the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
2004 September 19: Time to saddle up the old horse
It is stunning, to me, how quickly the media reports and their “experts” have been to anoint (or re-anoint) Hu Jintao as China’s new ‘paramount leader’ after Jiang Zemin stepped down as chair of the Central Military Commission of the party and Hu took his place. As far as I can tell, the reasoning here is the same that described the previous transfer of offices to Hu as an actual transfer of power. I am perfectly willing to concede that Jiang now has less power and Hu more, but that does not mean an actual change in supremacy. The analysts keep forgetting to mention: Deng Xiaoping surrendered the chair of the CMC to Jiang in 1989, after Jiang had already taken over as general secretary from the ousted Zhao Ziyang. But no one actually believes that Deng did not maintain control after leaving that last official post. Deng ran the country, he had the last word, regardless of what his title was. And the title ‘paramount leader’ existed to acknowledge the reality of China’s political situation: that a person with no official title could still be the ruler de facto, as Deng clearly was.
So let me point out again that more than half of the Politburo Standing Committee is made up of Jiang loyalists, and at the center of it is state Vice President Zeng Qinghong, Jiang’s most trusted lieutenant. Even recent attempts by Hu to alter policy even slightly have been reversed, in favor of the status quo ante ― which means in favor of Jiang’s policies. The failure of Zeng to be elevated to the vice chair of the CMC is perhaps the only telling indicator in this whole barrage of reports. (It might also be informative to know by whom and with what vigor Jiang was begged to reconsider his decision to resign; but of course he may really have decided to resign, and we would never know whether the resignation or the begging was actually for show.) It may well be that Hu is making progress in a power struggle within the party, but his faction, if he has one, can hardly be galvanized by what they suppose Hu will do if he ever gets full power, which he certainly does not have now. Speculations that Hu and Wen Jiabao are secret reformers, or even that Zeng is, are empty without any practical results; and of course, the speculation if true must underline the reality that someone else wields power if these secret reformers are not yet engaging in any serious reform. China has now a tradition of cloistered rule (to borrow from Japanese history), and until someone actually diverges from Jiang Zemin thought (such as it is), or Jiang actually dies, I will have to suppose that there has been no change in power. In fact, I continue to believe that this is obvious.
I do not believe that rule in China (or elsewhere) is simple, or that even in Mao’s day a single person made all the decisions, or could. And Jiang is no Deng Xiaoping, let alone Mao Zedong. But as long as Jiang’s policies remain in place and his interests remain protected, then he is still the person with greatest influence. And if his policies remain in place because no one wants to do anything different, then it hardly matters who is in charge.
1998 May 31
With a record turnout (for Hong Kong, anyway, which meant 53% of the electorate), the voters of Hong Kong have demonstrated that they care about political liberalization, not simply economic prosperity. Democratic parties have reportedly won three-fifths of the popular vote, and will hold nineteen of twenty contested seats in the new assembly. Normally this would be an undemocratic overrepresentation. In this case, when the twenty elected seats are opposed to forty seats appointed by various means, the democrats will be substantially underempowered. They will be a minority in a body that has very limited powers, and the will of the electorate in Hong Kong will be heard, not felt.
Nonetheless, it will be heard. Martin Lee, Emily Lau, and their confederates have made clear that they are not going quietly into this silent Beijing oppression. If the spirit of these pioneers is as indomitable as it feels to me, they will someday be remembered fondly by all of China, and thus by all of Earth. Hong Kong will be a factory of dissent. In a country where dissidents are routinely imprisoned, a delegate from Hong Kong to the central assembly in Beijing has recently stated, unambiguously, that he and his fellow democrat delegates will be a mission for democracy to the rest of China. He had no doubt that they would eventually succeed. Listening to him, it was hard to be cynical. There is an energy in Hong Kong which suggests that they might in fact succeed.
China is one of the greatest civilizations the world has produced. It has historically been among the most forward, and its people have proven themselves to be enormous assets to the development of the whole. Those assets are being withheld from us at present. China lags sadly behind in its political development. It will be a momentous day for the world when a free, open, just China takes its place among the cultures that are carrying us forward. It may be that the democrats of Hong Kong can unleash the force of China for the good. If they can, we will all be indebted.
1998 June 28
George Bush not only did not care about human rights, he did not have any political reason to. Bill Clinton has a significant constituency devoted to the issue, so in that sense he is better to be entrusted with such advocacy than Bush. But on a personal level, he is proving just as unreliable. Whether he is worried about Al Gore’s fundraising ability, or his own “statesman”ship legacy, his behavior has been everything in office that he (rightly) condemned while campaigning.
Assisting the economic development of China may further its political liberalization (though such claims are credible only from dissidents, not from entrepreneurs salivating to do business in the market). Such engagement may be positive. But keeping on the good side of the tyrants has none of its promised benefits. Has it brought about serious political amnesty? Indeed, has it prevented the roundup of dissidents at crucial times (like now)? Has it kept China from giving nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan? Has it bought effective cooperation in preventing Pakistani tests?
The protests about his visiting Tiananmen Square during his trip to China are ill informed. The undesirable symbolism is not in going to the site of the massacre (which had after all a long history prior to 1989), but in having cordial relations with its defenders, and worse, its perpetrators. Be assured that the smiling faces who were warmly greeted by Bill Clinton would mow down prodemocracy demonstrators again, if they were convinced they could get away with it, as Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng did.
But at last, Bill Clinton did a favor to the people of China rather than its rulers, or his own capitalist financial supporters. He spoke, on two occasions, unambiguously against the bogus argument of cultural relativism being (as always) forwarded by tyrants to justify their repression. Human rights are universal, and the rights of the individual are the only path to the rights of the collective. Though his speech was at times absolutionist (ignoring irresponsible attitudes within his own generation on world problems, and within the US electorate on ecological problems) and at times just silly (complaining about drugs and smuggling), for the most part he presented the case for an open and democratic society in precisely the form which would do the most damage to the tyrannical standpoint of Jiang Zemin and company. He was the voice of open society itself, showing tolerance for diversity of opinion even when it went against him, and providing a demonstration to China that such leaders can be had. He spoke of principle eloquently, and then practiced it. For that moment at least, any individual in the world could watch and remark that here was an exemplary figure of power, a model of behavior among those who rule. China no doubt has many persons who could do better than Clinton easily. Its citizens have only to ask themselves why they should not have such persons in positions of power. China deserves a free and open society. This demonstration will, I am convinced, contribute to the development of a free and open society.
1998 July 5
Bill Clinton wrapped up his visit to China by finally meeting with democrats. He did so in Hong Kong, where his chief contact was of course Martin Lee, for several years the most prominent activist for democracy in Hong Kong, and now in all of China. Hong Kong is a liberal democratic enclave within the capitalist enclave of Guangdong, which is the third most important metropolis of China, behind Beijing and Shanghai. Shanghai has long played New York to Beijing’s Washington, but there is no good analogue to Hong Kong, not anywhere in the world. China has for a year failed to crack down on the liberal society in Hong Kong, and Lee and others have continued to speak out forcefully for its expansion to the rest of the rest of the state. The oligarchy in Beijing viewed Hong Kong as a tasty morsel, bringing many pleasant health benefits. I think ultimately it may not agree with their constitution.
Clinton is becoming the world’s leading spokesperson for the right of entrenched states against self-determined secession. This is policy for virtually all states in the world, regardless of party in power, as a matter of self-interest. It has long been policy in the US. But Clinton has now repeated the formula prominently twice in two weeks. We do not expect the successor of Lincoln to tolerate the departure of state territories, democratically or not. But as he plays rejectionist to Kosova and now Taiwan, seemingly going out of his way to assert U.S. objections to geolegal sovereignty for either of these entities, he is flashing the all-clear sign to Beijing and Belgrade to proceed as they see fit. Taiwan is already sovereign, whatever the UN might say about it. Parts of Kosova now have that status as well, owing to a surprisingly successful military and political campaign by the KLA. These areas are nationally, historically, and lingustically distinct from the states that claim them. Taiwan is becoming a native democracy, no longer the refuge of the Kuomintang. Why should it submit to Beijing authority, regardless of what power controls it? Its only moral obligation is to the standard of justice, not to the Han nation. If Taiwan meets the standard, its government is legitimate. If not, then not. The moral issue is that simple. If Bill Clinton cannot articulate so just a proposition, let him at least not lend comfort to the imperial ambitions of the Han government.
1998 July 26
The sheen of glasnost accompanying Bill Clinton’s state visit is now almost wholly dispelled. The organizers of democratic opposition continue to suffer persecution and prosecution. It is supposed that the real reason behind the trial and sentencing of Fang Yiping was his participation in such organization. But the supposed crime that China chose to “legitimize” its arrest and imprisonment of Fang is sufficiently revealing of bad intent. Fang was convicted of helping a dissident (Wang Xizhe) escape the country. Was Wang a criminal who deserved to be punished? Or was he a troubling voice which China wanted to keep within its control? Perhaps China should build a new Great Wall, patterned after the Berlin Wall, where those who wished to opt out of the dictatorial state would be shot summarily. But that would place the barbarian hordes on the wrong side.
1998 August 2
The flooding in China has been a disaster in humanitarian and economic terms, clearly. But its greatest long-term effect may be ecological. Any hopes for the pressure mounting on China to halt the Three Gorges Dam project have been dashed like so many villagers against submerged rocks. The central government wanted flood control on the Yangtze River. All of its justifications will now be confirmed.
The economic failures of the eastern bloc, including the appalling famines, are conventionally blamed on central planning and communist theories, but the real culprit was not central planning per se, but the preference of the governments in charge of that planning for first-world industrialization, at too rapid a pace and too high a cost, in total ignorance of and with devastating consequences to the pre-existing agricultural economy. Stalin and Mao were megalomaniacs who augmented their personality cults with military and industrial strength which they extracted from the subjected populace with no concern for life. The deaths they caused are rightly the focus of concern.
But we should not forget that this crash modernization took (and takes) a great toll on the natural world as well. The Three Gorges project is more of the same ― an extension of the areas in which human civilization will not admit competitors, in which nature is an intrusive enemy to be fought and conquered so that humans can live a convenient, care-free life. China is headed down the wrong road with this. On the other hand, it cannot be expected to learn from the mistakes of those who do not admit to mistakes. The economic development schemes employed in the west for so long are still largely supported by the popular will. Westerners enjoying their standard of living have shown too little interest in the ecological consequences of development for any expectation of a change before we reach the abyss. As the economies of the developing world gather speed, they may overtake the western economies only soon enough to precede them over the precipice. If so, it is a warning the west will surely ignore.
1998 August 2
The former administrator of Beijing, Chen Xitong, has been sentenced to sixteen years in prison for corruption and dereliction. Ordinary citizens of the city gave voice to their long-held hatred of Chen, many calling for his execution. The party congratulated itself for cleaning up government and removing an authority who abused his power to the point of becoming an enemy of the people. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
1998 October 11
Following on the visit by UN Human Rights chief Mary Robinson, China has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It was a cynical act, of course. Pro-democracy activist Xu Wenli was briefly detained during the visit of Tony Blair. A treaty signed a year ago, on economic and cultural rights, has still not emerged from what passes for a legal system in China. And even if ratified, no one believes that the current régime would actually enforce it; even the western democracies don’t enforce these treaties exactly as written. But this commitment will perhaps be of some use constraining a future régime. The democratic-transitional governments that have emerged in the last decade have often bound themselves, by agreement with the departing dictatorship or from misguided legalistic pressure from outside powers, to the legal system established by those departing dictatorships (which, naturally, the dictators never truly were bound to themselves). This is one instance where that may be a good thing.
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