Commentary Magazine


China and Democracy

To the Editor:

Gordon G. Chang’s article misunderstands China in a way that is typical of Westerners who look at the country through a certain ideological lens [“China in Revolt,” December 2006]. Mr. Chang seems to approve of the individualism that has been unleashed in China in recent years, but as he himself also realizes, it is Mao Zedong who is in many ways responsible for it. To me, popular individualism or populism of the kind wrought by Mao is exactly the true evil of his legacy, and the main reason for the failure of democracy across the developing world.

Some conservatives grinned at a recent book on Mao in which he was portrayed as one of the most evil men in human history. To me, such vilification commits the sin of trivializing evil. Outrageous as Mao’s actions might seem as judged by today’s standards, he had much more justification for them (adequate or not) than did Stalin for his. The deaths that resulted were often a result of bad policies rather than evil designs. (This makes Mao in some ways the more dangerous figure.)

The concern about the wages of populism was the main reason Deng Xiaoping decided to use the most drastic means to put down the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest. It was an overreaction, to be sure, and there were ways to control the dangers of populism that would have avoided bloodshed. But Mr. Chang, blinded by ideology, cannot see past it.

It is absurd to claim that it is the unleashing of individual creativity, unaided by government, that has led to the incredible development of China. Just ask the people of free and democratic India, who see water crises and shortages even in the richest sections of the richest cities. Such problems are unimaginable in China, despite the fact that its water resources are far less extensive than India’s.

When it comes to China and other developing countries, two fundamental premises of pro-democracy Westerners are problematic: that the common people are competent enough to be the judge of their own interests; and that democracy can bring competence to government. Recent history shows that the only viable and successful way to bring a country to democracy and prosperity is to have a benign, paternalistic (even authoritarian) government first, and to transform such a government into a liberal democracy only when various social conditions are ripe.

Unfortunately, the zeal of some Americans to spread democracy with little regard for political reality is destroying this promising route. The seemingly cold political realism of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in the cold war might promote democracy better in the long run than the offerings of today’s democracy-mongers.

Tongdong Bai
Xavier University
Cincinnati, Ohio

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To the Editor:

Gordon G. Chang’s article about the relationship between the Chinese people and the Maoist/Communist/nepotist regime of their leaders is perceptive and well-informed, but I do not really buy his explanation of the extreme nationalism of the population as something cooked up by the leadership.

A population that has grown used to the nationalistic element of a state ideology does not suddenly give it up when the Marxist-Leninist or Maoist element evaporates. If anything, the nationalism that remains becomes more important, and continues to provide a pretext for the infantile demonstrations of native pride that people have come to expect as part of everyday life. They naively believe that everyone else in the world operates on the same basis, and view the cynicism of the tiny minority of disenchanted intellectuals who habitually attack the “heroic national values” as little short of treason.

That is why the societies that have emerged after the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the former USSR are not at all dominated by the idealistic programs of the dissidents who seemed so well placed to take over. In country after country, what we have instead is some local variant of nationalism, more often than not with a large dose of xenophobia mixed in. Contrary to Mr. Chang’s fond hopes, I see no reason to think that China will be any different. What other kind of ideology could possibly unite such a vast and diverse country? The appeal to tradition was tried in Taiwan but failed, basically because the mass of Chinese saw no tangible benefit to them from 5,000 years of classical civilization.

One theoretical possibility for China is what we might call the Chinatown option—a totally apolitical society based entirely on business, atomized into coexisting but largely independent population elements. This is more or less how Hong Kong evolved, and the various Chinatowns around the world function in a similar way. But in my view, this will not do for China itself.

For now, the party apparatchiks are doing amazingly well, and perhaps they will be able to oversee a smooth transition by reinventing themselves as managers of national pride. Or perhaps they will allow themselves to be displaced one day by an openly xenophobic “one-China” movement. But let us not be deluded into thinking that the many sane voices pleading for human rights, toleration, and democracy will be the winners.

Christopher Lord
Burgundy, France

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To the Editor:

Gordon G. Chang’s excellent article acutely analyzes the mounting pressures for revolt in China. But he leaves out a major factor in this regard. A 2004 amendment to China’s constitution allowed some 500 million residents of urban areas the right to own private property. A vote on the extension of this right to rural property is upcoming.

Once the Chinese have legal sanction to purchase rural land, one can expect millions of them to start purchasing their ancestral plots. Beijing will be compelled to accelerate the rule of law in order to deal with the boom and resolve peacefully the host of legal and political issues that is sure to come up.

Don Kirk
Reno, Nevada

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Gordon G. Chang writes:

Tongdong Bai’s kind words for Mao Zedong’s reckless and murderous rule and Deng Xiaoping’s deadly crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in Beijing are truly stunning. At least Mr. Bai does not defend despotism as a good in itself, but only as a necessary transitional phase for societies. However one is to understand his idea that state paternalism and even authoritarianism are preconditions for democracy and prosperity, Mr. Bai essentially advises that we support China’s leaders as they go about modernizing their country. But dictators do not mystically transform themselves into democrats. On the contrary, they yield only when their subjects demand more say over their lives. And if modern history teaches us anything, it is that people are more apt to do that when they are supported by the citizens and leaders of free societies.

I have no quarrel with many of Christopher Lord’s points. I should note, however, that although leaders like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao did not invent Chinese nationalism, they have exploited and stoked it. What will become of it in the absence of state Communism remains unknown. As I wrote in my article, China’s path into the future is not likely to be smooth.

I agree with Don Kirk that property ownership could eventually transform Chinese society and governance. But the 2004 constitutional amendment to which he refers only guarantees the inviolability of “lawful private property” (emphasis added), and makes no distinction between urban and rural property. Unfortunately, the provision has proved meaningless in practice, as have all the grand-sounding constitutional guarantees of human rights in China. Moreover, the constitution actually forbids private ownership of the most important kind of property—land, whether urban or rural. Accordingly, in late January of this year, Chen Xiwen, director of the rural work office of the central government, explicitly ruled out land privatization and announced a crackdown on provincial and local experiments in land-rights sales.

The issue of land ownership highlights the problem of hoping that China’s leaders will gradually extend freedom to the Chinese people. Beijing must tenaciously fight against property rights in order to keep its grip on power. One day the Chinese will be able to own land, but it is unlikely that this will happen under a government run by the “party of public assets,” the literal translation of the Chinese Communist party’s name.

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