Foreigners’ role in shaping China

Posted: November 23, 2011 in Politics
Tags: , , ,

A few days ago I talked with a Communist Party acquaintance who has a fairly high position in the propaganda organ  (by “fairly high” I’ll just say he’s on speaking terms with several Politburo members). We got to talking about the upcoming power turnover and I asked whether he thinks the government will shift to the left with the likes of Bo Xilai’s neo-socialists or to the right with the Wang Yang progressive crowd. “Neither,” he replied. “It will go in a third direction. Domestically it will go to the right and in foreign policy to the left.”

This basically means further reform in freedoms at home while taking a more hawkish approach abroad. This seems like a very plausible scenario. He also said he worries that some current players vying for greater power could be catastrophic for China, were they to be put  in charge.

While speaking with him I realized that when you hear about the Communist Party through only certain mediums, it’s easy to form the idea that they’re a unified monolith; when actually nothing could be further from the truth. He’s a very rational guy who pretty well represents an unsung wing of the Party – a wing that didn’t necessarily get into politics to abuse their power and line their own pockets. He has most of the same concerns I do about China’s future. He worries about nationalists hijacking the government and letting the current situation deteriorate further. Some would criticize him, saying that since he’s part of the system, he’s complicit in the bad that it does.  But he seems to sincerely believe the Party’s power can be channeled for good; that people like him can steer it in the right direction from the inside.  He and I don’t agree on a lot of the methods to get this done, but his heart is in the right place. However, sometimes forces from the outside make it harder for people like him.

This week there was a great piece in New York Times called “Why China won’t listen.” The piece cited a congressional ammendment to express support for Chen Guangcheng, who’s under house arrest in Linyi, saying:

“Beijing does not indiscriminately reject all such ‘interference’; China and the United States conduct a dialogue on human rights through diplomatic channels. But Chinese leaders believe such dialogue belongs behind closed doors. The Chinese are saying to Americans, if you grant me face, I can be reasonable; if solving the problem will help me, I’ll consider it. But don’t expect me to make concessions under pressure.”

This is a dead-on assessment. Much of the foreign criticism toward China’s human rights is counter-productive. It backs Chinese leaders into a corner and forces them to take a hawkish anti-foreign attitude and even double-down on the practices being criticized. It drowns out the voices of reason who are trying to lead the country’s development in a positive direction. This, perhaps, is partly why there may be opposite directions for domestic and foreign policy with the new leadership.

This isn’t to say foreigners should stop criticizing China. Far from it. However, things like congressional censures, which do more for US politicians’ campaigns than China’s human rights, are the opposite of constructive. A lot of the other criticisms over Chen Guangcheng were perfectly legitimate, but still counter-productive.

It’s important to realize that substantive change in China can never be inflicted from the outside. The government and people alike would reject it on principle. The foreign media plays an important role in covering issues that Chinese media are either too scared to report or are directly barred from reporting. Dissemination of information is good. Calmly arguing how current policy is bad for Chinese people is good. But making fruitless public admonishments of the government is pointless and usually harmful. Every time a protester in San Francisco holds up a “Free Tibet!” sign they’re pushing the rational people in China further into the arms of the hawks. Things like petitions to free Chen Guangcheng and human rights groups blasting the government – their hearts are in the right place but their actions often result in the opposite of what they’re fighting for.

Rational people within the Party need to have some room to maneuver and get their voices heard over the shouting of the hardliners. They’re the only ones that have any hope of reforming the Party constructively. And while it might be satisfying to see the corrupt bureaucrats and iron fists get their come-upins in a full-on rebellion, steady reform within the confines of the current system would be much safer and better for everyone.

The Party isn’t some Darth Vader-run empire of evil. As much as I, and many others focus on the absurd and horrible things some quarters of it carry out, there are a lot of good people in the Party trying to get good things done. Reporting, objective analysis and pressure from foreign governments behind closed doors are the only things foreigners can really do to help those people improve China’s situation.

  1. justrecently says:

    I think it’s an underlying error of these debates about foreigners who “can make things in China worse”. It suggests that the CCP top brass isn’t only particularly sensitive about foreign criticism or encouragement, which is most probably not true when it comes to the central committee or politbureau level. Democratically-elected leaders won’t usually think of this world as a beautiful garden, and dictators won’t, either. They just want to have things their way.

    If there is diversity within the top ranks, it is about how the CCP should sell itself. Propaganda is certainly a central issue, but foreign policy isn’t – there is no diplomat among the nine members of the politbureau.

    I can think of two motivations for your interlocutor to make that left-right (international and domestic policies) statement. One would be that he has many foreign contacts, and prefers a conciliatory approach as long as it seems to serve the CCP’s purposes best. Another could be that as long as the message is about improving human rights at home, foreigners like you may be more comfortable with a more assertive Chinese foreign policy, which has been shaped since about 2009 (expanded “core interests”). Nobody in China, except if for very specific reasons or for a very bad personal mood, will tell a foreigner that his country will go back to Maoism. Rather, the CCP will try to strike a balance between modernization (which shouldn’t be confused with liberalization) on the one hand, and ideological control on the other – this (not terribly smart, imo) propaganda piece may illustrate the approach, and the underlying policy.

    But if modernization should come at the cost of “political” control, control will carry the day, anytime. Obviously, the top-nine and even the top-350 CCP members will have differences about foreign-policy approaches and domestic policies alike, but that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t arrive at collective conclusions. In fact, the government isn’t hijacked by nationalism. Nationalism is a source from the Sun-Yat-sen ideas, and has repeatedly been adopted by the CCP’s central committee – most recently in October this year. Given the ideological contradictions of the past twenty years, the party’s rule would be unthinkable without nationalism.

    My bet goes into the opposite direction when it comes to domestic policies. There will be no further political reform within China. The CCP may try to refine their instruments of repression, but the results won’t be impressive. In fact, it may also become more dangerous to be outstandingly rich in China, than has been the case during the past decades.

    • sinostand says:

      There may not be a diplomat in the politburo now, but Yang Jiechi, the UK educated diplomat to the US, and Wang Qishan look set for promotions. I think it’s very possible there will be some liberalization at home. I agree image is the most important thing in the party’s mind right now, but there has to be something substantive done. Anyone with a brain in the party can see the status quo can’t last much longer and Bo Xilai doesn’t have the same clout he did six months ago. It’s still possible the left wing will take over, but I sincerely doubt it will be “Maoism.” Big business and the government are bed even closer than in the US. I forgot the exact stat, but the top 100 richest NPC members have something like $70 billion, compared to about $2 billion for the richest US congress members. I doubt the rich have too much to worry about. But yeah, like you said nationalism has been and will be key to keeping power for a long time- which is another reason foreign policy will probably continue to go left.

      But domestically I don’t think certain political controls necessarily mean repression. They probably will clamp down on things like Weibo, but give the real press more freedom. They know weibo is only so popular because the real press is completely unreliable.

      As for my interlocutor, it’s definitely possible he was pulling the wool over my eyes to give a good image, but I doubt it. He’s never felt the need to do so in the past. Anyway, thanks for commenting. Should be an interesting year ahead.

  2. justrecently says:

    Anyone with a brain in the party can see the status quo can’t last much longer

    That’s a bold statement, Eric. Why can’t the status quo last much longer?

    • sinostand says:

      A dozen reasons, but most importantly, the economy can’t grow this way much longer. The Party’s legitimacy rests almost solely in astronomical economic growth (with a healthy side dish of nationalism). But the side effects of yawning wealth inequality, environmental degradation and very visible corruption (thanks to new technology) are pissing people off to a degree that they won’t tolerate forever. On top of the fact that the economy is expected to slow – either gradually or through a financial collapse. So they can address the corruption and legitimacy gap either through public accountability (traditionally done through freedoms and some sort of democracy) or use their absolute power Bo Xilai style to redistribute wealth, seriously hit corruption and use an even greater iron fist to keep the public quiet. Both scenarios are possible, but like I said, I doubt the latter will happen. But either way I expect the ever-useful nationalism card will be played fully.

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