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Re: <nettime> Eric X. Li: Democracy Is Not the Answer..
dan s wang on Wed, 11 Jul 2012 12:38:45 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Eric X. Li: Democracy Is Not the Answer..

Dear Flick,

The arrogance of Eric X. Li will not be effectively answered by simply
asserting that we in the so-called democratic West have a superior
system. Doing so does nothing whatsoever to influence China while
at the same time supplies all the intellectual and moral legitimacy
needed by the American state to continue its Cold War posture in
relation to China -- and every other nation and system defined by the
West as non-democratic.

In order to have constructive debate I believe that the values of the
Chinese system ought to be taken on their face. That is to say, let
us judge their system according to their own desired outcomes and
priorities. Chinese leaders and party programs and platforms do not
use the words 'justice' and 'freedom.' The words that are used
over and over are 'stability' and 'harmony.' So, does the
Chinese system produce stability and harmony?

Well that depends on what the standards are, and the standards are
measured in the terms of a society's particular history. While I do
not agree with Mr. Li's rather casual claim of all cultures being
incommensurable (get real, so many of us are living proof of the
opposite), I do understand major civilizations to have experienced
the traumas of modernization in very particular ways, informed by the
inherited shape of their political systems and priorities.

In the case of China, those traumas were extreme in at least this
sense: the Chinese empire went from being a seemingly permanent
center of the cultural, military, economic, and moral universe
(considered as such by itself and flattered as such by the tributary
states surrounding it) to a land of coolie labor, opium addicts
by the tens of million, a debt-ridden Whore of the West with an
impotent, confused, and dysfunctional central government, a host
of foreign powers exacting draconian terms of surrender, the cruel
and technologically superior Japanese threatening to invade (which
they eventually did), along with here and there the time-tough
Chinese problems of famine and flood. The decline into chaos unfolded
completely in less than three generations time--in other words,
within living memory. That's very quick in a civilization with
millenia-long continuity.

Thus by the standards of the 1930s-40s/Civil War/Japanese
Invasion-era, the one-party system has indeed delivered a high level
of stability and harmony. Some social scientists and historians (such
as Joel Andreas) convincingly argue that this is true even taking
into account the series of disasterous policy implementations and
mass campaigns of the Mao years. Through almost all of the 50s, 60s,
and 70s, Chinese economic growth, literacy, and life expectancy kept
improving at a modest but positive rate, outstripping nearly all the
other developing countries, and after the Sino-Soviet split doing it
with essentially no foreign aid.

I'm not glossing over the dramas and grand mistakes as they were
tragically costly in human terms, but the tendency in the US is for
intellectuals to demonize rather than to accurately assess. The Great
Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were the exception, not the
rule, and even then by many measures those times were economically
stagnant, not regressive.

In the Reform Period, however, both the aspirations and challenges
related to maintaining stability and harmony have changed. Gone are
the foreign invaders, the opium economy, and the class enemies of Mao
the revolutionary. Now it's about keeping a lid on an increasingly
complex society through economic growth, urbanization, and political
control, but without the bludgeon of mass campaigns, the discipline of
a centralized media, or a charismatic figure.

Of their many challenges, I'll point out two of the contradictions
(Mao's favorite word) currently vexing the Party, borne of the
post-89 economic-growth-as-social-pacifier strategy. I don't see
either one being resolved well and peacefully under their current
political system.

One is the trade-off associated with the transition from state-owned
to private-owned enterprises in a host of sectors. The increased
competition and heightened profit motive produced by private ownership
obviously has resulted in spectacular new wealth. But the transition
has also produced the new problem of discontented pensioners and
laid-off workers through the 1990s and 2000s, thousands upon thousands
cut loose and left with a deep sense of betrayal--and angry enough
to make their demands heard, especially in the Northeast, but really
all over the country. If the one-party system is really so great, then
why all the pensioner and labor unrest? If stability requires economic
growth, and economic growth requires privatization, and privatization
requires decentralized control, and decentralized control means a lack
of Central Government oversight and enforcement, then isn't the
Party only trading one kind of instability for another?

The second one is the trade-off between a market economy and
environment, including health and safety conditions. Everybody knows
how huge China's water and energy needs are, and the large scale
consequences of them. The mass displacements, battles over land
seizures, coal mining accidents, toxic contaminations of rivers are
bad enough, but even all those are essentially localized problems.
Horrific, bad for stability and harmony, but easy for the average
person to ignore.

The undermining of confidence in the system might be more widespread
on the consumer level, where anybody anywhere might buy something
toxic to eat, and it's not a localized problem. The regulatory
system is so underdeveloped and arbitrarily enforced, the conditions
of local government so corrupt, and the market forces so competitive,
that scandal after scandal has made the Chinese public hungry for
non-Chinese made foodstuffs. A quiet form of instability has taken
root in the small but definite and growing exodus of wealthy Chinese.
The question to ask Mr. Li is, if he's so sure that the system is
going to be improving, 'self-correcting' as he says, then why are
so many Chinese people with money choosing to park their wealth in Bay
Area homes? And initiate the process for permanent residency? Yeah, it
was bad in the US in the Gilded Age, but even then you didn't have
noticeable numbers from the most privileged classes choosing to leave
the country.

I am not interested in defending the Chinese state, as you can see,
not at all. But I am invested in sharpening the critical position,
such that it takes into account the failures of the Chinese system
according to their its own goals, and does not simply provide
intellectual cover for the all-too familiar moralism of the American
state--a moralism that rings particularly hollow in the age of
rendition and "kill lists." Can you see the difference?

Dan w.

<Li is a clown. Somebody put a pie in his face. Come on, nettimers. As
they say, Democracy is the worst system, except for all the others.>



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