Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Reflection on 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....

Comment: A rather interesting piece on China through the eyes of a young (and former) Chinese citizen. My perspective is a bit different. I have been involved with China since 1986. I lived there in 1988, and I was the host for many Chinese dignitaries to Canada in 1989. I also helped the children of Chinese officials (two who now hold very senior posts in Fujian Province and one who retired a few years ago from their version of the Politburo) who defected right after the Tienanmen Square massacre.

In short .... my contacts are deep and personal .... relationships that were formed almost 25 years ago.

I concur with Feng's observation that Beijing is paranoid about security and national stability. But the reason why they are like that is simple .... many of the men who run China today were witness to the suffering and hardships that instability and chaos brought to China during the Cultural Revolution. When I first started to visit China and to meet all of my contacts in 1988, all of these officials were very open in describing the horrible conditions that they had to endure during the Cultural revolution .... and as a result many of them have made an unspoken commitment to themselves that such an event will never happen again. No one talks about what needs to be done .... they all understand that security and stability must be maintained at all costs .... a state of mind that pervades throughout the Chinese bureaucracy and the levers of power.

As to their economic growth and development .... this is also not a surprise. The concept of capitalism is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and philosophy. It was suppressed during Mao's rule .... but once he is was gone the shackles were released and we have the China of today. For this, a great deal of acknowledgment should go to Deng Xiaoping

There is more in Feng's commentary that I can comment on .... but for the moment just read the rest of what he is written.