recognizing "what works" and sublimating that into its own culture. Hence my belief that "old white men" have become part of the group of deified patriarchs in China's Confucian tradition. Confucianism may have stunted creativity and growth, but it certainly allows for efficient reproduction and replication once you have a sense of direction.

    2) Historical determinism. While I understand how historical determinism ended up in the Chinese consciousness (Marx), I'm still amazed at how most Chinese I talk to believe in the inevitability of progress, even to the development of democracy. It's striking for a number of reasons. One, see above (and even your own doubt that transferring suffering will actually work), I don't think Westerners buy this. Two, it views the development of freedom and democracy in the West as the rational ends of progress, rather than the fragile products of struggle and revolution, which can (and have) gone either way.

    3) The first Old White Men post tried to point out these trends in Wen Jiabao's and others calls for democracy -- they all intimate a strong belief that democracy is part of the natural, determined progression of humankind. Which is fine as long as it stays with democracy, but what's scary is the other, devastating aspects of unchecked belief in the inevitability of progress are also here in China: growing nationalism, "colonialism" done in the spirit of lifting other ethnicities out of poverty and ignorance (while concomitantly lifting their oil and minerals), investment in Africa that has strong mercantilist strains, etc. In some ways, one wishes some of the recent Western self-doubt to color China's notion of progress.

    4) This last post is trying to explain how Hu and Wen aren't really very far apart. I also just wanted to try to put forward my theory on baorongxing (that it's more about forgiveness than growth), which I foolishly think is kind of novel.

    In the end, I want to fit baorongxing into my overall theory that China's trying to move toward democracy in the same way it moved towards progress in every other area: top-down, and by following a Western roadmap. I think it's fascinating: most of us see scientific, political, economic, literary, and musical progress as all tied to the emancipation of the individual mind, whereas in China, I'd like to argue that this hasn't happened as much, and rather, that most of this has been led by top-down efforts. The idea of a top-down democracy is mind-blowing for me, but in some ways, just like China's been able to develop at light speed in other areas, if it could "skip" (more of) the revolution and violence that accompanied Western struggles for democracy, who wouldn't be for that?

  4. Hi, Seth. I appreciate your insights (and apparent love of Dostoevsky). Thanks for sharing.


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