The blog Just Recently, written by a frequent commenter at this site, has published a splendid post about whether China is really misunderstood, and how. It’s a detailed, thoughtful post that certainly got me thinking.
One of the most frequent complaints among the fenqing types, but even of ordinary Chinese who are by no means radical, that those outside of the country “don’t understand China.” JR’s argument is that this is to a large extent true, but not in the way those issuing this complaint mean. It’s almost the opposite hypothesis: that many of those who misunderstand China are fooled by misconceptions and believe things are more positive than they actually are. These people, knowingly or not, are making excuses for China and letting the government off the hook. For instance:
*”People in China have as many freedoms as people in Europe, as long as they don’t organize to challenge CCP rule.”
Not really. Frequently, challenging one bureaucrat amounts to challenging the party. What you can and what you can’t do depends on your connections, and even if you are pretty well connected, no independent court will protect you and the liberties you have taken to do things when the party decides that it has a stake in your case.
*”The Chinese Communist Party has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty.”
That’s conventional wisdom. But isn’t it the party’s decision to leave more space for privately-owned business – i. e. a withdrawal from business administration – which has led to that success?
*”Authors like Mo Yan show that you are quite free to criticize leadership decisions – even if you are formally part of the system.”
Mo Yan spoke up for Liu Xiaobo (with some disclaimers included in his talk), and that was a good decision – but if he wasn’t part of the system, and right in the limelight, such a public statement might have earned him an invitation for a cup of tea at the next public security office – or worse.
What is true is that China is much more of a mixed economy these days, than thirty years ago. What may also be true is that the cadres, too, have become much more affluent. Some leaders, especially top leaders, have become rich.
And this seems to amount to a strange excuse, frequently offered by CCP apologists: because the Communist leaders – and top leaders not least – are so corrupted, their theories can’t be taken seriously anymore. Or rather: even as a democrat, you don’t need to take their theories seriously anymore.
That’s a nice license to do business with the guys. Unfortunately, it’s a faked license.
I’ve always been skeptical about the CCP “lifting” all those people from poverty, and think the more accurate description is that they got out of its people way so they could lift themselves from poverty. The CCP does deserve credit for this, and the decision to allow and then to encourage private enterprise was a turning point for China and paved the way for the greatest economic miracle the world has ever witnessed. The party also invested in projects that helped further improve its people’s lives. But the notion that the party somehow engineered the economic miracle and actively lifted its people from poverty is simplistic and, I believe, flawed.
There is much more to this post, and while I may not agree with all of it, it certainly held my attention. Its conclusion is dramatic.
People who are using excuses like the ones quoted at the beginning are most probably those who actually “misunderstand” China most fundamentally. But it’s a wishful misunderstanding. A less friendly word for it would be complicity.
I’ve been complicit too, in some sense, dazzled at times by all the prosperity I witnessed in China, and by the good the government is capable of, and it definitely has done some very good things. It’s hard not to be dazzled. But I also always understood that the prosperity comes at a price, and that many of those who are bedazzled constantly make excuses for the CCP and believe it is something it is not. (I know more than one such person.)
My one criticism of the article is that it doesn’t look at the other side of the coin. The misunderstanding is not all one-sided. There’s also misunderstanding by those on the other end of the spectrum who see the CCP as all bad. It isn’t. There are many CCPs, and many party members striving for reform and justice. The Internet has forced the government, at least sometimes, to backtrack and even to crack down on corruption and injustices (stories like this, from today, are now commonplace). And there have been improvements. There is no black and white, and there is plenty of misunderstanding that can be spread around to both sides. But JR’s main point, about so many people making excuses for China and failing to see what’s really going on, remains a valid one.
This is one of those times when you really have to read the whole thing.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.