Trading Democracy for Prosperity by Andrew Jacobs for the New York Times: China and economics

Trading Democracy for Prosperity

China’s Middle Class Willing to Overlook Autocratic Rule
입력일자: 2011-04-13 (수)


OVER THE NEARLY four decades since President Richard M. Nixon established diplomatic ties with Red China, American politicians have clung to the idea that the growing ranks of Chinese entrepreneurs and college-educated strivers would one day find electoral democracy irresistible. But a stroll through one of the capital’s upscale malls quickly demolishes such idealistic notions ? and instead makes you wonder whether China’s autocrats
have struck on a flexible model of long-lasting rule.

At the Oriental Plaza mall, young professionals dressed in Nikes and Abercrombie & Fitch openly profess their admiration for Communist Party governance. “Any change in the political system would just throw China into disorder,” said Guo Ting, a 30-year-old office assistant. “Our leaders are doing a good job.”

Educated, white-collar workers like Ms. Guo are emblematic of an increasingly self-confident Chinese middle class willing to make allowances for the government over its strictures and imperfections. To this group, such flaws are outweighed by the nonstop doubledigit economic growth the regime has presided over, and they have come to appreciate the social stability that comes with autocratic rule.



Not to say that opposition to the status quo doesn’t exist. Dispossessed peasants regularly take to the streets over seized land. Dissidents continue to call for pluralism, though the authorities are increasingly suppressing them for fear that an Arab-style “jasmine revolution” could take hold here. And disaffected young people share barbed criticisms of their leaders online ? until the censors delete the posts.
But the ruling Communists, most Western experts agree, are in no danger of being toppled any time soon. “They’ve shown themselves to be a whole lot more flexible than the Egypts and the Tunisias of the world,” said Kevin O’Brien, a China expert at the University of California, Berkeley.

Such a Darwinian ability to evolve grew out of the party’s experience in 1989, when students and intellectuals occupied Tiananmen Square for seven weeks to demand free elections and an end to press restrictions and corruption . In the years since it violently crushed those protests, the regime has found a way to satisfy people enough that it has dissuaded most citizens from rolling the uncertain dice of prodemocracy street demonstrations.

Until recently, China’s leadership also held out the promise of incremental political reform, although the recent Arab unrest, and preparations for a change in leadership next year, have effectively killed such prospects.

Still, life has undoubtedly improved for most Chinese. Over the past two decades, annual per capita urban incomes have more than tripled, to $3,100 a year; life expectancy has jumped by more than six years, to an average age of 75; and the ranks of illiterate adults have dropped by 46 million. Chinese cities embody the nation’s optimism. “Ten percent growth solves a lot of problems,” Professor O’Brien said.

But economic growth alone does not explain the widespread aversion to political change among intellectuals and professionals. For the country’s 70 million party members and the growing business class, the current arrangement delivers enormous advantages to those who play by the rules. The benefits can include low-interest loans from state banks and the forbearance of an all-powerful bureaucracy that could quash a company trying to start up outside the privileged club of stateowned behemoths.

The current setup fosters allegiance to the party, even if it is based on the survival instinct and not a small dollop of greed. Li Fan, director of the World and China Institute, a nongovernmental group in Beijing that studies political reform, said electoral democracy would threaten the benefits entrepreneurial elites enjoy under the current system. “Those who have prospered from economic reform have no interest in sharing power or the spoils of prosperity with those beneath them,” he said.

The same can be said of China’s 300-million-member middle class, many of whom subscribe to the belief that universal suffrage would overempower their impoverished rural brethren. It is commonly believed, even among idealistic college students, that Chinese peasants are too unschooled to intelligently select the nation’s leaders. As Jiang Zemin, then the Chinese president, said in a 2000 interview, “The quality of our people is too low.”

The demonization of democracy emanates from leaders like Wu Bangguo, the party’s top legislator, who in March warned the nation that electoral democracy would drive China “into the abyss of internal disorder.” Celebrities like Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong actor, have denounced democratic societies like Taiwan as “chaotic,” saying the Chinese require authoritarian governance. “If we’re not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want,” he said at a gathering of Chinese executives two years ago, prompting a round of hearty applause.

Although most upwardly-mobile Chinese are not eager to talk about it, there is another compelling disincentive against agitating for democracy : Liu Xiaobo, who called for an end to single-party rule, was jailed for 11 years on charges of subversion. Even his Nobel Peace Prize, awarded last October, did nothing to ease his predicament, nor has it sapped the government’s zeal for repression: in recent weeks, more than four dozen public intellectuals, rights lawyers and bloggers, including Ai Weiwei, a prominent artist who helped design Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium, have been detained or “disappeared” as part of an ominous new campaign against dissent.

“It is true that people have seen a significant improvement in living standards and they are optimistic about the future,” said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong. “But they also know there is nothing to be gained by sticking their neck out.”

One of the arguments against democracy, many educated Chinese believe, is that the peasantry is too ignorant to handle it. Cut-outs of fashionably dressed young people in Beijing; policemen patrolling
at Tiananmen Square; a student getting a face painting.





~ by louella001 on August 31, 2011.

One Response to “Trading Democracy for Prosperity by Andrew Jacobs for the New York Times: China and economics”

  1. Though your observation is accurate, I don’t think your analysis is. The current generation of Chinese have seen both the cultural revolution and the economic resurgence in China. And the present looks too prosperous to ask for more change. But as the current teenage population takes over the reigns as the next generation, assuming the economic propserity stays unchanged, they will press of political change. Freedom is a natural progression in civilization. It can only be suppressed, but people will never adopt it by choice. So in China, it is only a matter of time.

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