June 14th, 2005

Chinese Democracy and the Brave New World

The Chinese are not known for giving a straight answer to a difficult question. Partly this is to do with saving face; maybe it is a national trait, but maybe they learnt it from their leaders.

In a fascinating account of a visit to the recording of a CCTV talk show, Ann Condi makes the following point:

There is a very basic aspect of the Sino-foreign media dialogue that is so obvious that it is seldom commented on. It involves a common dynamic in human interactions where hypocrisy, deception, and issues of “saving face” intersect. It is this: If I find myself in disagreement with another person about something, and yet I sincerely believe in the correctness of my own position, I will seek to highlight our differences and show decisively why my position is sound and that of the other person is flawed. If, on the other hand, I am painfully aware that the other person has a point, and I am in the wrong, I will change the subject.

The strategy of the Chinese government is to change the subject. When complaints are lodged about the imprisoning of dissidents, the Chinese do not forthrightly proclaim "Indeed, we do put them in prison. We are justified in doing so. They are a threat to our security." Instead they change the subject to "No country should interfere in the internal affairs of another country." When America attacks China’s human rights record, the Chinese do not say "You are mistaken about our human rights problem, and here’s why." Rather, they change the subject: "What about
your human rights problem?"

Where the question of democracy is concerned, it's very easy for them to muddy the waters. Is democracy right for China? If so, what kind of democracy? And most importantly, whose kind of democracy? I think by posing this question they are exploiting a sore point in the West at the moment, and maybe taking advantage of a basic schism in how we regard our own societies.

Oddly enough, this is not the case in China itself. Recently in class we were doing a quiz about life in Britain, and one of the questions was about the voting age. Most of them knew it was 18 - the same, they said, as in China. It turns out that they all believe that they live in a democratic country, where at the age of 18 they get to participate in elections, which are held at regular intervals. If anyone who's not a member of the CCP could explain this to me, I'd be very grateful.

As I say, in Europe and the US many people are not so confident about the democratic credentials of their own societies. Despite the massive opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their subsequent occupation, both went ahead regardless. People are understandably uncertain about the whole question of the West imposing democracy on other, poorer, countries, and about the legitimacy of the resulting political systems. As is, presumably, Hamid Karzai, whose recent request to the Americans that they give his Government some information about the military operations they are carrying out in his country was roundly turned down. Not to mention the 99% of Iraqis in the survey quoted by Noam Chomsky who do not believe that the Americans are in their country to bring democracy.

Back home, a lot of Americans' confidence in their political system took quite a blow after the 2000 election farce, when the Supreme Court imposed the losing candidate as President. And despair really set in last year, when all the efforts to elect absolutely anybody not quite as dangerous as Bush came to nothing. In addition, the EU is currently in crisis because when people were given a chance to have a say in the future of their continent, they irresponsibly made what we're repeatedly told was the Wrong Choice. After all, everyone within the political system in Europe agrees with the consensus over the need to make constant cutbacks because of the pressing demands of the Brave New World - anyone who questions this is torn to pieces and ridiculed in the press (George Galloway) or explicitly told, in the case of the French voters, that they don't understand the future.

So does the West really believe in giving people a genuine democratic choice? If not, who are we to lecture the Chinese, who after all have had 5,000 years of history to learn from?

Well, the choice between the Republicans and the Democrats is not the widest choice in the world, it's true. However, what people in the United States and many other countries do enjoy is democratic rights. And in the US they are under attack - laws on censorship, gay rights, positive discrimination and equality legislation, to name but a few, are in the sights of the group of fanatical bigots in the US administration, and absolutely must be defended.

But neither can we allow George W. Bush to define what we mean by democracy. He seems to believe in top-down democracy, with a small ruling elite managing the country on behalf of large commercial interests. In theory he believes that these large commercial interests best represent the core interests of citizens, although in reality it's hard to see how anyone could sincerely defend this point of view.

I and many others believe in a grassroots participative democracy in which instantly recallable delegates are elected locally into positions which do not give them access to special privileges, and in which all major decisions are preceded by an extensive and open debate and then resolved through the active participation of ordinary citizens through voting.

This is my own democratic ideal. I don't believe that this kind of democracy is likely to break out anywhere in the world any time soon, and least of all in China. Amongst the people I've had contact with over the last few months, multi-party democracy has never been mentioned. At the top end of society, nobody is keen to be seen as China's Gorbachev, and the man least likely to is Hu Jintao, who recently announced that he wants China to closer resemble North Korea in political terms.

Nevertheless I don't think China will continue in this direction for too long. Essentially I believe in what Jung Chang says at the end of 600 harrowing and bloody pages of recent Chinese history - that the momentum of liberalisation is unstoppable. Just as China will not attack Taiwan because of the mutual commercial interests, I think that some distant day there will be on offer some form of democracy, acceptable both to foreign corporations and to the most advanced sections of the CCP. In the same way, I think that one day much sooner we will see news items on the first McDonalds to open in Pyongyang, followed by the first Subway and the first Blockbuster video, until it starts to resemble every other city in the world, as the IMF and the World Bank send in legions of foreign companies to grab anything that isn't nailed down...I could easily be completely wrong about both of these things, though, and one thing we do not have democratic control over is our environment, and that may start to finally give way before either Kim Il Jong or the CCP does. Certainly in the case of North Korea, economic change will arrive much, much quicker than any moves towards political openness.

(However, before I get too pessimistic about the direction the whole world is heading in, there is always the encouraging example of Hugo Chavez and the Bolivian peasants - I'd encourage anyone interested to take the time to listen to the interview with the American investigative reporter Greg Palast on this edition of the Democracy Now! radio show. In fact the whole show is a fascinating listen – towards the end there is a lengthy and very disturbing interview with a former CIA ‘Economic Hit Man’.)

In the meantime, then, there is the entirely unresolved question of democratic rights in China. To me it is indisputable that those democratic demands raised, possibly naively and with not much understanding of the costs they would entail, in Tiananmen Square in 1989 relate to real inalienable democratic rights that are currently enjoyed by real people all over the world, and which do not exist in China. The most important of those right now is the right to a genuinely independent free press. Only in this way can the Chinese people learn from the mistakes of the past and learn from them who not to trust.

Is it ethnocentric and culturally insensitive to demand a free press? Only if we believe that countries such as China, Zimbabwe, Burma and North Korea have some deep cultural connection which means that their people, unlike ourselves, must be permanently kept in the dark about what has happened, what is happening and what could happen in their own and in other countries.

How Big is your Chimney?

When I take the thoroughly modern local tram from our campus towards Carrefour to stock up on cheese and Alpen, I don't actually get to see much of Dalian. What I do see is mile after mile of huge billboard advertisements for new condominiums called things like Your Marjesty (sic) and Tycoon's Paradise Village. The developments themselves take up an increasing amount of space both in Chinese cities and in the countryside (I especially noticed it on the way from Beijing to the Great Wall), and in addition to the huge, huge billboards blotting out a lot of the landscape, adverts for them also take up page after page in in-flight and ex-pat magazines.

In fact it often seems like wherever you turn in China you're faced with marketing of some kind, if not with those red banners which I never know if they display marketing, propaganda or a happy mix of the two. Waiting for the lift in the electronic department store where I go to pick up my weekly three dozen or so DVDs, there is a TV screen on the wall which shows adverts and nothing else. On the bus home the TV intersperses the same Tom & Jerry cartoon with adverts, adverts, adverts and the occasional karaoke video. It's sometimes difficult to get into the local supermarket because of the crowd gathered around the stall outside handing out free samples of those really quite odd tasting milk tablets.

I'm prepared to accept that this is a sign of progress and there is not much in this that I didn't have to put up with in Europe (apart from the karaoke and Tom and Jerry, that is. And the milk tablets, of course). However, advertising in China has taken on a new and particularly aggravating form: stickers prominently displaying a phone number and some sort of service (no, I don't think it's the obvious one so ubiquitous in London telephone boxes) for sale. These stickers don't just attach themselves to lampposts and any available vertical surface - in an innovative move that I really hope hasn't caught on elsewhere, they are stuck on the pavement.

I guess the people trying to drum up trade in this way have realised that if they hand people a leaflet it will just end up on the floor unread, so they have started advertising on litter, and litter that can't be removed (the stickers they use are of that extremely irritating type that they stick directly onto the CDs in a lot of record shops, which you need washing up liquid and a brillo pad to remove) and cannot be avoided. Once a sticker is stuck, it stays there for quite some time, and probably does get its message across.

Now I've mentioned before that there are lots of things in China that make me angry or depressed, but which I know I've got no hope whatsoever of ever doing anything about. It's the same with these things; here in China my opinion counts for nothing, and I'm leaving very soon anyway. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that this innovative new advertising medium - sticker litter - might well begin to catch on in other countries, if it hasn't already. And I've got a good idea about how to do something about it.

My idea involves two very common items: one, a mobile phone, obviously very common indeed these days. The second thing is not so common, but very cheap, even lighter to carry and very easy to get your hands on: a simple ordinary whistle.

Imagine the scene: Poor Unfortunate (although she doesn't know it yet) Receptionist is sitting tapping on a keyboard, looking for pictures of kittens on the internet and trying to avoid doing any actual work. The phone rings.

PUR: Hello, this is Tiny Tim Chimney Sweep Services, how can I help you?
ME (or maybe YOU): Hi, I saw an advert, is this the right number? It was stuck in the street, 'We Clean Any Chimneys, Very Cheap Price, Very Small Chimney Sweep Gets Into All Nooks And Crannies, Does Not Soil Fireplace?'
PUR: Yes, that's us, how big is your chimn..
PUR: AAAARRRRGGGGHHHHH!!! (Slams down phone, holds ears).

Phone rings.
PUR: I'm not ******* well answering that. BOOOOSS!!!

You know, at first it might be difficult for them to make the connection, but given time and persistence the message should get through. As I say, I don't know yet if sticker litter advertising has taken off elsewhere, but I'm going to invest in a whistle, just in case. And I'm thinking of snapping up www.howbigisyourchimn.com before anyone else can.