China: the way it has always been
Whether the West likes it or not, and whether the Chinese people like it or not, the reality is that China is a one-party state that we (and they) must live with for the foreseeable future.
So let’s separate politics from government for a moment, and take a look at China through the lens of this reality.
First, it is theoretically easier for any one-party state to manage a nation. With 20 per cent of the world's population, the advantage of this type of government for China is that it can get things done. Quickly.
For example: when a leader says "jump", we presume that everybody else will respond with "how high?", and "when can I come down?"
Although China’s leadership group has its own consultative bodies and think-tanks, it can exercise raw power without having to justify decisions or be accountable for them. It doesn't suffer the inconveniences of a nosy media, opposition parties, or elections every three or four years. It's a top-down hierarchical process where communication is downwards, upward communication is unwelcome, and the most common response to an instruction from the top is "Yes".
You will never hear a "Why?"
Second, China has a good leadership-selection process. It begins with training in party-controlled “law and politics” universities, then progresses upwards via ever more complex responsibilities: from the management of smaller counties in rural areas, to mid-level cities and provinces, and ultimately to the power-bases of economically important cities such as Shanghai, or politically sensitive postings on China's borders.
Play your political cards right, and the ultimate prize of Beijing is within reach. The Beijing leadership identifies exceptional talent via this process, and fosters and rewards it. This is how Hu Jin Tau made it to the top: via the poorer provinces and that culturally and politically “troublesome” province on the roof of the world.
A “Dubya” Bush would never get past mid-level management responsibility in China. Neither would a Lincoln, a Roosevelt, or an Obama rise to the top through the force of their personalities or ideas (a pity).
Everything is controlled in China. There are no wild-cards in the Middle Kingdom. Mavericks and “Type A” personalities are regarded as social misfits at best, and a danger to collective society at worst.
This is the way it has always been. Leadership succession is planned for. The alternative is violent revolution. Typically, throughout China’s long history, succession has been an orderly process, despite palace intrigues and the ambitions of those who thought that they could do the job better.
Every few hundred years or so, however, a peasant revolution, a palace coup, or a few politically ambitious generals might disturb the status-quo and steal the state (or parts of it) from a corrupt or ineffectual emperor. Once in power, though, the new regime, after getting there via bloodshed and/or deceit, would quickly demand that the population conform to the Confucian precepts of acceptance of their lot in life, and respect for authority. The virtue of a harmonious society would be promoted, and life would return to normal for the next few hundred years or so.
This system remains the same today as it was 2,000 years ago when the first emperor “Qin Shi Huang Di” defeated the other warring states and united China under one system of government. A system which remains basically unchanged today despite a modern veneer of concrete, glass, and internationalism. It has never been tampered with (Communist revolutions notwithstanding).
Chinese people have never known a different system. Chaos, civil-war, invasion, and warlords, yes: but a different system, no. Remember this. There is no alternative template for political leadership of government in their collective heads.
Participatory democracy, although wishful thinking for a few, is a foreign concept for most. Today's leadership-government model is mixed up with culture. Conservative-thinking, stability-valuing Chinese people find it difficult to separate the two.
This is one reason why, whenever the Western media criticises some sensitive aspect of Chinese government policy, the reaction from the intellectual neophytes in China’s universities is often so vitriolically anti-western. Shoot the messenger is the dominant paradigm. How dare the West criticise us! The West is anti-China!
So these days we should not look to this segment of society for alternative leadership models. This group had the courage knocked out of it in the late 1980s. Idealism is dead now. Stability is everything. Everybody just wants to be rich. The older guys are the ones to listen to.
So what happened to youthful idealsim, the anti-corruption demonstrations, and the desire for western-style democracy which was so strong during that brief Beijing Spring?
Today's loud young defenders of the status-quo are the product of an education system which has deliberately controlled information. A system which filters out “dangerous” western philosophies and which papers over embarrassing cracks in China's history.
A forgotten history which recorded demonstrations by students against their own Qing government for corruption and incompetence, as well as against the foreign powers for their carving-up of the motherland. And don't bother digging too deeply into the Cultural Revolution either. All you will learn is that you know more about this painful period in China's recent history than they do.
The fact is, these days China's students have a history and a truth already interpreted and packaged for them by the leadership in Beijing. They are products of a system which rewards memorisation and regurgitation of facts rather than intellectual honesty. A cynical system which produces graduates who can’t separate culture from politics and government.
Criticise China’s leadership, and you criticise Chinese culture. Criticise China’s government and you criticise the Chinese people. Criticise government policy, and you are disloyal.
The loneliest people I have met in China over the last five years have been those few brave, independent thinking individuals, who are intimidated by their own culture and government into the saddest of silences.
Only those old guys who can't be intimidated anymore dare open their mouths. Most recently those who are either near death and don't care, or those who have already died and are published posthumously.
What is the government frightened of? Why does it behave this way when it can rightly boast of a remarkable journey from a poverty-stricken rural economy to rapidly developing nation status with an economy which is weathering the worst world-wide economic downturn since the great depression in the 1930s.
An economy which the rest of the world hopes will lead it out of recession and into prosperity again once the worst is over. China has so much to be proud of.
Credit is due to the central government in Beijing. Credit due to its remarkable manipulation of the economic levers available to it, in the form of the stimulus program and the shift in focus away from a supply-driven export-oriented economy and towards a more demand-driven domestic economy.
Unlike the West, when Beijing wanted to change policy, all it had to do was to order the change. Premier Wen Jia Bao (representing the leadership collective) gave the instruction, and the descending levels of government authority all said, "Yes".
Nobody said "Why?"
No debate, and no time lag. Policy implemented immediately.
China should have more faith in itself and in its own people. There is no need to control information. Chinese people are capable of working things out for themselves.
In fact, if history is any guide, and if given the choice, Chinese people would be more likely to choose a benevolent Confucian-style of government rather than a Western style democracy. A Confucian style of government would still value centralised control, and respect for social stability and so on. In reality, not much would change.
There would just be more accountability to the people.
Come to think about it, maybe this is what really worries the guys in charge today. The party would be over.
About the Author
Brian is an Australian author, commercial consultant, and psychologist who has lived in China for the last five years. He has published on the topics of Vietnam, trauma, stress, anxiety, depression, and Chinese culture. He is married to a Chinese citizen, has four adult children, and his home is in Chongqing, a booming municipality on the Yangtze River above the Three Gorges Dam.You can contact Brian via his website for more information on China.