A Post about the Chinese Government

I read a lot of writing on China, and it feels all the more urgent now that I’m living in the country and am trying to understand what I see. And there is one idea that is constandly underlying a lot of these writings, especially those by Evan Osnos and James Fallows.

I would phrase this basic framework as “the Chinese government may not be democratic, but it ultimately depends on the consent of the Chinese people.”

This is the starting framework of so many topics and explains how, for example, Evan Osnos can take grumbling over e-bike ban and decide it’s a warning sign. The people are getting restless, folks!

Doesn’t it sound like a contradiction? If the CCP is really shaking in its boots, knowing that it must make its people happy or else – shouldn’t it go about, you know, making people happy? Things like responding to well-aimed criticisms? Putting some kind of framework in place that gives people with complaints a place to go? Letting people get rid of terrible local leaders? 

You would think that’s exactly what the CCP would do, if they were really terrified. (That’s why this story is important.) In fact that’s the only explanation I’ve heard for Taiwan’s transition to democracy – the government was terrified of its people and knew that they needed to give them representation.

So the CCP’s supposed “insecurity”, which is held up as an explanation for many things, might turn out to be a positive thing, if enough pressure can be applied. My point of view is more pessimistic. Forgetting the fallacy of assigning an emotion to an entire bureaucracy, I rather doubt that CCP members are feeling rattled by much. 

Rather than the formulation I described above, I’d say the CCP approach to staying in power is best represented by a certain Chinese saying – 现礼后兵, or “gifts first, soldiers later.”

The Gifts First strategy is giving people what they want – getting off people’s backs and letting them make money, have more choices in life, controlling inflation and food prices for the sake of the peoples’ well-being. This strategy is the part that “China defenders” like Shaun Rein make much of.

Well, they’re not wrong, this strategy has made millions of people’s lives better – incomes are about seven times higher than 20 years ago. Seeing the real poverty on the streets here drives home how much that is worth. For this reason I’d argue that Hu Jintao is a much more important humanitarian than, say, Bono. And I suspect that there are quite a few leaders in this country whose humanitarian impulses are totally genuine.

Behind it, however, is the second or “Soldiers Later” strategy, where people aren’t happy with what they’ve been granted. They want, perhaps, better wages. They don’t want their territory to be part of China. They want to out themselves as gay to the international community. They want their village chief to stop over-taxing them. In the splashiest cases, like that of Liu Xiaobo’s, they want complete and immediate governmental reform. They are brave enough to speak up, and then the soldiers are sent in.

Prison, fines, house arrest – these people are silenced (though the international community often gets wind of things). And because of the gifts, some can rationalize this repression away as being in the service of the greater good…

And of course it can get messy. Some people don’t see the gifts, only the soldiers. And most people, at least in a boomtown like Dalian, seem to see the gifts and never run into the soldiers. It depends on where you live and how much you’re inclined to stick your neck out.

The growth of civil society and social media means that news and government officials are often in dialogue with netizens. This is great and has lots of potential to produce positive changes. But it doesn’t substantially alter the dynamic I’ve described.

This is the dynamic that national leaders and individuals have to weigh when they are questioning the morality of doing business with the CCP.

Basically, the assumption I mentioned earlier – that the CCP needs consent – is true. If enough people decide they won’t put up with this system, that will be that. But the CCP has the Soldiers Later option (see: Tiananmen) to make the costs of opposition extremely high. I fear that political reform’s only chances in China are top-down…

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