Those following the events in China are intrigued by an important question: What will be its likely future course once it achieves a high level of economic development?
Someone analysing China based on what is happening in the wider world may come to the conclusion that it will follow the Western model and become a multi-party democracy. Whereas those analysing China based on its history and culture may come to the conclusion that it will not follow the Western model even after it achieves a high level of economic development.
As Martin Jacques, a long-time China observer explains in his rather controversial book, When China Rules the World, our fascination with Western style multi-party democracy has a lot to do with the political, economic and cultural dominance the West has enjoyed over the rest for a long time. Now that China is emerging as a major international power, perhaps in our lifetime, we would come to view the world from China’s perspective, shaped by its historical experience and culture. Although some scholars such as Fareed Zakaria do not see culture as important in determining a country’s political system, there are many others, including late Prof Roy C. Macridis, who believe that no normative aspects such as the patterns of socialisation and even child rearing, should be overlooked while analysing a country or a region as they may have relevance to politics.
It is 22 years since the students demanding political reforms were mowed down in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. If it were any other country, the protests would have escalated and the regime would be confined to the dustbin of history. But China, since 1989, has not witnessed any major anti-government protests despite it now having the highest number of cell-phone and internet users. Some argue that it is because of an effective control mechanism employed by the government that makes it difficult to disseminate anti-government views, and they are not entirely wrong. The government monitors what gets posted on the web and what gets transmitted through cell-phones. For example, if one is to send a text-message in May and June saying let’s meet at 4 o’clock on the 6th floor, or any message containing the numbers 4 and 6, the message is likely to disappear as the numbers correspond to the date of the Tiananmen incident—June 4. But there’s a way around it if somebody really wants to send a message about the massacre: Since Chinese is a tonal language and the same sound, depending on the character used can have different meanings, one can choose to replace the character for 4 (si) with another character that too is pronounced si. The same goes for the number 6(liu). Some creative minds have come up with 8×8 to transmit their views on Tiananmen to dodge the web and phone censors. Similarly, to criticise the government’s (zheng fu) harmonious society policy (hexie shehui) the Chinese use ZF and river crab, which is also pronounced hexie. Therefore, strict censorship of the web and phone messages too, are unable to block what gets transmitted via cell phones and the web. But June 4 passes like any other day in China.
This is where culture comes in to explain the indifference of the majority to what happened on June 4, 1989. As Prof. Pan Wei of Peking University’s School of International Studies explains, for the Chinese, it does not matter who runs the government but how it is run. Meaning, if the government can provide stability and economic growth, then the people are fine with whatever the form of government. This has much to do with Confucianism, which has exerted a heavy influence on Chinese society for the last two millennia. Confucius—the ancient sage— is now a brand-ambassador of rising China through government funded institutes bearing his name in many parts of the world. He explained in eight Chinese characters how to achieve a harmonious society, translated in English as “Let the ruler rule as he should and the minister be a minister as he should. Let the father act as a father should and the son act as a son should.” He also stated that it is alright to rebel against unjust rulers, and rebellions against unjust rulers are nothing new for the Chinese. There is no reason to believe that 1.3 billion people would remain passive, especially at a time when tide and technology both are in their favour, if they believed the present regime to be hostile to their interests. 1989 was one such instance. Widespread nepotism and corruption, coupled with inflation and the government doing away with the policy of providing jobs to graduates, led to protests. Immediately after the crackdown, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-led government went about addressing the protestors’ demands. The result is there for all to see.
Today, the Chinese are freer than ever before in their recorded history. Unlike the Mao-era China, burgeoning private enterprises have made people economically less dependent on the state, which has weakened the CCP’s grip on the society. We hear of protests against corrupt officials and misguided policies in many parts of China occurring frequently, but the point to note is: The protestors do not want any major change in the government; they just want certain policies revoked or officials punished. For the majority of Chinese, the CCP is ruling as it should, hence there is no reason to rebel against it.
Also, from historic times, the Chinese have always emphasised stability and order and they fear the ensuing chaos following the collapse of the central authority. A rebellion is a no-no unless and until it is absolutely necessary. The regime, aware of its vulnerability and to safeguard its rule, it draws inspiration from dynastic rule. The Chinese state today with its emphasis on meritocracy and social harmony resembles earlier dynasties more so, than a communist dictatorship, prompting some to call it the Chinese Confucianist Party.
As late Prof. John King Fairbank who introduced Chinese studies in the US wrote in the preface of his much acclaimed book, China: A New History: “Once the modern revolution in Chinese thought got under way in the 1890s, it became evident that no foreign model could fit the Chinese situation, that many models would be used but none would be adequate, and the creative Chinese people would have to work out their salvation in their own way. Having had a unique past, they would have their unique future.” Today we are witnessing the development of a uniquely Chinese model that combines the positive traits of its glorious past and modern political and economic thoughts to address the demands and concerns of its majority. Perhaps in the soon to be China-centric world order (pax sinica), we will find the unique Chinese system evolving gradually through trials and errors as appealing as we find the Western model today.
– Trailokya Raj Aryal