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Thursday, June 16

Clairol joins with the barbarian hordes plotting China's overthrow

For the full text of Simon's reply to yesterday's post, see Simon replies to Yes and Back Again . Because his reply raises several important points, this post will be a two-parter. Here, I respond to his first comments:

Simon observes:
You say Governments better listen, but in cases such as China there are two problems: they don't want to listen and they don't have the mechanisms for listening. China has never had a system of feedback from "the people" -- if there was an issue, the only form of redress would be to take a petition to Beijing and try and see the right person (and this continues today). ...

Pundita replies
They don't have a system for feedback because that's the way the villagers have always wanted it. However, it's closer to the truth to say that China does not have a legally-mandated system for the government to receive feedback. But China's villagers have a very effective informal system of providing feedback to their government. I'll dub it the Elizabeth Taylor method of communication, after an incident that occurred in Taylor's trailer dressing room on the movie set of Cleopatra:

A minion connected with the film company handed Taylor a stack of publicity photos of her and asked whether she found them acceptable. After glancing through them Liz picked up a pair of scissors lying on her dressing table, cut the photos to ribbons, then wordlessly returned to her make-up.

That act should not be seen as the posturing of a prima donna. After spending virtually all her life in the movie business--an industry dominated during that era by men whose ears were not trained to listen to females in business--Elizabeth Taylor had learned to make her points unequivocally clear.

The same holds true for Chinese villagers, who have a tradition stretching across thousands of years of living under rigidly centralized authoritarian government. The less they see of the government in their village, the happier they are. This is because they know if the government shows up, it can't be to help them. The government wants something--to take their crops away, their daughters away, their sons away, or to kick them off the land, or squeeze more taxes out of them.

They know it's never, "Hi, how are you? Just stopped by to see how you're doing." And even if they just stop by, the villagers know it's a snooping mission. They've known all this for thousands of years. So they preferred to go petition the emperor, rather than see the emperor's civil servants come to their village. This view has outlasted the reign of China's emperors. Of course this means the villagers don't get any real representation but they have a way of making their most serious grievances known.

For example, if the tax collectors get overzealous, the villagers waylay them on the road and beat them up or kill them. If Beijing refuses to issue an epidemic alert, the villagers rip up the railroad tracks and threaten to shoot any outsider who comes near.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar to American readers with a long memory about the rural, remote southern regions of the United States in decades past, well sure. Villagers are villagers. Once you've lived in a rural village that's been around for centuries and had to deal with a powerful central government, you can walk into a similar village anywhere in the world and understand the people.

A certain mindset develops, and it's really the mindset that China's educated elite must deal with today, if China is to overcome vast problems. But they don't want to deal with it because of the long tradition of Chinese central government being scared of the villagers. They don't want to rile them, any more than they have to.

Incidentally Beijing is well informed about how things are going in remote areas of China. Or perhaps it's closer to the truth to say that the military is well informed. Most of the military comes from those villages so the armed forces get an earful and report back. I'm just guessing here but maybe the PLA plays the intel card against the CCP.

In any case, we're looking at what Americans with a background in psychology would define as a co-dependent relationship: the villagers and the central government support each other's entrenched self-destructive patterns of behavior.

So while it's true that China has 700,000 poor oppressed peasants, an equally important truth is that those poor peasants have eked out a form of power, which they zealously protect. Even at the cost of their betterment.

If you find their reasoning hard to follow, a rough analogy would be the bitter opposition that many American females mounted against the women's liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Those females knew they were second class citizens. But historically females had made a kind of power out of their weakness in society, which many were unwilling to trade for the uncharted.

That's roughly the position of China's peasants today. That explains why it's the villagers--the peasants--who are the biggest supporters of Beijing's authoritarian rule. This is another point that is hard for moderns in a highly urbanized democracy to grasp, so I'll unpack this point a bit:

The rise of professional standing armies--full time armies attached to a ruler--allowed rulers without any conscience to wiggle out of their historical deal with the peasants. The deal was that the peasants paid an arm and a leg in taxes of some kind, in exchange for military protection when they needed it. Watch Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai film, which is widely available in the West, if you want to understand this part of the story.

Once the army wasn't mustered as needed--once it became a fixture--the peasants couldn't very well demand their taxes back, when the ruler didn't bother to send protection from brigands and blood feuds. The ruler could use the professional army to burn down the village, if the villagers complained about the ruler's poor job performance.

However, in regions that saw constant threats of foreign invasions, the villagers put up with the situation because they knew the standing army would go after the outsiders. The same situation exists today in China, which is bordered by 14 different countries. There's not one of those countries that Han Chinese don't consider to be a bunch of barbarians.

So while the villagers have long lists of complaints about Beijing, they are the most conservative minded among the Chinese when it comes to foreign policy. They have a simple policy demand of the central government: make sure the barbarians don't overrun us. As Wikipedia puts it:
China remains in control and has maintained repressive policies against groups which it feels are threats, such as Falun Gong and the separatist movement in Tibet. Supporters of these policies, who tend to be the majority of rural Chinese people and a smaller majority of urban Chinese people, as well as a minority of observers, claim that these policies safeguard stability in a society that is torn apart by class differences and rivalries, has no tradition of civil participation, and limited rule of law.

Opponents of these policies, who tend to be a minority of Chinese people, most Chinese dissidents living abroad, many people from Hong Kong or Taiwan, ethnic minorities like Tibetans, and most Westerners, claim that these policies severely violate norms of human rights that the international community recognizes, and further claim that this results in a police state, which creates an atmosphere of fear and ignorance.
It is the Falun Gong's international support and network of connections that the rural Chinese most fear about the group. The same with the Free Tibet movement.

It is the villagers' fear of outside forces that gives impetus to many of Beijing's weirdest edicts, such as the 'suggestion' that television news anchors not dye their hair any color but black.

This came about because the villagers got bent out of shape when they saw Chinese blondes and redheads reading them the nightly news. First the news anchors, then all China. Then soon the villages would be overrun with barbarians and the villagers wouldn't be able to tell the difference until they were killed in their sleep by Swedes and Irish.

From all the above I hope it's clear that Westerners tend to overlay their view of oppression on China's situation. Thus, Beijing's government emerges as the Bogeyman and China's poor peasants as the victim.

The situation is more complex than that. At the same time, the complexity makes the outlook for a democracy movement in China more hopeful than many Western observers assume. The task is twofold:

The civilian and military leadership need to work at convincing the villagers that it's un-Chinese to be so backward and paranoid in one's thinking.

The leadership needs to assure the villagers that by getting more involved with their central government, this won't equate to the village being overrun with snoops and revenuers.

Installing electronic voting machines and 'town halls' could be a big help; this way the villagers could vote without government minders swarming all over the village, snooping and micromanaging the voting process.

We're not looking for perfection here, or even a mature liberal democracy. Beijing managed to sell the idea of a free market zone without mentioning the word 'capitalism.' They can do the same with the basics of democracy.

What they can't do is keep claiming that China's huge population puts democracy out of the question--not if they want to keep credibility with China's burgeoning professional class, which is coming into greater contact with Indians.

I see this post is longer than I had intended. Yet I think the foray into history and village life has value beyond understanding China's situation. Since the end of World War Two, much well-intentioned American foreign policy has poured uncounted billions of dollars into many wrong projects, supported many wrong types of politicians, and in general repeatedly failed to grasp many situations in the least developed countries.

This would include China, even though China has been removed from the LDC list. But if the American and West European governments had really understood China's villagers when they decided to normalize relations with China, China might be a democracy today, albeit closer to the Singapore model than the Western one.

Americans who come to Washington to serve in government, including the foreign service, can't imagine what village life is like in the old-world countries--places where people have had to endure thousands of years of living under imperial rule. "A creepy form of European socialism," as one scholar put it, or Soviet/Mao style communism, wasn't much of a step up.

Until tomorrow then, when I will take up with the second part of Simon's letter.
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