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Teaching ‘Western Values’ in China
By DANIEL A. BELLAPRIL 16, 2015
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BEIJING — Nobody is surprised that the Chinese government curbs “Western-style” civil and political liberties. But it may be news to some people that the government has recently called for the strengthening of Marxist ideology in universities and a ban on “teaching materials that disseminate Western values in our classrooms.” On the face of it, such regulations are absurd. It would mean banning not just the ideas of John Stuart Mill and John Rawls, but also those of such thinkers as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Pronouncements against the influence of Western values contradict what’s really happening in higher education in China. There have been recurrent campaigns against foreign interference since the 1980s, and yet the trend has been consistent: more international links with Western universities, more meritocracy and less political ideology in the selection and promotion of professors, and experimentation with different modes of liberal arts education.
Of course, the government could reverse these trends, but the nation’s leaders know full well that a modern educational system needs to learn as much as it can from abroad.
In my case, I’ve been teaching political theory at Tsinghua University — one of the country’s top universities — for more than a decade, and I continue to be pleasantly surprised by the amount of freedom in the classroom.
I routinely discuss politically sensitive topics and much of what I teach would fall in the “prohibited” category if official warnings were enforced to the letter. This term we’re reading Francis Fukuyama’s works, starting with his famous 1989 article that declared the debates about political ideology ended with the triumph of liberal democracy. Students say what’s on their minds, as they would in any Western university.
I try to present the ideas of great political theorists in the best possible light, and let students debate their merits among themselves. If it’s a class on Mill’s “On Liberty,” I’ll try to make the best possible case for the freedom of speech, and in a class on Confucius’s “Analects,” I’ll do the same for the value of harmony. I invite leading thinkers from China and the West to give guest lectures, whatever their political outlooks. The good news is that my classrooms have been almost completely free from political interference.
The one exception happened shortly after I arrived in Beijing in 2004. I wanted to teach a course on Marxism but was told it would not be advisable because my interpretation may differ from official ideology. Human rights and democracy are fine, but not Marxism. I learned to get around that constraint by teaching the material without putting the word “Marxist” in the course title.
Research is more challenging. I can publish books and articles in English without any interference. When my writings are translated into Chinese, however, the censors do their work.
An earlier book on the rise of political Confucianism was due to be published in 2008, but I was told it couldn’t go to press because of the Olympics: Nothing remotely critical about contemporary politics in China could be published when the whole world was watching the country. In 2009, the 60th anniversary of the founding of modern China made it another “sensitive” year. In early 2010, the upcoming World Expo in Shanghai provided an excuse for delay. To my surprise, my book was indeed published during a brief period of politically “not-so-sensitive” time in the autumn of 2010.
Lately, the censorship regime has intensified. This time, the main reason is President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign, which produces real enemies with a strong motivation to undermine the current leadership. Hence, even more curbs than usual on political publications, no matter how academic.
I’ve ordered books on Amazon that have been confiscated at the border. I’ve long needed a virtual private network to access The New York Times and Google Scholar, but censors have been disrupting the use of V.P.N.s. My tech-savvy students help me to get around the restrictions, but it’s a cat-and-mouse game and the cat is getting smarter. My mood varies almost directly with the ease of Internet access, and lately I’ve often been in a foul mood.
Ironically, I had a particularly hard time accessing sources for a new book that is a largely positive account of the principles underlying the Chinese political system. I had to leave the country for several months to access works on the Internet and banned books in English and Chinese necessary to make my case.
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It’s worth asking why I continue to work in an academic environment with such constraints. Half of my family is Chinese, and I have special affection for the place. It helps to have great students and colleagues. Mr. Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis put his finger on another key reason: A world where nobody argues about political ideals may be peaceful, but it’s boring. China is not boring.
Chinese-style democratic meritocracy is the only viable alternative to liberal democracy, and I have front row seats to China’s experiment. What else could a political theorist ask for?
That said, I am in favor of free speech in universities. And my views are widely shared in Chinese academia: Whatever people say in public, I haven’t met a single Chinese intellectual — socialist, liberal or Confucian — who argues in private discussion for censorship of scholarly works. Censorship only serves to alienate intellectuals.
My own students usually say that political reform should take place on the basis of the current political system, not against it. But the more they are prevented from discussing such views, the more disenchanted they will become, and that spells trouble for the long term. Openness, in my view, can only benefit the system.
I am confident that things will loosen up eventually. I confess, however, I was even more confident 10 years ago.
Daniel A. Bell is chair professor of the Schwarzman Scholars program at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His latest book is “The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy.”
The Things I Carried Back
By JOHN F. BURNSAPRIL 11, 2015
John Fischer Burns, senior New York Times correspondent, in Baghdad in 2003. CreditAshley Gilbertson for The New York Times Continue reading the main story
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CAMBRIDGE, England — THE light was fading on the hills above the Arno, and my closest friend in the careworn ranks of foreign correspondents was sitting cross-legged on a canopied Chinese daybed, in a lovely old tree-shaded house in his native village, a brisk walk from the heart of Florence.
His name was Tiziano Terzani, one of Italy’s most celebrated writers, and on that weekend, a decade ago, he was host with his wife, Angela, for the marriage of their daughter in a soaring renaissance basilica in Florence.
At 65, Tiziano was in the final weeks of a terminal cancer, and he used a languid lunch the day after the wedding to offer, from his place on the daybed, a personal farewell, along with some gentle wisdom he’d accrued in 40 years as a roaming reporter for the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel and leading Italian newspapers and as the author of a library of deeply engaging books of adventure and reflection.
“Never forget,” he told the rapt gathering of musicians, physicians, politicians, entrepreneurs, writers, diplomats and reporters. “It’s not how far you’ve traveled, it’s what you’ve brought back.”
If I have been remembering Tiziano with a special fondness in recent days, it is because I, too, have reached the 40-year milestone in my career at The New York Times, and formally retired last week, six months past my 70th birthday.
Our careers, Tiziano’s and mine, were improbably similar: We spent years shadowing each other in Soviet Russia and the China of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and chronicling the wars, assassinations and other disasters of India, Pakistan, North Korea, Afghanistan and a host of countries beyond.
We were both imprisoned in China, on charges officials there later acknowledged to have been false, and we both shared, at the same time in the 1990s, the same cancer — non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — and the same oncologist in New York.
Now the wheel has turned, and the time has come to begin meeting the challenge Tiziano issued on that Florentine afternoon, after some familiar chatter among his guests: how far each of us had traveled, the wonders and miseries we’d chronicled, and the most fascinating, or cruel, dictators and rulers through whose realms we’d passed.
It was a fine thing, Tiziano said, to have accumulated all those visas and passport stamps, all those exotic datelines, all those Saddam Hussein puppets and Little Red Books of Mao’s wisdom, all those richly seasoned tales of derring-do.
But what, please tell, had we brought back?
In my case, poking from the very top of my traveler’s backpack is something you might expect of a reporter who spent long years in what were then some of the nastiest places in the world, each of them fraudulently dressed up, in their enveloping propaganda, as something entirely different, and benign. What those years bred in me, more than anything else, was an abiding revulsion for ideology, in all its guises.
From Soviet Russia to Mao’s China, from the Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban to the repression of apartheid-era South Africa, I learned that there is no limit to the lunacy, malice and suffering that can plague any society with a ruling ideology, and no perfidy that cannot be justified by manipulating the precepts of a Mao or a Marx, a Prophet Muhammad or a Kim Il-sung.
As Tiziano surely knew, distilling some semblance of enlightenment from a lifetime’s work is not the easiest of challenges, and not only because it supposes the wit to bring order and sense out of years of jumbled, helter-skelter experience — of repression by forces of the left and right, of man’s propensity for cruelty to man, and of the countervailing strains of humanity that endure wherever the worst kinds of malevolence prevail.
There is the fear, too, of indulging in what reporters of my generation have been disciplined to avoid: abandoning the dictates of objective reporting for the hazardous ground of moral presumption, and with it the dreary vales of self-righteousness.
WHAT a reporter carries out grows, inevitably, from the beliefs and standards carried in. For me, those were set out by the Times editor who first assigned me abroad in 1976, A. M. Rosenthal, and by his successors over the years. Abe called for “keeping the paper straight.”
He issued the dictum before my first foreign assignment: apartheid South Africa, a country justly seen as an open-and-shut case of oppression. But even there the need to keep the paper straight demanded, Abe said, that we tell not only the story of the oppressed, but that of all the other major players in South Africa’s tragedy, including the Afrikaner people who built the fortress of racial prejudice that the country had become. Those stories might surprise us, he said, and give us a more textured sense of the truth.
The commitment to fairness and balance, and to shunning conventional truths when our reporting leads us in unexpected directions, has been our gold standard — and one that I, like other reporters, undoubtedly failed on occasions when my passions, and the passions of those around me, ran at their highest.
Those moments, I fear, might have to include for me the hours after American troops overran Baghdad in April 2003. At the time, I witnessed and shared the wild public rapture at Saddam Hussein’s fall, which gave way almost overnight to grim forebodings about the murderous sectarian chaos that was to ensue, and which continues, with a redoubled vengeance, in Tikrit, Mosul, Ramadi and dozens of other Iraqi cities and towns where the Islamic State has held sway.
My impatience with ideology has carried over in recent years to my encounters with the societies in the West that are my home: to the widespread propensity, as I have sensed it, for people who lack the excuse of brutal duress that is a constant in the totalitarian world to fall sway to the formulaic “isms” of left and right, each of them full of Yeats’s “passionate intensity,” that excuse, and indeed smother, free thinking.
The bankruptcy of the approach that divides the world into camps of left and right was a lesson learned early. An assignment to China in the early 1970s exposed me to the murderous doctrines of Mao Zedong “Thought,” with victims that numbered in the millions; and a posting to Moscow in the early 1980s, 30 years after Stalin’s death, was redolent of the miseries that a perverted form of Marxism-Leninism imposed on Soviet Russia, with its own ghastly toll in the millions.
My five years in South Africa carried their own lessons. The more I saw of the ugliness of apartheid, the more evident it became that the apparatus of right-wing repression — the twisted ideology, the pervasive role of the secret police, the dehumanization of an entire population — was little different from left-wing dictatorships, save in the sheer number of victims.
If ideology was the scourge of the 20th century, so it has continued to be in many of the worst places of the 21st. Perhaps the most murderous of all states in our time is the North Korea of the Kim family, with millions dead from hunger and the deprivations of vast, hidden prison camps. And the beheadings, mass shootings and burnings-alive committed by the Islamic State have their origins in yet another kind of corrupted, extremist thought.
In all of these places, my experience has been that when it suits the ends of power, ideology can be invoked to prove that 2+2 = 5, or 3, or any other number that suits the state, and to demand that all embrace the madness. It is a truly frightening thing to interview a top-ranked nuclear scientist, or a distinguished brain surgeon, or a concert pianist, as I did in China under the sway of Mao, and to hear them, as ideological outcasts, justify with utter conviction the brutalities inflicted on them by their ideology-crazed persecutors — crushed fingers, smashed heads, broken marriages, vilification by their own families.
Elsewhere, the lunacy was of an order that invited a response of laughing mockery, if that were not potentially fatal to the system’s loyalists, or those pretending to be so. In North Korea, while Kim Il-sung was still alive, there was a brand new, high-tech hospital built in his name in Pyongyang, floor after floor laden with tens of millions of dollars in the latest American, Swiss and German equipment, but no patients to be seen. And why not? “As we have explained,” the most senior comrade-physician responded, “the Korean people’s great leader Comrade Kim Il-sung has taken such care for the health of his beloved people that none of his people gets sick.”
Not ever? “No, never,” was the reply.
My catalog of such moments in the grim dictatorships of the world could fill a book, or three. But coming home to the countries of the West, where nobody dies for a moment’s lapse in fealty to a prime minister or a president, it can be depressing beyond words to hear the loyalists of a given political creed — whether of the left or the right — adopt the unyielding certainties common in totalitarian states. Our rights to think and speak freely have been won at great cost, and we abuse them at our peril.
John F. Burns is a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent whose postings over four decades included Bosnia, Afghanistan, Russia, China, Iraq and South Africa.
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Taking Feminist Battle to China’s Streets, and Landing in Jail
By ANDREW JACOBSAPRIL 5, 2015
Wei Tingting, right, outside a court in Beijing where the first case in China involving so-called conversion therapy was being held in July. Ms. Wei is one of five women’s rights activists sitting in jail, accused of provoking social instability. CreditNg Han Guan/Associated PressContinue reading the main story
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BEIJING — The young Chinese feminists shaved their heads to protest inequality in higher education and stormed men’s restrooms to highlight the indignities women face in their prolonged waits at public toilets.
To publicize domestic violence, two prominent activists, Li Tingting and Wei Tingting, put on white wedding gowns, splashed them with red paint and marched through one of the capital’s most popular tourist districts chanting, “Yes to love, no to violence.”
Media-savvy, fearless and well-connected to feminists outside China, the young activists over the last three years have taken their righteous indignation to the streets, pioneering a brand of guerrilla theater familiar in the West but largely unheard-of in this authoritarian nation.
Now five of them — core members of China’s new feminist movement — sit in jail, accused of provoking social instability. One of the women, Wu Rongrong, 30, an AIDS activist, is said to be ailing after the police withheld the medication she takes for hepatitis. Another, Wang Man, 33, a gender researcher, was said to have had a mild heart attack while in custody.
The detentions took place early last month on the eve of International Women’s Day as the women planned a public awareness campaign about sexual harassment on public transportation.
Now, as security agents from Beijing fan out across the country hunting down the volunteers who took part in the women’s theatrical protests, many young feminists have gone into hiding. “We’re so afraid and confused,” said one of them, Xiao Meili, 26, who recently completed a 1,200-mile trek across China to draw attention to sexual violence. “We don’t understand what we did wrong to warrant such a ferocious backlash.”
Despite government efforts to keep reporting of the crackdown out of the domestic news media, the jailing of the five women has not gone unnoticed here. Word has spread across college campuses, and more than 1,100 people took the risky step last week of adding their names to a petitiondemanding the women’s release.
Outside China, campaigners have used Facebook and Twitter to publicize the detainees’ plight, and Western governments have been issuing statements to protest their incarceration.
“If China is committed to advancing the rights of women, then it should be working to address the issues raised by these women’s rights activists — not silencing them,” said Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the United Nations.
From Morocco to India to New York, supporters have been posting images of themselves wearing masks that bear the photos of the jailed women. Because two of the detainees are lesbian and another is bisexual, overseas gay rights organizations like All Out have jumped into the fray, collecting more than 85,000 signatures and popularizing the hashtag #freethefive on Twitter.
As international attention to the women’s case mounts, some rights advocates see echoes of the public relations maelstrom surrounding the female Russian dissident group, Pussy Riot, whose members were arrested in 2012 for their protests against President Vladimir V. Putin.
Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, said the five jailed feminists have drawn far more international attention than the scores of Chinese activists who have been detained during the previous two years of an intensified government drive against political dissent.
“Many people find it mind-boggling that the government of the second-largest economy and the world’s largest standing army is afraid of a group of women trying to draw attention to sexual harassment,” she said. “The combination of power and paranoia on display is very telling.”
Analysts say the effort to quash China’s nascent feminist movement represents a dismal milestone in the Communist Party’s war on grass-roots activism, a campaign that has gained momentum since President Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012. Unlike the government critics and political reform advocates jailed in earlier sweeps, the five detained women confined their activities to matters like domestic violence and discrimination against people with H.I.V. — issues that the government claims to have also embraced.
But rights advocates say security officials were evidently alarmed by the women’s skillful use of social media to organize volunteers, their links to foreign organizations, and the inventive protests and flash mobs that often drew favorable coverage in the Chinese media.
In contrast to the state-affiliated feminists and academics who have long dominated China’s gender-equality landscape, experts say the young mavericks prompted a seismic shift in women’s activism that yielded measurable results, including a landmark bill on domestic violence that is being considered by the national legislature.
A women’s rights group led by Li Tingting occupied restrooms in several Chinese cities in 2012 calling for more women’s toilets. CreditShiho Fukada for The New York Times
“They have been very successful in using performance to provoke social dialogue on gender issues,” said Zeng Jinyan, a blogger who studies Chinese feminist activism. “I think we can call them the first modern, independent, feminist, grass-roots actors in Chinese history.”
Soon after coming to power in 1949, Mao Zedong outlawed forced marriages, prostitution and foot binding, and he introduced a groundbreaking marriage law that gave women the right to file for divorce. Women were considered equal to men, but only as a collective force for economic production, Ms. Zeng said. But in recent decades, as market economics took hold in China, unapologetic male chauvinism re-emerged, and with it, traditional notions of a woman’s role in the family. Women’s incomes have been falling compared with those of their male counterparts in recent years; just over 2 percent of Chinese women hold managerial positions; and all but two of the 25 Politburo members are men.
Many of the young activists, born in the 1980s and the coddled and well-educated offspring of China’s one-child policy, discovered in college that the Communist Party dictums on gender equality had become little more than window dressing.
Raised in China’s rural south, Wei Tingting, 26, is typical of the new brand of socially conscious women who have challenged the status quo. Soon after gaining a spot at the prestigious Wuhan University, Ms. Wei was drawn to feminist provocateurs in the West; during her sophomore year, she staged a production of “The Vagina Monologues,” drawing the ire of some male students, according to friends.
In 2012, as she, Li Tingting and another woman prepared for a Valentine’s Day protest against domestic violence in Beijing, she described the childhood trauma of watching men pummel their wives in public — including her own father. “People thought that women deserved beating,” she said, according to a video made at the time. “The worst thing is people tolerate it and accept it as a natural part of life, but no one believes beating a man is O.K.”
As a project manager at the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, Ms. Wei helped stage an annual AIDS Walk on the Great Wall, attended women’s conferences in India and South Korea, and started collecting footage for a documentary about bisexuality in China.
“She has so much passion and energy. You can find her at every event, whether it be about H.I.V., gender issues or bisexuality,” said Fan Popo, a filmmaker who made a movie about the staging of “The Vagina Monologues” and subsequently became Ms. Wei’s roommate after she moved to Beijing. “I would always joke that she has more film projects than me.”
In early March, Ms. Wei and the other detained women were preparing to stand outside subway stations and distribute stickers and leaflets to highlight the scourge of men who grope women on crowded trains and buses. But beginning on March 6, the police moved in, detaining nearly a dozen people in several cities. After a few days, all but Ms. Wei and the four others were released.
Lawyers for the women say the police have repeatedly flouted Chinese law. In addition to denying the women medication, the authorities failed to notify their families about the detentions, and in one instance, the police sat in on a meeting between Ms. Wei and her lawyer, Wang Qiushi.
“The interrogations have been exhausting,” Mr. Wang said by phone. “The police keep asking her the same questions over and over again and are pressuring her to sign a confession, which she refuses to do because she has not broken any law.”
The charge of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” carries a maximum five-year sentence in China, although it can be extended to 10 years if a defendant is convicted of organizing multiple public disturbances.
Officials at the Haidian District detention center where most of the women are being held declined to comment.
In the meantime, friends, relatives and fellow feminists are reeling. If the women are not released this week, it is likely they will be tried and convicted.
Mr. Fan, Ms. Wei’s roommate, said none of the women ever imagined they could be jailed for their work. He said that Ms. Wei had been doing laundry on the day she was summoned by the police and had left a load of clothing in the washing machine. “Clearly she thought she would be returning home in a few hours,” he said.
[C-POL] 150331 (Matthews Asia/Rothman) The Coming Chinese Crackup? (in response to Shambaugh’s WSJ op-ed)
Andy Rothman, a U.S. diplomat focused on China through the 1990s, worked after 2000 as a China macroeconomic analyst/investment analyst for CLSA and now Matthews Asia. The following piece, published at the Matthews Asia site, is his response to David Shambaugh. Don K
The Coming Chinese Crackup?
March 31, 2015
As head of the China Policy Program at The George Washington University, Shambaugh is a respected analyst of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) affairs, so his WSJ op-ed, “The Coming Chinese Crackup,” has received much attention. This op-ed is also a big departure from Shambaugh’s earlier view of China’s prospects.
In his 2008 book, “China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation,” Shambaugh was fairly sanguine about the country’s prospects:
“The central conclusion of this study, however, is that the CCP is adapting fairly (but not entirely) effectively to meet many of these challenges, has learned the negative lessons of other failed communist party-states, and is proactively attempting to reform and rebuild itself institutionally—thereby sustaining its political legitimacy and power. Whether the CCP can continue to make the necessary reforms is, of course, an open question. So far, so good—but this is no guarantee of continued success.”
In the WSJ commentary, Shambaugh wrote “times change in China, and so must our analyses. . . We cannot predict when Chinese communism will collapse, but it is hard not to conclude that we are witnessing its final phase.”
Continued Strong Economic Growth
But Shambaugh’s argument is flawed, especially when he looks at the health of the Chinese economy, which he describes as “stuck in a series of systemic traps from which there is no easy exit.” He doesn’t elaborate, but it’s important to note that real (inflation-adjusted) income rose about 8% last year (compared to about 2% in the U.S.), while wages for migrant workers, who move from China’s countryside to staff the nation’s urban factories and construction sites, rose by almost 10%. As a result, consumer spending remained very healthy, with real retail sales up almost 11% (vs. 2% in the U.S.).
China’s GDP growth has been slowing. But because the base on which last year’s 7.4% calculation was made was more than 300% bigger than the base from a decade ago (when growth was 10.1%), the incremental increase in the size of China’s GDP last year was 100% bigger than the increase at the faster speed 10 years ago.
Shambaugh notes that economic reforms proposed by Party Chief Xi Jinping “are sputtering on the launchpad.” And he adds, “Yes, consumer spending has been rising, red tape has been reduced, and some fiscal reforms have been introduced, but overall, Mr. Xi’s ambitious goals have been stillborn.” By my reckoning, however, there appears to be more of the steady, gradual structural change that impressed Shambaugh in the past.
China continued to rebalance and restructure its economy last year. Consumption contributed more to GDP growth than did investment, as was the case in 2011 and 2012. The tertiary sector (services, retail and wholesale trade in addition to finance and real estate) was larger than the secondary sector (manufacturing and construction), as was the case in 2013.
The most important “rebalancing” is the shift toward an economy that is driven by private sector entrepreneurs, and away from the model of an economy led by state-owned enterprises. Last year, state firms accounted for 32% of total fixed asset investment, down from a 58% share in 2004. Investment by private companies has grown faster than that by state firms in 59 of the past 60 months, which should lead to far better investment decisions.
I expect this reform process to continue, in part because China’s leaders have no choice. They must continue to improve the operating environment for private firms, which account for about 80% of all urban employment and almost all new job creation. I have modest expectations, however, for further progress on the reform of state firms, as the government remains concerned about job losses.
Elite Fleeing, or Trying to Get Their Children into UC Berkeley?
Additional evidence cited by Shambaugh in support of his view is that “China’s economic elites have one foot out the door, and they are ready to flee en masse if the system really begins to crumble.” He references a Hurun Report survey that found that 64% of 393 “millionaires” polled said they were either leaving China or planned to do so. But is this evidence of an impending crisis in China?
According to the Hurun Report, those rich Chinese said, “education is their main reason for considering migrating. Fees are one factor: in many countries, tuition fees for foreign and domestic students are different; thus over a number of years, the cost of emigration evens itself out. Another factor is the rapid fall in the average age at which children go abroad to study: many parents have realized that if children leave home too early, this can have a negative impact on their development. Therefore they want the whole family, or at least the mother, to accompany their children when they go abroad.”
While this reflects significant problems with China’s education system, it does not signal that the political system is crumbling. Moreover, while I don’t have hard data, my anecdotal experience is that rich Chinese who establish a second home in the U.S. to facilitate their kids’ education have not abandoned China; they have continued to run their businesses in China while pursuing their dream of their children graduating from a prestigious American university.
And, according to the data, many of those Chinese students will eventually return home, in large part because of the job opportunities in China. In 2013, 414,000 Chinese students went abroad to study, while 354,000 returned to China. The Ministry of Education estimates that since 1978, about three-quarters of Chinese students and scholars who went abroad returned to China.
Political Repression and Corruption are Real Problems . . .
Greater political repression by President Xi Jinping is another reason Shambaugh cites for his new pessimism, noting that “a more secure and confident government would not institute such a severe crackdown.” I agree that during his first two years as Party chief, Xi has further reduced the already very limited space for even modest political dissent, and it probably does reflect “deep anxiety and insecurity,” as Shambaugh notes. This is very troubling and, over time, must be improved, but is this a sign that China is closer to a “breaking point?”
. . . But Chinese are Fairly Content with Their Lives
Shambaugh accurately cites corruption as a major problem, which he says not only “riddles the party-state and the military” but “also pervades Chinese society as a whole.” Data from interviews of more than 3,000 Chinese in 2014 by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center, however, found people pretty content, despite strong concerns about corruption. Fifty-nine percent of respondents described themselves as highly satisfied with their lives, compared to an emerging markets median of 50%, and 65% in the U.S., 47% in South Korea and 43% in Japan. Sixty-four percent of high-income Chinese said they are happy (72% in the U.S.), while 50% of low-income Chinese agreed (56% in the U.S.).
More interesting, especially in the context of Shambaugh’s recent pessimism, the share of Chinese reporting that they are highly satisfied with their lives has risen from 23% in a 2002 Pew survey to 33% in 2007, and 59% last year. And 68% of Chinese told Pew that they are optimistic that their standards of living will improve in the coming five years.
Rule of Law is a Significant Long-term Challenge
Shambaugh accurately calls out the absence of the rule of law as a serious shortcoming. Again, the questions we should ask are, how likely is this to trigger regime collapse, and what are the prospects for change?
In a November 2014 issue of Sinology titled “A Missed Opportunity,” I explained that:
I am optimistic about China’s medium-term economic prospects, within the context of expecting gradually slower year-on-year growth rates. This optimism is based in large part on the continuing evolution of government policy designed to embrace private enterprise and markets. My biggest concern, however, is that there has been little parallel evolution in China’s governance and institutions.
China’s economy and society are increasingly based on property rights: private companies employ 80% of the workforce, create almost all new jobs and are responsible for most investment and industrial sales; entrepreneurs and artists are creating new intellectual property daily; 85% of urban families own their home; and farmers have land-use rights. Yet the country lacks the rule of law, which is needed to effectively protect these property rights and ensure a fair, rules-based commercial environment.
This is already the source of many of problems. Corruption, weakness in industries dependent on intellectual property rights and the widespread theft of land from farmers—the main cause of protests across the country—are all consequences of the lack of rule of law.
My conclusion was that:
In the near term, China can continue to thrive, as people find ways to navigate corruption and the opaque system, and as the Party works to reduce interference in the legal system by local officials. But as the pace of economic growth inevitably slows over the coming decades, China’s unique form of authoritarian capitalism is unlikely to provide the necessary institutional support for a modern, market-based society.
There are, at this moment, no signs that the Party is preparing to establish the rule of law. The Party appears to want to continue to use the legal system to exercise its political control over the population, rather than to move toward a system that is designed primarily to protect the rights of individuals by limiting the government’s power.
We do need to acknowledge, however, that back in the mid-1980s, when I first worked in China, it was not apparent that the Party was prepared to significantly relax its control over people’s daily lives. But, a decade later, the Party stopped telling its citizens where to live and what to farm. In the mid-1990s, we did not expect the Party to dramatically shrink the state sector and pave the way for private firms to become the engine of growth. Private home ownership was not on the horizon. Today, most urban Chinese work for private companies and own their homes.
During the past two decades, the Party has surprised in many ways. It has taken a path that is unique among authoritarian regimes: relaxing day-to-day control over people’s lives and commercial activities while strengthening the Party’s control over the political and legal systems. This is a key reason why the Chinese Communist Party has outlived other authoritarian regimes. Constant, pragmatic reform of economic policy is also why GDP growth averaged 10% for two decades before cooling to an average of 8% over the last four years.
Establishing the rule of law would require the Party to take another unique and dramatic step: to cede to its citizens some of the Party’s control over the political and legal systems. Failure to take this step is not a short-term risk for investors, but I believe it will be key to China’s economic prospects over the next 10 to 20 years.
In his 2008 book, Shambaugh wrote that as China becomes richer, one of the principal lessons it should learn from the USSR and Eastern Europe is that “the task of government increasingly is to provide a range of core public goods—health care, safety, education, environmental protection, social welfare, and so on—to the population.” Party leaders appear to understand this, and while public services remain very weak relative to the developed world, Beijing has directed serious money into those tasks. Over the last five years, for example, government spending on health care and education rose by more than 100%. An even faster pace of investment in hard infrastructure such as power, roads and subways is well documented.
I’m Sticking with the 2008 Version
Back in 2008, Shambaugh wrote: “One-party states can indeed remain in power for long periods of time, and they possess a variety of tools and tactics to do so. The ‘end of history’ is not inevitable.” However, in his more recent op-ed, he changed tack with: “We cannot predict when Chinese communism will collapse, but it is hard not to conclude that we are witnessing its final phase. The CCP is the world’s second-longest ruling regime (behind only North Korea), and no party can rule forever.” For me, his original arguments remain more aligned with the continued progress I see underway in China.
I sincrely hope that the days of Mao style personalty cult is over forever!
Xi Jinping’s Sayings Now Available in ‘Little Red App’
By AUSTIN RAMZY APRIL 3, 2015 2:48 AM April 3, 2015 2:48 am 2 Comments
President Xi Jinping of China is the model of a modern multimedia leader. He has appeared in cartoons, been praised in song, had his travels tracked by a very dedicated Weibo account, and had his book on governance translated into at least nine languages.
So an app was obviously next.
Created by a website run by the Central Party School of the Communist Party, the new, free app offers intensive lessons on Mr. Xi. It has 12 features including texts of his speeches and books, news reports, analyses from experts and a map that traces his travels.
“Everyone who uses this app can find their own interests,” Chen Jiancai, an editor with the app, told The Beijing News.
Anyone expecting Fruit Ninja-style fun, like a game where players blast corrupt officials, for instance, will be disappointed. The app is dutifully serious, combining the excitement of watching state television news with the pleasures of reading commentaries on deepening reform.
The app is called 学习中国 (Xuexi Zhongguo), which translates directly as “Study China,” but it is also a play on Mr. Xi’s surname, and can mean “Study Xi’s China.”
Some have already dubbed it the “Little Red App,” a reference to the Little Red Book of Chairman Mao’s sayings. While the enthusiasm for Mr. Xi is a far cry from Mao’s cult of personality, the app is another reflection of how the Communist Party is promoting China’s leader with an intensity that hasn’t been seen in decades.