How far away democratic politics is from China

He Qinglian on Dec 30, 2011

It has become a national consensus that China must implement democracy, and that the sooner that happens, the better. Yet divergent opinions on how democracy is to be implemented, and how great a price the populace is willing to pay to bring about democracy remain. The reason for this is simple: each class has its own interests to consider.

Thanks to Han Han, discussion on revolution, democracy and freedom has at last appeared on the Internet because of his three blog entries. Contrary to the discussion on the relationship between revolution and reform during the 1980s, the enlightenment period in China; and “bidding adieu to revolution”, an ideological trend triggered by reflections on June-4th during the 1990s, this time the discussion is not about one concept versus another, nor is it caught in the maze of theories. Rather, almost all who participate in the discussion made their argument based on a direct response to the reality.

Has Han Han changed or was it the public misinterpreted him in the first place?

To begin with, let's make clear the relationship between revolution, democracy and freedom. The three are interrelated, but of them only democracy is the goal, revolution is but a more radical means to realize democracy; and individual freedom is both a basis upon which democracy is to be established and a value that needs to be safeguarded by democracy. Many articles have been written both to criticize the three articles by Han Han and to defend them. To me it was the brief comment Li Jian, associate professor at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, posted in his weibo that was most to the point. He stated that the thoughts behind Han Han's three blog posts, “On Revolution”, “On Democracy” and “Wanting Freedom” were clear and obvious: oppose revolution, worry about democracy and asking for freedom.

Some people thought that Han Han has transformed [into a different person], that's a view that I do not share. Over the years the Chinese public had seriously misinterpreted Han Han, a person who has been forced to learn living wittily under an autocratic regime and whose perception of China and the characteristics of the people could be described as despondent. What he did this time was only presenting a summary of his long held thoughts under these three topics. I saw eye to eye with him in some of the conclusion he made. For example, he wrote that “To believe in the Velvet Revolution requires that you believe in the character of the people, the tolerance of the authorities and the leadership of the intellectuals. The Velvet Revolution took place as the result of these three groups coming together. I do not believe that these groups exist in China.”

In fact, apart from “the character of the people” being the only factor that could be discussed, the degree of arbitrariness in China's ruling bloc's expansion of its power can in no way be matched by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosini Mubarak. And the influence intellectuals have on society has been weakening in the past six or seven years; the impact of academics who are not without caring of the reality or the sense of social responsibility has been greatly nullified by a few activists and verbal activists.

Although Han Han wrote in his personal capacity, his thoughts are essentially the basic consensus of China's middle class. At this stage, the middle class is by and large dependent on the [political] system, totally or partially. They feel deeply depressed about their lack of freedom, hopeless about political corruption, and yet they remain doubtful of grass-root democracy. Because in the historical memory of the Chinese people, “revolution” is but a peasant revolution which, modeled after the Communist revolution, would take countless lives and aims to plunder public and private properties. The recent surge of the prestige of Wang Yang, Governor of Guangdong, after he peacefully resolved the protests at Wukan is itself evident that the mainstream opinion in China is still yearning for the country to implement open autocracy, or the sort of authoritarian rule Han Han hopes for, which allows certain room for speech and individual liberty.

All these years Han Han's satires on and criticisms of the current [political] system and its many defects have been inside this scope. There has been a time factor that Han Han's comments grew widely popular in China. In those years, China's social conflicts weren't fully intensified yet. Back then the middle class, still in the upward channel, was drinking cappuccino, fostering the lifestyle of petite bourgeoisie, imagining the wonderful life ahead. Both the society inside China and the international community were filled with hopes that the country could naturally evolved into a democracy in future. It was only under this social atmosphere that Han Han could, with his plaintive but not blame-placing satires, become an icon of Chinese culture in the noughties of twenty-first century.

Rather than a sudden u-turn in Han Han's thoughts that his three essays on revolution, democracy, and freedom attracted fierce criticism, it is because of the rapid changes to China's social conditions that are taking place. The dominant opinion on the internet is shifting slowly from the lighthearted sarcasm and ridicule of the past to a heavy sense of anger and despair. At the same time, the attitude the international community has toward China is also changing. For example, the U.S. political circle had in the past been hoping that China would “peacefully evolve” into democracy amidst its opening and economic reform. But this year, they too started doubting if this wish of theirs is unrealistic and cast a giant question mark on the premise that China would “peacefully evolve”. That question mark is getting darker in color.

To me, the misinterpretation the public made of Han Han and the social process from which elites are shaped during their interactions with Chinese recipients are contemporary topics that carry much observation and study values.

[Back to the topic.] Regarding Han Han, I do not agree with him views because of the following two reasons. First, I think that for China at the moment there is moral basis for the use of any possible means to end quickly the one-party-dictatorship. Second, I know that freedom is not free, and he wishes not having to pay much for it or not having to pay for it at all. Among the countries drawn in the Arab spring, Tunisia was the only one with a relatively moderate revolution. Revolutions in other countries—including the “second revolution” that is taking place now in Egypt [are different]: while the protesters and the authorities there are in the process of political wrestling, the “negotiation of blade versus blade” has never been absent.

Revolution, democracy and freedom in Chinese political context

Reviewing the aspirations and requests of the over one billion population of China, it should be said that according to the different social levels they are in, and the social resources they have respectively, different classes and groups differ in the priority of, even huge discrepancy in their aspirations and demands. For example, while what the general public need the most is a comparatively fair and square distribution of social resources, the thing they see as most urgent is to protect their rights of survival; the intellectuals and the middle class hope for a comparatively relax on freedom of speech and of association. Yet under the current [political] system, the general public couldn't get fairness and equity, let alone the protection of their rights of survival. No substitute for these rights of theirs to be found in the virtual world. On the contrary, while the intellectuals and middle classes do not enjoy freedom of speech and of association, they can find in the virtual space of the internet partial substitutes such as weibo, which provides them a limited room for speech and a space for them to get together with like-minded virtual companions.

But, as social conflicts accumulate and erupt, the authorities is tightening the rope of maintaining stability. Apart from the rulers who insist on the “five won'ts” and those who got too deeply ingrained with [official doctrine against democracy], anyone who has a clear mind would more or less realize that only a democratic system can ensure the justice and equity that the general public desires and satisfies the individual freedom and rights that intellectuals and the middle class yearn for. The division of opinions is mainly about the path through which democracy is to be established. Put simply, that means what kind of price the people are willing to pay for establishing a democracy. Only when this is understood could we find out which class would become the main force that drives China to change, and the capability it has for that change.

Clearly now China's middle class is not the main body of revolution demand. Under the current [political] system in China, it takes almost a lifetime of hard work—or even the combined efforts of two generations—for Chinese people who are not part of the privileged class to become a member of the middle class and to secure that status. And the sort of revolution that the Chinese people are familiar with are those like the Communist revolution and Taiping Revolution—which characters are looting of society and uprooting of social order. If there is anyone who could persuade the nation to believe that revolution in China would cost but a hundred of lives like Tunisia, then they might cease to view revolution as something dreadful. Yet with the experience of revolutions that had taken place in China in the past, the main body of the country's intellectuals and middle class would at heart only be an ally with power, their main demand would be social stability.

Has China's general public a demand for revolution? Of course they have. Yet for many this demand is still a vague idea. Since in the Chinese society there is serious shortage of upward channels, power and resources in recent years are showing trends of being passed on from one generation to the next, the hope the general public has of climbing up the social ladder through study is nearly completely dashed. Under this social circumstance, the revolution demand of the general public, if directed, would become an explosive force once external incentives arise. The speech of the deputy secretary of Guangdong Provincial CPC committee showed that he is aware of how terrible this explosive force could be. Contrary to the years of Communist Revolution when revolution ideals were instilled into the populace as “mobilization of the masses” was needed, the current education system in China is instilling nothing but the combination of Marxism and thoughts of Chairman Mao—the preachings of “exploitation is guilty” and “rebellion is justified”—into the students.

Under an open authoritarian system (such as Tunisia and Russia), the public has the freedom of association. This enables them to integrate their interest demands through self-organization and form a pressure, making the rulers to change. The dark autocracy of China, however, would exhaust all means to dissipate the public's ability to self-organize, and there are hardly any discussion platforms where different classes can exchange their views.

Possible prospects and the only viable hedging strategy for the country

To this date the path of “reform” that the nation aspires to—or once aspired to—remains hopeless. As early back as in 2008, I wrote in my article “
Thirty years ofreform: Abnormal development of national capacity and itsconsequences” that the Chinese government has long degraded into a self-serving political bloc that is working for its own interests. The characteristics of this type of politics are that the government is like a giant machine which is running routine procedures, each of its members is just a component of the machine. Although there are a few awaken persons inside the bloc who are conscious of the looming danger, and know where the root of the problems is, they haven't got enough ability to stop the routine operation of that machine. Since last year, Premier of the State Council Wen Jiabao had spoken on several occasion about reform on the political system. That those speeches were of scarce impact on politics in reality was precisely because Wen personally doesn't have the capability to halt the frenzy operation of that machine. And it is as a result of not seeing any hope in improving the political system that China's elites and the middle class are so keen to emigrate, seeing that as a necessary hedging strategy for their family and themselves.

This type of self-serving government cannot last its rule indefinitely. And now perhaps only those stubborn-minded would believe in the premise that “economic development is conducive to democratization”. Looking back in history, outbreaks of revolutions depend on three factors which are ripe and are coming together: full-blown economic crisis (especially the financial crisis of a government); popular aspiration for change and a consensus has been reached regarding the path of that change; the continual pushes and strong involvement at critical juncture of changes from the international community—the external forces that the Communist Party is guarding against. For China, the very cruel outlook is perhaps before the arrival of a revolution, this situation of “a crumbling society without the regime tumbling down” has already depleted the resources needed for social reconstruction, resulting in country's descent into the rank of “
failed states”.

Although the CPC still has power in its grip, it is losing the people. The ideal way for the party to save the country and itself would be, as allowed by a timetable, to establish open autocracy through partial delegation, allowing society to enjoy a space for speech that is relatively free and the freedom to associate, gradually lifting the ban on forming political parties, implementing local autonomy in areas where conditions are met. Once these [are carried out], the probability of China becoming a hotbed of violence(not just that of revolutions, but also the violent spread of criminal offenses) would be much lower, and the way CPC leaves the historical stage would also be much more moderate.