Han Han and the democracy debate

One of my favorite journalists, Peter Ford of the Christian Science Monitor, has a report on some new and bound-to-be-controversial blog posts published on line over the weekend by author/race-car-driver Han Han. Apparently the essays are being denounced by many in the online community — for not being pro-democracy enough.

The essays are on three of the government’s least favorite subjects: “On Democracy,” “On Revolution,” and “On Wanting Freedom.”

The outspoken Mr. Han reaches more than a million followers and readers whenever he sounds off, which gives him a degree of leeway that the Chinese censors do not grant to everybody. And his popularity means that all of a sudden the sensitive subjects he broached have moved out of the shadows of intellectual or dissident websites into the glare of the Chinese Web’s most visited portals.

Han is all for increased freedom of expression. “I believe I can be a better writer, and I don’t want to wait until I am old,” he says.

But he is ambivalent about democracy in China because he doubts whether enough Chinese people have sufficient civic consciousness to make it work properly, and he is against a revolution because “the ultimate winner in a revolution must be a vicious, ruthless person.”

This is the old argument, is China ready for democracy now? It may seem disappointing that Han Han has, in effect, toed the party line, namely that China is not ready and that any dramatic change would only lead to something worse. BUT I can well see where he’s coming from. What, after all, can fill the void that would follow if the CCP were ousted from power in a fair election (if there could ever be such a thing in China)? It’s a fair question, and one the fenqing love to answer by pointing to Russia in 1991.

Han’s argument, as much as I hate to say it, aligns pretty well with my own observations when I lived in China, namely that the desire for democracy ranks pretty low on the wish list of most Chinese people, while fear of what change would bring ranks far higher. But both of those issues pale in comparison to what Chinese really worry about: inflation and feeding their families.

Ford’s thoughts pretty much echo my own — not that I don’t want to see democracy in China, but that I don’t see it as a viable option anytime soon, if ever:

[A]s I read Han’s essay on revolution, something chimed with what I had come across in a very different sort of document that I had been perusing earlier in the morning, the biennial “Comprehensive Social Conditions Survey” just out from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

That report listed the top 10 issues of current public concern in China, led by food price inflation (59.5 percent of respondents), health care availability and costs (42.1 percent) and the wealth gap (28 percent) ahead of a string of other bread-and-butter worries such as unemployment and housing prices.

It was a Chinese version of the famous note pinned to a board in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters when he was running against George Bush Sr., “It’s the economy, stupid!” And nowhere on the list was there any mention of restrictions on freedom of expression, or the lack of democracy (although official corruption angers 29.3 percent of the population, according to the survey.)

When I went to see Li Wei, one of the CASS researchers who had carried out the study, I asked him why this was. Had he not asked about political issues, or did people just not care about them?

He was frank. Initially, he said, he and his colleagues had planned to ask about Internet censorship and the lack of freedom of expression. “But when we tested our questions in preparation for the survey, we found that villagers did not know what we were talking about,” he recalled. “They thought they had complete freedom because they don’t talk about politics, so they don’t have any problems.”

Do we all get that — that the priority for most Chinese people is not abolishing censorship or implementing free elections? As much as some of us would like democracy to be top-of-mind for the Chinese people, it simply isn’t so. They have far more practical considerations to worry about. Censorship for most Chinese isn’t an issue at all, and democracy is the farthest thing from their minds. Of course, this isn’t the case with activists like Liu Xiaobo and his followers, but the numbers remind us of what really matters to the majority of Chinese right now, and it’s not the right to free, democratic elections. It’s going to take many, many Wukans to get us to that point, and I have to wonder whether we’ll ever see it in our lifetimes.

Han Han, for better or for worse, is speaking for the majority of Chinese, and, alas, for the government. For all the pollution and unfairness and blind activists under house arrest, the people of China don’t believe the nation is ready for radical change, like the imposition of democracy. Most simply couldn’t care less about it, while others, like Han Han, see inherent dangers in it. True or false, that’s just the way it is.

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Anti-CNN Spokesman Shaun Rein

First-off, go see this excellent post over at the excellent blog China Geeks about CNN’s controversial cooperation with actor Christian Bale as he sought to interview blind activist Chen Guangcheng. I happen to agree with Charlie that whether CNN crossed an ethical line or not (and I’m not convinced they did), the ends in this case justified the means: the video was released and the world has learned about this inexcusable crime against humanity. If you want to talk about ethics, talk about the way the CCP has treated this man whose crime was exposing forced abortions in the countryside. And keeping his six-year-old daughter under house arrest, too. How noble.

Two wrongs don’t make a right, and if CNN violated journalistic ethics they deserve to be called on it. But as Charlie says, at the end of the day who cares? The story is Chen Guangcheng and the fact that thugs are holding him, his wife and his daughter under house arrest for his being a whistle-blower. Aside from some indignant Chinese bloggers and microbloggers, CNN hasn’t taken a lot of flak for breaching journalistic ethics, nor should they. (See the China Geeks thread for journalist Adam Minter’s complaints about the story.)

Watch the video and see the “unethical” journalism for yourself. What Bale has to say is pretty spot-on.

Of course, there’s one pundit who is aghast at CNN’s sins, and is getting all Anti-CNN about it. From the Harvard graduate who married into a rich Chinese family and goes fishing with high-ranking CCP officials and runs a marketing company and has written a new book on China, we get the following:

CNN’s China team, in a complete failure of journalistic integrity, decided last week to become the news rather than just report it. The actor Christian Bale called CNN to follow him as he drove for eight hours to confront police to try to see Chen Guangcheng, a blind legal activist being held in his home in the eastern Chinese village of Linyi. Bale was in China to promote his movie about the Rape of Nanking by Japanese troops in 1937.

CNN did Bale one better. It became complicit in Bale’s activism by actually planning the trip and driving him to Linyi. CNN reporter Steven Jiang then translated for Bale as he argued with Chinese police officers and refused to comply with their directives to leave. CNN posted video of the trip on its website, calling it exclusive, showing police forcing Bale to leave while Bale chastised the government, saying its treatment of Chen ”represents the power structure and their attitude towards their own citizens, which is disgusting.”

So they drove him to his destination and translated for him. I understand that this is perhaps (big perhaps) questionable journalism, but only borderline, and like Charlie said, “Who cares?” They didn’t lie or trick anyone, but they followed what sounded like a great story, a celebrity confronting thugs holding a blind man and his family under house arrest. Would it have been okay if they followed him in a taxi and he brought his own translator? Those are very small things. And Bale’s calling the treatment of Chen “disgusting” was, to say the least, justified. An understatement, really.

But Shaun Rein can see only treachery. In Shaun’s eyes, by working with Bale, CNN is facilitating the (false) notion held by many Chinese that the US media works in cahoots with the CIA and the NED and intentionally manipulates the facts they report on.

Shaun gives his cards away pretty early on:

My issue here is not with Bale. In general, I believe one should follow the laws of nations that one visits, and that Bale should do so, but I also generally believe in free speech, no matter how misguided.

Ah. He believes in free speech, no matter how misguided. You see, what Bale was trying to do is misguided. Exposing the inhumane detention of a blind activist is misguided, a publicity stunt. Note the “I generally believe in free speech” as well. That puts him in the clear to decide when to be for it and when not to. A smart thing to do if you’re going to cozy up to the powers that be in China.

In order to get why I bother to write about Shaun Rein’s columns at all, you must think very seriously about his next remark:

I have no idea about Chen’s detention, and if he is being wronged or not, but if there are issues with his case, I am not convinced that calling the entire political class “disgusting,” as Bale does, can help.

He has no idea. Wait. Stop. Fail. Unless you are willfully ignorant there is no way on earth you don’t know about the plight of Chen Guangcheng. Especially if you live in China and write for at least two media organizations. Yes, this speaks volumes. He can banter on about all the good the CCP does and cite example after example of things that prove his point. But here, he knows nothing. Nothing. No idea. And he’s writing a column in Forbes about it.

I made a promise to myself not to go after Shaun Rein any more because I don’t want to hurt his feelings, and I’ve been pretty quiet even though he keeps doling out lots of ammunition. But this is inexcusable. It’s like looking at an MRI of the Anti-CNN mentality. Oh, and note how he plugs his book throughout the column.

More vintage Shaun drivel:

Far too many in the West indict China’s whole governing class and system when a single local official does something stupid or brutish. Yet they criticized only a lone thuggish police officer in New York for pepper-spraying Occupy Wall Street protesters. They didn’t called President Obama evil for what that one officer did, or call for an overthrow of all of America. Yet Bale did that in China’s case, and, worse, CNN helped him.

False. The national outrage over the Oakland pepper-spraying was NOT directed only at one officer. It was directed at the abuse of authority in America. Scroll down a few posts to see my own story about it, where I direct my shame at “my country.” And this wasn’t an isolated incident, we saw just as bad in NYC a few weeks earlier, and the rage has never been solely at the individual sprayer but at the system that allows them to brutalize innocents. Really, this paragraph is among the dumbest yet. As if one lone local official is behind this detention, and the poor little CCP off in Beijing is powerless to take charge, all they can do is watch, knowing it’s atrocious, but, you know, what the hell, it’s just a local official doing it and he’s a few hours away so, like, what can we do? “A single local official.” Think about that. The CCP can be off the hook for anything that doesn’t happen within walking distance of the Great Hall of the People.

And then he puts up another of his signature straw men: “They didn’t called President Obama evil for what that one officer did, or call for an overthrow of all of America. Yet Bale did that in China’s case….” Did Bale call Hu JIntao evil? Did he call anyone evil? Did he call for the overthrow of an evil Chinese government? Did we watch the same video? Shaun, as usual, is simply making things up so he can get on his moral high horse. This is straight out of the Anti-CNN playbook.

He closes sanctimoniously:

The last thing the world needs is increased tension between the world’s two superpowers. CNN should be ashamed for becoming more like a tabloid and inserting itself into the story rather than maintaining journalistic integrity and providing an objective view of its subjects.

So there we have it; calling China to the carpet for its shit threatens fragile global relationships so we should shut the fuck up and keep things status quo so marketing companies can keep making money. Sorry, but I’ll take CNN’s journalism over this any time.

Again, go to China Geeks and see how Charlie replies to the criticisms of CNN one by one. No need for me to repeat them here.

Shaun, do you really have “no idea” they are holding a six-year-old girl under house arrest? Look into your heart and tell us the truth, do you really not know? Really? Whether the answer is yes or no, you are the one who should feel ashamed. Hear no evil, see no evil….

A six-year-old girl.

(Correction. The six-year-old girl is now being allowed to go to school, under police escort, of course. How good of them.)

UPDATE: Please be sure to check out China Geek’s post on the same article. And note the comment below. The commenter dared to ask Shaun if he really had “no idea” about this story — Shaun immediately blocked him on Twitter. The maturity of a five-year-old.

Note: If you are new to this site, you will want to see my other posts about Shaun Rein, most notable this one and this one. Don’t miss those comments. Nothing seems to light up the discussion like this subject.

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Pop goes China’s real estate bubble?

In 2008 I annoyed some of my readers by predicting China would weather the economic crisis better than the US would. I know, the US fundamentals are stronger and China has all these really bad problems, but my argument was relatively simple: China had enough money in the bank to buy itself out of the recession, at least for a few years, while the US, mired in debt, would be in a far less enviable position.

Then I wrote four months ago:

The bottom-line prediction: things will continue more or less the same, with a sharp, painful drop in property prices at some point and a steady decrease in GDP as domestic consumption fails to live up to expectations and deficit spending clogs China’s economic arteries. As always, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Two years earlier I wrote:

Friends have been telling me about the deranged property prices in Beijing, and once again, as with the malls, it just strikes me as common sense that this is not sustainable. And you have to consider all the ripple effects a housing bust would foment – all those migrant workers on construction sites, all the construction machinery makers, the cement and lumber providers, all the ancillary businesses, door-knob makers and house painters.

What Epstein [of Forbes] is describing mirrors to the letter what we saw in the US five years ago, and is even more reckless: flipping properties and creating massive pools of debt and the same insane mass hypnosis: “Property values can only increase!” We all know how that goes.

I do not want to see this happen… But again, my common sense tells me there’s no way he can be wrong. Any student of bubbles, from tulips to dot-coms, can see the gathering storm. I wouldn’t want to be owning any property in China when it meets land.

Now, I’m getting the distinct feeling that the inevitable may not be too far away: China’s real estate bubble really may pop. From Foreign affairs today:

For years analysts have warned of a looming real estate bubble in China, but the predicted downturn, the bursting of that bubble, never occurred — that is, until now. In a telling scene two months ago, Shanghai property developers started slashing prices on their latest luxury condos by up to one-third. Crowds of owners who had recently bought apartments at full price converged on sales offices throughout the city, demanding refunds. Some angry investors went on a rampage, breaking windows and smashing showrooms.

Shanghai homeowners are hardly the only ones getting nervous. Sudden, steep price reductions are upending real estate markets across China. According to the property agency Homelink, new home prices in Beijing dropped 35 percent in November alone. And the free fall may continue for some time. Centaline, another leading property agency, estimates that developers have built up 22 months’ worth of unsold inventory in Beijing and 21 months’ worth in Shanghai. Everyone from local landowners to Chinese speculators and international investors are now worrying that these discounts indicate that “the biggest bubble of the century,” as it was called earlier this year, has just popped, with serious consequences not only for one of the world’s most promising economies — but internationally as well.

The biggest unanswered question is whether existing investors — the people holding all those sold but empty “ghost” condos and villas — will join in the sell-off, which could turn the market’s retreat into a rout.

What makes the future look particularly bleak is the lack of escape routes. If Chinese investors panic and rush for the exits, they will discover that in a market awash with developer discounts, buyers are very hard to find. The next three months will be a watershed moment for a Chinese investor class that has been flush with cash for years but lacking a place to put it. Instead of developing a more balanced, consumer-based economy, an entire regime of Beijing technocrats — drunk on investment-led growth — let the real estate market run red hot for too long and, when forced to act, lacked the credibility to cool the sector down. That failure threatens to undermine the country’s continued economic rise.

Hours after I read that, Paul Krugman’s latest column came out and it is even more pessimistic.

The obvious question is, with consumer demand [in China] relatively weak, what motivated all that investment? And the answer, to an important extent, is that it depended on an ever-inflating real estate bubble. Real estate investment has roughly doubled as a share of G.D.P. since 2000, accounting directly for more than half of the overall rise in investment. And surely much of the rest of the increase was from firms expanding to sell to the burgeoning construction industry.

Do we actually know that real estate was a bubble? It exhibited all the signs: not just rising prices, but also the kind of speculative fever all too familiar from our own experiences just a few years back — think coastal Florida….

Now the bubble is visibly bursting. How much damage will it do to the Chinese economy — and the world?

Some commentators say not to worry, that China has strong, smart leaders who will do whatever is necessary to cope with a downturn. Implied though not often stated is the thought that China can do what it takes because it doesn’t have to worry about democratic niceties.

To me, however, these sound like famous last words. After all, I remember very well getting similar assurances about Japan in the 1980s, where the brilliant bureaucrats at the Ministry of Finance supposedly had everything under control. And later, there were assurances that America would never, ever, repeat the mistakes that led to Japan’s lost decade — when we are, in reality, doing even worse than Japan did.

Let me be clear: I don’t want to see China’s economy slow down, let alone fall into serious recession. There are too many people I love in China and I hate the thought of them, and the rest of the Chinese people, suffering the consequences of such a catastrophe. But I think, especially at the level of local government, that officials are playing with fire, counting on ever-rising property prices to pay for insanely huge development projects. That is a house of cards. It sounds like the US and Ireland and Greece all over again.

The Foreign Affairs article at least ends with a note of optimism:

While frightening, the popping of China’s real estate bubble is not all bad news. Cheaper, more affordable housing could also unlock the savings of China’s working-class families, unleashing greater consumer demand and helping to rebalance the global economy. Investment long bottled up in idle real estate could flow to more productive pursuits. These adjustments have been put off too long. This is why at least some of China’s leaders appear determined to force a correction despite the risks. But they know they are walking a razor’s edge.

I hope he’s right, but wonder if China could pick itself up off its feet so easily if it has a hard landing. I am just hoping the central government has enough control to let the bubble slowly deflate as opposed to popping. This has been the consensus among the more optimistic China pundits, that the central powers can navigate the economy through the most treacherous waters because they control all the levers. Authoritarianism, the argument goes, can get things done, and I agree to a point — but sometimes, as America learned in 2008, forces can gather that simply can’t be controlled and then take on a life of their own. I hope the optimists right.

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RIP Kim Jong Il. In hell.

You absolutely must see the new Next Media Animation’s great video on Kim Jong Il’s passing. Go there now.

You should also see the Global Times’ special page on what China’s Foreign Minister calls “the unfortunate passing of Kim Jong Il.” They also print the reactions of Chinese netizens, my favorite of which makes a plea to Kim’s successor, “Don’t abuse the people by stripping them of democracy and imposing authoritarian rule.” Because, as we all know, the utopia of North Korea enjoyed a thriving democracy.

It’s not good to speak ill of the dead, but this is a glaring exception. Kim, I hope you enjoy the flames of hell for all eternity.

This is an open thread.

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New thread

Because the one below is driving me nuts, and I can’t put up a new post right now.

One commenter below linked to this intriguing article. I think it’s well worth discussing.

For months, the 20,000 villagers who live in Wukan, near Shanwei city in Guangdong province, have protested first at having nearly £100 million of their land seized and sold off by the local government, and then at the brutal tactics used by police to regain control of the village.

The latest protests began on Sunday, when police attempting to arrest a villager were repelled by villagers armed with sticks. The police fired tear gas before retreating.

At the same time, the local government brought the village’s simmering anger to a boil by admitting that Xue Jinbo, a 43-year-old butcher who had represented the villagers in their negotiations with the government, had died in police custody of “cardiac failure”.

Mr Xue was taken into custody last week and accused of inciting riots. Mr Xue was widely believed to have been tortured, perhaps to death, and his family were rumoured to have found several of his bones broken when receiving his corpse.

I know, we do this sort of thing — and much worse — in America every day.
[Update - that closing line is strictly for my trolls, who feel compelled always to make this comparison.]

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