Sunday, March 7, 2010

Chinese Democracy

After the Google/China showdown went public a few weeks ago the media spent a few days solemnly debating whether or not China would allow Google to operate uncensored in China. As far as I can tell, this debate is pretty silly- censorship is vitally important to the Communist Party's grip on power, so I'm reasonably sure they won't even entertain the idea of relaxing restrictions on Google unless they think they can somehow game the system by blocking individual websites and pages after Google stops doing the dirty work for them.

Hong Kong has stayed in an unusual holding pattern since the Chinese retook control in 1997. A number of positions in Hong Kong are elected, but others are controlled by businesses, and still more are directly named by Beijing. Most accounts seem to agree that Beijing has been pretty good about sticking to the "One China, Two Systems" agreement, probably more out of a fear of accidentally ruining the massively profitable island rather than any stand on principles. China promised that Hong Kong would be allowed to fully democratize within the next decade or so, which makes this a little bit worrisome:
China has warned that a plan by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong to use a special election as a de facto referendum on democratic reform is a threat to stability in the former British colony.
Labeling something a "threat to stability" is often a prelude to a massive crackdown in China. But Hong Kong hasn't yet been trampled on the same way most places in mainland China have been- there are annual vigils in remembrance of Tiananmen, people have the right to gather and to speak their minds, and the judiciary is still independent. It's hard to say what will happen- as democracy activists push their luck, Beijing will have to choose between messing with a system that produces piles of cash, or allowing the people to take more of the reins. I think this is going to be a far harder decision for them than the Google one.

Meanwhile, some on the mainland are making unusually detailed criticisms of government policies. Director Yu Jianrong, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Rural Affairs, has publicly warned that:
Hardline security policies are taking the country to the brink of 'revolutionary turmoil.'

Deepening social fractures were caused by the Communist Party's obsession with preserving its monopoly on power through 'state violence' and 'ideology,' rather than justice, Professor Yu said.

Disaster could be averted only if 'interest groups' - which he did not identify - were capable of making a rational compromise to subordinate themselves to the constitution, he said.
'Interest groups' probably refers to specific groups within the Chinese leadership, most likely the Hu/Li group, whose ideology has led to the current use of harsh tactics to preserve Communist Party power at any cost from even the slightest of threats. The argument that the leaders should 'subordinate themselves to the constitution' is a similar one made by a broad spectrum of critics, from human rights activists to minority spokesmen among the Tibetans or Uyghurs. It remains to be seen if Beijing will take the message well or not.


  1. Reading things like this make me hopeful for China going forward. 10% growth can only do so much, with enclaves like Hong Kong that have to be treated differently, and 300 worker riots a month, you'd to think the current rule would be nearing it's end.

    Then again, when everyone is falling over themselves to not offend you because you've got 10% yearly growth... it doesn't make it easy for the Chinese people to find as many international allies as should be available to them.

  2. I think 2012 is going to be interesting to watch, as the new generation of Chinese leadership takes over- they're going to be in a position to make the decisions that will either put China on a path towards true stability, or commit further towards a government that doesn't really seem sustainable in the long run.