On China’s “Two Sessions” 2013

This is an abridged translation of two articles by He Qinglian in March 2013. 
Links to original articles:

While the annual “Two Sessions” in Beijing is nothing more than an “elite gathering” through which the authorities manifest the size of the legislative body and the united front, it nonetheless captivates the attention of media around the world. The clothes those delegates wear, the demeanor and proposals they make, and the way they answer questions from reporters could all constitute a final public opinion test of theirs. The comments on the representatives of the “Two Sessions” are the true expression of the people’s opinions.

The speech delivered by Zhong Nanshan, Wu Jinglian and Feng Xiaogang during the “Two Sessions”, as well as the tax anxiety caused by the promulgation of Guowutiao (“five [new real property] directives of the State Council) reflected precisely the mixed feelings the Chinese have for the country's future, the hopes and fears they have in the coming decade.

People inside the system dread revolution.
A veteran economist who enjoys great respect from inside the Communist Party of China (CPC), Wu Jinglian feels safe discussing during an interview the market-oriented economic reform, the implementation of the rule of law and democratization. The considerably lengthy interview carrying the title that was to the point (“We people inside the system have no stomach for revolution”) focused on two topics: the change in economic growth model and potential crises.

In that interview was a paragraph of remarks that summed up the problems quite well: —
Now there are two questions that we cannot evade. First, there is no way to get around the old model of growth. The calls for a change in the way of economic growth have been there for a decade or two already, the problems intensified. Speaking from the shallow perspective, that means shortage of resources and the resulting damages to the environment; viewed from a deeper perspective, that means a low increase in the income of the workforce. To keep up the growth rate by printing massive amount of money has resulted in the formation of real property bubble. Inflation pressure rises continuously; our money in circulation at the moment would soon reach 200% of the GDP, whereas few countries would exceed 100%. Second, the corruption issue exacerbates after power entered the field of economy. Now it is deep in the bone marrow.

What is new in the interview was that he talked about the “reform consensus” that was formed only last year.

By consensus I mean that social conflicts have already reached a critical point and that reform must be restarted. In the past, some of my similar comments received more objections than approvals. This time 90% of responses were approvals. That is what I mean by “consensus”.
We people inside the system do not want to see revolution. We hope for stability. As a researcher, I could only do what I could instead of guessing whether or not I could make it. However, I am fully aware that without reform, there would be no way out.

The two issues Mr. Wu discussed were nothing new. For years I have been studying them and I have answers to them in my heart. Let's just skip corruption—a political cancer already incurable—and focus on the problem of economic growth model. The Chinese government had at a point the intention to make changes to it. Back at the beginning of 2007, the government of Guangdong province contemplated an introduction of “new birds” (new industries and new source of growth) to replace the old ones. Yet the result was: the “old birds” flew away, and no “new birds” came.

The reasons for this outcome were multifarious, ranging from the system environment that led to high management costs including the staggering cost of communication with the government; and tax policy, land prices, and labor costs that became increasingly detrimental to investors. And the deeper reason was that China has been a country known for its intellectual property infringement. Over 30 years of economic development bred a cluster of speculators instead of its own technological strength.

After the loss of the two “advantages” of cheap labor force and the low business overhead that did not have to include the damage done to the environment, two parts of the “troika” that drove the economy flamed out one after another since 2008, leaving only real property as the engine of China’s economy. Thus in recent years Beijing has shown no restraint in pumping astronomical amount of money into the economy to stimulate it.

I am convinced that even if a consensus that “reform is needed” would form inside the top leadership of the CPC, there would still be disagreement as to the direction of reform and how to initiate one. Xi Jinping’s main tasks at the moment are taking over the powers and gradually eliminating conflicts of interests within the CPC. I guess the motion of reform would enter Xi’s agenda only after Li Keqiang’s “new urbanization plan” has failed. After all, a “violent revolution” from the bottom of society has not yet materialized; it is merely a potential threat. 

Environmental fear, a common social fear that transcends classes. 
Among the many delegates attending the “Two Sessions” who shared the concern about the environment, academician Zhong Nanshan was most troubled by the issue. In his speech, Zhong said that in the past he thought environment issues were distant ones that needed to take care of once in a while; now when the basic survival needs of the people are threatened by environment issues; they have already turned into crises.

Indeed, the damages environmental pollution has on human health would take time to surface. The wealth the Chinese people now enjoy is unprecedented in 5000 years. This affluence is, however, obtained at a price of ecological environment overdraft that would lead to the country facing a predicament that is not seen throughout its 5000 years of history: not only has China become a major importer of food, oil, iron ore and other resources around the world as its domestic resources are insufficient to support the survival of its people, but it has also safety problems with water, air and food when it comes the basic living of the Chinese people.

I have stated in my analysis before that China's environmental pollution is a “tragedy of the commons” that could chiefly be attributed to the collaboration between a corrupt government and unscrupulous corporations to seek profit; and it resulted partly from the spontaneous attitude of the Chinese people when it comes to garbage disposal.

The damages done to China's ecological environment are so severe that it could not be restored through punishment of corrupt officials and unscrupulous business owners. Zhang Lijun, retired Deputy chief of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, has finally admitted that the cost to restore Huaihe River to its original state would be tens of thousands times of the GDP the paper mills there generate.

What worries Wu Jinglian is the prospect of the demise of the Party, of which he is a member after all; and the thing that worries Zhong Nanshan is the environment and ecology, a worry about the survival of humankind that is above social hierarchy. Yet another type of worry is the possible resurgence of the Cultural Revolution, as reflected in a speech by film director Feng Xiaogang.

Hopes and fears of China’s Middle Class. 
At the discussion panel of the literary circles, Feng suggested that the authorities have a strategic vision when it screens movies topics and he expressed wishes that he could make a film about topics such as the Cultural Revolution which would be for reflection purposes. He said: 

If you don't let the young people today understand the Cultural Revolution and the disasters the riots of the Red Guards brought about, then should a new riot take place, people would rise at a call and would still think that smashing shops windows with bricks is a cool thing to do.

The deeper message that Feng intended to convey was not suitable to express during the “Two Sessions”. Nonetheless, he did so through another channel. There was a feature interview with Feng that is worth a read: “How many 18 years a person has?”. In the interview, Feng specially mentioned the relationship between the landlords and the peasants, and described the details of how a landlord family got robbed of everything by the hungry people.

The director said: —
The answers to these seemingly isolated incidents that appeared to be absurd could be found in our national character. This was the core reason I made this film; it was also the core content of the novel about the famine in 1942. In the past we would blame the system or the political party for plights in which people had to struggle to survive. But if you read that novel or watch my movie, you would realize that on many occasions it was caused by problems with the national character per se.

Scenes like these repeatedly occurred in times of calamity, or when dynasties neared their end. The landlords being collectively annihilated were common scenes of the CPC's “Land Reform” in the 1950s. Perhaps because his movie touched on these historical incidents, Feng wrote in his Netease Weibo that “People naively thought that their days would be better if the landlords in their villages were killed. Following the implementation of the 'Land Reform', heads of landlords were rolling on the ground. And what happened? Did the peasants end their poverty? Now it seems the notion of killing landlords is gaining momentum again. Landlords might as well be careful: your safe days are numbered.”

What the director meant by “landlords” was of course not in the term's literal meaning. What he meant by it was those individuals who became rich through various channels since the economic reform.

Are the worries of Feng Xiaogang groundless? No. The hate-the-rich-and-the-successful sentiment is spreading all over China, which could be perceived by anyone who is not numb. This is the background of Wu Jinglian's remark: “we people inside the system do not want revolution.” What does “revolution” mean? Mao Zedong had said long ago: a violent action with which one class overthrow another.

National Character and National Memory.
The advices from Wu Jinglian and Zhong Nanshan had a specific target: the Chinese government. Words from Feng Xiaogang, though, were a reflection on the national character of the Chinese people. Thus his remarks were directed at almost everyone in China.

It was both fortunate and unfortunate that I myself came to realize this terrible national character long ago. In 1968 I saw with my eyes the corpses of the people labeled as the “black five categories” and their families who were butchered by the “Supreme Court of the impoverish peasants" of Shaoyang county, Hunan province. I learned later that mass slaughter did not just occur in Shaoyang county, it took place in Guangxi province, Dao county, Hunan, and the junction of the three provinces of Hunan, Guangxi, and Guangdong. Unlike the riots of the hungry people that took place throughout the history of China that disturbed Feng, these incidents of mass slaughter were arbitrary massacre of the “untouchables” committed by a portion of the Chinese people who considered themselves politically superior in peaceful times.

From those corpses drifting along the Zijiang river one could tell that the victims had been subjected to inhuman torture before they died. From then on I came to pay close attention to wherefrom those peasants acquired their knowledge of using torture. I learned afterward from a book about 'Land Reform' at Laohuping in the 1950s that killings of similar fashion had happened. As more and more historical data about the Cultural Revolution (including the ugly and shocking past of cannibalism in Guangxi), the 'Land Reform', and in particular the several peasant movements led by the CPC got unearthed later on, I became fully aware of the fate that awaits my nation.

The true is, the fact that 'killing landlords' became a notion deeply ingrained in the mind of the Chinese people is not phenomenon that emerged only in recent years. Firstly, there is historical background to it. For example, a group of bandits in Shandong half a century ago would justify their actions of looting and other crimes by saying “the people of the upper class owe us money”; and then there was an event as recalled by Marshal Ye Jianying's daughter: during the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong received the Red Guards. After the Red Guards dismissed, there were gold bars all over the place. It was said that those were seized from households during raids. It could be seen from this that the Chinese have never been cured from the tendency to loot. When given the opportunity, this demon lurking in the hearts of the Chinese people would come alive. 

Secondly, the nation lends theoretical foundation from the class struggle education since the CPC established its rule and the yet-to-abandon Marxist theory of “capitalist exploitation”. 

Thirdly, there are realistic reasons behind it as the CPC privileged group and its officials have been amassing wealth in a frenzied manner to the extent of disregarding the life and death of others. They became wealthy by means of land grab, forced demolition and the destruction of environment. The notion “people of the upper class owe us money”, a natural conclusion drawn from the fact of the privileged plunder of the wealth of the common people, has long been popular. Unlike their predecessors, the people at the bottom of society in today's China are able to express themselves in a more refined fashion using such ideological language as those from Marxist theories, and Mao's thoughts.

In societies where the upward mobility channel is smooth, those at the bottom would find ways to make progress, so as to become members of the middle class or even upper class, as was the case for China during the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. But when that channel is severely blocked, when even the opportunity of joining the army comes with a price tag, those at the bottom feel despair. Without hope, all that is left with them is hatred. Many people are worried that Jasmine Revolution would break out in China. However, if China could get to complete its transition to democracy through such a revolution, even at the cost of a short-term civil war like that of Libya, it would still be the best outcome for China.

Back in 1949 when the change in regimes took place, China had green mountains, clean water, and clear skies despite all the damages resulted from war. Now, with cancer villages all across the country, and with smog shrouding its skies, the people of China have come to realize that they have already lost their home, both in the material and the spiritual senses. Many are perhaps thinking to themselves: would the ending of China Tidal Wave, a novel by Wang Lixiong, unfold in China?