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China's Present and Future

Page history last edited by Bob Andrian 10 years, 2 months ago

Contemporary Issues


This page will be devoted to an ongoing examination of a variety of issues that face the Chinese people and government today. At the bottom of this page you can find links to other such issues.


Economic and Political Liberalization 


Many China watchers over the last 30 years have wondered if and when political liberalization would catch up with its economic counterpart. In other words, how is it that China has increasingly embraced a market economy while remaining steadfastly opposed to some form of political democracy? While it is true that especially at local levels of political culture there have been strides made in giving more authority and power to the people, the country's decision-making continues to rest in the hands of the Communist Party leadership.


Since the Tiananmen Square tragedy of 1989, there has been a tug of war (a rather imbalanced one in favor of the government) between a popular movement called "rights maintenance," dedicated to civil and human rights in the society for all, and the government's response, called "stability maintenance." Ever fearful that public protests and demonstrations might lead ultimately to social chaos, the government keeps a close watch on those who want to petition for these rights, among them intellectuals, students, workers, bloggers and yes, tweeters. Thus groups like the Tiananmen Mothers, organized by retired philosophy professor, Ding Zilin, and Zhang Xianling and other mothers whose sons were killed in Tiananmen Square in June of 1989, warrant surveillance. The following video presents an interview with Zhang Xianling on the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen.




Not surprisingly the recent transformative events in the Arab world have made the government nervous. Calls for a so-called Jasmine Revolution in China have further heightened the government's anxiety, even if the analogies are far from exact. China's economic revolution has tended to mitigate against the kinds of demands, particularly economic that poor and unemployed Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan youth, for example, have put forth. Nonetheless the government has recently increased spending on "stability maintenance" so much so that the allocation is more than it spends on "health, education or social welfare programs ... second only to [what] it spends on the military."*


On December 10 of last year, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in absentia to the Chinese writer and democracy activist, Liu Xiaobo. Liu, in prison, was prevented from attending as was his wife, and any other relative who might accept the prize on his behalf. The Chinese government condemned the choice, warned Norway of the consequences, strenuously urged other nations not to attend the ceremony (some did not, but most did), and vigorously denounced Liu's ideas about democratic change in China (contained in a document called Charter 08), calling them "un-Chinese."* During the presentation the Nobel Prize Committee Chairman, Thorbjorn Jagland (whose speech you may hear below) sat next to an empty chair reserved for the prize winner. Soon after, according to Perry Link*, the Chinese words for 'empty chair' were removed from the internet.


I encourage you to listen to the speech. The first three minutes will give you its essence, but the entire speech is quite moving and inspirational.





*In introducing the issue of stability vs. rights maintenance, I am grateful for an article from Perry Link, noted China scholar, entitled "China: From Famine to Oslo," found in the New York Review of Books, Jan. 13, 2011.     


In his seminal book, The End of History, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that civilizations (especially developing ones) around the world had concluded or would soon conclude that liberal democracy was the only political system to accompany a vibrant market economy on the path to modernity. China's example seems to prove otherwise. As John Cassidy discusses in a thoughtful New Yorker article, "Enter the Dragon," 


In promoting the development of a dynamic, competitive economy within the confines of a one-party state, the descendants of Chairman Mao seem to have arrived at a new social contract that says to the governed: Go and engage with the global economy, set up businesses, invest, make as much money as you can, but leave the politics to us. (New Yorker, 12/13/10) 


Some in the West are concerned that other non-Western nations (Russia, for example) will continue to choose "market authoritarianism" over "market democracy." But others believe that as far as China is concerned, "sooner or later, rising living standards and the spread of modernity through the country are going to generate a growing public clamor for political participation and institutional reform." (Ibid) We shall see. 


(It is interesting to note that China's model of "state capitalism" is markedly similar to that of all modern industrial, prosperous nations. The formulation of industrial policy, sectors of the economy controlled by the state (two of the four largest banks in the world and two of top ten oil companies are state managed), government subsidies/tariffs to protect home industries and promote exports are all tactics that have been used in one way or another by Britain and the U.S. for example. These policies serve to effectively debunk the myth of unbridled laissez-faire capitalism, free trade, etc. as the means by which these countries became economic superpowers.


While China's economy needs to shift gears from investment and dependence on exports towards more domestic consumption, and from what David Leonhardt calls a "sweatshop" economy to an "innovative" one, it is unlikely that the next "emperor," Xi Jinping, who will being taking over the Party's leadership in 2013, will be rocking any kind of political boat.



Though a cosmopolitan technocrat, Xi is likely to be cautious despite the increasing number of protests (often over socio-economic inequalities) that threaten social stability. The "harmonious" society will continue to be China's goal. At the recent annual session of the National People's Congress, the body spoke of the country's new mantra, that of the pursuit of happiness, which will likely not include a honest assessment of China's revolutionary past if the opening of China's Museum of History is any indication.


Yet, happiness in the minds of party bureaucrats and business elites and mainstream intellectuals has little to do with political freedom and plenty to do with greater internet supervision, for example. The NPC chairman, Wu Bangguo, warned that China "faced an 'abyss of internal disorder' if it strayed from the 'correct political orientation.'" (The Economist, 3/19/11)     


While intellectual dissidents complain about the "slavish" or more kindly, "moderate" behavior of their mainstream brethren, the latter group projects the image of a cadre of good officials from the Confucian tradition. They are "loyal to the emperor and the state, compassionate toward the people, diligent in [their] duties, [and] devoted not to changing the system but to making it work better." The renascence of the time-honored imperial ideology would suggest that it has not yet been swept into the dustbin of history. ("Servant of the State," The New Yorker, 11/8/10)   


The Widening Gap between Rich and Poor


Promoting and maintaining social harmony and stability, however, has been and will continue to be severely challenged by the growing gap between rich and poor in Chinese society. The unequal distribution of income, disparity in health care and educational opportunity, wage levels, available infrastructure, etc. are mostly starkly seen in the dichotomies between rural and urban China. Included below are a few articles and YouTube clips to help illuminate the situation.


The first article is from the English language version of the PRC government mouthpiece, the People's Daily. While it describes a recent minimum wage hike in the special economic zone of Shenzhen city in the southern province of Guangdong, it should be noted that this area is one of the wealthiest per capita in mainland China. The second article, taken from the New York based, Epoch Times, represents the other end of the political spectrum. The Times was founded by members of the now banned religious group, Falun Gong. Finally, we have a more apolitical viewpoint drawn from The Toronto Star, Canada's largest online news site.


The first YouTube selection comes from China's state television network, CCTV and describes the recent March meeting of the National People's Congress, which outlined the country's 12th Five-Year Plan, and which acknowledged the widening chasm between haves and have nots in the society. The segment is relatively straightforward and essentially not sugar coated. At the same time, it is rather short on specific solutions being proposed.



The next video, from the online French magazine, France 24, illustrates Beijing's ban on outlandish advertising of luxury goods in an attempt to mask (unsuccessfully) the consumer opportunities for some and not for vast proportion of the population.



This short aljazeera english clip (2007) illuminates the challenges those living in rural poverty face on the Chinese periphery.



Finally this clip from NTDTV (New Tang Dynasty television, New York) offers a balanced account (replete with data) of the problem at hand:




China as a World Power


Additional Contemporary Issues











China in Revolution: Mao to Xi

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