Aug 24

Recommended readings: Two TPM discussion threads on China

Written by DJ on Sunday, August 24th, 2008 at 4:38 pm
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For a change of topic from the Olympics, please check out two recent discussion threads at Talking Point Memo: “Out of Mao’s Shadow” and its followup “Do not underestimate the CCP”.

Some of the comments are quite interesting. In fact, the second thread was triggered by a comment by Minxin Pei in the first one. I would also like to particularly point out two comments made by Qwerty in these two threads respectively.

… China is a much more complex nation state and society than what most Americans perceive, usually with a dichotomous lens – authoritarianism vs. rag-tag dreamers, etc. I’ve visited China on many occasions over the years and it is a seriously amorphous entity – the Chinese are opinionated, aware and far more pragmatic than ideological.

My sense is that most Chinese would prefer that social reform precede political reform, i.e. a more complete and coherent judiciary system to ensure rights and protections under the law, healthcare and education infrastructure, a viable and functioning economy, etc., and they are using the authoritarian political structure to build and impose these social and physical infrastructure. The greatest obstruction to their development is corruption and cronyism, but isn’t the American political class as corrupt if not worse than theirs?

Further, they have serious natural and man-made disasters to contend with, this isn’t a country that can afford to wallow in its angst. The Olympics means so much to them as it is one bright spot

The Chinese are extremely *cynical* about politics, particularly wrt geopolitics and the judgment of others re “human rights”, “Tibet” etc. It is not that they’re cold-blooded genocidal maniacs that some Americans believe them to be – one really needs to be there – in China and Tibet – to see for oneself the middle and rather grey areas, and to realize that Tibet’s problem is made worse by the support of the CIA, not unlike the situation of Russia and a NATO-backed Georgia at its flank. The more feted the Dalai Lama by India, America and Europe, the more China sees him as a subversive working for its strategic rivals.


Does the CCCP resist change? That is one loaded question, as are the images that accompany any discourse about China? I mean, why show an image of the PLA when there’s so much more to China? What would Americans think if every political article about America, including one about American political change, is accompanied by an image of Abu Ghraib?

The one great big glaring answer to the question is of course China itself, has China change since Mao? China is probably the fastest changing country on planet earth if you have visited China even 10 years ago and have compared it to today’s China. And if you think that this change is possible while the political structure remains static, authoritarian, top-down, centralized, rigid, undemocratic, then you should seriously consider the lens through which you consider China. Reform, change, restructure, these have been the mantra for the past decades since Deng, the effects of which are most discernible in China’s economic structure, more gradually in its social structure, and since it has happened under the name of the One Party, much less apparent in its political structure to foreigners. This doesn’t mean that intra-party reform, rivalry, change and adaptation are not occuring, there have been a few key changes in the political leadership but the trend is progressively more liberal with each successional handover, and yes, it is more like a handover, a passing of the torch, often accompanied by the body politicking.

There are no political campaigns by different rival parties promising different approaches in running the government, and for the majority of the Chinese, it’s a no brainer because they have always wanted the same thing – a better life, food on their table, a better future for their children, more justice, freedom, economic development, public infrastructure, etc., i.e. the same trajectory since Deng, and the government’s mandate is to deliver all that and to manage the exponential growth and change in a way that doesn’t bring about inflation, huge income discrepancies, speculation, corruption, etc.

As long as the one-party system delivers, there will not be strong pressures for a multi-party system. It is also extremely difficult for China to evolve alternative parties, not just due to the government’s intolerance for dissidents but also to the immensity of the country which requires formidable organizational efforts, almost impossible for those who are not already entrenched.

It is probably easier for the EU to evolve its own monetary system than for an alternative major party to evolve across the vast provinces of China, even if we were to assume the absence of political impediments.

China is still beset by problems and is facing some of the worst economic challenges ahead when the global slow-down really hits its over-supplied factories. It has a long way to go in terms of economic, judiciary, social, environmental and infrastructural development. China will continue to change and evolve to meet all of these domestic challenges, as to its global impact, I have no idea what that might portend for the rest of the world.

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7 Responses to “Recommended readings: Two TPM discussion threads on China”

  1. wuming Says:

    Weighty subject.

    A quick reaction: this contain elements of the Chinese narrative that we are looking for.

  2. Karma Says:

    Who is Qwerty? Definitely someone insightful who can help to build bridges between China and the West.

  3. MoneyBall Says:

    Pan sounds smarter than Pomfret, good for washingtonpost.

  4. Old Tales Retold Says:

    Pan was one of the best China journalists. He had convictions about the world but was also curious enough to look beyond the easy stories. I’m sure he’ll be good in Russia, though it still astounds me that journalists —even good ones—can just pick up and go somewhere and start reporting and expect to have anything worthwhile to say. I wish he’d stayed in China.

  5. Old Tales Retold Says:

    @ Wuming,

    I agree, Pan’s general take seems to have the right elements in it.

    I’m glad, too, that these discussions are making their way onto “progressive” blogs like TPM. There’s a tendency on the liberal-left, maybe more so even than on the right (strangely), to deal with China in big, dramatic cliches: as the meanest form of capitalism or as some sort of divine way out of the Washington Consensus. It’s good to bring the talk down to specifics and real thoughts about the future.

  6. S.K. Cheung Says:

    Awesome links. Pan/Pei/Qwerty all sound brilliant. Pei’s unnamed pressures that might spur leaps of political change interest me. I had previously been interested in the widening economic gap in China; but I had previously thought that the advantaged in the big cities, who had a taste of the possibilities, would eventually hanker for more. On the other hand, one of the comments alludes to the possibility that it will be the rural disadvantaged, who haven’t yet shared in China’s growth, that will lead the uprising. Both seem possible, and I’m sure there are numerous other possibilities. But it would seem to me that an uprising led by the former will have very disparate features than one led by the latter.

  7. wuming Says:

    I think Pan and Pei’s opinions, though thoughtful, are still conventional. Qwerty, on the other hand, provided clues of how we can think of the past China’s development, envision its future ones. Especially Qwerty’s insight of institution building for social reform, can take politics and ideology out of a large chunk of the political reform that everyone is expecting to happen in China.

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