Tomorrow is graduation day at Nankai University and for days now students have been everywhere in their gowns, which apparently they rent for a full week. That’s a full week of photos in every possible setting and with every possible group. I was out by the blooming lotus pond with two students to take my minor place in the digital scrapbooks of the class of 2011. As I walked around on this hot summer day, I thought about the idea of a party school. Nankai is certainly not a party school, but there are party schools here. Thinking about them led me to speculate about…
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are the three well-known terms of the equation assumed in a Western-style democracy. They are traditionally assumed to work together: as you get more of one you get more of the others. And it’s assumed that you want them together: if you are lacking in one, the others will also diminish. Under the L, L, and P of H model, history is a long march toward democracy (and, maybe, capitalism). The ideas make sense together, but has the political equation been subject to empirical testing? What if Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness just happen to occur together in the US, or happened to work for a certain era (like, before the rise of mass media, or before trans-national corporations, or before…). It seems to me that there are a few big experiments under way, checking the hypothesis that liberty is necessary for welfare and happiness.
One of these experiments is probably India — not a country I know enough to comment on. Another is certainly China. In China we see all the ingredients of a Western style nation frying in the wok together, including capitalism. But not liberty. So the Chinese question is, if a government can build a system that provides for the material welfare of most people, will happiness follow even in the absence of the freedoms we know well: speech, press, assembly? When we first arrived, we were impressed by the apparent freedom people enjoyed. In conversations, many people spoke completely freely about the political system. China Daily, the free (that is, no cost) paper in English, was surprisingly open about the problems facing the country. And we noticed right away that China mobilizes instantly around big projects, like high speed rail or green energy. Indeed, the country seems to be perpetually mobilized under the mantra “Build, baby, build.” Deng Xiaoping ought to be the guy in Mao’s tomb. He said “It doesn’t matter if the cat is white or black, as long as it catches the rat.” So practicality (and capitalism) replaced ideology, and the leaders of China are technocrats. Possibly ruthless, corrupt technocrats but plausibly wonky, calculating, circumspect technocrats, or maybe some mix of both. President Hu and Premier Wen (or is it Premier Wen and President Hu?) are the picture of wonky corporate directors, with slicked back hair, nerdy glasses, and black suits. And everyone in power dresses and acts pretty much the same, and (as far as I can tell) talks the same talk, a careful bureaucratic style that must be very boring past ten seconds. How do they get that way? By going to a party school. That’s right, a Communist Party School, where proper governmental etiquette is overlearned along with powerpoint skills — there’s a system of these schools separate from the universities and professional schools, and rising Party members attend for various periods to get Politically Correct. The technocrats seem to be working scientifically on all the big problems, which they will talk about in the press: inflation, income inequality, pollution, corruption. They certainly seem to have the interests of the people in mind, and in fact hundreds of millions of people have been lifted from dire poverty to modest but sustainable standards of living. In 20 or 50 years China might have a large middle class, clean air and drinkable water, a little more living space, options for more than one child in each family, and so forth. And what then? Will the absence of liberty be a shrug, or a burning need?
By the way, as the year progressed we became increasingly aware that the street-level freedom everyone expressed was absolutely as far as it went. The technocrats rule with an iron keyboard. Move outside of face-to-face conversation, and you enter a zone of surveillance and police control. In general, China spends more for internal security than it does for national defense. In particular, there are many anecdotes of mysterious phone and internet outages following hot button words. “Protest” seems to be one; say it twice and your phone call will be cut off. Presently this blog is freely accessed in China, but should I even mention a certain large square in central Beijing I would be converted into “Internet Explorer has stopped working.” Yesterday I googled “Vermont State Police contact” or something like that, and lost google altogether for 20 minutes or so, a slap on the wrist. Following the Jasmine revolution, the crackdown was palpable, and even the slightest whiff of protest got hammered. There was a call for a “walking by” demonstration for democracy, which you could participate in by strolling through certain areas. The walking part was probably to give participants plausible deniability. (“Protest? What protest?”) The effect was that people who did walk by, for whatever purpose, were hauled in for questioning or perhaps jail time. Western media folks who were trying to cover the event where challenged and intimidated by the police as well. Now, everyone knows how to get through the Great Firewall, but this too is at the discretion of the government — they shut my portal during this time as well. So as I write this paragraph I’m disturbingly aware of a reader over my shoulder, and weigh the risk of being shut off in China against telling the story. And that leads to hedging my words, pulling back from the strong conclusions. The Orwellian message is, if you are thinking about protest, think again.
Will this fact of life bother the Chinese citizen in the year 2020 as she walks to her BMW? That’s the question.
There’s one more variable in play in the Chinese experiment. The corollary to the L,L, and P B equation is “power corrupts.” A single party state is, in theory, inevitably corrupt, and thus undermines the welfare and happiness of its citizens. A part of the Chinese experiment, then, is a test of this equation as well. Every day the paper reports on corrupt officials being brought to trial and punished (sometimes with death), and on the deep concerns the government has with the corruption issue. (Every day there’s at least one story of tainted, illegal food.) One practical proposal is to require all government officials to publish an account of their personal assets and property, and a listing of the jobs held by all their family members. Nice idea, but then yesterday’s paper also reported that the plan would be slowly implemented without a definite time table. “Any good system has to have accompanying measures and a proper environment to become feasible,” explained Wu Yuliang, deputy secretary of the Central Commission of Discipline Inspection of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, a wonky guy with glasses and slicked back hair. Should the full-disclosure proposal bother the midlevel bureaucrat, with an official annual salary of $10,000, as he walks to his BMW? Apparently, not at the moment.
The other ongoing experiment with the democratic equation is the good old U S of A, to which we return in about a week. At home I follow politics pretty closely, but here I’ve taken a break. But occasionally I pick up the thread. Every time I look at how the game is played in American national politics, the word that comes to mind is Silly. I’m reminded of that other kind of “party school,” the American college version. I feel like our leaders are only pretending to act in the interests of the citizens who elected them. I hope no reader is offended to hear that I blame the right wing for polluting the rhetorical waters, but really no one in congress seems to live in the real world. I suspect we are also subject to one-party rule, and that is the party of the Rich. Corruption comes with it as well, not only in the buying and selling of influence but in the manipulations of the press and onslaught of other media designed to undermine rational choice (ads, for example). Democracies are inefficient, but for us the question of the next decades is whether the government can improve the welfare of all, and face the issues that China also faces: income inequality, pollution, corruption. Often, lately, our government has been incapable of acting at all.
So we have two systems with serious needs for reform. Who can foresee the decades ahead? It is possible, on the one hand, that China will behave like a good Enlightenment state and move from permanent emergency to democracy. But it is also possible that the experiment of freedom will wind down toward various forms of state or corporate control. Future leaders will still go to party schools, but what will they learn?