Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Textbook Case

I've been reading a comparative poli-sci book I picked up from a book club. As I read about British, French, German, and Russian political development, I'm always thinking foremost about the tumultuous country I'm currently engulfed in, China. Important points:

*Great Britain's gradual (and partial, even now) democratization proved much stabler than attempts made in France, Germany, and Russia (Iraq and most of Africa, for that matter) to first delay then rush the process. There's a natural societal progression in economics, culture, and philosophy required before democratic accountability can enter the picture. Did the nobles of England demand universal suffrage along with the Magna Carta? No, merely an expanded balance of power that eventually grew to include wealthy landowners, then urbanites, then farmers, and finally women. Am I saying anything new here? No, but most Americans don't seem to have absorbed the lesson, *cough* Iraq *cough* that a country without a large, well-educated middle class, wide-spread philosophies of self-sufficiency, healthy economy and institutions, probably isn't ready to be thrust straight into a governance of self-accountability. There are always exceptions of course, but most new-minted democracies seem to land somewhere between the semi-authoritarian (sweep-the-Kurds-under-the-rug) cleanliness of a Turkiye or the failed-state chaos of a Zimbabwe.

So, the leaders of China's CCP do actually have a point when they say that China isn't ready for democracy now, and they'll worry about governmental reforms after economic reforms. A strong middle class--and the future technocrats that lead them--with exposure to both traditional and non-traditional philosophies are much better-equipped than today's bureaucratic dinosaurs to handle the difficulties of expanding the power franchise. Of course, this doesn't mean that there isn't plenty of work to be done, and plenty of painful losses of face to endure before that point can be reached.

But even for failed states, democracy can be reached. Just look at Germany, a country that like China historically wavered between autocracy and fractured fiefdoms. Sure, Germany had to endure the deathly Weimar Republic, the horrors of the Nazis, and foreign occupation before reaching that point, but the deed is done and done well.

*Second key point: don't wait too long before making those gradual reforms! The Imperial government of the Qing Dynasty, the French Kings, the Russian Tsars, and other autocracies inevitably waited for too long before attempting reforms. Of course, centralized military might make that seem the easy course, but... with a restive rural populace, feisty university students whose heads brimmed with revolutionary ideas, and a costly high-stakes competition for global resources among the great powers, these governments came quickly tumbling down.

*Times of economic growth are more volatile, more likely to create revolution than times of economic stability, stagnancy or even decline. Given the mass changes to Chinese society wrought by one of the world's fastest growing economies, not to mention the move from communist policies of equality in poverty to the reassertion of massive class divisions (but without Confucian respect for those divisions), the system could implode with limited provocation.

*A heavy police/army internal presence denotes a government that lacks popular legitimacy. The dichotomy in China, however, is more easily understood by US citizens (for example) if they examine the difference between the disappointment they feel when their government doesn't represent their wishes and the pride and anger they feel when foreigners/foreign institutions criticize it. Anyone remember "Freedom Fries"? The same is true in China: most Chinese I've interviewed profess disinterest in government affairs, and most students equate political matters with boredom. Most are disinterested, anyway, as long as they have hope of improving their standing in the rat race. A video I recall seeing on a bus in Xinjiang, for example, showed a man who was obsessed with obtaining a cell-phone with musical ring-tones. On the other hand, the people who are dispossessed of their lands, their basic rights as citizens, their basic culture or religious preferences, are not terribly distracted by the allure of materialism or Hu Jintao's so-called "Harmony" policy. They've been given every reason to dissent rather than blindly consume because no amount of economic development is likely to change their status in society. Mao once said that "Revolution is like a prairie fire". Suffice to say that these days the tinder on the high prairie is very dry.

*Chauvinism, which I also sometimes term 'hyper-nationalism' is a force rampant in a great many countries. I've seen it in America, I've seen it in Turkiye, I've seen it in China. You'll be reading more and more about this trend in the news articles about China, because the authorities have used nationalism to replace Marxist/Leninist/Maoist doctrine as their claim to legitimate rule of China. In many cases, hyper-nationalism among the young has been encouraged (as I've said, young and materialistic Chinese tend to view socialist theory with extreme boredom) as a way to outlet their youthful energy and discontent on foreign, rather than domestic targets. Japan is probably the most frequent target, of course. Consumer boycotts, urban legends about dangerously faulty Japanese cars purposefully sold in the China market, internet flame-wars, and even the occasional riot are all mysteriously allowed, despite the government's otherwise iron-fisted response to such forms of populist fury. Lately, foreign agencies (especially newspapers) have been the targets of death-threats, prank phone calls, and inflamed rhetoric online. I expect that if the Olympics don't go as planned (boycotts for instance), we could be looking at a very explosive situation in China, certainly dangerous for "foreign friends/foreign devils". Likewise, if the economy experiences a slump or a recession, the CCP is probably looking at the end of its regime. In either case, myself and my expat friends have recently been looking at the fastest routes out of China in case of emergency. The Chinese, historically, aren't exactly known for their aplomb during times of catastrophe.

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