Must-read update on Liu Di, “Stainless Steel Rat”

Phillip Pan has proven himself once more to be a worthy successor of the great John Pomfret over at the Washington Post. He’s written a scary and detailed account of Internet essayist and “cyberdissident” Liu Di’s story, and the many bizarreries she encountered within China’s unique “justice system.” (I’ve previously referred to her as the Stainless Steel Mouse, but I’m sure Pan’s “Rat” more accurate.) Absolutely not to be missed by anyone following the repression of online politics.

I’m still marking time until the New Year, when I plan to get back to putting up interesting posts. For now, I’m continuing my holding pattern, giving some links and a bit of commentary. But things are too high-stress right now for long posts. Hopefully right after the new Year I’ll be able to share why that is, and what’s going on in my life.

Update: A good related article. It seems China’s newly energized crackdown on dissidents is receiving lots of press. Should I still hold out for hope for Hu emerging as a true reformer? Remember how optimistic we were, not so long ago…?

The Discussion: 29 Comments

I just finished reading both of these articles – the Washington Post article, and the article from The Australian – and while both of them report on events that are certainly very alarming, there is nevertheless a need to view all of this “increased” repression in a wider context.

In last September’s edition of New Internationalist magazine, there appeared a very interesting article which attempts to do just this: to track the boundaries of China’s new political space, and to view it in a wider context than what most Western media observers generally allow for.

In November 2003, Renmin University in Beijing hosted a forum on how to tackle the many serious environmental problems that are now challenging China’s future. The forum was attended by over 200 people from 150 organisations from all over China, along with a sprinkling of international representatives. Outside on the streets environmental activists kept themselves busy by engaging both domestic and international visitors in discussions about plans to damn the Nujiang River – which is as big and as amazing as the Yangzte and Mekong Rivers, though little known outside of China.

According to the New Internationalist, activists like Wen Bo (who was the first Greenpeace worker in China and who now represents Pacific Environment) were approaching journalists and openly suggesting to them that they write articles about this project, and the environmental havoc such a damn would cause to this recently listed World Heritage site. A number of international magazines and newspapers published this story as a consequence, and Premier Wen Jiaobao has since responded to such concerns, calling a halt to the project.

“Here was a side of China not reported in the Western press,” wrote Chris Richards for New Internationalist. “A forum that nurtures civil society and welcomes debate. A government sensitive enough to critics to reverse a major plan.”

In fact, as Richards also went on to point out, many Chinese today will tell you that in the 55 years since the Chinese Communist Party came to power, never have they the people felt “so free” as they do today, “to exchange views amongst themselves.”

To get a broader picture of what is happening here in China, one needs to consider more than just the negatives. Take the number of non-government organisations (NGOs) for example. Here we can see one of the positives in trend: indigenous NGOs have mushroomed here in China over the years – between 1965 and 1996 national associations grew from 100 to 1,800 while local groups ballooned from 6,000 to 200,000. On top of this, there are also a growing number of international NGOs that are now quite freely and openly operating here in China: Greenpeace, WWF, Oxfam, ActionAid and Medecins Sans Frontieres just to name a few.

Many Chinese will tell you that it is very possible to engage in healthy debate with the CCP over a broad range of social issues, and that the CCP usually welcomes and encourages such debate. Nowhere is this more prevalent than with the environment, for it is here that the Government needs all the help it can get. “In fact,” says Greenpeace campaigner Sze Pang Cheung, “one of the nice things about having a one-party system is that you always have a range of different views in government so that you always have someone who is sympathetic to your views.” Cheung, and some other Greenpeace activists, also claim that political lobbying in China is easier than in the US where politicians have an eye on donations rather than issues.”

Of course, the attraction of these organisations for the CCP is more about their potential to offer resources that can absorb the burden of a downsized government than it is about a desire to promote community participation in decision-making. But nevertheless, such a relationship requires governments to genuinely listen, to compromise at times – if you like, to seriously engage with the “other”.

I often hear many Westerners argue that what China needs is a parliamentary democracy, along with a free press and the rule of law. I generally agree with all of this, although I’m not sure whether a parliamentary democracy would work here in China. In a population of 1.3 billion people, if you had, say, 1,000 elected representatives, each would need to represent the views of 1.3 million people. Would this be plausible?

At any rate, countries like Australia and Britain and the US are hardly democratic: the rules are rigged so as to protect a two party system. Both parties are always so similar that any real differences between them need to be exaggerated. In fact, I would argue that both parties are really the two heads of the one monster, each one feeding from the exact same trough.

I am well aware that all of this new-found freedom in China that I have been alerting you all to is still quite fragile and limited. There are no-go zones, like challenging the supremacy of the CCP for example, and anyone who tries is very likely to end up behind bars on subversion charges. I am also aware, as the article in the Washington Post makes clear, that there is a lot of subjectivity and uncertainty involved with the way in which the CCP exercise their laws – the freedom of expression here can be arbitrarily and instantaneously removed. Still, I think that a one-party system is probably the most workable form of government here in China, though it needs to be restricted in its powers. It should not remain above the law. What China needs to work towards, is to establish a one-party system that is subject to the “rule of law”.

The fact is that people here in China now have more freedom of speech than they ever have in the last 55 years or so. Free markets and free speech are travelling companions, to some extent that is, and there are a number of indirect consequences flowing from the opening-up of China’s markets to the global order.

Firstly, let us consider the diaspora. According to offical figures, more than 20 million Chinese went overseas last year. “This record number,” as Chris Richards notes, “included students, tourists, businesspeople, and tens of thousands of workers. They are building highways and bridges in the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Yemen, drilling for oil in Sudan and Venezuela, mining ore in Peru and Australia, and picking fruit in Britain and Israel. Those that return will have a different view of the world and changed expectations.”

Secondly, as China becomes increasingly integrated into the global capitalist order, it will become more difficult for the CCP to silence its critics, largely because globalisation is already imapcting on China in both positive and negative ways. On the negative front, are the growing inequalities between rich and poor, between urban and rural dwellers. The belief that the CCP continues to champion the collective good will be challenged by the realities of this growing gap: previously expected employment rights to job security, healthcare, housing and pensions are all receding as a consequence of China’s globalisation; as the number
of people employed by state-owned enterprises falls.

As the State provides less and less for the collective good, the justifications for sacrificing individual rights and freedoms are also retreating. As a result, public resistence is becoming more visible, and, over time, there will be less community tolerance for harsh action being directed at those who publicly criticise the authority of the CCP. This is why I am optimistic that the CCP will continue to reform the country’s legal system – so that China’s capitalism can be more consistently and fairly regulated in order to protect working conditions, etc.

And thirdly, one must also consider the exponential growth in the market for Chinese people to communicate with each other – the mainland now has more than 300 million mobile phone subscribers. They sent an incredible 10 billion SMS text messages during last year’s seven-day Spring Festival alone! This is a communications revolution that the CCP will simply not be able to contain, giving new potential to individuals who are not yet organised into a group with common goals. And then of course there is also the internet!

The present crackdown on dissidents ought to be viewed for what it really is: a blacklash by some in the CCP to the increasing freedoms in speech and behaviours that the people in China are now enjoying. I cannot emphasise this point strongly enough: it is a blacklash, and as such, it represents a sign that China has made some very significant progress in its liberalisation.

It’s a case of two steps forward, one step back, two steps forward, one step back….

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

December 19, 2004 @ 10:35 pm | Comment


this guy must be a lacky or a minder from CCP

December 20, 2004 @ 12:56 am | Comment

Dear deepocean1974,

Are you denying that China is significantly more liberalised now than it was five years ago? Ten years ago? Twenty years ago? When I say liberalised, I mean broadly: in terms of social mores, economically, and, yes, even politically, albeit, at a much less developed level than the economic liberalisation that has so far occured to date.

Tell me just exactly what you disagree with, and why, and support your opposing views with some evidence, and I shall respond to your criticisms thoughtfully, politely, and in the spirit of being able to test the validity of my own views against yours. In other words, let us engage in an intelligent and thought-provoking debate. I’m happy to have my views tested, to have them challenged, and if you can persuade me to reconsider my own views then I will truly be grateful to you. I am certainly open to other people’s views and ideas, which is precisely why I bother to post comments on this website in the first place.

I don’t mean to sound rude or disrespectful to you, but to dismiss my analysis as being merely “bullshit” without explaining yourself in any way is not very productive or insightful of you, nor is it very polite.

I’m sure that you must be capable of contributing a little more to this dialogue than the voicing of a mere expletive!

Best regards to you deepocean1974, and I look forward to having a more challenging and thought-provoking dialogue with you in the very near future I hope.

Mark Anthony Jones

December 20, 2004 @ 2:16 am | Comment

Dear deepocean1974,

Sorry – one last thing. I would also be interested to know what your response is to my commentary on the article Richard baked earlier this month, on December 14th: “Will the US tighten the screws on China?” That is, if you would be willing to not only find the time to read my commentary, but also the time to write a response that would not only be challenging and stimulating, but also friendly. I am aware that my comments may be perceived by some to be anti-American, but I can assure you that I am not inherently anti-American. I am however, highly critical of US imperialism, just as I am critically aware of the dark side of all other imperialistic adventures, including those committed by the nation of my birth – Australia, and those of course, that are committed by China, where I am presently living and working.

If you would like to read a good example of how a dialogue between peoples of differing views can not only be friendly and polite, but also extremely stimulating and thought-provoking, then perhaps you might care to read the dialogue/debate that I participated in with Richard, Patrick and Stinking Filfthy No.9 in response to the article baked by Richard reporting on John Pomfret’s address about China’s future prospects – to be found in the November 14th archive. This particular dialogue has, I have noticed, been mentioned and praised by contributors to a number of other China blog sites, such as the site for example.

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

December 20, 2004 @ 2:45 am | Comment

I vigorously disagree with the “the US abd britain are hardly democratic” statement. *Especially* when put next to china.

Yes, china’s freedom record is better than itself 20 years ago, but that’s not saying much.

I also don’t find the “but if there’s a parliament you have 1 person representing 1.3 million” line disingenious (damn, how do you write that word ?), that’s the kind of lame argument advanced by the current government, confident that no answer will be heard.

December 20, 2004 @ 6:40 am | Comment

A lot of what Mark says is true enough, but I think he gives the CCP a bit too much slack. We all know there’s a lot more freedom in regard to social issues. But none of these Internet writers and dissidents were arrested for advocating social change, but political change — and that’s still a third-rail in China. They may not be able to control those 10 billion SMS messages, but they sure try, forcing them all through their censor’s filter, and the same with Web traffic. A lot is being written and put up on the Net that they can’t control, but God help the unlucky ones who get caught. As far as press freedom goes, there have been some big steps forward, but this year saw a major retraction, as more editors and reporters were put in jail, usually for the most flimsy of reasons (like crossing somebody with power). So I don’t have a lot of praise to lavish on Hu & Co. at the moment. Maybe later on. Maybe.

And compared with China, the US, with all its agonizing problems of the moment, is a democratic paradise.

December 20, 2004 @ 5:03 pm | Comment

Mark Anthony Jones :

please keep this in mind:

All the stuff you mentioned China has
advanced are not because the CCP want to give their people better life, what they want is power and control.

People deserve everything, freedom and transparent goverment, we do not need the mercy from CCP.

So next time you mentioned the advanced, please remmebered


December 20, 2004 @ 7:28 pm | Comment

Dear Emile,

You have raised two objections to my views, as expressed in my commentary above: firstly, you are offended by my claim that societies like the United States and Britain are not particularly democratic; and secondly, you find my comments about the unlikely possibility of China ever being able to develop a Western-style parliamentary democracy to be disingenuous.

Allow me to further clarify my views on these two issues, in the way of defence. I shall begin by looking at the nature of Western so-called “democracies”.

Richard also takes issue with my views on Western democracies, and even goes so far as to call the United States a “democratic paradise” when compared to China. I’m afraid I cannot share in his enthusiasm here.

Democracy is the idea that society’s public decisions will reflect the collective will of equal citizens rather than those of powerful elites.

Now tell me Emile, do you really, honestly believe that in the United States the decisions that are made by government usually reflect the collective will of the American people? And are all of America’s citizens really all that equal – in terms not only of their wealth and educational level, but also in terms of their abilities to influence decision-making processes and to impact in any significant way on public opinion?

Surely not?

In the United States, Britain, Australia, and most other developed countries, there operates what is generally known as the “two-party system”. Sure, other political parties can exist, like the Greens in Germany and Australia for example, or like independents like Ralph Nader in the US. But the rules are rigged in such a way as to ensure that one of only two main political parties will always form government. Sure, this system does provide a certain amount of political stability for a nation state, but it also prevents any real form of democracy from being able to emerge – in essence, it works to protect the status quo.

The United States is in fact less democratic than most other parliamentary democracies, because in the United States there exists a “winner-takes-all” electoral system: by giving all representation to the candidate with the most votes by definition shuts the door on political minorities.

Nearly all European legislatures, as well as in new Zealand, have forms of proportional representation, where 51 per cent of the vote wins ten percent of seats, and in some nations, like Germany and Belgium, candidates can win with far less support. Indeed, new political parties form in European “democracies” in roughly similar numbers as they do in the United States; the difference is that with proportional representation, more than half of these parties ultimately win seats and a chance to bring new voters and issues into politics even as the leading parties (or coalitions) typically function as stable pillars of government.

Still, I would argue that even under a system of proportional representation, parliamentary democracy is a very limited form of democracy. Surely democracy implies much more than the simple right to choose between representatives of political parties every four or five years? The Chartist Movement in the 19th century saw that gaining the right to vote was meaningless unless it could be used to effect “change”.

Exercising our democratic right to vote for a conventional political party does not effect change. It amounts to little more than making a selection between rival representatives of power and class interests whose overarching function is to protect private property and to ensure that profits flow. It is, quite frankly as far as I am concerned, little more than a representative government where all the representatives support obedience to the capitalist system.

Can you seriously say that in the United States there is really any fundamental difference between the Democrats and the Republicans? Or in Australia, between the Liberal/National Party Coalition and Labor? Or in Britain, between the Tories and Labour? I don’t think so. What differences do exist are grossly exaggerated when you strip away all of the opposing rhetoric.

Not only this, but in all of these societies, both major rivals are more often than not funded by the same corporations. Do you think that Murdoch donates all of his eggs to the one basket? Of course not.

Any political party which in fact challenges the orthodoxy of corporate rule, any party which genuinely seeks a better deal for workers, or whose policies are perceived in any way to threaten the health of the corporate world, will simply not attract any real funding from corporate bodies. How can such alternatives manage to voice their policies in fair competition with the big guns? Such an enequal contest is far from democratic. To get anywhere, a party must be able to attract corporate sponsors. The last presidential race in the US is estimated to have cost at least US$1.2 billion.

And of course, not surprisingly, the corporate media in all of these countries even shut out the smaller fry by staging election “debates” between the two major parties only! And these so-called debates are very limited in their scope, precisely because both parties are essentially the same. They are two heads, fed by the same monster – each one feeds from the same trough.

So really, there is no real genuine choice. Which is exactly why so many people can longer even be bothered to vote.

I mean, really Emile, just take a good look at how governments throughout the so-called “democratic” world operate. Most important decisions are usually made unilaterally and without any consultation – not even with elected representatives or allies, much less with the ordinary citizen. Most people in both Britain and Australia were opposed to any military involvement in the Iraqi invasion for example, and still are. And yet, the governments of both of these countries made the decision to get involved nevertheless. There was no referendum, no consultation with local representatives even. Both governments ignored all opinion polls as well.

Where is all of this “democracy” that you talk about? Richard, I see no “democratic paradise” in the US, or anywhere else for that matter.

Let me now turn to China, and the possibilities for a democracy there. As I mentioned in my commentary above, I am not sure whether a Western-style parliamantary so-called “democracy” would be able to work well in a country like China, partly because of the sheer size of its population. I don’t think I am being disingenuous here in saying this: the logistics of establishing and maintaining such a system is enormous and complicated, not to mention costly, and when you have a popluation of 1.3 billion people, even having one thousand elected representatives in parliament would mean that each representative would have to represent the views of 1.3 million people. I’m sorry, but I just don’t think that this model would work.

At any rate, for us Westerners to be constantly rattling on about how China needs and should be compelled to introduce “democracy” (whatever that might mean, and I assume usually such people are referring to a parliamentary system not unlike the type found in the US, etc) is simply unrealistic and naive, not to mention downright ignorant and arrogant. Not every country can suddenly “introduce” this kind of democracy to themselves – for such systems of limited representation always develop best where it develops incrementally – with gradual but consistent reforms in the political and civic landscape – instigated by economic change, and the changes in social mores that flow from this.

Indeed, in the West, electorates were enfranchised gradually. It took the British almost 150 years to develop a middle-class parliament. By contrast, the advent of democracy in the developing world has been telescoped. In relative terms, Asian politics is still where Britain was when rotten boroughs were bought and sold.

You cannot simply implant a “democracy”, in the way that certain US cowboys are trying to do in Iraq right now. The idea that you can bomb a country to pieces, occupy it, and then set up a parliamentary system with free elections is foolish nonsense – especially in a country with no real democratic traditions, and where political power has for centuries rested with local tribal affiliations based on religious and ethnic divisions.

In fact, parliamentary democracies do not promote peace and prosperity in such places, but conflict. One of the leading causes of conflict in our world today is the rivalry between peoples of different ethnic and religious groups. A very large number of these conflicts have taken place under so-called “democratic” regimes – like in India for example. One researcher I know of, James Ostrowski is his name, has found that 25 out of 29 recent intrastate conflicts were ethnic or religious in nature, and out of those, 23 of the 25 occured in nations that were “democratic” throughout the time of the dispute.

The empirical evidence supports the view that “democracies” can, under certain social conditions, promote ethnic and religious conflict. An examination of the dynamics of the democratic process explains why this is so: in democracies, people tend to vote along ethinc or religious lines. All experience confirms this: people of one ethnic group tend to vote for candidates of the same ethnic group, or candidates that are known to favour the interest of such a group. The same applies to religion – the recent division of Americans in the last election certainly took on an evangalist verses liberal line to some considerable extent. Not only this, but according to one Gallup Poll, 93 percent of Republicans are white, while 93 percent of blacks voted for Al Gore for President in the 2000 elections.

Why do people vote like this? Simple. It’s because parliamentary “democracy” gives people a virtually meaningless single vote. It allows them to vote for one of the candidates on the ballot, none of whom may represent the views and values of the voter. Since voters implicitly recognise the virtual meaninglessness of their vote, they have little incentive to inform themselves in detail about candidates, issues and policies. It is much easier to vote along ethnic or religious lines. Thus, ethnic/religious voting is a rational response to the problem of rational ignorance about candidates and issues.

So “democracies” inherently contain the seeds of ethnic conflict, and as history shows us, under certain circumstances, people who are members of ethnic minorities prefer to fight wars of sucession to escape from the control of majority ethnic groups they believe are hostile to their interests. Just look at all of those countries that once belonged to the former USSR – their experiments with democracy have proven to be dismal, and have resulted in conflicts and wars that have been based around ethnic divisions. Most Chinese will most certainly alert you to the speady break-up of the former Soviet Union once it began dabbling in “democracy”, which is one reason why they now tread so cautiously. India has had the same problem.

China is a country with not only a huge population, but also with a diverse range of ethnic minority groups. At least 56 in fact. Trying to rush through with the introduction of a parliamentary “democracy” could be fatal. Most people in China, if given the choice, would have no hesitation in choosing their current system rather than to risk the break-up of the nation state, and all of the violence and conflict this would no doubt entail.

People in the West should start try thinking outside of their box a little more: why should China be pressured into adopting a so-called “democratic” import from the West, which, when examined closely, is hardly a real democracy at all, but rather a cruel farce.

China, in spite of what many may like to think, is making some steady progress towards extending its democracy, and they are beginning at the grassroots level. Every village in China is now required to hold democratic elections for its leaders. The election of village committees is based on universal vote and people can freely nominate their own candidates, who can only get elected with over half the votes.

Indeed, even officials and researchers from the US State Department’s “Democracy in China” program are optimistic about the political reforms now being introduced in China. In their April 2004 report, titled “Prospects on Human Rights and Democracy in China”, they noted that “elections at the village level are developing and taking root in a meaningful way” and that there has been a huge increase in the number of both domestic and international non-government organisations that are now participating in the governing process by taking on the role of advisers to the government, even at the highest levels.

In their report, they also say that “civil society is growing in China” and that the CCP is now busily engaged in “encouraging new ways of thinking about the role of the media as a provider of information and a watchdog.” As many of my Chinese friends have pointed out to me over the last six months or so, market competition is pushing the news media to hone their investigative skills and report on stories about which the public wants to read. This is also acknowledged by the US State Department in their report.

“Elections with independent candidates, activists who are challenging the government to protect people’s rights, reporters who are courageously reporting the truth, even at the risk of losing their job or going to prison – every day we are seeing these steps being taken in China,” reads the report. Indeed we are. And this has been my main point all along – that the CCP, in spite of all its many faults, and despite constant backlashes by certain reactionaries from within it, is nevertheless guiding China today in the right direction.

Many Westerners come to the debate about democracy in China with all the wrong headed evangelism of the 19th century missionaries, and they assume that the parliamentary model is the only possible model worthy of being labelled a “democracy”.

They ought to take a closer look at the world, and examine it more carefully, and furthermore, they ought to start viewing all that they see dialectically, and be able to place their observations and criticisms within the wider context, so that they can appreciate the broad picture – this is what people need to do if they want to evaluate China’s achievements and likely future in any meaningful, positive or constructive way.

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

December 21, 2004 @ 2:44 am | Comment

Dear deepocean1974,

When and where did I ever say that the CCP are motivated purely by their drive to improve the lives or ordinary Chinese citizens?

And is a conservative pro-capitalist body like the US State Department also a “lacky or minder” of the CCP, because they also, like me, acknowledge the fact that the CCP has been, over the years, introducing real and meaningful economic, social, legal and political reforms?

Is the US State Department the new voice of the CCP because they have concluded in their April 2004 report on China’s prospects for human rights and democracy, that China’s future looks positive?

Is their optimism misplaced, disingenuous, or outright naive?

Am I really a “lacky of the CCP” simply because I have expressed a more balanced view of what is happening in China, because I have drawn attention not only to the negative side of the CCP, but also to the positives?

I may be a Marxist, but there is also something of the good old fashioned empiricist deep within me, whose voice constantly calls upon me to show both balance and restraint when developing and presenting an argument – and that means being fair to all sides of the debate. It requires one to examine opposing forces, and to determine how these opposites work against each other dialectically in order to propel the world forward.

Think about it….

Mark Anthony Jones

December 21, 2004 @ 3:07 am | Comment

Quick answer :

I’m not very comfortable with your definition of democracy as power to the people rather than a powerful elite (or something like that).

To me the fundamental part of democracy is simply to provide a feedback mechanism so that those with power can’t do what they want. If they are dependant on popular vote to keep their power, whatever the exact mechanism, their behaviour will be quite different. In China, they are not dependant on popularity, period.

And that’s a big huge fucking gap between China and the US. You can go on about the “true will of the people” (i.e. someone *you* would like), but that’s not the most important.

Heck, I’m in favour of experimenting with different systems. I’m in favour of changing the US system. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s as bad as China’s.

And no, I’m not pushing for immediate democracy in China. There are good arguments for it to be delayed, but they’re not the ones you’re giving. You’re saying the kind of thing the CCP does, “it wouldn’t work”, “China’s different”, etc.

The rule of law and freedom of speech are more important for a good start, in my opinion. Some kind of democracy should follow naturally.

December 21, 2004 @ 6:10 am | Comment

Just a brief comment on the US “lack” of democracy. Yes, it tends toward winner take all for a time, but the winner then tends to blow it, forcing a reaction from the voter to the other side. If you doubt, this, consider that the top income tax rate in the US in 1953 was 92%, and in 1988 it was 28%- refer to

That’s one huge move. Who pays what tax is a core argument in society.

December 21, 2004 @ 5:53 pm | Comment

Dear Emile,

Once you have a political system that is based on parties that are voted into power by “popular” vote, you get all kinds of nasty politics: governments that manufacture crises and scare campaigns, rather routinuely too I might add, in order to then be able to present themselves to the public as being the “best solution” to the problem – all done in order to boost their popularity. The Howard Government in Australia is very skillful at this – particularly over issues of refugees and asylum-seekers. Wedge politics, it’s called.

Bush does the same – most notably with his so-called “war on terror”.

Once you damage the integrity of a political system by turning it into a popularity contest between two parties that are really fed by the same trough anyway, then what you get are the kind of horrors and poor policies and decisions that we are now suffering from today.

I believe in democracy – but I have little respect for parliamentary democracies, because I consider them to be farcical. Yes, as a form of governing, parliamentary democracies are certainly historically progressive. They are much better than what came before them. But in today’s world, they have lost more than just their integrity as systems. They have become downright dysfunctional, and more and more people are now beginning to see parliamentary democracies for what they really are. The flaws in this system are now becoming more exposed.

Emile – how can I be expected to take you seriously when you try to redefine “deomacracy” as possibly meaning “power to an elite (or something like that)”? If it is an elite thaty has power, than it simply is not a democracy. It’s as simple as that.

Your idea of democracy, from what you have said above, entails a system which simply does little more than to provide a check on how elites exercise their monoploy of power – a “feedback mechanism” you call it.

I have never said that China is more or less democratic than the United States. Please point out to me where I have ever said that.

But when you consider how much political clout the average American exercises, I’m afraid I just cannot see the “big huge fucking gap” that you talk about.

I do agree with you though, that what is more important and necessary before a democracy of sorts can be extended, is the strengthening of the rule of law and of a more independednt and free media. I agree entirely. As I have been arguing though, elesewhere on this site, the CCP are indeed making some significant progress towards these ends – something that even conservative pro-capitalist bodies like the US State Department and the World Bank are now acknowledging.

Mark Anthony Jones

December 21, 2004 @ 6:36 pm | Comment

Dear Emile,

One last thing that I forgot to mention in my response above: if “democracy’ for you is simply all about merely keeping a check on how elites exercise their power over society, then even this model is failing. In Australia and Britain for example, the overwhelming majority of citizens did not support any military involvement in the illegal invasion of Iraq. The overwhelming majority also do not support the continued and illegal occupation of Iraq.

So how well is this system of checks and balances working?

I could spend my entire day giving you examples like this: the issue of privatisation is another hot area in most developed “welfare states” that are ruled under systems of parliamentary democracy, and in all of these cases governments consistently push ahead with privatisations, despite majority opposition from their electorates. In fact, governments usually add insult to injury by wasting tens of millions of taxpayer dollars just on consultancy fees so that they can justify their privatisation plans when tabled in parliament. They then buy votes if necessary, normally through bribes, so that they can get their legislation passed.

As I said, Britain, Australia and the United States are far from democratic, even when measured using your model.

Mark Anthony Jones

December 21, 2004 @ 7:31 pm | Comment

Sorry Emile – just one last thing! You said earlier that you believe there are good reasons why the development of China’s democracy ought to be delayed, though in your opinion, they are not the reasons that I give – although I, at no stage, ever implied that China should delay its reforms. In fact, I have been drawing attention to the fact that they have been reforming, that they are moving closer towards a better, more democratic system – something which both the World Bank and the US State Department also acknowledge. Like me, they see good cause for optimism.

I also argue that a Western parliamentary style democracy, apart from not being particularly “democratic” – is not necessarily a very appropriate model for China to try to introduce, and for all the reasons that I outlined above. Rather than engaging with these ideas – rather than actually challenging the ideas themeslves, you choose the lazy way out – you choose instead to simply dismiss the arguments, the ideas, as being no more than the parroting of CCP propaganda. This is not very productive at all.

These observations that I outlined were not derived from the CCP, but from my own observations, as well as from the observations of others, and from studies that I have read – none of which were written or published by the CCP, but rather, by Western researchers and analysts.

And at any rate, just because a viewpoint might reflect those of the CCP, doesn’t in itself invalidate those views. Surely not all that the CCP does or thinks is inherently wrong or corrupted?

Having said all this, I am very interested to know though, just exactly what these “good” reasons are then. What for you then, constitutes a good reason for delaying democracy in China?

I look forward to reading your reply.

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

December 21, 2004 @ 9:30 pm | Comment

The people have more freedom of speech now more than they ever have is because they were ruled by emporers who would even taboo anything relating to their name, hinting of subversion whether intended or not could lead to consequences as harsh as execution of the person and all his/her relatives. Merely out of the fire and into the frying pan is not good enough.
Many of the big enterprises are state-owned, and some in some areas the government monopolises by banning competition. If free market is introduced, competent businesses would deal with it and the bad blood would be purged, I’m not hoping the government would give up their monopolies anytime soon.

The majority of the Chinese population would think the Communist government is the best can have and even look down on western governments because it has been so good at censoring information harmful to itself by book banning, controlled mass media and the great firewall.

The people should be motivated into striving for a better government, constructive criticism should be encouraged not stifed, we do not need reasons or excuses for why the CCP does what it does or doesn’t do.

December 22, 2004 @ 8:36 am | Comment

Please excuse my spelling, the machine i’m using does not have a spelling check program and I had to use notepad

December 22, 2004 @ 8:42 am | Comment

I don’t have the time or the knowledge to make a reply to everything.

So, I’m not saying all the CCP does or thinks is inherently wrong. Just that the official reasons they give for lack of reform (“China is different”, “large population”) shouldn’t be taken at face value.

I suspect the people who would be the most able of pulling China in a much better direction are mostly in the Party. They’re the most competent and knowledgeable. Unfortunately, they are also the ones with the most to lose in case of change.

I’m sure that the best evaluation of the situation in China could come from the CCP. But it would never be broadcasted officially.

So, what do I think should come before immediatly applying some kind of democracy : well, rule of law in free and open debate, as we both agree. What I consider “bad reasons” are “too large population (technical difficulties)” and “chinese specificity”.

Your other arguments seem mainly to rest on the US not being democratic, because they do things the people disagree with, or that there’s an elite with power. You’ve pointed out flaws in the wester nystem. Is ther anything comparible to machine gunning down students ? To jailing people because of what they write on the web ?

The average american may have 0.0000001% political leverage. Well, trhat’s still much much MUCH more than the average chinese.

Have you read Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” ? I haven’t read all of it, but it has some interesting stuff, that I think would be relevant here. A discussion on what is democracy, why is it good and how does it work would be interesting, but I’m not sure it’s the right place.

Anyway, I mainly object to making some kind of moral equivalence between China and the US, however moronic the current president. Criticism of the US is fine, but I don’t like it to be systematically used to “balance out” criticism of the Chinese government. It’s just not comprable. It’s always “yeah but the US does this’n’that” when China is being criticzed, never the other way around. Maybe I mostly hear that because I’m on the left and most of my imput is on the left.

(OK I admit I am slightly rambling, it’s not easy to build a constructed argument in such a little text box 🙂 )

December 22, 2004 @ 9:42 am | Comment

Emile, a stock answer from the Noam Chomsky crowd would be that we murdered students at Kent State (yes, 4 students were tragically killed, nearly 40 years ago, though not by order of the government, and countless articles were written about it in America, in China anyone writing similarly about the TSM would swiftly disappear or die).

No, you are completely correct. We are run by an elite, and there is a gross imbalance and the wealth should be distributed better and there are inherent unfairnesses and poilicies that hurt some Americans and benefit others. But it’s still the most successful system the world has ever seen, and we can still bring even the highest-level criminals to court and challenge laws we see as unjust. Government by its very nature must be and will be to some extent corrupt. Once you have a body of politicians receiving all that taxpayer money, some of it’s going to disappear, and there will be abuse of power. But we have a good system of checks and balances that, until the aberration of our curent regime, has worked astoundingly well. Yeah, America sucks in many ways and has made some unforgivable mistakes (even sins), but I wouldn’t want to be the citizen of any other country (maybe with the exception of Switzerland or Sweden).

December 22, 2004 @ 10:22 am | Comment

Dear Richard,

The latest United Nations Development Index ranks the United States as the 8th best country in the world to live in, based on indexes like welfare, living standards, educational quality and access, health care, human rights, poverty rates, etc. – all taken into consideration in order to produce an overall assessment of how good a country is to live in. Never has the United States been ranked at No.1. It has always hovered somewhere between 8th and 12th down the list.

Canada, for quite awhile, sat at No.1, but has slipped to fourth position, while Australia has now risen to 3rd. For quite a few years now, it has been Finland and Sweden, the countries of Scandanavia, that have occupied the top notches.

While the validity of the UN Development Index is open to challenge, it does nevertheless provide some sort of independent guide as to how the living standards of the world’s developed countries compare.

The argument that America is the greatest country in the world in which to live, the most democratic and free, is simply not true as far as most are concerned – it’s certainly open to challenge.

Of course, to be ranked at No.8 is still impressive – and I am certainly not implying that the US is a bad country in which to live. I know it is generally a very good country in which to grow up and to live, but to boast that it is the best and the greatest – that it is the most democratic and free – only leaves you open to ridicule.

Regards again,
Mark Anthony Jones

December 22, 2004 @ 9:32 pm | Comment

Dear Richard,

I must apologise here, in that I have made a number of small errors in the comments that I have just posted above, and which I now feel compelled to correct. Fortunately, I just double checked my facts by referring to the Index online, and I must say, I am surprised by my own clumsiness today. I must be getting old, for my memory isn’t quite what it used to be I’m afraid.

Firstly, the United Stated has not, as I claimed above, always hovered somewhere between 8th and 12th down the UN Human Development Index. It did manage to rise up to No.4, back in 1997 – but has sadly slipped a little down to No.8. Still, as I said earlier, this is impressive nevertheless, considering that we are comparing it here with 176 other countries. Canada, incidentally, was ranked No.1 that year, as the world’s best country in which to live.

The second error that I made, was to say that Finland is now ranked among the top two notches. I was, in fact, confusing it with Norway, which now sits at No.1, followed, as I said earlier, by Sweden, then Australia, and then Canada. The Netherlands now ranks No.5, followed by Belgium, Iceland, the US at No.8, then Japan, Ireland, Switzerland, the UK, and Finland comes in at No.13.

You might be interested to know also how China has been ranked by the 2004 United Nations Human Development Index. It now sits at No.94, out of 177 countries. Back in 1997, it ranked No.108. This represents a climb by 14 places in the space of the last seven years, which, for a country as complex and as damaged as China, represents a very good effort, and I take this to be yet further empirical evidence to support my overall argument that the CCP, for all of its undeniable faults and “evils”, is nevertheless steering China in a positive direction.

Remember Richard, that the UN Human Development Index is not simply based on economic indicators alone. The human development index is a composite
index that measures the average achievements in a country in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, as measured by life expectancy at birth; knowledge, as measured by the adult literacy rate and the combined gross enrolment ratio for primary, secondary
and tertiary schools; and a decent standard
of living, as measured by GDP per capita in
purchasing power parity (PPP) US dollars. The
index is constructed using indicators that are currently available globally, and a methodology that is simple and transparent, and which can be examined on the UN Human Development report’s website, at:

Aside from this, you can also read the United Nations Human Development Report on China, which establishes a baseline for future efforts by discussing in detail a wide spectrum of development issues, including the distribution of income, health care, education and nutrition, population and migration, the status of women, employment, social security provision, the state of the natural environment, and the reform of state enterprises. This comprehensive report shows how China’s impressive economic growth correlates with human and social development, and its jump in ranking from 108 to 94 in the Human Development Index bares further testimony to what I have been arguing all along.

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

December 22, 2004 @ 10:52 pm | Comment

Dear Emile,

While I respect your views, and while I most certainly appreciate your willingness to debate, I have to say, and I don’t wish to sound in any way rude towards you, but I think you need to examine what is happening in China far more carefully and extensively before you make sweeping comments like: “The average American may have 0.0000001% political leverage….[but] that’s still much much MUCH more than the average Chinese.”

This claim really is very dubious, and is certainly open to challenge. The average American, like the average Australian or Brit, limit their participation in the political decision-making process to casting a vote once every four or five years. Many citizens of legal voting age, particularly in the US, do not even bother to take this much interest.

Compare this to your typical, adult Chinese villager. As Susan Lynne Tillou, coordinator of Asia Programs at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington has noted, after studying such processes first hand in the field, “In China, there are more than 100 million villages consisting of more than 900 million peasants. More than 75 percent of China’s total population lives in rural areas and votes for their village committees every three years. Yet, until recently, the elections have been one of China’s best kept secrets.”

So at the very least, Chinese villagers, like their cousins in the West, are in the habit of regularly casting a vote every so many years. But the average Chinese villager, I would argue, holds more political leverage by doing so than the average American or Australian does when casting a ballot at a State or National election.

As Tillou writes in her report: “The current structure of the village elections has evolved from the defunct commune system which allowed indirect participation in the selection of village committees. But elections are now more participatory and Party control has been dramatically relaxed. Peasants now directly nominate and vote for members on the committees and are involved with practical administrative issues. Candidates for committees neither have to be Party members nor approved by the Communist Party.”

Not only this Emile, but the CCP itself has actually shown a real commitment to making village-level democracy work, as one United States Institute for Peace Report clearly states: “The best of China’s village elections are very good” and are “recognizably competitive even with their distinctly Chinese characteristics. There is no obvious correlation between the level of economic development and the level of rural democratization. Rather, the villages that have staged the most successful elections are those that have received the greatest attention from higher-level officials most committed to making village democracy work.”

You can read the full report if you can track down a copy. It’s titled, “Muddling towards democracy: political change in grassroots China”. This report Emile, like all other reports that I use to support my arguments, is not the product of the CCP – in this case, the report is the product of US Government-sponsored researchers. Normally I use World Bank and United Nations studies to support my views, as you would know if you have been reading all of my commentaries carefully enough, since I always cite my sources when doing so.

The report also states that: “The competitive election of village committees is a major advance over higher-level appointments of village leaders, election by acclamation, and noncompetitive elections. The free and fair village elections now being fostered by the Ministry of Civil Affairs present rural people with choices they did not have before, give them a voice in the selection of their local leadership…and provide a sense of political participation and empowerment. At their best, village elections introduce the notions of competition, choice, and justice into local societies where submission to authority and domination by local emperors have long been the norm.”

The report also notes that democracy in China will, of course, develop into something which “will necessarily look very different from ours.”

A few years ago, Dr. Anne Thurston argued at a Nixon Center briefing that expanding village-level elections in China “have begun to resolve many pragmatic needs of ordinary citizens—such as the construction of roads, wells, and other quality of life issues—through democratic means.” This Emile, is why I think that Chinese villagers generally speaking, exercise more (not less) politcal leverage than your average American or Australian voter!

Thurston also suggested that the implications of these developments “are likely more profound than most foreign observers recognize.”

Dr. Thurston has also noted that village elections have led to “significant tangible and intangible changes in local administration”. For example, she said, village finances “are now made public and are usually placed prominently on a community bulletin board.” Less obviously, while many pre-election era officials have retained almost identical positions after the introduction of voting, “they seem to have a new sense of responsibility to their constituents.”

Dr. Thurston, who has witnessed several village elections first-hand, also reports that “after a decade of experimentation with village elections, China has revised the organic law to make village elections mandatory. Four requirements have been established: (1) that elections must be conducted directly by the people of the village, (2) that the number of candidates must be greater than the number of offices available, (3) that elections be conducted by secret ballot, and (4) that candidates must win over 50% of the vote to prevail.”

And the prospects for extending democracy in China is, I would argue, not too dire. Dr Thurston for one, thinks so: “the new power and responsibility of elected village officials in China seems to be contagious,” Dr. Thurston argues. “As a result, this effort has already led to unofficial elections in some townships, the administrative level above villages. These less-structured elections typically involve polling to determine the general will of the township residents….[and] some officials are now advocating that democratic elections take place at higher levels of government, such as the provincial level, and some hope even to have national democratic elections.”

So you see, Emile, not all CCP officials, including many of the higher ranking ones, are inherently undemocratic or “evil”. There is clearly good room for optimism. And many millions of Chinese villagers exercise some considerable political leverage – more so, I would argue, than many Americans and Australians. By participating in village elections, and by raising issues that are directly relevent to their immediate lives as villagers, I would say, as many other observers have reported, that people in China at the village level have quite a considerable influence on political decision making. As Dr. Thurston concluded in her report, her interviews with villagers demonstrate that the concept of human rights is understood quite differently in China than in countries like the United States. “In a country where 900 million peasants live in conditions that have changed little since the Communist revolution of 1949,” she writes, “human rights are often construed as the rights to food, housing, and roads in China. In the minds of many Chinese, local democracy may be sufficient to guarantee those rights.”

Finally Emile, you say that your main objection to my commentary is that you “object to making some kind of moral equivalence between China and the US, however moronic the current president.” Fine, but when and where have I ever tried to establish such a moral equivalence? I have never made any such attempt to develop an argument along these lines! If you think I have, then please show me where.

All I have ever argued, is that the CCP, for all of their undeniable faults and limitations, are steering China in a positive direction, and that they are, despite what many like you might like to think, are making some important and significant progress in not only their economic reforms, but also in their social and political reforms. I am not alone in thinking this, and I have supported all of my views with evidence. I don’t base any of my arguments solely on conjecture or emotional hyperbole, nor do I view what is happening in this world of ours through ideological lenses, as Richard has tried to suggest.

In terms of the democracy debate, all I have ever really argued is that (a) the CCP is making progress with its politcal reforms and that their acheivements so far give adequate cause for optimism, and that (b), any form of democracy will not in all likelihood resemble the type of “democracy” we have in the already developed West. In doing so, I have also called into question the nature of our own parliamentary “democracies”, and have suggested that they are not particularly all that democratic anyway. This does not, as you say, represent a “comparison” between the level of democracy in countries like the US and China. You need to read what I say more carefully Emile.

And incidentally, I too am “on the left” – as Richard will tell you, since he has an intolerable dislike for Marxists like myself!

Happy New Year Emile!

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

December 23, 2004 @ 12:58 am | Comment

I’ve addressed what’s at the heart of your comment in an earlier post, which you should read as my response. I don’t want to launch the debate on this topic again. We both know where we stand on the CCP. You can praise China all you’d like. You can blame China’s environmental problems on global warming, as you did in an earlier thread. And you can put blame on the US and absolve the CCP forever. It doesn’t change what I saw and experienced there, and what many, many more people have confirmed in their comments here. And yes, I admit it, I am intolerant of Marxism, and anyone who says in the 21sty century that he or she is a Marxist will inevitably lose some of my respect. You may believe it’s something to be proud of, and you may well be correct — but I strongly recommend you not include it in your resume. Just see how most employers will react.

December 23, 2004 @ 9:57 am | Comment

Now come on Richard – be fair. When have I ever blamed “all” of China’s environmental problems on global warming? All I have ever suggested is that global warming may prove to be China’s most difficult and serious environmental problem, becasue if Tibet’s glaciers melt away, as scientists are already warning of, then all of China’s rivers will seriously be effected, since they all originate from the plateaus of Tibet.

You are taking what I said completely out of context, and I think you know that.

And when, have I ever, absolved the CCP for any of its sins? The answer, once again, is never! Show me where I said this.

And when have I ever blamed the US for China’s present state of affairs? The answer is never!

And you know as well as I do that any praise that I give to the CCP is qualified and balanced. Go back to the discussions we had in November in response to Pomfret’s address on China, and you see that I, on numerous occasions, acknowledged the darker side of the CCP and of its behaviour – these, in fact, were areas upon which we both agreed.

The difference between us, is that I also acknowledge the positives, which you are reluctant to do, or to even see.

Enjoy your Christmas break Richard.

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

December 23, 2004 @ 7:13 pm | Comment

I admit, freely, that I have my own prejudices against the CCP. Maybe when you know me better I can tell you why.

Meanwhile, it is painfully difficult for me to give them credit for anything, when I see their greatest contribution being getting out of the way of their capitalist-oriented people. And even there, they haven’t done nearly enough.

Sorry if you feel I took anything you said out of context. The bottom line, I think, is you cut them (the CCP) too much slack and perhaps — perhaps — I cut them too little. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between. But, needless to say, I believe with all my heart I am more right than you are. 🙂

Merry Christmas.

December 23, 2004 @ 8:31 pm | Comment

O.K Richard – I’ll let have the last word on this one. I’m feeling generous today!

Enjoy your break.

Mark Anthony Jones

December 23, 2004 @ 9:04 pm | Comment

O.K. Richard – I’ll let you have the last word on this one. I’m feeling generous today!

Enjoy your break.

Mark Anthony Jones

December 23, 2004 @ 9:09 pm | Comment

Interesting debate. I think Mark really hit the nail on the had. From what Ive read recently, the People’s Congress has been acting more and more like a house of review, and has even forced some bills to be ammended before being passed into law. I think this is more evidnce that things are getting more participatory.

I think the debate about democracy in China is a difficult one becasue, as Mark quite rightly pointed out, so-called “democracies” aren’t all that representative of the peoples wishes. Indeed, as Chomsky writes a lot about, our “consent” is often manufactured by the media.

We, as westerners, have less freedom than we think. People living in the PRC have quite a bit more freedom than is acknowledged by westerners.

Mark’s quote aboyt village election sis a telling one- most complainst about governance in China now, and always, have rested with complaints leveled at village level, where corruption is greatest (and has probably always been greatest). Its at the village level that thigns need to change, and they are changing very quickly. Full credit for the CCP for making these changes.

December 24, 2004 @ 10:42 pm | Comment

sorry for the typos above! 🙂 merry christmas

December 24, 2004 @ 10:43 pm | Comment

Dear Greg,

Yes, I’m glad you have raised this point, that most complaints about governance in China originate from the village level. This is indeed true, and I have read one research study – by an American research team, not by the CCP – which also noted that more often than not villagers, when they do raise their angry complaints, direct their anger not at Beijing, but at local, corrupt officials. Often they praise Beijing’s mandate, and refer to the CCPs rules and the country’s laws and decrees as a way of defence when dealing with local officials – they know that often the local officials are in fact violating the country’s laws.

The CCP is not as monolithic an organisation as manly like to imagine, as Western researchers from institutes as diverse as the World Bank, the Nixon Center, and the US State Department, are now beginning to realise and to more openly acknowledge in their reports.

Best Regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

December 25, 2004 @ 8:50 pm | Comment

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