Reflections on June-4th Incident (Three)

Populism or Democracy, which would decide the future of China.

By He Qinglian on June 14, 2012.

Sun Yat-sen had once referred “the People’s livelihood”, “the People’s identity” and “the People’s rights” collectively as the “Three Principles of the People”, which was at one point the main theme of the Chinese pursuit of a bright future in the 20th century. 

However, in authoritarian and totalitarian countries where there is a lack of civil awareness, “the People’s identity” theory could easily be turned into senseless xenophobia; “the People’s livelihood” theory, [a negative form of] populism; and “the People’s rights” theory, which is the prerequisite for protecting the people’s livelihood and ensuring both the state and the populace would grow rich, could be swept aside with extreme ease.

It’s been over six decades since the Communist Party established its rule. Whether it was Mao Zedong’s “struck down the local tyrants and divide their land” or Deng Xiaoping’s “Develop the economy is the absolute principle”, both set out to improve the people’s livelihood.

To this day, “the people’s rights” theory has not yet been put into practice; the discussion on democracy is, in the eyes of the authorities, something very dreadful.

The way to promote nationalism and to protect the livelihood of the people differs completely between democratic and authoritarian countries. In democratic countries, nationalism is purely a form of political expression the citizens make out of their own accord, and the people’s livelihood is part of the economic rightsboth are citizen rights guaranteed by the democratic institution. Without a democratic institution in place, citizen rights would be like a forest without trees. 

In authoritarian countries, however, the people’s livelihood often has to rely on the benevolence and enlightenment of the rulers. For example, in the late 1970s, it dawned on the authorities that the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution was the nation being reduced to dire destitution, and that the most important thing was to keep the people well fed, they therefore began to allow the development of commodity economy, the opening of farmer’s markets at villages, and moving step by step onto the path of government-controlled market economy.

Nationalism is frequently used to divert domestic dissatisfaction and serve diplomatic purposes.

Putin’s power politics was built upon the foundation of populism and nationalism. But since Russia has already entered the phase of enlightened despotism, political leaders must go through the procedure of democratic election. At the end of the day, the people’s opinion would still be able to manifest itself through votes, even if those votes are “purchased” or manipulated.

The “Putin Youth Brigade” support Putin for two reasons. First, they want to see their country becomes more powerful. Second, they want the Westerners to stop making indiscreet remarks about Russian politics. It is claimed on some Chinese websites that the brigade has a song which translation would read: “15 years ago when our country was reduced to rubble, they (the Westerners) mocked us. Our parents lost their life savings, they had no pension, no future. Now we get back on our feet again. Now we will act. Now we will become stronger. For our fathers had shed their blood and made sacrifice to defend our motherland!” 

When Yeltsin was in office, Russia was caught in a hyperinflation, the Russian living standard declined rapidly. After Putin assumed office, he quickly reversed the economic situation of Russia by making use of the quality natural resources of Russia and the upward momentum of oil price.

The lyrics cited above illustrated that votes for Putin came from his solution to the people’s livelihood problems, allowing the people to see the hope of Russia becoming a powerful nation.

But China’s populism and nationalism are founded on the self-deception of the believers. Unlike Putin, the authorities do not need to buy over the people with social welfare, economic benefit, and employment prospect for young people. 

To handle people of different levels, the Beijing authorities would use different approaches masterfully.

When all kinds of criticism against the authorities are being suppressed, the Leftist intellectuals, old and new, are allowed a window, a room for activities specially to themselves. These intellectuals see as their mission the elimination of dissent, a fact proven by the “war of words” between new Leftists and liberals in the past decade or so. The authorities handicapped the liberals, allowing the leftists to attack freely, and thus the liberals were defeated, many intellectuals who claimed they were of that camp defected in succession.

Without doubt, the authorities do not like the fond memories the bottom of society has of Mao Zedong. Nonetheless, they make use of it wherever it is possible. 

What the authorities do not like about these people is that they use commemoration of Mao Zedong as a pretext to criticize the current affairs. Their xenophobic sentiment, on the other hand, is quite useful in the eyes of the authorities. 

In addition, the government and the Maoists from the public often tacitly play with each other “games of stupid pretense”. Members of the public who took part in playing stupid would, despite knowing that the government of one-party dictatorship is looting from them their living resources like their land and homes, pretend to believe (or perhaps truly think) that the central government is good, the bad guys are the local governments. 

This “game of stupid pretense” continued until the last two years, resulting in a political spectacle like this: some people chose to see Wen Jiabao as the leader of the reformist faction within the Party, he achieved nothing was only due to the many a restrictions and hindrance from the conservatives inside the Party.

Even when they heard news about Wen’s wife and children making huge profits from their businesses, these people would rather believe those news were but libels from Wen’s political rivals.

And another group of people chose to believe that Bo Xilai initiated the “singing the Red and hitting the black” campaign was out of his consideration for the bottom of society. The belief these people held is itself a paradox. The current institution allows officials to collude with business to plunder the people. And these people are placing their hope for the future on Mao Zedong, the creator of that institution. Pretending not to see the various state crimes that Mao personally committed, they pictured Mao’s era to be a time of equality and fairness, in which every one had a job (the truth was that even the workersa 'privileged group' at that timehad to fight life and death to get a job), and all had access to free medical care. 

These imagination they use as analgesics.

The inevitable corollary of a populism that breeds from survival anxiety would be the expectation of political strongman. Originally, the populism that was hugely influential in Russia held very high moral standard for the leaders. But to this day, practically none of those who emerged from the filthy soil of China after some muddy fight(s) could meet that standard. Nonetheless, not a few Chinese people manage to deceive themselves and whitewash the leaders in their hearts. This type of mentality, whether you call it cynicism or the “Ah Q spirit”, is the mentality of the people of China.

Twenty-three years have passed since June Fourth. Looking back at the process the Chinese government interacted with the public in these 23 years, one could clearly see a theme: in the early years of the 1990s, Deng Xiaoping relaunched the economic reform through his speech made in the South and provided the fellow Chinese people with a dose of mental analgesics. 

Over a period of time, views like “students made mistakes, too; the crackdown was caused by their refusal to leave the Square” and “look forward” became the mainstream opinion. 

In the economists circle, absurd theories like “to disintegrate the old system with corruption would be the least costly and the most effective” made a glamorous entrance to the hall of academia.

During the aughts of the twenty-first century, with the CPC becoming increasingly more powerful, both domestic dissidents and the United States, which is concerned about the human rights and political situation of China, thought unanimously that it was possible to nudge the CPC to embark on the road to rule of law with a gentle approach. And so inside China there was the saying of “upholding the constitution and protecting our rights”, which became the predominant form of rights protection and protests within the legal framework.

The most important feature of these activities is that they make no mention of political rights, such as the rights of casting the ballot, of demonstration and assembly, the freedom of association and the freedom of the press, and focus on economic rights (such as interests of the damage caused by land grabbing, demolition and removal) and judicial complaints from the victims. 

With difficulty, this approach continued until the outbreak of Arab Spring in 2011, when it basically could make no more move. After the real human rights lawyers had experienced repeated suppression, the bottom of society had no choice but to pin their hopes on the return of Mao Zedong. The popularity Bo Xilai had came precisely from the populism that was caused by survival anxiety, which so severe that people had no time to identify the real political intent of Bo.

The fact that the Chinese people want change is plainly obvious. The question is, whether this desire for change is driven by survival anxiety or rights consciousness would be a key factor that determine the way future China would develop. If the desire for change is driven by survival anxiety, then it would be subsided by resource redistribution implemented through power politics. But if that desire is driven by rights consciousness, then nothing less than an institutional reform would meet the demand of the people.
Generally, the public is short-sighted. Even in the democratic country of Greece, its people would place their welfare above the future of their country. Under the totalitarian regime of China, it would be more easily for populism to cut corners and take the road of combining with the power that be.

Populism and democracy, which one would be in control of China in future? The answer to this question is relevant to China’s ability to break free from the shackle of dictatorship. Regarding this issue, I do not feel optimisticso long as the soil that cultivates populism-cum-nationalism exists, then even if Bo Xilai is gone from the political arena, politicians of his kind would remain out there in China. 

[End of the trilogy.]