Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Chinese official calls democracy "sunshine"; Sun barfs

Global Times has an interesting editorial that, other than getting Mao Zedong's birthdate wrong (the online version's date reads December 25; I'll allow that the writer thought the article was appearing in the print edition the next day, thus writing "today" instead of "tomorrow," but still), features a few interesting quotes by one Li Jie, identified as the "vice director of the Literature Research Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China."

Here's quote No. 1, coming at the end of the article titled "Mao's past mistakes show need for open government" (HT: Alicia Lui):

The report of the Party's 17th National Congress says that power should operate in the sunshine. This sunshine is democracy. Only with the supervision of the people can people's power be used for the people and controlled by the people.

Here are some other similes for democracy I just thought of:

  • This accretion of holiness is democracy.
  • This bag of kittens is democracy.
  • This Paulo Coelho novel is democracy.
  • This Fallout 3 stimpack is democracy.
  • This porn star's climax is democracy.
  • This Lady of the Lake miniseries poster is democracy.
  • This roast turkey breast is democracy.
  • This panacea to all our ills is democracy. (Oh wait, I'm getting confused... sunshine is panacea to all our ills.)

On a serious note, I'd like to quote Richard MacGregor from the highly illuminating book The Party, who points out that "democracy" as used by a Chinese official never really means what we would like to think it means:

Wen Jiabao blindsided many... in 2007, declaring at his annual press conference that "democracy, law, freedom, human rights, equality and fraternity" did not belong exclusively to capitalism, but were "the fruits of civilization jointly formed through the entire world's slow course of historical development."

Wen's pronouncement produced the usual flurry of stories in the foreign media about how China seemed to be embracing western-style political reform. But most missed the fact that, mindful he was addressing an international audience, Wen had left out the all-important rider carried in official documents on democracy in China, including the Party's own 2005 White Paper on the topic. "Democratic government is the Chinese Communist Party governing on behalf of the people," the paper said. Within the system, the reaction to Wen's 2007 pronouncement was more hard-headed. As a former senior official ousted after the 1989 Beijing crackdown joked to me, "You need a new dictionary to understand what Chinese leaders mean when they talk about democracy."

(You should probably read that book if you haven't already.)

Quote No. 2 from the Global Times editorial:

Just as the Party's central committee concluded in a resolution issued in 1981, Mao's positive contribution to the building of a new China was much greater than his mistakes.

IS IT REALLY? (Pardon my use of third-person singular present ["is"], but I'm confused by Li Jie's statement: does he mean "Mao's positive contributions," or does he really mean Mao's contribution -- some lone positive deed -- outweighed all his mistakes? I'm being arch with the grammar thing, but my question isn't completely facetious, is it?)

The editorial, as it reads to me, makes the assumptions that 1) readers think Mao acted maliciously when he set in motion the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and 2) readers think Chinese people uniformly worship Mao. When you assume such things, you're liable to pen an editorial as flimsy as Li Jie's.

As to point No. 1: Educated outsiders (i.e. those not moonlighting as commenters at the end of CNN articles) don't think of Mao as a mass murderer; they merely condemn the blithe idiot for his gross incompetence. Yet criticism levied against Mao doesn't usually sit well with the conservative Chinese set, who, as they're wont to do, get defensive. But you don't know his positive contributions, they claim.

Actually, we're well aware, but were Mao's contributions to New China in the years from 1958 to 1976 actually substantial and sufficient to override all the horrors he inflicted? It's a difficult question, made more so because of the residual trama (how many thousands who survived the Cultural Revolution are too emotionally scarred to talk about it?). Yet it's one that intellectuals in this country should ask and answer, lest we want to live as the post-Mao Party nostalgics who "looked back to the Mao who was the revolutionary leader of the Party during their own youthful days as revolutionaries" (from Maurice J. Meisner's Mao's China and After). The revolution is over, people. Time for some adult questions.

As to point No. 2: without mentioning the whole "70 percent right, 30 percent wrong" silliness, I'd really like to hear someone speak objectively about whether Mao could have achieved his goals without, you know, sacrificing millions of lives. There's a difference, methinks, between failing to move forward and moving a country back via swift punt to the gonads; shouldn't we collectively be a little harsher in the judgment of one who does the latter?

So yeah, I understand that the Party needs Mao to legitimize itself post-Mao, and I understand the trappings of nostalgia, and I think I understand why so many Chinese are defensive when it comes to this subject, so inextricably tied as it is to nationalism and a fiercely nationalistic period in this country's long history, but still... I'd like an honest discussion about this, and I'd like to not be talked down to by flaks like the vice director of the Literature Research blah blah blah. Maybe that's asking too much for the time being.

Finally, a third quote from the article:

The main reason the Cultural Revolution happened and ran out of control was because of the absence of collective decision-making in the Party. Blind worship of Mao took over, and he enjoyed unchecked power.


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