≡ Menu

What’s New in China

Sarah Schafer on the blogging revolution taking place in China:

The success of blogs is changing Chinese expectations. The controversial reports found on the Web—and the vibrant, individualistic, often emotional style in which they’re written—have underscored how hollow the state-run press is. Indeed, whereas in the West bloggers tout themselves as an alternative to the mainstream media, in China they in many ways are the new mainstream: rather than, say, watching bland programs on state-owned CCTV, many urban Chinese turn to Web sites such as Sohu.com, Sina.com and Baidu.com for breaking news—and then disseminate that information via e-mail and mobile-phone text messages. “A Chinese blogger is just like an American columnist,” says Zhao Jing, a journalist whose popular blog on Microsoft’s blog service, MSN Spaces, was recently shuttered on orders from Beijing. “We journalists can’t tell the truth, so we tell it with blogs.”

I saw an amazing Frontline documentary about Tank Man of Tianaman Square on PBS. Robin Munro on the symbolic victory the students achieved:

… The students’ decision to peacefully evacuate the square minutes before the final assault was definitely going to come, was a triumph of rationality over violence. It was a triumph of political wisdom and sanity over what was, on the government’s side, panic, fear, cowardice in mobilizing an army against an unarmed citizenry. … The future prevailed in the sense of those students who walked out of the square and said: “We’ve made our point. OK, you have the tanks. We’re not going to let you kill us pointlessly.”

The theater of the massacre was, by and large, elsewhere. It was the rest of the city, and that was where the Beijing citizens fought and died to protect their students, and also to protect the sense of civic pride and consciousness they themselves had developed in those crucial few weeks leading up to that.

In the same website, the interviewer asks 4 students at Beijing University to identify the famous photograph of Tank Man standing in front of the army tank. None could do it, and the filmmaker explains that it is not simply “shyness in front of the communist minders”.

Frontline had an open discussion among Sinologists about democracy in China. Anne Thurstone writes:

Today, the Party seems embarked on a major effort at transforming its basis of legitimacy. The introduction of competitive elections at the village level is one such example. The Party is using those elections to recruit popular village leaders into its ranks. Jiang Zemin’s new theory of the “three represents” is another example. I initially did not take the “three represents” seriously. My unscientific sampling of taxi drivers, street vendors, hotel attendants, and restaurant staff has yet to reveal a single person able to recite the substance of the theory. But most of my academic Chinese friends are taking the theory — that the Party represents the most advanced productive forces (the entrepreneurs and capitalists), the most advanced cultural forces (the intellectuals), and the great masses of the Chinese people (the workers and peasants) — seriously indeed. The three represents essentially turns Maoism on its head, redefining the class basis of the Party’s support. Mao’s revolution, after all, aimed to overthrow the capitalists; and intellectuals were at the lowest rung of the hierarchy of status. Jiang’s theory incorporates into the Party the very people Mao was trying to destroy.

Some of my Chinese friends tell me that the greater inclusiveness of the three represents will ultimately result in reforms within the Party. If it is true, they argue, that economic development and the rise of a middle class ultimately lead to demands for democratization, then the Party is admitting the very people most likely to make such demands. And while intellectuals may be politically quiescent now, they have always been at the forefront of democratic movements and can be expected to be the vanguard of the next wave of democratic demands. By welcoming into the Party those people with the greatest proclivity toward democracy, the likelihood is that the Party will ultimately both be willing to reform itself from within and be responsive to grassroots demands for democratization. And such responsiveness by the Party suggests that a democratic transition could be peaceful.

Rebecca MacKinnon estimates that only 5% of Chinese bloggers know how to access a proxy server:

If you know how to use a … proxy server you can configure your browser to get around the firewall. … [O]verseas dissident and human rights groups are doing everything they can to make these tools known to people inside China. Nobody has done a systematic study of how many Internet users actually use proxy servers. … However, I’ve queried a lot of Chinese bloggers unscientifically, and the answers I’ve gotten back suggest that only 5-10 percent or so of Chinese Internet users really know how to use a proxy server, and a much smaller number actually use them on a regular basis.

There are several reasons for this. One is that [proxy servers] are time-consuming to use because the Chinese net police are constantly blocking them, and another is that many users are worried that … they’ll call attention to themselves as being “up to something.” Another reason, however, is that Chinese users, like most Internet users everywhere, gravitate towards information that is easily accessed with minimal amount of hassle. Only the true political junkies make the extra effort.

A Shanghai blogger comments on Internet censorship (using typographical obfuscation to evade censors):

In addition, as far as poli****cal and individual fr***dom goes, there has been real and steady progress in China since 114968793. Private property rights have been written into the constitution and have been a de facto reality in the cities since the the mid-1990s with the rise of commercially traded housing. Homosexuality has been decriminalized. Citizens no longer require Party and ‘work unit’ approvals for marriages, overseas trips and other aspects of their private lives. While the Internet is ce***ored, the vast majority of information on the World Wide Web is accessible to anyone with a few dollars to spend in an Internet cafe. This is a sea change from pre-Internet China, when state-owned media and neighborhood gossip were almost the only information sources available. And while unfurling a banner in Ti@@@@@@@en Square will get you swift and unfriendly attention from the cops, you can sit in a restaurant in Beijing and complain about the Pa$$$$$ty in a loud voice and you will be fine.

(For the record, my English language Asiafirst weblog got a lot of traffic when it came out; it used to be the #1 search result when you typed in “China weblog” or “India weblog” or “Asia weblog”. That was in 2002, a really long time ago).  Now, according to a new report, 52% of office workers in China are blogging–not about politics but their coworkers. I loved writing that weblog, but I was spreading myself way too thin and had to discontinue). For the time being I content myself with watching Asian movies and reading classic Asian literature.

Susan Ogden writes about how democracy is not a panacea to China’s ills. Just compare with India: (I’ve written about the India vs. China debate before):

ake legal and judicial reform as a critical element in democratization. China’s legal scholars, often serving in legal associations that advise the government, have worked hard to reform the legal system, but it is not as easy as it looks. What does “justice” or “rule of law” really mean in practice? How does a judicial system implement “equality before the law”? Who is the final arbiter of the “legality” of laws, the National People’s Congress or the Supreme Judicial Court? Should judges in the higher courts be appointed by political leaders? And if so, what kinds of political and judicial views should those appointees have?

Fundamental questions such as these still come regularly to the forefront in our own system, and the answers keep changing. It’s not as if today’s legal scholars in China are political sycophants bereft of ideas. Many have been trained in the West, and many Western lawyers, faculty, and even U.S. Supreme Court justices have been invited to China to help them think through legal and judicial reform.

Second, to suggest that the reason a country such as Indonesia fell apart was because it lacked democracy may or may not be correct. But if it is, then how to explain why India, which has had a democratic system since 1947, has not been able to pull itself together? Why has Indian democracy not produced a government that is willing to address the problems of its people? Malnutrition in India is remediable; that is, India has the food to feed all its people, but it does not. The result is that malnutrition remains at unconscionably high levels while grain rots in the fields because of government policies. According to United Nations data, the mortality rate for those under age 5 (per 1,000 live births) is 47 for China, 105 for India. After half a century of democratic rule in India and authoritarian rule in China, the adult illiteracy rate (age 15 and above, as of 1998) is 17.2 percent for China, and 44.3 percent for India. India has done nothing to control its soaring population growth, and it has still not abolished the caste system in practice. And so on. Can one say that Indian democracy has fulfilled the social and economic rights of its people better than has China’s political system, or that political rights for Indians have preserved human dignity?

So, then, what is the problem and the cure? In truth, China has lots of problems, and a panacea-type response like “democratization” doesn’t address the issues. Take, for example, some of the industries now threatened with bankruptcy because of international competition. How would “democratization” help them? How would democratization solve the problem of massive unemployment resulting from the shut-down of state-owned enterprises? Or take the financial sector. State-owned banks are on the verge of bankruptcy, a lot of it tied to forced underwriting of state-owned enterprises. How would “democratization” address this problem? How would democratic theory speak to the issue of the relationship of industries to banks or government in a society making the transition from a socialist to a capitalist economy? What China needs are specific financial reforms, including strategies that enhance transparency, such as greater supervision and oversight, independent auditors, and appropriate accounting procedures. Problems must be addressed issue-by-issue and step-by-step. Meaningful reforms can be made under any form of government. There is no guarantee that a democratic government will be more willing to undertake them than an authoritarian one, as the resistance of the Japanese government to such financial reforms makes all too clear.

On a totally unrelated note, I’ve been struck by the number of Chinese-produced films are available at Blockbuster stores and online. For the first time, I feel like I’m at a feast. I made a list of films to watch, and unfortunately the crappy Abiword program on my Nokia 770 corrupted the file.

Comments on this entry are closed.