Tuesday, September 10, 2013

China averted a Soviet-like collapse. Will that prove a passing gimmick?

Democracy has gone so berserk in India that there are serious people who think a dose of dictatorship would be good for the country. In such a situation it may be difficult for us to grasp how things are in China where the economy has opened up but politics has remained closed. Which is like opening the windows of a house and asking folks at home not to look outside. The news is that a whole lot of people are looking outside and raising demands for a whole lot of things, and that the Government is resorting to unprecedented ways to keep its power intact.

The Chinese are a very nationalistic people. Even those who fled from Mao Tsedong's dictatorial excesses were proud of the way he had consolidated China. That pride increased when Deng Hsiaoping's disciples developed China into a global power. Such national pride may prevent public anger from exploding into the kind of violent uprising that wrecked Libya and Egypt and Syria where whimsical dictators left no alternative to the populace.

In China the authorities at least appease the people by frequently imprisoning and sometimes executing high-ranking officials involved in corruption. Besides, corruption does not co-exist with dynasty building; the "princelings" who rise in China's power structure are princelings, not automatically accepted "crown princes". Nevertheless, popular disaffection has been growing in China because the pursuit of market economy is incompatible with the suppression of individual aspirations. More importantly, a culture so alive with art, philosophy and literature demands independence in thought and action.

The yearning for freedoms spread with the internet despite the Government's attempt to restrict social media. The nature and extent of dissent can be gleaned from a recent incident that would be unthinkable even in India. Early this year in south China's premier city of Guangchou, the Southern Weekend newspaper wrote an editorial arguing that the Government and the party should be subject to a supreme constitution that would protect citizens' rights and prevent abuses. A government information officer re-wrote the editorial reversing the argument. Then, incredibly, the paper's editorial staff protested. Even more incredibly, the public rose in support of the staff with street demonstrations.

In crisis situations, the Government always prevails. This time, however, the authorities were so shaken that they launched a propaganda campaign among party cadres across the country. The burden of the campaign is that "seven subversive ideas" are threatening Chinese society and that if these are not eradicated, the country would be in peril. Among these subversive ideas are Constitutionalism, Civil Society, Universal Human Rights, Media Freedom and Neo-Liberalism. "Document No. 9" distributed to party cadres describes these as "Western ideas" the promotion of which "is an attempt to negate the party's leadership".

There is irony in the fact that China's new leader Xi Jinping was initially presented to the world as a modernist with progressive ideas whose immediate family was exposed to Western thought. In the present campaign against Western ideas, he is identified as one of the leaders pressing for suppression of dissenters. China, for all the economic and military strength it has acquired, must be worried by the possibility of an economic slowdown, the public anger against corruption and the popularity of liberals demanding political change. The leadership must be particularly worried about the journalists' protest in Guangchou and by an ongoing people's campaign demanding that officials disclose their assets. President Xi, who had promised to end corruption and bring transparency into Government, now finds himself in a quandary.

Significantly Chinese commentators have recalled how ideas like Constitutionalism had helped topple the Soviet Union. China's communist leadership must be afraid that the fate that overtook the mighty Soviet Union could one day overtake it, too. Deng Hsiaoping's great achievement was that he averted such a collapse. But he did so by resorting to a gimmick which he called "socialism with Chinese characteristics". In fact it was capitalism with the Chinese characteristic of one-party political control -- a mixture of ideas that could not possibly mix. Will Deng's gimmick, like all gimmicks in history, pass?