How misunderstood is China?

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.

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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.

The Discussion: 7 Comments

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.

If it’s so easy to create a miracle from the gov’t simply ‘getting out of the way’ and doing nothing. Then why is India in such a miserable state? Why is Russia in such a tragic state? Why is Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, in such miserable states? What about Indonesia? What about most of Africa?

Why did this miracle happen exactly in China? I cannot help but think there are other factors at play besides govt ‘getting out of the way’. What other factors? Chinese people are simply smarter and more hardworking than other races ?

October 26, 2012 @ 7:04 am | Comment

The main “other factor” is that the Chinese are , have been and always will be the most industrious, capitalistic people on the planet. Once they were give an inch by the government they grabbed a mile. It wasn’t engineered — Deng saw what they were doing in places like Wenzhou and let them go at it without government hindrance. Imagine where China would be had Mao done the same thing instead of wrapping the country in a cocoon.

I also said, if you read carefully, that I do give the government credit for creating the environment for the economic miracle, as well as for providing opportunities to help many poor people to transcend their poverty.

October 26, 2012 @ 7:56 am | Comment

“The Chinese Communist Party has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty”
This is one of those lines trotted out as if it is taught at school by rote. While I don’t disagree with the CCP for their self congratulation, I have a suspicion they may have made the job of lifting people out of poverty a bit easier y putting these people into poverty in the first place.

October 26, 2012 @ 8:15 am | Comment

“Then why is India in such a miserable state? Why is Russia in such a tragic state? Why is Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, in such miserable states? What about Indonesia? What about most of Africa?”

Are you sure they are in such “miserable” state? a lot of Africa (it is a continent, not a country, btw) are not miserable but actually doing OK. Russia is seemingly doing alright, bar some czarist delusions by Putin and corruption (but hey, that’s the same in China too). As it is, people in China are making money the same way there as people are making money in Russia – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/26/business/global/family-of-wen-jiabao-holds-a-hidden-fortune-in-china.html?ref=global-home . India is the I in BRICS – it’s up and coming. Maybe not in the same way as China would love the world to see itself doing, but getting there too.

October 26, 2012 @ 8:19 am | Comment

Mike, please remember Tick-Tock’s track record here. Literally everything he says is wrong, almost without fail.

October 26, 2012 @ 11:18 am | Comment

Thanks for the link, Richard! I’m neither giving the CCP, nor the British colonial administration in Hong Kong, too much credit for the economic achievements in either place – just to avoid useless tussles with boneheaded nationalists.

But I disagree with you when it comes to the CCP. There aren’t many CCPs, there are only many different members. But they are all members of the same secret society, and what binds within this society is, in my view, not different from any other. It’s no coincidence that the CCP fears (or feared) Falun Gong more than all civil-rights activists combined. They may differ, even in public (Guangdong’s government took an approach very different from Chongqing’s, for example), there are also many different networks (which tend to cripple innovation, because every move may pull a previously-unknown string within those networks), but all these members are bound to the same “party constitution”, the same oath, the same discipline, and they are all sentenced to succeed, so as not to fall from power.

There are many different aspects to China, and to the lives of its people. But I tend to believe that there aren’t even two sides of a coin when it comes to the CCP.

October 26, 2012 @ 4:45 pm | Comment

If only Augusto Pinochet had had theories like the “ship on the ocean” or the teachings of Kong-Zi in his day. Wouldn’t it have been great to claim that no non-Chilean could understand Chile?

October 28, 2012 @ 10:51 pm | Comment

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