Chen Xiwen’s remarks on democracy and the riots

Unlike some others, I don’t think Chen Xiwen was off the wall when he said the recent swell of farmer’s riots are indicative of greater democracy in China. The riots might not mean democracy is succeeding, but they do indicate a greater awareness of the concepts of individual rights and justice. And those are key ingredients of the democratic psyche.

To reinforce this notion, let me paste a complete article from the unlinkable SCMP (and thanks to the reader who sent it).

Thursday, July 7, 2005

Acceptance of rights replacing reflex fear of protests


Sixteen years after the Tiananmen crackdown, has it dawned on the mainland leadership that protesters may not be out to undermine Communist Party rule but often have legitimate grievances about economic inequalities and social injustice?

For the second time in a week, a top leader has openly admitted unrest is on the rise – and attributed the protests largely to economic and social, rather than political factors.

Zhou Yongkang, the public security chief and a state councillor, maintained the rising protests were “internal conflicts among the people” that had mainly been triggered by domestic economic factors, the behaviour of cadres and by a lack of justice.

Although they could become a major source of social unrest, panic was unnecessary, he told a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing on Tuesday. “If you look into those mass incidents carefully enough, you will find few of them are confrontational and rebellious in terms of political purpose, and most of them can be properly handled.”

The right approach was to “be fully aware of their potential threat to social stability, while at the same time avoiding extreme measures”.

The number of mass protests has shot up from about 10,000 in 1994 to more than 74,000 last year, according to Mr Zhou. His rare and frank examination of the causes and scale of protests on the mainland followed an acknowledgment of the problem by the vice-minister of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs, Chen Xiwen, in an interview with the South China Morning Post.

Mr Chen said reports of recent violent protests by farmers were the tip of the iceberg. The incidents showed farmers knew how to protect their rights and interests, he said, and hailed their willingness to speak up against injustice as a sign of democracy.

Political scientist Hu Xingdou said the pair’s remarks reflected Beijing’s new-found readiness to address mass protests.

“Now they begin to stop the sort of paranoid thinking that every protest aims to subvert their leadership. “[They have started] realising most of the time it’s as simple as people wanting some access to basic economic resources,” said the Beijing Science and Technology specialist on social justice issues.

“I think the government may improve its methods of handling riots by trying to solve problems via dialogue instead of hardline measures.”

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a silver lining to this cloud? If the CCP has even minimal grey matter, they would be learning from this experience, fast. Because if the claim is true that the number of riots per year has mushroomed from 10,000 to 74,000 in 10 years, they might not have too much time on their hands. If they shed their signature obtuseness and paranoia and appreciate the farmers’ plight as a justified call for fairness and justice, then I will heap tremendous praise on them, and acknowledge their sincerity as reformers. If.

For a wholly different point of view, Asia Hand Tom Plate sees Chen Xiwen’s remarks as quintessentially buffoonish.

These days, Chinese officials on the mainland seem to be developing a keen sense of humor. Just the other day, in response to a series of violent protests by farmers in rural China, a mainland official sought to explain the public embarrassments by tying them to China’s growing movement toward democracy!

What a kidder this official must be. Either he was joking, or the joke was on him. Growing unrest in China is not a symptom of democracy but a symptom of the relative lack thereof. Beijing’s only alternative to allowing the protests to occur would have been to crack down, a foolish decision that would have set China’s international image back ten years.

So the official line about a harvest of democracy in the countryside was at least good for a laugh, however unintentional. But — whatever — the more laughs, the merrier.

Interesting, how we can look at the same words and see such different meanings. Like Paine, I at first thought it was funny, too — until I read more about Chen’s background and history. He’s a strong friend of the farmers who has fought against oppressive taxes levied against them and shown a great deal of courage. So I have to conclude he is a bit of a hero who sincerely believes what he says, and he doesn’t deserve our derision.

The Discussion: 24 Comments

It is easier to critisize or deride but much harder to facilitate a change.

Democracy co-exists only with people who believe in its value. Those believers need to be not only the authorities but also the rank and file. If you force the government official to be replaced by one of the farmers at the protests, I do not think the situation will be any different. If you think Chinese government is creating fear and pressure on its people, do you believe the country will be better off rushing into democracy when the majority do not understand it? French revolution back 200 years ago brought twight light to the entire world but 20 years of political upheavals as well. I do not think it wise to see the world’s largest population fall apart, to the benefit of its own people and to the benefit of the world. The cost of political turmoil is worse at this stage of the game.

As a native Chinese living in America for 6 years, I am here to learn what insights other people could offer that help a native Chinese to understand the problem better and hopefully find constructive solutions. I normally have a different if not opposite point of view on issues about China or Chinese. Hope that it add value to this wonderful site. If my words help other people to understand China in a fuller perspective, I will be very happy.

As a Chinese, I sincerely hope that my tiny efforts in thinking and expressing my view represent a fair share of civic responsibility of mine towards my home country.

July 6, 2005 @ 7:24 pm | Comment

Hi Wanderer. Whoever said a single word about rushing headlong into democracy? If you’re familiar with this site, you will know I believe in a slow transition. I see this as potentially being an important step in that slow transition. Instant Campbell’s-soup style democracy will never work for China (or Iraq or anywhere else that doesn’t understand what democracy is about).

I truly appreciate your view and hope you comment more! I believe in democracy, but I don’t believe it will work until China has more structures in place to accommodate it (rule of law being the No. 1 necessity). That said, I don’t like anything about their current government, but if they show some signs of learning and growing, then I will give them a lot of credit! So far, I have been disappointed each time I try to give them the benefit of the doubt.

July 6, 2005 @ 7:33 pm | Comment

Dealing with it

One senior CCP member talking about democracy might be an abberation, but two smacks of something bigger. And this is big. The SCMP (full article below the jump) says another senior CCP member, Zhou Yongkang, acknowledged rising social unrest and right…

July 6, 2005 @ 7:40 pm | Comment

I’m going to have to side with the officials on this one. Paranoid and often obtuse the government may be, but they’re not stupid. And recently there’ve been more and more of them at higher levels are calling for reforms to improve the lives of the peasantry, that’s what the whole 三农问题(san nong wenti, somebody else can venture a translation) are about. And yes, I think Chen Xiwen’s analysis has a lot of truth to it, it seems to me that most of the problems are caused at the local level. Huankantou and Dingzhou are two perfect examples: The rioters weren’t calling for the overthrow of the government, but for justice at the local level in the specific cases that prompted the riots.

Reform comes slowly, and depends on the cooperation of officials at all levels. Peasants standing up for themselves is a good sign of improving awareness of their rights and cadres’ responsibilities. This, I think, is part of the long and painfully slow process of reform.

That quote from Tom Plate you have their makes him look like the buffoon, not Chen or Zhou Yongkang. Fortunately the rest of his article shows a little more understanding. It’s interesting that he goes on to discuss how little Americans know of China, and his theory that America is entering a state of ‘China Shock’.

July 6, 2005 @ 7:56 pm | Comment

Chris, you and I are saying the exact same thing. I feel it’s too early to give the officials credit, but if that first article is accurate, if they really are seeing this not as an attempt to steal their power but as an attempt by the farmers to secure their inalienable rights, then we’ll be getting somewhere.

July 6, 2005 @ 8:02 pm | Comment

Here is the best image that came out of Dingzhou when the Phoenix TV team sneaked into the mourning hall for the six dead villagers:

– There is a large sign with the word Injustice (冤) in black on white background. In the courtyard, there were six mourning altars for the dead villagers lined with flower wreaths. The banner across the center read: “In order to carry out the land policy of the central government and to protect the interests of the villagers, they gave up their precious lives.”

July 6, 2005 @ 8:06 pm | Comment

Thanks eswn, that is nothing less than sublime.

July 6, 2005 @ 8:08 pm | Comment

I sincerely hope that we are not engaging in wishfill thinking, but perhaps they have learned from Tiananmen. If so, have the police been prepared for this transition through the training of riot police attuned to the nuances of crowd control? Here, the Chinese could certainly learn from the Japanese and Korean riot police, particularly in labor and student protests, and hopefully they have taken or will take steps to do just that. Otherwise, whatever the expressed wishes of a high official, poorly trained and fearful regular police thrown into a crowd control situation could commit acts which send the protests spiraling out of control, with a resultant crackdown similar to 1989.

July 6, 2005 @ 8:19 pm | Comment

There is, I admit, a healthy degree of wishful thinking here, which is why I said I won’t give them any credit until I actually see that this means spomething. It sounds good, but right now it’s all hot air — but change can certainly begin with hot air. Again, I am giving them the benefit of the doubt, something my detractors say I never do.

July 6, 2005 @ 8:23 pm | Comment

they sure did a good job with those anti-japan protests, yes sirree

July 6, 2005 @ 9:20 pm | Comment

I think that’s one of the big dangers currently, that lack of training. it leaves the door open for explosive situations to turn into larger scale mayhem. all it would take is one official making one wrong decision. if you look at the riots, situations that police perhaps could have squashed with some violence….

china cannot have a repeat of tms. period. back then they were not in the global position they are in now. they can get away with cloaking a lot of things under ‘internal matters’ but straight out shooting into crowds would be a self defeating action for them and they’re smart enough to know that.

on the home front it seems some people I’ve talked to still hold out hope for the central government doing something positive, as eswn pointed out it’s the local corruption that sparks the fires. if the central government was to engage in another tms the tenuous control brought on by that hope could be swept away. again, they’re smart enough to know this. if they want to stay in power they have no other realistic choice but to appear to give up a little of their power, allowing local free elections and at least being seen to attempt to wipe out lower level corruption (conveniently leaving out the bits that go much higher)

July 6, 2005 @ 10:26 pm | Comment

Those who were linking this riot to the desire of democracy are really blind, if they are living in China.

Most of those farmers(as I came from a small town in the same region, I might have the right to say so) don’t have the slightest idea about what democracy is. I totally agree with Wanderer that democracy co-exists only with people who believe in its value. After all, it’s not just freedom of speech, it also means greater responsibilities.

It was simply an exaggerating example of the conflict between the rich and the poor, and among the discussions of those who are concerned with China’s human rights things are getting far more complicated.

For me the reason was quite obvious.

Greed and anger, those are almost the only emotions we have left.

July 6, 2005 @ 10:35 pm | Comment

Plate is right. Violent demonstartions are a symptom of the lack of democracy in China. Chinese peasants resort to rioting as a last resort because they have no other effective way counter the injustices regularly inflicted upon them by the authorities.

If local authorities were elected, they’d either refrain from blatently robbing their constituents blind or be out of office. And those being robbed could go to the ballot box for redress instead raising hell in the streets.

July 6, 2005 @ 10:37 pm | Comment

“Greed and anger, those are almost the only emotions we have left.”

what about love? (honest question)

July 6, 2005 @ 11:20 pm | Comment

I wouldn’t say the farmers are necessarily thinking about democracy. But they are thinking that they have rights and are furious those rights have been violated. (And they may not be thinking of them as rights; they aren’t yet using arguments of the Enlightenment.) And if the government understands this and if it will make strides to address the rage by recognizing more rights, it is a big step toward democracy. Big if’s, I know, but we can dream…. And Conrad, you know how I feel about the CCP, but that guy Chen Xiwen is one of the good guys and he really is fightng for the rights of the disenfranchised. Credit where due.

July 7, 2005 @ 1:30 am | Comment

Conrad’s right that Plate is right. Rioting has proven to be the only way for peasants to get their voices heard, especially now the petitioning system has been mostly closed off. The problem is if the leadership responds to these concerns, it sends a signal that rioting works…and only encourages more.

If the CCP really want to avoid more social unrest, they not only need to deal with the socio-economic problems; they need to create effective channels of communication with the population. Free press, responsive local officials and voting for starters.

July 7, 2005 @ 2:58 am | Comment

Some words by Dang Guoying about the inability of Chinese farmers to organise themselves: ( ; this tiny url is a nice thing)

“Among the mistruths widely circulated about Chinese people, especially those from the country, is that they are incapable of cooperation. Some say that the only thing Chinese farm cooperatives have been able to produce is just a heap of potatoes. Conversely, these same critics claim that Europeans and Americans are more suited to cooperative ventures. For example, they cite thousand year old traditions in Europe of agrarian cooperation. I, however, disagree strongly with these views.

If historians were to compile instances of Chinese agrarian cooperation they could fill many volumes. I just want to make one observation: attempts to control cooperation among farmers has often resulted in impeding cooperation. As the degree of control exerted increases, cooperation among farmers is further stifled. In several remote locations, because of a lesser degree of state control, farmers established extremely stable and efficient methods of mutual cooperation. These instances are many.”

July 7, 2005 @ 3:18 am | Comment

Glad to see you here. Could you offer some of your views on America as an offset to the comments and critcisms of China?

I would like to note that the feelings of political powerlessness as a prelude to riots and civic destruction is not a Chinese phenomena. Take theU.S. civil rights riots, Watts and others.

July 7, 2005 @ 7:53 am | Comment

What about love?

Well, that’s a good question.

If you are living in a major city in China and have a look around, love is more often a rational act, a status symbol, a merchandise, an excuse…but very, very rarely an emotion.

And it’s very sad so.

July 7, 2005 @ 9:38 am | Comment

Well, my view of Americans! It is hard to comment on a country without taking a side. I respect people in this country who are very aware of their rights and responsibilities and have the patience and understanding toward complexity of the world. In my short duration in the little neighborhood of New York and Northeastern erea, I have met arrogant barbarians but also remarkably many inspiring persons. Among them, a senior white lady unrelentingly advocating for Asians , an Ivy alum landed onto the unknown world of Beijing and learned perfect Mandarin and an open mind, and a black professor devoted to community development efforts. Those are the people who appreciate what educated choice means and dedicated to go for their dreams. Their existence shows me how American dreams are realized.

Two weeks ago, I watched a PBS documentary about Ulysses Grant by chance. It is rather a surprising discovery. Before and even after the civil war, America was on the verge of distruction and political turmoil. When the war ended, Lincoln was in a position to get rid of the military power of the South and call peace an ultimate victory. Instead, he and Grant chose not to. It was a very tough choice for themselves as politicians as proved by the assisination of Lincoln soon afterwards, but a wise one for the country from a historical perspective. Followed by retaliation between blacks and southern whites and decades of political despair and struggle of blacks. Finally the civil rights movement bursted 70 years later, the ultimate victory at the price of another assasination. But is there any other way to cross the river without the pain?

Revolution can easily overthrow a dictator overnight but it cannot overthrow the philosophy in people’s mind at the same instant. The greatness of America is not simbolized by Bush’s disguised political agenda but by the genuine and far-reaching insights of the founding fathers and their personal sacrifices that made the belief come true. It takes courage and forbearance to endure the test of history.

I do think that Deng and some other great leaders of my home country have an ideal dream and are sophisticated enough to handle the complexity. Corruption and materialism are commodities, easily sold out at the market. Belief is not. It has no intrinsic material value. But I do believe that human beings can tell right from wrong if given the freedom to choose. Before we get there, finding a way to feed ourselves well and attenuate the burden of basic necessities from most people might not be a bad idea.

July 7, 2005 @ 9:08 pm | Comment

Well stated, Wanderer, but I totally reject the notion trhat in order for China to feed itself the Party must torture, kill and persecute all who challenge it. Can there be no compromise?

July 7, 2005 @ 9:37 pm | Comment

Huh, “no compromise”, that is a good description of dictatorship. What Washington and Jefferson offered to this country is a system of compromise. It is still like a miracle to me how this apparently weak structure can exist and prosper over time after so many chaotic periods. That is the soft power of compromise.

You have read a lot about Chinese history. Since Qin dynasty empiror’s superpower is viewed as a condition for unity of the country. The first Empiror was famous for his notoriously extreme act, burying thousands of scholars who had different philosophies and burning their books of teachings. It was the seed for all the darkest moments that repeated again and again in Chinese history. : (

I don’t have an answer how to escape this deadlock in mordern era. But I think we have to notice that China is moving in the right direction. There are unjust and unappealing incidents. But at least Chinese are not that afraid to talk about politics now. By engaging in business, people do learn to develop a more practical and objective view towards society and would be less inclined to follow blind and feverish drives.

In America, records do not stand that well, either. If you count, at least three pairs of presidents have father and son relationship out of 50 or so total number of presidents. A statistical test would reject the hypothesis that there does not exist inherited rulership, a major symptom of dictatorship. It wouldn’t be fun being a potential target of FBI agents, which compose of about 1% of the total population, almost identical to the percentage of communist party members in China. Another 1.5% of the American population lives in prison. Do Americans realize that their home country has the most weapons of mass distruction when its troops landed in Iraq because of the “imminent threat”. It might help Iraq to get rid of Saddam but deep inside it is a simple selfish act and reversal of humanity, too. Who brought Saddam in power at the first place? If you think it is good for Iraqis now, how would you judge CIA’s manuver 25 years ago? Back then, it might not sound a bad idea at all to implement Saddam’s regime.

History has no easy solution. Soul changing of people is a slow process in China as it is here. We have to be patient, try to take risk in compromising our own position (not belief), and work hard to make things better.

July 8, 2005 @ 8:13 pm | Comment

That is a great comment, Wanderer, but I think you are wrong about three father-son US presidents. There’s John Adams/John Quincy Adams and the two Bushes. Who else?

Also, the two Adams were in sep[arate, oposing political parties, so there not the dynastic elements of their presidencies as there are with Bush. This is covered in woderful detail in Kevin Phillips’ great book, American Dynasty.

July 8, 2005 @ 8:31 pm | Comment

I believe ( I could be wrong) that the John Adams/ John Quincy Adams relationship was Grandfather/Grandson not father/son.

Also, the last time I checked CCP had over 60 million memebers. If, as you state, this represents only 1% of the PRC’s population that means the PRC has a pop. of over 6 billion. Where are the 4.7 billion hiding?

July 17, 2005 @ 11:13 pm | Comment

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