04 March 2011

Pusillanimous Punditry

One of my biggest criticisms of myself is that I often rely on generalizations and have a hard time grappling with issues at any real depth. If I wanted to make myself feel better, I could dress that up as a talent at expressing complex issues simply and straightforwardly, but mostly I think it's a symptom of laziness or, more precisely, a reluctance to stake out strong positions on very complex issues. Rather than risk saying something that might be controversial (or, even worse, wrong), I opt for the control of saying nothing all that interesting.

In short, everyone else usually seems to have something more profound to say than I do. The other day I was asked to respond to a few questions about what's been happening in China lately. To gather my thoughts, I sat down and wrote the following, which pretty much captures my thinking perfectly but doesn't say anything terribly original. But, to get it off my chest (and to distract me further from the dozen or so things that I ought to be doing right now but just can't seem to), I post these somewhat unfinished thoughts here. Because, after all, what's the point of having a blog?
The survival of the one-party system in China is largely premised on the ability to deliver sustained levels of growth and economic development, and that, in turn, relies on social stability. In the view of the Chinese authorities, these things are all intertwined: the Communist party can’t stay in power without delivering economic and social stability, but you also can’t have economic and social stability without the one-party system. And so anything that calls this formulation into question— whether it be calls for political change or protests over property rights, environmental damage, or ethnic autonomy—the government believes these have to be nipped in the bud before they threaten the existing order.

The concern about stability is not merely felt by the authorities; it is shared by a large segment of society as well. Many, perhaps most, Chinese recognize that their lives have improved substantially over recent decades and, what’s probably even more important, they have reason to expect the good times to continue. They may be dissatisfied with many government policies, specific officials, or certain ways in which government operates, but they believe—in part because they’ve been told this over and over—that the alternatives would be much, much worse.

Though voices of dissatisfaction may not always be representative of majority opinion, they are nevertheless strong and get fullest expression online through blogs, electronic bulletin boards, and other new media. It is much harder for the authorities to deal with this pressure from below, because information spreads so quickly over the Internet and networks of individuals are organized in virtual, as opposed to physical, space.

So when you have calls for people to take their grievances to the streets, however peacefully, the authorities have to worry about what might happen if all that scattered dissatisfaction were to become concentrated and those virtual networks become physical linkages between people from different social strata and across cities throughout the country. The government’s display of force over the past couple of weeks is in large part intended to intimidate and ensure that this doesn’t happen.

But even if one agrees that maintaining the political status quo really is the best thing for China right now, one can still question whether the authorities are employing the right measures to preserve it. I tend to agree with those who think that, instead of relying on the more traditional tactics of police repression and propaganda, Chinese society would be much more stable if the government did more to promote a more independent, just legal system, open up more space for the media to act as a watchdog over government, and allow the development of more autonomous civil society organizations.

Rule of law is something that the Chinese government itself professes to want, but when security forces resort to arrests, disappearances, and harassment to deal with perceived threats to stability and voices expressing legitimate criticism, it erodes confidence in the sincerity of the government’s commitment. This lack of confidence, in turn, makes people less likely to see the government as an honest broker, which increases the likelihood of grievances boiling over in potentially destabilizing ways.