Will a New China Emerge from the Earthquake’s Rubble?

Stephen DeAngelis

June 2, 2008

In a recent post about the earthquake in China [Globalization and Giving — the Rise of Chinese Philanthropy], I noted some hopeful signs about how society is changing in there. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who traveled through China to see how the country is responding, also sees some hopeful signs [“Earthquake and Hope,” 22 May 2008].

“In the aftermath of the great Sichuan earthquake, we’ve seen a hopeful glimpse of China’s future: a more open and self-confident nation, and maybe — just maybe — the birth of grass-roots politics here. In traveling around China in the days after the quake, I was struck by how the public and the news media initially seized the initiative from the government. Ordinary Chinese are traveling to the quake zone to help move rubble, and tycoons, peasants and even children are reaching into their pockets to donate to the victims. … Private Chinese donations have already raised more than $500 million. That kind of bottom-up public spirit is a mark of citizens, not subjects.”

As one Chinese scholar quoted in my last post noted, “Thirty years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine this.” Kristof reports that the changes are really bottoms-up, grassroots efforts. The government is having a more difficult time adjusting to events.

“Immediately after the earthquake, the Propaganda Department instinctively banned news organizations from traveling to the disaster area. But Chinese journalists ignored the order and rushed to Chengdu — and the order was rescinded the next day. Initial score: Propaganda Department, 0; News Media, 1. Since then, the authorities have managed to rein in the media again, and the Propaganda Department is ordering news organizations to report on how wonderful the relief efforts are. Many Chinese journalists are chafing instead to investigate corruption and the reasons schools collapsed when government offices didn’t. The final score will depend on whether those stories are published.”

The fact that the government is cooperating with private fundraising efforts and has accepted outside assistance is a good sign that not all Chinese bureaucrats are stuck in the past.

“China-watchers have long debated whether the country is evolving toward greater freedom and pluralism. One camp, myself included, believes it is. We see China slowly following the trajectory of South Korea, Indonesia, Mongolia and other neighboring countries away from authoritarianism. We see perestroika leading to glasnost. Frankly, the evidence has been mixed, and the skeptics are right to note that dissidents are still more likely to end up in jail than on the news. But on balance, the earthquake gives hope to us optimists.”

The changes are bound to come slowly — governments in single party states never change quickly. It was evolutionary changes in government policies, however, that permitted the economic changes that are revolutionizing Chinese society. Those societal changes will eventually spur more governmental changes. At least, that is the virtuous cycle that many analysts see in China’s future.

“The rise of wealth, a middle class, education and international contacts are slowly undermining one-party rule and nurturing a new kind of politics. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is hard-working and blessed with nearly a photographic memory, but he also may be the second-most boring person alive (after his boss, President Hu Jintao). Both Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen rose through the system as classic Communist apparatchiks — Brezhnevs with Chinese faces. Yet Mr. Wen has seen the political landscape changing and has struggled recently to reinvent himself. When the earthquake hit, Mr. Wen flew immediately to the disaster area and appeared constantly on television, overseeing rescue operations. Heroic tidbits seeped out. Mr. Wen fell and cut himself but refused medical attention. He bellowed directions to generals over the telephone and then slammed the handset down. He shouted to children buried in a pile of rubble: ‘This is Grandpa Wen Jiabao. Children, you’ve got to hold on!’ Mr. Wen’s conduct is striking because it’s what we expect of politicians, not dictators. His aim was to come across as a ‘good emperor,’ not to win an election. But presumably he behaved in this way partly because he felt the hot breath of public opinion on his neck.”

In a country in which the media is controlled by the government, one may ask exactly how politicians can “feel the breath of public opinion”? The World-Wide Web, Kristof reports, provides at least part of the answer.

“China now has 75 million blogs, often carrying criticisms of the government, as well as tens of thousands of citizen protests each year. China’s police announced that they had punished 17 earthquake ‘rumor-mongers’ last week, with penalties of up to 15 days in jail. But repression isn’t what it used to be, and dissidents now are often less afraid of the government than it is of them.”

Kristof believes that China is still a couple of decades away from having a government that more fully embraces democracy, but that transformation will be urged along by its continued embrace of capitalism.

“In the 1980s, China’s hard-liners ferociously denounced ‘heping yanbian’ — ‘peaceful evolution’ toward capitalism and democracy. The hard-liners worried that if citizens had a choice of clothing, of jobs, of housing, of television programs, they might also want a role in choosing national policy. The earthquake may be remembered as a milestone in that peaceful evolution. My hunch is that the Communist Party is lurching in the direction, over 10 or 20 years, of becoming a Social Democratic Party that dominates the country but that grudgingly allows opposition victories and a free press. China today reminds me of Taiwan when I lived there in the late 1980s when the government was still trying to be dictatorial but just couldn’t get away with it. It was no longer scary enough. Back then, the smartest of the Taiwan apparatchiks, like a young Harvard-educated party official named Ma Ying-jeou, glimpsed the future and began to reinvent themselves as democratic politicians. The epilogue: Mr. Ma took office this week as the newly elected president of a democratic Taiwan.”

I share Kristof’s optimism that China is moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, I don’t believe the course it will take towards democracy is going to be a straight one. The rest of the developed world is going to have to find ways to help China back on the road whenever it takes a detour. As long as China keeps moving generally in the right direction, it will remain one of the world’s most influential countries. In fact, its influence will only grow.