By Peter Emerson.
Nineteen eighty-five: Mikhail Gorbachev; the start of the end of Soviet communism. Those were exciting times. The collapse of the Berlin wall, the first Russian elections, the quests for Georgian/Lithuanian independence, and so on. Life was changing, fast. And even those who opposed such changes, like those of the Albanian regime, with their sealed borders of barbed wire and a ‘no-man’s land’ of mines, could not prevent the winds of change blustering into Tirana as well. There was no stopping a movement whose time had comprehensively come.
Exciting, and dangerous. The first inter-ethnic conflict was in 1988, in Nagorno-Karabakh. This was followed by more wars, in Georgia – Abhazia and South Ossetia – in Moldova, Tajikistan, throughout Yugoslavia, and the problems rumble on, now in Ukraine.
For many non-Russians, then, the excitement ended in misery; while in Russia itself, there was first economic collapse, and then the rise of authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin.
1978; Dèng Xioǎping; China; the embrace of capitalism and global markets leading to galloping economic growth and then came the internal party disputes, the first against the rightists, some versus the revisionists, and the last against the leftists, the Gang of Four. Exciting and dangerous times now from Táiwān in the East to Xīnjiāng in the West and even Hong Kong – as well as many socio-economic and environmental problems.
There is talk of democracy, socialism etc., with “Chinese characteristics.” Well, what might they be? One clue lies in the language which is dichotomous. One sentence could be: you can/cannot speak Chinese? – nǐ huìbùhuì? Another might read, Ireland is very beautiful, yes or no? – duìbùduì? Furthermore, the history of the Chinese Communist Party is riddled with binary struggles, initially against the perceived minority of landowners and kulaks (slightly better-off peasants). In fact, early communist policies were often based on a majoritarian ethos; and many, in the villages, were sent to their deaths by majority vote. Is it wise, then, for westerners to argue for a majoritarian democracy in complex territories?
And socialism? Well, there’s not much of that either, not yet anyway. During the course of the last century, the influences from Moscow on the politics of China have been enormous. The lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union have already been learnt in Beijing. If China is to have its dream, it will indeed be exciting; but first things first, it must suppress the danger.
The Socio-political questions
China (Zhōngguó, the Middle Kingdom) – the People’s Republic of China – is a one-party state of over 1.3 billion mainly Hàn people. It is also home to 55 recognised minorities, some of which, like the Hakka (Kèjiā), are quite large by Irish standards – there are 80 million of these. Another is the ‘Muslim’ community, although Buddhists and other religious groups are not classified in this way. Some minorities, as in Tibet (Xīzàng), have their own language and a very strong sense of identity, even if many Tibetans live in neighbouring provinces like Qīnghǎi and Sìchuān. Meanwhile, the Uyghers (Wéiwú’ěr) in Xinjiang share their province with others – Kazakhs and Tajiks, for example, not to mention lots of Han, many recently arrived. Han settlement programmes have also been underway in Tibet and Inner Mongolia (Nèi Měnggǔ). Problems, then, abound.
Taiwan – the Republic of China, to give it its official name – is a multi-party democracy. Initially, the Kuomintang (KMT – Nationalist Party) fought for a one-party state, first on the mainland, and then, after 1949, on the island. In the 1990s, it adopted a more western structure – i.e., one based on the two-option majority vote – and so, like Britain, Ireland, the United States, etc., Taiwanese society has also divided into two main blocks: the blue, the KMT and allies; and the green, the opposition. Furthermore, there is talk of a constitutional referendum on the question of independence, and all too little awareness of how this might affect mainland China: Xinjiang, for example.
Then there’s Hong Kong (Xiāng Gǎng – Fragrant Harbour). Under British rule, the locals got second-hand double-decker buses, left-hand drive, a reputation for plastic, no cycle lanes and no democracy. Only when the colony had to be handed back did the British suddenly get terribly concerned about governance. Hence, the present arrangement, which is binding for just 50 years: one country, two systems. Hong Kong has elections but, at the moment, candidates for the top post are first vetted by Beijing.
The 50-day protest blockades and tents have now been cleared; these somewhat disparate groups of students and others can nevertheless rest assured that their mainly peaceful demonstrations have definitely had an impact. The mistakes of 25 years ago in Tiānānmén Square transcend.
The Socio-economic questions
China operates a draconian regime for consumers. In Tiānjīn, for example, only some car owners can drive on certain weekdays, depending on their cars’ registration numbers, but all of them can drive on Sundays – which means the day of rest is one of frustrating traffic jams. The basis of the policy, however, is absolutely sound: if the city’s population is to be able to breathe, there have to be limits as to how much pollution each individual can cause. It is a question of human rights.
Similarly – despite the many, horrific stories which relate to its implementation – the basic idea of a one-child policy is sound. If the human and other species are to survive, there have to be limits. And China is actually trying to restrict the otherwise Malthusian growth of its urban Han population.
Here too, then, the problems are huge. Every year, millions of people migrate from the countryside to the city; Chóngqìng, for example, has an annual increase in its population, the size of all of Belfast’s. The city is the basic administrative unit, and it is large; towns are few; and just beyond the urban boundaries is an endless scattering of villages, all under the authority of the city. The urban folk have sanitation, pretty good housing (albeit in huge blocks of flats), multi-lane fly-overs, education and health services, and shops. Their compatriots in the villages have very few facilities: a privy, adequate if simple housing, mud tracks for roads, a school hopefully not too far away, and sometimes just one local shop selling only some of the basics (but always alcohol). The country folk, then, including those who have migrated to the cities but without the official permit, the hùkõu, do not yet enjoy the material benefits of their urban counterparts. Fifty odd years ago, of course, it was worse: the villages suffered the ravages of the world’s worst man-made famine; if such mistakes are to be avoided in the future, it is better that the country folk look after their own affairs; so they now have elections.
The cities do not. Urban folk are enjoying the perks of a modern capitalist society, albeit with those restrictions on the use of their cars (though not yet on airline tickets) but without the democracy bit; while the villagers enjoy a bit of democracy… but not much else.
Will China be able to sustain social cohesion and its current fantastic rate of economic growth with its ever-increasing disparities? Is the Chinese economy, based as it is, like its western counterparts, on debt, sustainable? Will there be enough clean energy for a society hell-bent (smog permitting) on consumerism? Will China be able to feed itself, given the constant urban expansion onto good agricultural land and an ever-increasing meat-orientated and semi-western diet? Will the water supply be adequate, given the receding glaciers of the Himalayas? And will the Party still be able to control everything, given the increasing access which so many have to the internet? The answers are probably all ‘no’.
The prospect of social collapse remains. Social stability in the face of change, then, is policy number one.
There has to be some sense of order – as in the overcrowded but highly efficient railway stations – so whatever changes do occur must happen slowly. If China were to rush into western democratic reforms – party politics, majority rule, and self-determination by majority vote – there would almost certainly be ethnic factionalism in Xinjiang, if not also in Inner Mongolia; there would certainly be division in Tibet and some of its neighbouring provinces; and there could well be party factionalism in Beijing. The risk is just too great.
A more consensual polity, however, might work. Consensus, after all, has long since been part of an Asian modus operandi and fits easily into a Confucian ethos.
Furthermore, as implied above, majoritarianism was a major part of the problem in post-Soviet Europe. Indeed on questions like immigration and Obamacare, ‘divisivism’ is also dysfunctional in the US. Majority rule in China, therefore, might not be the best.
And it would certainly not conduce to mature foreign policy, in disputes in the South China Sea, for example.
The Chinese one-party state works in mysterious ways, but it too is changing. Since the death of Máo Zédōng, rulers have been limited to ten years in office; (would that such a law had applied to the likes of Thatcher, Blair and Ahern).
If more reforms take place, the one-party state could perhaps evolve into an all-factions coalition government of national unity, not that different in essence from an all-party power-sharing arrangement, so necessary for Northern Ireland, or similar forms of inclusive government as required in Bosnia, Iraq, Kenya and Ukraine.
Perhaps Michael D Higgins tacitly reflected this in his relative quiescence about undoubted human rights abuses on his recent upbeat Chinese visit.
It is intoxicating that the new Chinese President Xí Jìnpíng claims he aims to promote “scientific and democratic decision-making”. For the moment excitement and danger in China are exquisitely
Peter Emerson is currently on a lecture tour in China/Taiwan/Hong Kong.