Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Reflection on watching numerous recent documentaries on China

Last week, I officially quit from my job. I am currently in the middle of an one-week hiatus before starting my new job. As such, I've had some time to watch Ted Koppel's piece on China (People's republic of capitalism) and part of Paul Merton's trip to China. I think Ted Koppel's 4 part mini-series on China was simply brilliant. For anyone who is trying to learn about future US-China relationship, that series would be a good place to start off. As I watch the series, I really begun to think about several major questions. How did China change so quickly? Were the policies of economic liberation really as great as people think they are? Why are Chinese businesses so competitive now and can they be this competitive in the future? Why is the politburo so paranoid about social stability and order? Can democracy and more importantly human rights be delivered in the country without stopping the economic progress? And most importantly, what would happen if the current economic growth in China stop? Ted Koppel brought up the point that it should not be too surprising if there will be another huge revolution/revolt that uproots the system when that happens. Considering the current rein on power that the communist party has on the China, that really seems to be a far-fetched idea. I watched some documentary from Mao's time (China - Mao Bloody Revolution Revealed) and also on Deng in the past 24 hours and have a slightly different prospective.

There have often been a lot of criticisms in the Western media regarding human rights in China. A lot of that is well deserved. As shown in Koppel's documentary (and also could be confirmed by anyone that lived in China for more than a month), the amount of corruption and the driven for greed is astounding; and has caused so much injustice in the country (many in the form of human right violations like forcible eviction). Koppel's interview with billionaire Vincent Lo really revealed some interesting points. Mr. Lo basically made several major points
- while he is not happy about China's human rights record, but they have to start somewhere.
- the autocratic gov't has gone from socialism to become the world's most business friendly government with a constitution of economic development.
- this current autocratic system has delivered 300 million people out of poverty in 30 years and democracy could not have done that
- assurance of stable gov't + policies allow investors like himself get involved in the Chinese economy and deliver more wealth to the country
So, does that mean we should accept or tolerate such human right abuses and lack of democracy in the country.

For this, I watched a documentary on Mao by Phillip Short of BBC and reflected also on past documentaries I watched + what I know from growing up in China. There have been several documentaries made about Mao in the past 15 years as foreigners became allowed to interview people close to Mao at that time. None of which are flattering to Mao. Simply put, there have been 4 major man-caused disasters since the founding of CCP in the 1920s. The first two were the Japanese invasion in 1937-1945 and the civil war in 1946-1949. The next two were both caused by Mao himself in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. I knew that things were really bad during the years of great leap forward, but didn't really know how bad they were until seeing that 20+ million people died of starvation from 1958-1962. It was especially disconcerting to read that cannibalism was quite common during that period (mostly of dead people, but also of living in some cases). Even through all of this mass starvation, the gov't continued the insane policies of exporting grains to other countries to pay off Soviet debts and to look self sufficient in front of outside nations. I guess my family was not as affected by those years because we lived in the cities. However, the urban dwellers had their turn in front of the gun when Cultural Revolution came. All through China, urban youths were sent to the countryside to help the motherland. The intellectuals and the slightly wealthy urban dwellers and supporters of sacked leaders were all publicly humiliated and beaten. There were many stories of deans of universities and principals of schools getting beaten to death or committing suicide after being tortured. Worst of all, some of the most precious art, literature and historical places were destroyed by the brainwashed youth also known as the Red Guards. Personally speaking, my mother's parents were both severely persecuted because of their educational background. The Mao era had none of the war and foreign occupation that plagued the country for the 100 years before that. However, it was replaced by a psychotic leader that managed to brainwash much of the population and destroyed all possible political opponents through radical ideological movements (Cultural Revolution and other major purges). Other than Zhou Enlai and Zhu De, all of the other major revolutionaries like Peng Dehuai, Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and many other generals were purged, humiliated and tortured. The administration was infected by leftist radicals like the Gang of Four, Mao himself and Lin Biao to a lesser degree. The succession of Deng Xiaoping over Hua GuoFeng in late 1970s was the first time in the recent Chinese history where a succession happened over a unified China without blood spilling or purges. And thankfully, they have finally put in a system that would allow for peaceful transition of power and that would prevent future emergence of charismatic leader (like Mao himself). If this series of events sound crazy, one has to realize that this was nothing new in the Chinese history. Unfortunately, Chinese history is marred by continuous cycles of internal war, mass starvation, political purges by emperors and village rebellions that led to new deification of rebellion leader as an emperor God.

In Koppel's documentary, he interviewed a bunch of villager who insisted that life is better now than it has ever been. Their explanation was that "the army no longer forces people to join. And we are no longer forced to move off our land." And the oldest women in the village said that right now is the best time to live because they have enough food to eat and enough clothes to wear. Some may think these are extraordinary statements or that the Chinese population has set their standards way too low. However, one only has to look at the past to see how much things have moved. When my parents were in their early 20s, they were working at textile factories and villages in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. All form of higher education were stopped (even most lower level of education were stopped), so their dreams of going to university were sitting in vain. When my grandparents were in their early 20s, China was involved in the two major wars of this century. A lot of their friends were killed by Japanese brutality and then by the civil war. When my great grandparents were in their early 20s, China had just became a republic and was in the midst of constant infighting between local warlords. It should not be hard to see why the Chinese gov't fears change and instability so much. Deng Xiaoping what happened to China in the 60s and 70s when the country went into policies without pragmatism and caution. His philosophy of control, pragmatism and caution has been passed onto all of the current leaders. Outside of the TianAnMen Square crackdown, one can hardly argue against this period of peace, political stability and economical growth in China. A lot of people on the top are fearful that if their current hold on power is taken away, the country will go back into chaos like prior to 1978.

It is very easy to credit Deng Xiaoping and recent administrations for China's success in the past 30 years, but are they really that responsible? Looking back at the period right after Mao's death, the Chinese population was ready to open itself up to the rest of the world and embrace capitalism. I think that opening up the country to Western investment and technology was the smartest thing that the gov't did once the relations were normalized with the Western countries. From his past experiences at the top, Deng Xiaoping saw the need for pragmatic engagement with the West over extreme ideological warfare. According to this well written article by Hoover Institution, the Chinese people were hungry by then for political reform. They were even acting out illegally in many cases to make money for their families. During the late 70s and early 80s, the younger generation were kids when the great leap forward happened and teenagers when the cultural revolution happened. I think they became disillusioned of class struggle and socialism after being starved and later sent to the farms. The older generation still had enough memory of the period of society prior to 1949. I think both generations had suffered enough by then and really wanted to work hard to make lives better for their kids. Even today, the older generation in China are the younger generation of the late 70s, so they still remembered the chaos, starvation, poverty and hard times. They don't really mind to work super hard to ensure better future for their kids. And I think Ted Koppel's documentary was a perfect illustration of what every poor Chinese family are willing to do for their kids. He made a perfect point later in an extra interview that "Chinese people probably deserve to go to the hall of fame for enduring hardship and suffering". When you look at Ted Koppel's interview with the owner of Lifan, you can see the prototypical hardened Chinese entrepreneur that is willing to do whatever it takes to make it in the capitalistic world. You also hear about this with many of the other successful business men in China. They have succeeded because of their hardened experience during the great leap forward and the cultural revolution. They know that the only way forward is to beat out your competition in any possible way. So, I think that China is thriving in the world economy now, because the people that are driving the economic growth are the same people who were hardened through the Mao-caused disasters. It is beating out competitions around the world like Japan did in the 50s/60s because it has a very driven group of people willing to endure hardship. I think that the recent regime's main role through all of this time is to continue a stable environment to allow Chinese people to better their own lives. Deng and the following leaders were smart enough to not stop a good thing when it has already started. The only thing that prevented this from happening for the 100 years prior to that were continued chaos, utter lunacy in power and the numerous wars. And maybe Deng's policy of maintaining stability and not stopping good things is the best anyone can ever hope a government to do. The question as we move forward is whether or not China can continue to strive in the world market when the future generation that came in after the start of the single child policy become the drivers of the economy. Can the Chinese population still work hard and endure suffering when most of the people grew up being spoiled and pampered by their parents.

So in the past 30 years, we have gone from a society of total chaos and starvation to a society of vibrant growth with large degree of personal freedom. It is hard to imagine that China will ever go back to the Mao days. In fact, I read a recent article where Chinese tourists started to complain about lack of freedom after a day of visit in North Korea. Today's North Korea is probably where China was at the time of Cultural Revolution. In fact, the evolution of North Korea from a state that was wealthier and more industrialized than South Korea in the 60s to the pariah state that it is today is a very good parallel to what happened to China in the 60s and 70s. Knowing all of this, the question is what holds in the future for China in terms of democracy and human rights. I think it was very interesting that Ted Koppel mentioned in several places that what he saw or many of the interviews that he was happening could not have happened 15 years ago or even 5 years ago. This shows a gradual change in the personal freedom that we are seeing in the ordinary citizens. For example, I don't think the administration would be able to survive the internal backlash from a crackdown like the one in TianAnMen Square. Actually ever since the death of Deng Xiaoping, no civilian leader will ever have the same power to control the military. That is a good thing, because the politburo members have to retire after 2 terms of power. And we are certainly seeing a lot of checks and balances within the PSC to prevent a God-like leader ever appearing again. As the power at the top have slowly faded from Mao to Deng to Jiang to Hu and to Xi Jinping in the future, the question is whether or not we can have a peaceful transition to some form of electoral based system. I think that a transition to elecoral based system will happen in the next 20 years, but I hope it does not come as a result of a violent national uprising by the disenfranchised over the wealth gap between the haves and the have-nots. Even though today's system is causing a lot of corruption, injustice and wealth gap, it has vastly improved the lives of most Chinese people. I think that a complete repudiation of this system would cause chaos and economic disaster in the short term.

Even so, I do hope for some kind of repudiation in the future. I think that the mistakes that Mao made in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution will never be properly revealed to the Chinese public unless this system is shaken. Deng continued the legacy of Mao and the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party by maintaining that Mao's contribution to history was 70% good and 30% bad. I cannot see CCP go any further in repudiating Mao because 1) that would take away their legitimacy in power; 2) the population just doesn't care anymore. And I think my second point is probably the sadest of all. Even from my parent's generation, they have grown up with the view that Mao was this great leader that unified China but made some mistakes along the way. Leaders like Liu Shaoqi and Peng Dehuai have been rehabilitated, but they have never received the credit they deserved for bringing China out of the Great Leap Forward and trying to run the country. Most of the blames for the Cultural Revolution should rest upon Mao rather than the Gang of Four or Lin Biao. Even though he unified the country and kicked out the foreigners, he also set the nation back to stone ages with his insane economic policies and political movements. In the future, 95% of the new generation of Chinese would grow up never know about how bad things were between the early 1950s and 1978. And I think that is a mistake, because they need to learn about the past to not repeat it again in the future. So, I hope that as people demand for better rule of law and more freedom in the future, the government will incrementally become more open about its past. More transparency from the gov't on these matters is certainly better than having its own citizens watching documentaries of Mao on youtube (some of which are quite biased). There is a major bubble forming in the Chinese economy. Once that bubble bursts, the gov't needs to be prepared for millions of unemployed college students hanging around the country. It would need to also continuously change to prevent another million people from protesting in front of TianAnMen Square. Because the next time it happens, I doubt the army would be listening to the civilian commands.

In conclusion, I think that even though China is going through a really healthy period of peace and growth, there are some looming signs of danger up ahead. Having looked back through its recent history, I understand the politburo's obsession with stability and caution, but also think that they need to continue to change to maintain this stability. Nobody really knows what would happen if the Chinese economy bubble bursts. I hope that the country does not go back to chaos, because that would set the country back many years. I would recommend all of the links that I have mentioned in this blog entry. They are great places to start in understanding Modern China.


odessaguy said...

Thank you Feng, very thoughtful and interesting commentary. I spent a year at a university in Beijing when I was in my 60's. I had many opportunities to discuss China's recent history with older Chinese people and I was surprised at the large gaps in their knowledge of their history. I was also disturbed by their willingness to accept things the way they are and to assume that China cannot progress politically. Time is on the side of the people and the enemy of the CCP.
My regards and thanks.
Howard McCarthy

Feng said...

Hey Howard, I think the problem is that they only know what China was like. And frankly, past Chinese gov't were all monarchy or a really corrupt and incompetent Nationalist gov't. So even though CCP was really bad in Mao's time, people just accepted another corrupt and incompetent gov't. Of course, things were particularly bad in Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, but such turmoils are nothing new in the Chinese history. But now that China has opened up to the world, I think at least the intellectuals would expect better form of governance.

Jiang said...

Why you people always talk shit about CCP? What is wrong with it? I think it is better than the US government, at least CCP did not FU$Ked up the encomony. Time is not CCP's enemy, many young people actually like the CCP, I am one of them!!!!

Feng, you need to stop all this crap, you live in Canada and has NEVER comtributed to China's progress. Also, look at Democrazy Bhindia, it is FAR WORST than China, go whine about them, NOT PRC!

Feng said...

Jiang, just because a gov't is doing well, doesn't mean it is infallible. And just because it's doing well now, doesn't mean it was doing well before. The problem is that Mao ran China horribly and many people died because of him during those 27 years. China really got lucky with Deng coming to power. But if we had Mao for longer or Hua GuoFeng remaining in power, I really don't know what would happen to the country. CCP looks good now because of the reforms started by Deng, but it was terrible when Mao was in power. He basically did nothing right when he governed.

odessaguy said...

Jiang, I am curious as to what it is that you like about the CCP. I can't imagine why anyone would like to live in a country which is run by a gang. Think about it, the CCP has all of the characteristics of a gang. You can't just join, they must agree to let you in. The tax the people without giving the people any say as to how much or where to spend it. In my opinion the Chinese people are intellegent and are as capable as anyone in deciding how they are to be governed and by whom.

Feng said...

That's too harsh. CCP is pretty easy to join. And I think the tax we pay in America is far, far worse. I actually think the current politburo does a better job of helping its people than Obama or Bush administration. Of course, there are some major problems. I think they need to start by having freedom of press and freedom of Internet. That would go a long way in exposing corruption, environmental disasters and abuse of power. And if they can finally develop rule of law, they can assure that individual rights are guaranteed.

Japan had pretty much uninterrupted LDP rule and I don't think Human Rights Watch are banging on their down. If China can get free press + rule of law, then I think it's pretty much set.

Christian Brotherhood said...

I agree with you, Feng (by the way I read your posts on Varyag in Sinodefence forum. I think Jiang might be right also. My antagonism towards CCP is largely gone after staying in the USA for more than 20 years (I have participated in all national and state-wide elections and my faith in electoral democrcy is fading). As old Chinese saying goes, "The tiger in the east side of the mountain devours people; so does the tiger on the west side of the mountain."

Christian Brotherhood said...

I also don't believe China is better off with a west style democracy. Rule of law and a strong dose of national socialism will propel China to the superpower status it deserves. Peoples on Asia continent are truly "chosen peoples" - all major religions were developed here: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hiduism, Buddism, Confucism, and Taoism. Four hundred year European (and their descendents) dominating world affairs is just a blip on a long continous civilization history of all Asian peoples. Jesus was not a European; he was an Asian.

Jiang said...

Dude, I said before. We Chinese people are different from the Western people. As long as we Chinese have finicial freedom, we dont give a sh!t about freedom of speech!! What can you do with it? Think about it, I live in CA and it SUCKS here. We pay so much taxes and yet the infrastructure is aging and rotting! The 10th Free way is always JAMED like Sh!t and everyday I have to spend at least 2 hours stuck in traffic. In China you barely pay any taxes,(You make 100 dollars you keep 95 dollar, in Europe or North America, you make 100 dollars you keep 50 or at the most 60 dollars). Indeed you have the freedom to say and speech. But what can that DO? California is already Bankrupted and the state government is still OVERSPENDING and Rasing taxes. My tuition got rasied 30% at UCLA yet the class room size got bigger with fewer Teaching assistants and fewer class to choose from. This is Terriable!

The bottom line is I would rather choose Finicial freedom( Which mean less tax) Than freedom of speech at any time!

Jiang said...

Now back to CCP. Yes Mao is an A$$hole, he did the right thing and bad thing. He united China and another VERY IMPORTANT thing he did is to Capture Tebit and XinJiang! Think about it, if it wasn't Mao, Bhindia would got to Tebit first and XinJiang will most likely went independent, because the National Party at the time Solely rely on the West and will S#ck USA's d!ck to get help, which means they will let go Tebit and XinJiang. Now imagine China today with out XinJiang and Tibet will be like? The Bindians will use Tibet to threaten China, since Tibet is high ground and have vast water and mineral supply which can be use to CONTROLL China. With out XinJiang the muslims will be left unchecked and the Han culture will be at risk as well. Now with Both Tibet and XinJiang at hands, the Bhindians DONT DARE to do a thing, not only do we have physical connection with Pakistan but also We are the one who holds water supply and high grounds and Bhindia is at Huge disadvantage! With XinJiang at hand, we have additional OIL to fuel our BOOMING encomony and keep terriosts at bay thus protecting Han culture! So Mao's credit is far more than just uniting China but also establishing China's future as well.( Note, that when Mao is alive NO one dare to cross or invade China, even the mighting USSR never invaded China despite the fact that they put 2 millon troops near our boarder). I also know the bad things he did such as great leap forward and CR, which set China back for many years, so I aggree with you on this one.

Now, regarding why I like CCP. I think CCP is getting better! and better! I am not a member of CCP but I do think that CCP is quite competent, Chinese Communist Party is VASTLY different from USSR. It is good at getting people RICH! and develping the country. For example: 1. China and India were both poor country at first. In 1947 India is free from UK and its GDP is TWICE the size of PRC, India has good infrasture and produce TWICE the amount of steel and FOUR times the amouont of food than PRC. YET after 65 years of DemonCrazy Bhindia falls way Behind PRC. RIght now PRC's DGP is 5 trillion not even counting HK while Bhindia's GDP is less than 1.3 trilion, which means China's GDp is now FOUR times of India. China produce EIGHT time the amount of steel and 6 times the amoount of Electricity and FOUR times the amount of FOOD!! Dont foget to see Chinese military is far more productive than Bhindia's. China produce most of her defence weapons such as fightes, guns, tanks, ships and subs, also Export many weapons around the world. Bhindia on the other hand can't make Sh!T! Even their guns for army are imported. So my dear odessaguy, you see CCP is very Impressive at lesat COMPARE with your DemonCrazy Indian "friend". Another Example, CCP is very good at motivating and Uniting people. Many years ago we Chinese are a bunch of lay back people who do not wish to work hard, but now Nearly EVERY Chinese want to be RICH and be accomplished, and I am one of them, which is why I am getting my PhD.

I am done taling today :)


xiaotangfeidao said...

Dear Feng, I have been reading your blogs for quite some time and they have been very informative, thank you. I am currently doing my phd at CWRU. I have lived half of my life in PRC and half in USA. I been going back to PRC about once a year and I am AMAZED at the progress the country has made. I think the CCP is doing a great job. CCP is the only government with the power and resources that are necessary for undergoing monumental projects. Its centralization gives it the ability to be extremely effective shaping every aspect of the country. For those ppl who thinks the CCP is some selfish entity that do not care for the well being of its country and ppl and that the chinese ppl are suffering under its rule, you are idiots. China has 1.3 billion ppl. It is IMPOSSIBLE for a government to suppress 1.3 billion oppressed and unhappy people from standing up and overthrowing a government unless the majority of ppl are truely content with their lives. If you dont believe this fact, you need to read more history books. The progress PRC has made under the CCP is tremendous and unique in history. So if anything, the CCP has governed well. As for democracy and the freedom of speech etc ... I think Feng hit the nail when he said china needs more press freedom and internet freedom. I too believe a more robust news press would solve alot of corruption problems in China. However I am postive that when these freedoms are established, there will be many false accusations that will hurt many innocent ppl. Again if you dont believe this just look at american history. That is why these freedoms cannot be given in one lump sum but must be slowly released so that the country and ppl can adjust to it. As for democracy, those ppl who think the citizens of USA have true freedom you need to wake up. Yes we can vote but realistically there are only two options! You think all the choices in life can be sumed up to two options, democrates and republicans? For every issue the majority wins and in this country the majority is rarely > 60% so almost half of the country is unhappy with result. In PRC, ppl do not have the power to vote yet but honestly, it makes little difference and Jiang is absolutely right when he said financial freedom is way more important than politcal freedom. I bet if you offer ppl in the US 1 million dollars for their right to vote, most ppl would accept it. POVERTY has always been the greatest hardship for humanity, for all the revolutions in histoy, 99% of it can be traced to poverty. For those that argue religion is a great cause for conflicts in history, I disagree with you and I think you need to look deeper. Most conflicts that seem to originate from religion on the surface are actually driven by financial motives that use religion as the cover. So I think the CCP's primary goal should always be to make its ppl as rich as they can be. Once everyone has LCD tvs in their homes, other freedoms will just come naturally. For those ppl and countries who wants China to change its policies in one day, your motives are extremely suspect. You either wish ill on the Chinese ppl or you are extremely naive (or just stupid.)

Wen said...

Well done Feng. I'm not agreeing with you about every point in this article, yet I have to say most of them are carefully supported and the rationale is sound. However, may I suggest you an another perspective to approach the issue?

The founding of PRC is not just a sovereignty replacing a wasteland under colonialism and anarchy for over a century, it practically revived the whole Chinese nation, or in another word, given back the people Chinese Identity, which was about to dissipate into oblivion when the Japanese took most of the country and easily recruited millions of collaborators. Mao Zedong knew it when he announced “Chinese people has once again stood up” in 1949, the sentiment must have reverberated among a large portion of the nation if not the whole of it, which was promptly proven during the Korea War. Call it nationalism, cultural recognition, or simply, national spirit, this is the most distinct attribute of a nation, as polymaths in the earlier periods such as Liang Qichao, Lu Xun etc. sought to hammer into people’s minds in vain. History from Rome to Germany proves the rise of a nation must be fuelled by the development of its national spirit. On the other hand, ancient nations such as Egyptians or Babylonians are now but archaeological terms as their descendants regard themselves Muslims among all.

CCP rekindled the Chinese national spirit from the ashes of political zombies the likes of Ching Dynasty or ROC, and fan-fared it recklessly throughout the early periods of PRC, as a result nation plagued with fanaticism and in consequence massive suffering. Mao Zedong personally opened the Pandora’s box not realising the impact this “people’s movement” would exercise. Soon after openly admitting the error of his judgement after Great Leap Forward, he started cultural revolution from his sanatorium with hardly any knowledge about the havoc it caused outside. It is fair to hold him chiefly responsible for two decades of disasters and he certainly meant to prosecute his colleagues though the massive civilian casualty (especially from famine) was only due to his negligence. His no doubt catastrophic mistake was essentially different from the crimes committed by another few personage in the past century that westerners tend to associate his name with. Westerners find it perplexing that the Chinese still harbour respect towards Mao Zedong the “mass murderer”, but let’s face it, such labelling is an assault to both historical facts and common sense, or will Americans label Herbert Hoover a mass murderer re. the death toll during the Great Depression? In truth from CCP to the Chinese nation as a whole are to blame for those tragedies, even the absurd cold war period altogether (e.g. sanctions) is a highly relevant factor here.

The success of the latest decades won back CCP the favour from Chinese people, the temporarily subdued national spirit back in 80th seems to rise up again in the new century. CCP treads carefully this time though, they actually meant it when they proposed to build up a harmonious society (with all those policy & legislation developments in China). Will Chinese nationalism lead to another Nazi Germany or Japanese Empire? The chance is western world may find themselves an ally in the very CCP, who vowed not to repeat the mistake from “the age of passion” ever again.

While outsiders are lamenting, “look, still no voting!”, CCP is undergoing the double-track internal political reform: to promote the democratic approach in decision-making; to ensue accountability in policy implementation. On public side, the focus of social administration reform moved on from experimental local-level direct election to the public monitoring of government performance. What CCP and Chinese society are evolving into is hard to say, yet the nation has decided to tread out its own path instead of following the western conductor’s little baton (or shall I say carrots & clubs?): since ever we Chinese have preferred solo instruments to symphonic stuff.