Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Charter 08 (零八宪章)

Today is December 10th, and for all it's worth, exactly sixty years ago the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed. In China, that event was celebrated by a group of influential intellectuals who published "Charter 08", a pamphlet in remembrance of the 1977 pamphlet by Havel and his friends in Prague. Among the people who signed the document is Liu Xiaobo, one of China's leading critics and 'intellectual enfant terribile'. Liu was arrested yesterday, and for now is still in prison. "Charter 08" calls for thorough reforms and democratization. Perry Link translated it for the New York Review. Read it, and the floor is opened for debate! If anyone manages to find the chinese version, please let me know.
First questions I would like to pose:
So the document is published today, and Perry Link translated it today? He must have received a copy beforehand. Which leads to my next question: Who will read this document IN China? I am 99% sure that the People's Daily will kindly decline the offer.
Furthermore, "Change is no longer optional"? This kind of talk will not please Zhongnanhai...
Pay special attention to the repeated mentioning of "basic and universal values". Do they mean "western values"? Or are democracy and republicanism universal?

Time for debate!

Thomas de Groot
December 10th 2008

Update: the Chinese document is here. With a list of all the people who signed...
Update 2: The document was deliberately published online. But so far I haven't seen any reaction on the BBS-forums. Will the portals apply auto-censorship?
Update 3: The first real reply by a "left wing" intellectual was just released by Wang Xizhe on his blog. ESWN has the translation. Earlier this week, the debate on China's future was started by Yu Keping, one of the closest advisors to Hu Jintao, by an interview he gave to several newspapers. It seems it is going to be an interesting winter. Read More..

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The King is dead - Long live the King

I've always been very fascinated by the American dream. Not the dream itself, but the way it was marketed and spread to every corner of the world. Just the fact that I, not being an English native speaker, find it not only useful, but also natural to write this post in English clearly shows who won the Cold War. Another noteworthy fact is that I used the word "market", a slightly more positive word than it's counter part used to describe similiar Russian culture export during the same period, this so-called "propaganda", even though it basically was the same act. The winner takes it all, ey?

So, where does China fit in all this? Well, as recent history shows, being a world super-power is not only about economic and military power, but also about the ability to promote values. This is why I've always been very hostile to the idea that the 21st century is going to be Chinese, as an increasing amount of people seem to believe. To me, the idea that China is going go global with it's culture, as the Americans did with the American Dream, is all very absurd. Chinese culture seems to be way too introvert for that to happen, not only at present, but historically. They don't seem to have the ambition or motivation to export their culture to the extent that the Americans did, and still are doing. Most people in the western world seems to feel that the American dream is passé, but the fact still remains: Although the admiration of America in post-World War 2 Europe probably was stronger than it is today, my generation has a life much more like that of the American dream, than those who grew up 30, 40 years ago. It's not until now that we are actually living the dream.

Dream of a white collar life

But maybe I've been to egocentric, only viewing the world as the U.S., Europe and some Asian countries. What if the Chinese and the Africans get along and decide to leave us out of the equation? Africa has every right to be skeptical towards us Europeans; throughout history we've caused them nothing but harm and China could be seen as a more suitable companion. Check out this article in the Seattle Times, entitled The American Dream Now Made in China, for more on the subject.

André Holthe, November 2008
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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Obama not suitable for being President

Last week Senator Barack Obama was elected President of the US. Not only was he able to gain the trust of the majority of Americans, but it seems that a vast majority of the world's population was in favour of Obama. According to an online poll conducted on the China daily website by the U.S embassy, 75 percent of Chinese people supports Obama, despite the fact that the Chinese government tried to dampen popular enthusiasm for an Obama win in the American election.

I guess the high support rates for Obama abroad is partly a result of 8 years under the rule of George W. Bush, probably the most unpopular American President ever, but Obama has nevertheless done a great job conviencing the world that he is up for the task.

With the US facing a financial crises (and a likely recession to come with it) and two major wars abroad, we should all hope he is.

But, American spending is decreasing and with that Chinese exports. Already factories in China are starting to lay off people, and this is probably just the beginning. Naturally, Chinese government officials are not very fond of the fact that Obama is likely to try and save the US economy by raising import taxes and implenting other barriers that will unfavour Chinese exports.

Personally, I have to say am really surprised that Obama enjoys such high rates of support in China. With Obama being black, I would have thought that he would receive hostile criticism from a significant number of Chinese. In general Chinese people have a skeptical attitude towards black people. One could argue that this applies only for the uneducated, but in China that is still a vast majority of the population. I remember taking a cab in Beijing earlier this year, and for some reason the topic of different races ended up being discussed, and I still can't shake one of the things my driver said to me "You know, we Chinese don't quite yet live in a fully developed country, like you white people do, but some day we will. At least we're better than the blacks!".

But with this being said, I can understand why the Chinese do seem to love Obama, he does indeed represent something close to the American dream. And if there's one thing I've learn about Chinese it's that they are very much like Americans. I can already hear you all laugh at this statement, but I really mean it. When it comes to being competetive, whether it's in education, business, sports or a social context, Americans and Chinese think and behave very similar. They all have a strong believe in being a self made man, if you don't make it; if you don't make it, there's got to be something wrong with you as an individual.

This post was actually supposed to be a translation of a Chinese blog post with just a brief introduction. So, let's cut to the chase.

Link to original article (in Chinese)
Author: Unknown
Obama, you're not suitable for being the President of the United States of America!

1. Lack of real experience
There's a saying in China: "Those who suffer, will one day get their chance - What goes around comes around." (lit. A daughter-in-law who suffers will one day become a mother-in-law). Look at you, a senator, a federal senator - now President. You should know that being a senator is not really dealing with adminstrative matters, it's more like being a People's Congress delegate, meaning when you next year assume office, you have never been in charge of real administrative duties, you have never really dealt with any matters of real importants. In other words, you, who has not even served as a country magistrate, is going to serve as President!? Take a look at China, are there really any high officals who has laddered to the top without doing it step by step? They all have plenty of experience from real life communities. But with your qualifications!? Sweet dreams!

2. Way too young
When China in 2006 elected members for the standing comittee, the youngest to be chosen was 53 years old, and that was after fall is just to make the cadres younger in average age. When introducing them, our leaders addressed them in a conceited tone. Being Commander of Chief by the age of 47, isn't that a quite obvious signal for China? Will you be able to provide a rudder for your country, with no one there to help you? Will you be able to lead the reformation? I suggest that after you come to power, you let old fellows like Bush and Clinton work together to give you some pointers, this way the citizens of your country can feel relived. Remember, keep the vessel steady!


According to the blog where I found this post, it is uncertain if this was written as a joke or just to provoke, nevertheless, I put it up to show at least one thing: The difference between how western democracies are electing their leaders through general elections and how China more and more is turning into a steady technocracy, a society in which those who govern justify themselves by appeal to technical experts who justify themselves by appeal to scientific forms of knowledge. In these troubled financial times, it is tempting to support the latter.

Update: Due to the Chinese government envoking new censorship laws, has been forced to close. The original blogpost of my translation is therefore unavailable. I'll see if I can find another version of it and update the link...

André Holthe, November 2008
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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Faces of China

Faces of China

Most foreigners who live in China say that Hong Kong is one of the most pleasant places to go to. You can sit in the park, drink your latte and read the Herald Tribune of today. In the afternoon you can go to Times Square and protest for the Falun Gong and before going to bed you can browse through the latest anti-Mao biography, that you bought legally and with a slight touch of pride. Even more people who live in China, once they set foot on Hong Kong, have the tendency to say bad things about Mainland China. It is very easy to criticise the Mainland, because the differences with Hong Kong are so obvious. Not only the apparent freedom but also the smells, the air quality, the traffic, the service, everything is just a little more advanced, modern or pleasant (that’s twice that I use that word in one introduction). What makes Hong Kong so different?

No one can appreciate Hong Kong like we can, the international students, expatriates and globetrotters who are fortunate enough to live in China for sometime. On the other hand, I know people like us, who live in Hong Kong but have never been to the Mainland. Their understanding of China is limited to what they have experienced in Hong Kong, that strange and obscure place that really doesn’t fit in with the rest of China. In fact, the whole selling point of Hong Kong is just that: it is not China. China knows this, and the Communist Party uses this for their own purposes. The investment that is fuelling the Chinese economy mostly comes through Hong Kong. The HKSAR (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) government does the same thing. They manifest themselves as the alternative to the CCP, as something special.
But in the end the “one country, two systems”-concept is still the bottom line. Hong Kong is organising the equestrian event of the Olympics, just so everyone knows that it is part of China. Even, or even more, outside of politics, Hong Kong is China. The people speak Chinese, they eat noodles, pray to Buddha and make money. They light fireworks during the Spring festival and write in Chinese characters. Traditional characters, so you could even say that Hong Kong is more Chinese than the Mainland. A lot of Chinese culture was erased during the Cultural Revolution, and the current leaders of the CCP really don’t seem to be that eager to bring Confucius and Daoism back to the grassroots. The fact that Chinese culture survives a century of British colonial rule, more than it resists a couple of decades of enraged Maoists, says something about the impact of Maoism.
While I am sitting on the crossing of Canton Road and Peking Road, drinking my obligatory Starbucks-latte, I can’t help but wonder why the difference in feeling or vibe as you will, between the Mainland and Hong Kong is so evident. What was it that made this atmosphere so completely incomparable? Is it the Communist Party? Or the British? Is it merely the difference in development (Hong Kong is richer than most European countries, where as most people on the mainland live without running water or electric heating)? Or is it all because of the impact of Mao Zedong?
It is not about what is the real China, or what China should be like. We live here, we study Chinese and we try to understand the situation. This part of the world will determine the history of the 21st century. It is for all of us that we need to understand “China”, not just the PRC or the HKSAR. For future references, it is probably more interesting to underline the things these two administrative entities and their respective peoples have in common. You will find that the common ground between the PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau is what makes Chinese culture.
My latte is enjoyably warm and the atmosphere feels like home, like a big city in the West. But then I see the news on the television. A tragedy is unfolding in the south of Mainland China. Millions of people, mostly migrant workers and students who plan to spend their only free time in the year to help their families in the countryside, are trying to get home for the Spring festival. But for the first time in fifty years snow is falling on Guangdong and Yunan. Electric cables break, roads are blocked, trains stop working, airports are closed. The whole country falls to a meltdown. ‘The collapse of the infrastructure is worrying for the future’, writes The New York Times. ‘The snow has surprised us all’, says The China Daily. But no one writes about what I am looking at. Images that make you shiver, images that are hard to forget. Thousands of people, tired and cold, hungry and stressed. Waiting in the blistering cold for days, outside in front of the train station. They are being told that there will not be any trains to their hometown, not this week. Authorities are saying they should go back to where they came from. Back to the big city where they work. Or spend the New Year on the street in front of the station. Carrying a year’s collection of stuff to bring to their families, they don’t seem to be considering the options the government is giving them. This week is the only free time they have. They haven’t seen their loved ones for a year. They deserve to go home. What strikes me most is the greyness, their faces full of desperation. If there is one thing I will remember of my time in the PRC it is the face of an ordinary Chinese guy. Panic breaks out. The mass of tired and overloaded people is too big for the square. A stampede starts. People have to fight to survive, as always in this country. People die, get swallowed by the stampede that once it moves is unstoppable. There are no official numbers but the images don’t look good. How do you explain to them, that they will not make it home this year? Why did this happen? Why, in a country where the Olympics are supposed to mark a new era for China, where the 2010 World-Expo is supposed to emphasize its economic hegemony? Why do the ordinary people have to suffer so much?
A week later I spent a night in a train with some young people who had been stuck on that square in Guangzhou. They had waited five days on the streets. They had lost their luggage in the stampede. They had to wait for thirty hours for some drinking water and some instant noodles. They hadn’t showered the whole week. But they smiled, because they were on a train now. At two thirty in the morning, the train suddenly stopped. Three boys of seven were spotted in the headlights of the train. The police went out to check if they were killed or if they were just hurt. Three young and completely exhausted boys were carried onto the train. One of them had broken his foot when they tried to jump on our moving train. Why? They were walking from Nanning to Wuzhou, about 500 kilometres, to get home to their families. They didn’t have money for a train ticket. So they decided to jump on one. Lucky as they were to have survived such a stunt, they looked as miserable as I have ever seen anyone. For me, these are the incidents that give this summer’s Olympics a bitter taste. It is one of the reasons why I will not cheer during the opening ceremony.
Looking at the images of people stuck in the snow or waiting for a train, in a coffee place in Hong Kong is ironic for two reasons. First of all, if I hadn’t been in Hong Kong I would have never seen these images, because the CCP didn’t think it would be suitable for the Chinese citizens to see these terrible scenes. So the images never made it to the television or the newspaper on the Mainland. Second of all, seeing the People’s Republic from a lazy chair in a warm bar in Hong Kong makes you realise something very fundamental. The misery and suffering is exactly what is missing in Hong Kong. Or the other way around, the hardships people endure on the Mainland is what makes it such a different experience. Despite my anger at what I was seeing on the news, I had a crying urge to get back to the Mainland. I got sick of Hong Kong after three days. I wanted to go back to those people, who are always curious and warm hearted. Driving on the super modern and air-conditioned and fully automatic subway from Central back to Tsim Sha Tsui-station, I couldn’t wait to be back in those smelly old trains where people spit on the floor and shout at each other.

Thomas de Groot, Beijing, February, 2008

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The Outsider's View from the Inside

The outsider's view from the inside – hazy reflections on China today

”No man can justly censure or condemn another, because indeed no man truly knows another”
(Thomas Browne)

Arriving China for the first time, in western media described as a nation still concealed by the darkness of communism, we all know what to expect. A demoralized people ruled by a despotic government who governs the country as they like. No opportunity for the individuals to decide for themselves. A dull life where serving the country is the only thing that keeps you from dying of boredom. Or, do we really?

Exiting Beijing Capital airport and taking your first steps on Chinese soil, apart from the polluted air and the crowded streets, what is your first impression of China? Is it Censorship? Unless the first thing you do is to shout out something obscure about free Tibet, this is very unlikely. Maybe it’s just me, a narrow-minded student whose perception of this country differ greatly from that of others, but believe it or not, my first thought was freedom.
Woe unto those who think that this interpretation has anything to do with a fascination for capital punishment, forced labour or censorship. To believe this is making a small, nevertheless fatal error. My point is merely a matter of observing the obvious presence of positive aspects in this society. In any case, let’s return to the topic.
In the morning, in the evening, what’s most delightful?
Personally, I truly enjoy the freedom of living in Beijing. To most westerners, the freedom provided in China is a new kind of freedom. When it comes to everyday life, Beijing is a society of great breadth and wisdom with people distinguished by the largeness and scopes of their views. Despite the size of the city (some say that including its suburbs Beijing is larger than Holland) within most neighbourhoods you will find everything you need during a normal week. A bank, a local grocery store and tons of restaurants, all within the range a five minutes walk. If you’re hungry, no matter where you are in Beijing you don’t have to walk more than a block to get tasty and inexpensive food at all hours of the night. More important though, you can eat it in the restaurant, on the sidewalk or just wrap it up and bring it home. If you think fast food and take away was invented in the United States, you are sadly mistaken. I don’t think I’ve ever waited more than ten minutes for my food, regardless of what time it is. And close to half of all the places that sell food are just stands, hence the take away.
This is not revolutionary city planning, but what is remarkable is that after ten p.m. Beijing is quiet, even though you’ll still be able to get a snack, a beer and a haircut. Most metropolitan areas around the world are all known for one aspect: the never ending street noises. Beijing, on the contrary, actually goes to sleep. Beijing not only provides the Beijinger with an extraordinary chance to save time by utilizing the means at hand, but also to relax and get a good night’s sleep. Freedom of having a choice, as the Americans would say.
Individuality vs. Commitment
Okay, the Beijing life is many ways convenient. What else? Well, what I would like to focus on is how people live their lives here. The quintessence of human life is to survive. When you are able to do so, you are presented with a choice, for whom do you keep living for? Back home we very much live for ourselves. Your interests become studies, then work and somewhere in between you find a partner. No man is completely free, but this is at least the way we like to see ourselves. As pure and free individuals.
If not being the Western counterpart, Chinese society does indeed represent something very different. To me it seems like Chinese people not only live for a greater cause, but they accept that it limits their individual freedom. In other words, just like us, they want to accomplish their goals, they want success. But it doesn’t have to be individual. They have a devotion of time and wealth to their families.
I acknowledge that I could never really live in a society that denies the existence of true individuals in the way Chinese society does. I will gladly confess an inability to understand this. But there is a significant part of me that admires this virtue. I want to scream about suppression of feelings, dreams, and opinions, but as a matter of fact I envy these people for understanding something I don’t. Like this old man having a cigarette on the sidewalk, smiling like he grasped something, something that the rest of us didn’t understand. The way he will stand completely still, while the people just walk on by.
Happiness is a warm gun
During the weeks following the recent developments in Tibet, people all over the world have criticized the Chinese government for their handling of the situation. As the Beijing Olympics get closer, the criticism increases. Constructive criticism is always appreciated, and I am not denying the errors committed in China. Still there is something terribly wrong about the attitude of most people writing about China.
The Western media’s view represents a consensus of opinion that China has nothing to offer our society. The core of the accusations is usually that the wrongs committed by the Chinese, which we seek to condemn and punish, have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate them being ignored. But if China would become a democratic nation according to Western standards then it will all change, right?
Many Western scholars have said that democracy and only democracy will lead to economic development. China has proved them wrong. So, when we now preach democracy as the ultimate goal for a society, isn’t there a chance that we are wrong again? Thoughts and ideas have never been improved on the basis of ignorance. Of course we are obligated to preserve our liberties as free citizens, but by stating that our way of thinking is flawless, we are not only acting terribly arrogant, we are also denying ourselves the opportunity of progress.
One could say that the Western imperialistic arrogance and the Chinese obstinate thought that no one can teach them anything combined is the worst possible starting point for dialogue. I see people trying to put out the Olympic torch in London, and on the other side angry counterdemonstrations in front of foreign enterprises in China, and I can’t help but shake my head. It’s like this young couple meeting for the first time; she is too young to fall in love, and he is too young to know.
André Holthe, Beijing April, 2008
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Grassroots Democracy in Rural China

Grassroots Democracy in Rural China

How effective are the villagers committees, and do they represent an institutionalization towards real democracy?

Thomas de Groot

Leiden University, Faculty of Humanities, School for Asian Studies

Course: Political Reform in Contemporary China
Instructor: T. W. Ngo


...Two bowls (one filled with rice and the other half-filled with water) are placed on the underside of the village god’s stake. Then the presiding monk picks up an egg, breaks it and slides the contents into the bowl with water. Each of the candidates takes a thatch stalk and breaks it at one end to make a hook-shaped tip and then places it against the side of the bowl. The monk covers the bowls with a dustpan cover and scatters some rice over the cover while chanting. Half an hour later, he removes the dustpan cover and tries to pick the egg in the bowl with the hook-tipped thatch stalks made by the candidates. The candidate whose stack hook hooks the egg white is believed to be the divinely ordained kaxie[1]...

(Election process for the divine Kaxie of the Lahu-people on the Lancang-river)


China scholars have been wrestling to find appropriate terms to describe the Chinese situation as the People’s Republic enters the twenty-first century[2]. It’s system is not democratic, but there are elections on the village level. China claims to be a Socialist state, but the Chinese market economy has driven the country to the position of international financial power broker. The questions are numerous. Is China moving towards democracy? Have the rural reforms made in the past thirty or so years made a real difference? Does it generally mean that when elections are held, be it at the village-level, that a system is more democratic, more free? Do free –or semi-free, elections equal political participation? What are the underlying principles or motives that moved the leadership to introduce political reform? What does the economic development mean for China’s political landscape? In this paper I shall try to analyze two questions that are equally puzzling. How efficient are the Villagers Committees in governing rural affairs? Do the village elections signal a move towards significant democracy?


Let me first quickly characterize the current situation in the politics of rural China. When the Chinese government introduced the household-responsibility-system in 1983[3], the traditional production-brigades disappeared. The socialist commune system with it’s production brigades started to whither, as farmers could now freely sell their land. Families were free to seek a profitable way of exploiting the land that they now really owned[4]. Apart from economical independence, this development also meant that the authority of the production leader didn’t exist anymore. The economic reforms, set out in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping, thus also created a need for administrative changes[5]. Production was privatized, and now there was a power-vacuum on the lowest level of administration. Two villages in Guanxi Province (independently) put together a makeshift villagers committee in 1981 to solve this vacuum of power. The revolutionary aspect of these committees was that they functioned as a governing body for the villagers, by the villagers. Interestingly, the authorities were never consulted[6]. In an article written for the China Quarterly in 2000, China scholars O’Brien and Li show how the reforms came to be. They tell of Peng Zhen, a member of the politburo who became inspired by the actions of these villages in Guanxi. It was thanks to his efforts that the Villagers Committees were written into the constitution. In 1984, the Villagers Committees were officially noted in the Organic Rules on Villagers Committees. In 1988, after fierce lobbying by Peng Zhen, the Organic Law for Villagers Committees was implemented nationwide. However, after the Tiananmen square-incident and it’s Pro-Democracy Movement in 1989 the conservatives within the Party found new reasons to oppose institutionalization of villagers self-governance. It was again Peng Zhen who campaigned to keep the law from being abolished. By 1993, the majority of Chinese villages had held elections to compose a representative Villagers Committee.


Before we look at the degree of openness in these elections, and see how free they really are, let us first investigate the functioning of these Villagers Committees. The Chinese village is the lowest level of administration. It is ruled by two bodies: the Villagers Assembly (村民会议 / cunmin huiyi ) and the Villagers Committee (村民委员会 / cunmin weiyuanhui ). In theory, the Assembly is more powerful than the Committee[7]. According to a study done by Oi and Rozelle in 2000, the Villagers Assembly was designed to be a directly elected body to represent the National People’s Congress on the lowest level. However, as the Ministry of Civil Affairs put it, this proved inefficient. They changed the directly democratic structure of the Assemblies to a representative system. In 2000, the Villagers Representative Assembly had replaced the Villagers Assembly in half of all the villages. Oi and Rozelle show that the authority of the Assemblies is limited, because the attendance of the members is halfhearted, the assemblies are still largely crowded with unelected (CCP-) members, and their study also shows that the assemblies convene very infrequently. An average of twice a year does not exactly display capability to decide on every day affairs. So then should it be the Villagers Committee to have the day-to-day authority? The Villagers Committees are compiled by members of the party and villagers representatives. They are elected every three years through village elections. It seems that the traditional production team leader from the Mao- era has been replaced by these committees. Oi and Rozelle seem to think that the real decision making takes place in these committees, or amongst the local Party cadres of course[8]. But now that production is privatized, what is the role of the village leadership? According to the Organic Law for Villagers Committees, it is the committee’s responsibility to develop public services, manage public affairs, mediate civil disputes, help maintain social stability and report to the villagers opinions, requests and suggestions[9]. This doesn’t really tell us much. Maybe it is good to look at individual villages to see what the tasks of the local leadership are.


Peking University’s Rong Ma investigated the political reforms in a Mongolian grasslands village called Hurqige. Rong explains that under the old system of production brigades, the livestock and farmland was divided equally among the villagers by the leaders. Production was managed centrally, as was the annual harvest. Now, the farmers are their own boss, and the production team leader, now called the Villagers Committee, is left with the task of overseeing the taxation. Even though the members of the committees still act as community leaders, Rong puts it, their function is quite limited these days[10]. However, we must keep in mind that in the smallest villages, particularly those whose prime economic base is agriculture, life has been roughly the same for a thousand years. The typical Chinese village consists of a few households who farm their land and raise their livestock, and continue to do so, no matter the administrative changes that the central government makes. Yang Shenming shows how irrelevant any village leadership is, especially as a representative of the central government, to a small town community. He tells of the Tajik people in the Tashikuergan Tajik Autonomous Region in the far North-West of China. What this study shows is that the Villagers Committees do not have a great role in the daily lives of the villagers, because they are largely autarchic in their survival. They have been raising sheep for centuries. There is hardly any economy to manage, and the community is so tight that the taxation is being done routinely by the village elders. Again, the leadership of the Villagers Committee is mostly ceremonial[11].

So we shouldn’t look at the smallest farming communities when investigating the functioning of village leadership. What about the larger villages, where the economy is supported by industry and service sectors? Many scholars have pointed to the different links between economy and rural governance. It seems that the more industrialized villages have a greater interest in the proper functioning of their local authorities. Not only is the need for local infra-structure much more obvious, but in an industrialized economy, the linkage with the outside world is very strong. Villagers need proper representation to maximize their profits. Also, when farming is industrialized, the market for farmland is a big motor for the local economy. The regulatory body for this market is supervised by the Villagers Committee, and so we can state that the dependency of the villagers on the local leadership is much greater. What this dependency implies, is that the committee has a great role in rural governance[12]. We can conclude that the role local government has in village affairs differs depending on the base of the economy of the village. As many have pointed out, when villagers have a clear interest in the well functioning of the local leaders, this means two things: the role of a village committee is not solely ceremonial, and there is a greater chance for increased democratization. I will address the forces behind this grassroots democracy later on in my paper. For now we can say that the efficiency of such a small administrative entity as the Villagers Committee fully depends on the economy of the village. As a production leader, it’s part may have been played out, but the leader of a community can play a big role in helping to further develop the economy. There is, in short, a definite rationality for the existence of Villagers Committees in China.


What can we say, then, about the “gradual democratization” people keep talking about? My research question is whether the village elections, now common practice all over China, represent a move towards grassroots democracy. First of all, let me state that this supposed moved towards democracy is not directly linked to the underlying intentions of the government. Whatever the central leadership, being Leninist in it’s core[13], plans on doing with China, the fact of the matter is that in 2000, free or semi-free elections were held in 734.715 of China’s nine hundred thousand or so villages[14]. It is said that the introduction of villagers self-governance and direct elections for villagers committees was merely a tool to keep the rural population from rioting[15]. In fact, most publications I read on the matter implicitly stated that the economic reforms created cause for social unrest and to allow for civil participation was the central government’s answer. Even more brilliantly, Tan and Pastor argue that the government needs the grassroots democracy for when the economy goes down. “The government will need an escape valve for the people to release their frustrations”[16]. Western scholars seem truly disappointed that the introduction of democracy in China wasn’t ideologically motivated. But I wonder, was “our” democratic transition merely ideological? Isn’t it true that our leaders gave in to popular pressure, silencing the people by giving them a voice, and thus keeping us from rioting? Introduction of democracy is instrumental, and not an end in itself, but isn’t it in any country?


So whether the Politburo of the CCP is crowded with libertarian ideologists or not, we can safely say that, in comparison with thirty years ago, Chinese people have a greater voice. Two caveats, however: does this greater voice mean a step towards grassroots democracy? Does a louder voice mean that there is greater civilian participation in political matters? The question of how democratic the Chinese village elections are, has been researched extensively over the past two decades. Various studies have composed data on village elections and placed them next to a certain ‘universal standard’ of democratic elections. For instance, aspects of the election process that people in democratic countries find obvious like closed voting booths and anonymous voting were not so obvious in China at first. Also, the degree of openness in the run up to the election is very interesting. International standards say that an election is only really free if there are more candidates for one position. Candidates should have the opportunity to tell the voters what they intend to do with their mandate. Pastor and Tan give a list of key elements of the electoral process that can either signify free or not so free elections[17]. The election management in China is often done by a local CCP-official, which obviously is not ideal, seeing that the contesting candidates might very well not be a member of the Party. Registration is important because people can otherwise vote more than once. Selection of candidates is crucial. If the Party selects the candidates, you can safely say there is no democracy. If everyone can become a candidate, then it is much more fair. It is best of the people can nominate whoever they think is suitable. This is called 海选 (haixuan) or a pick from the sea[18]. All these requirements have been adopted in the Organic Law for Villagers Committees, but the real question obviously is, whether or not they are being followed up. It seems hard to make any hard conclusions. None of the studies available managed to come up with conclusive data, that supports the claim that on a whole village elections are fair and free. This in part is because the Chinese government doesn’t have comprehensive data on a national scale. Most scholars do however argue that the degree of openness is growing. Shi Tianjian for instance explains how the first elections were treated as a formality by local officials, but as the practice grew, civilians started to appeal to the right they now had, to actually make these elections work. As Shi puts it: “once people had tasted this kind of democracy, local officials would have a hard time taking away the right to vote”[19]. And Kevin J. O’Brien puts it this way: “By all accounts, the quality of village elections has improved […], and voter interest is on the rise”[20]. My impression from reading the studies is that the elections might have been introduced to curb social unrest, but ironically now, the threat of popular anger is making officials work harder to arrange for fairer and freer elections. I think it is appropriate to say that the village elections in China are free and open enough to make the idea of elections a success in the minds of the Chinese villagers.


So the elections are relatively free, fair and open. After twenty years of experimentation it seems the practice of village level elections has become part of the normal political life. But how democratic is this political life in Chinese villages? Or rather, even if there are free elections, does this mean the society itself is more open? Does this mean there is a incremental institutionalization of real grassroots democracy? Again, these question can only be circumstantially answered. If we take institutionalization as an administrative term, then we can clearly state that the political reform in rural governance has led to a system of villager self-governance. In most cases, the villagers choose their committee members, and the villages are completely self-supporting. The elections have become a inseparable part of this system. More over, in the minds of the Chinese bureaucrats it seems elections became a real trend. At the end of the nineties of the last century, the Chinese leadership began to contemplate township government elections. This next administrative layer, after the village, should be next in the process of incremental democratization[21]. Also, the notion that China has never dealt with or thought of democracy as an ideology is a classic mistake. Some communities in China[22] have had democratic habits for as long as they can remember. He Shaoying depicts the ‘democratic’ practices of the Lahu-people in Yunnan, South-West China. For centuries they have been choosing their leaders in a fixed election process[23].


In order to see how far democratization has come in China, maybe we should first investigate some other issues. Suppose China does have a certain degree of grassroots democracy. Can the degree of institutionalization of democracy be measured by the attitude the peasants have towards their leaders? Li Lianjiang uses this approach to conceive a notion of political trust in rural China. Li’s findings corroborate with the impressions I have been getting recently, that the villagers trust in the central government is unyielding, in comparison with the trust in local officials[24]. This low esteem of local politicians would suggest that villagers do not feel involved. However, Li did not include the Villagers Committee (which is the one body that is actually directly elected) in the questionnaire[25]. So from Li’s study we cannot derive any usable data to claim that villagers feel consulted. The approach Li is using does seem to be a good one, though. My supposition would be, that if villagers would express their trust in Villagers Committees, they would implicitly say they felt like they were participating. In an earlier article by Li, published in the Asian Survey, Li explains why this approach is so useful. “… Chinese villagers feel a higher level of political efficacy after their first free and fair election, because they can now remove unresponsive cadres”[26]. In other words, people start to feel empowered. On the other hand, Shi Tianjian made stunning case in 2001 for allowing some space for the classic argument about the dynamics of East Asian authoritarianism. It seems that data proves that to a certain extent, Chinese people have a principally higher trust in their government[27].


Where is this sense of democratic empowerment coming from? The central leadership can offer the scheme of self-governance and elections, but they cannot tell the people to participate in political affairs. The people have to want this, they have to stride for being heard. As Zhou Xiaohong puts it: “… even though village democracy is […] a top-down initiative, […] villager participation itself is voluntary and not compelled”[28]. When comparing grassroots democracy in India and China, George Mathew noticed that the movement of direct elections and a true representation of villager’s needs and desires, came about through popular pressure. “…[it] was mainly because the unrelenting pressure of people’s quests for meaningful democracy at the grassroots level [and] demands for people’s involvement…”[29]. So we can conclude that real participation, or democracy if you will, is manifested only when the people demand it.


There are some theories on the demand for participation. The Social Mobilization Theory claims that economical development and legitimacy form the prerequisite for democracy[30]. It was an article by Seymour Martin Lipset in The American Political Science Review in 1959 that China scholars still refer to when they claim that liberal democracy will come to China as long as the market economy continues to liberalize. However, this has long ago been proven an illusion, if not wishful thinking by some western scholars. There is no direct correlation between market economy and democratization. There are, on the other hand, certain ties between the economical situation and the degree of democratization. Research done by Shi Tianjian provides us with data that seems to suggest that the villages in China with a relatively developed economy are less likely to see political development[31]. This might be because economic development consolidates the powers of incumbent leaders because, Shi suggests, people become more dependent on the leaders, leaders have more resources to bribe their superiors (to ignore the election results) or leaders have more resources to co-opt peasants. A study by David Zweig and Chung Siu Fung also suggests a negative relation between economic development and the degree of democracy. Their data suggests that richer villages are less democratic. One of the reasons they cited was that wealthy villagers, when asked if they felt more democracy was needed, answered that as long as there was steady economic growth, no reform was necessary[32]. So there is no positive relation between economic reform and political reform. We can, however, say that there are indirect relations. For instance, economic development gives people a louder voice. Think of the current demand by civilians in China for better consumer rights, after fifty children died having consumed poisonous milk powder[33]. As Shi puts it: “economic development […] significantly influenced the attitudes of […] the political elites […], increased the peasants resources and skills and enhanced their desire to get involved in the decision-making process in their villages”(italics added)[34]. There is reason to believe that interesting things are going to happen in the coming years in China. The Chinese situation requires us to reconsider all traditional theories on the correlation between economic development and political reform.


So grassroots democracy is gradually manifesting itself in rural China, not just in administrative meaning, but also as an abstract idea in the minds of villagers. My paper tries to show that the efficiency of the Villagers Committees in governing rural affairs is not equivocally clear. The authority of any government body in village affairs depends on various features of the village. The smallest villages do not seem to be in great need of central governance, nor does there seem to be a real necessity for institutionalized sself-governance. The bigger, more industrialized villages on the other hand have a great deal of dependency on their local representation, especially towards the other villages and higher level of government bodies. This is a largely economically motivated interest. Furthermore I have tried to explain why the institutionalization of grassroots democracy is very visible, however incremental it might be. As an administrative notion, villager’s self-governance seems to be deeply rooted by now. The creeping democratization in rural China is not self-evident. Not enough research has been done to supply scholars with data that might confirm an increased feeling of trust towards governing bodies. However, I would like to state some thoughts. The fact that more and more people are becoming economically empowered, suggests an societal empowerment that in my opinion is already visible. The recent developments in web-culture, from the incredibly popular bulletin boards to the blogosphere in general, make it clear to me that Chinese all over the country are becoming more voiced on social issues. Whether this has significant consequences for the political reform has yet to be seen. But one thing is clear. No matter what top-down initiatives might arise in Chinese politics, real manifestation of grassroots democracy will have to come from the people themselves.
November 12th, 2008 Thomas de Groot, Amsterdam

[1] He Shaoying, “The Evolution and Function of the Kaxie System of the Lahu People in South-west China”, in Grass-roots Democracy in India and China: The Right to Participate, ed. M. Mohanty, R. Baum, M. Rong and G. Mathew (New Dehli: Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2007), 396
[2] Minxin Pei, “Contradictory Trends and Confusing Signals”, Journal of Democracy 14:1 (January 2003);
Andrew J. Nathan, “Authoritarian Resilience”, Journal of Democracy 14:1 (January 2003).
[3] R. Keith Schoppa, The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 129
[4] The land still technically belonged to the state, so the farmers didn’t have the right to randomly sell it. In October 2008 the government finally liberalized the individual land ownership:

Xinhua News, “在新的起点上推进农村改革发展一一党的十七届三中全会传递的政策信号” (chinese) (visited 08-11-2008)

Xinhua News, “CCP Closes Major Meeting with Decision on Rural Reform, Development” (english) (visited 08-11-2008)
[5] Guan Juanjuan, Explaining Rural Democracy in China (Leiden: Master thesis Public Administration, 2005), 20.
[6] Kevin J. O’Brien and Li Lianjiang, “Accommodating “Democracy” in a One-Party State: Introducing Village Elections in China”, The China Quarterly (2000): 467.
[7]Jean C. Oi and Scott Rozelle, “Elections and Power: The Locus of Decision-Making in Chinese Villages”, The China Quarterly 162 (June 2000): 515.
[8] Ibid. p. 524
[9] George Mathew, “Local Government System in India and China: Learning from Each Other”, in Grass-roots Democracy in India and China: The Right to Participate, ed. M. Mohanty, R. Baum, M. Rong and G. Mathew (New Dehli: Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2007), 36.
[10] Ma Rong, “Changes in Local Administration and their Impact on Community Life in the Grasslands of Inner Mongolia”, in Grass-roots Democracy in India and China: The Right to Participate, ed. M. Mohanty, R. Baum, Ma Rong and G. Mathew (New Dehli: Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2007), 149.
[11] Yang Shenming, “The Environment, the Family and Local Government among the Tajik People”, in Grass-roots Democracy in India and China: The Right to Participate, ed. M. Mohanty, R. Baum, Ma Rong and G. Mathew (New Dehli: Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2007), 36.
[12] Oi and Rozelle, p. 532
[13] Michel Oksenberg, “China’s Political System: Challenges of the Twenty-First Century”, The China Journal 45 (January 2001): 22.
[14] Ray Yep, Maintaining Stability in Rural China: Challenges and Responses (Center for Northeastern Asian Policy Studies, The Brookings Institution, 2002), 15.
[15] Ibid, p. 8.
[16] Robert A. Pastor and Tan Qingshan, “The Meaning of China’s Village Elections”, The China Quarterly 162 (June 2000): 512
[17] Ibid. p. 493
[18] Later on this term became very significant in Chinese pop-culture, thanks to the immensely popular tv-show Supergirl (超女 chaonü). The term was used consequently to mean that everyone could decide to participate in this show, and even more interesting, in the second year of the show, everyone in China could vote by text-message on their preferred singer. So 海选 (haixuan ) is a word that everyone associates with democracy and participation of some sort.
[19] Shi Tianjian, “Rural Democracy in China”, East Asian Institute Contemporary China Series 24 (2000): 16.
[20] Kevin J. O’Brien, “Villagers, elections and Citizenship in Contemporary China”, Modern China 27:4 (October 2001): 418.
[21] Tony Saich and Yang Xuedong, “Selecting Within the Rules: Institutional Innovation in China’s Governance”, ”, in Grass-roots Democracy in India and China: The Right to Participate, ed. M. Mohanty, R. Baum, Ma Rong and G. Mathew (New Dehli: Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2007), 93.
[22] Note that “China” is just a geographical entity, and not an ethnic or cultural one.
[23] He Shaoying, “The Evolution and Function of the Kaxie System of the Lahu People in South-west China”, in Grass-roots Democracy in India and China: The Right to Participate, ed. M. Mohanty, R. Baum, M. Rong and G. Mathew (New Dehli: Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2007), 401.
[24] Li Lianjiang, “Political Trust in Rural China”, Modern China 30:2 (April 2004): 229
[25] Ibid; p. 254
[26] Li Lianjiang, “The Empowering Effect of Village Elections in China”, Asian Survey 63:4 (July/August 2003):648.
[27] Shi Tianjian, “Cultural Values and Political Trust: A Comparison of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan”, Comparative Politics 33:4 (June 2001): 415
[28] Zhou Xiaohong, “Rural Political Participation in the Maoist and Post-Mao Periods”, in Grass-roots Democracy in India and China: The Right to Participate, ed. M. Mohanty, R. Baum, Ma Rong and G. Mathew (New Dehli: Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2007) p. 88
[29]George Mathew, “Local Government System in India and China: Learning from Each Other”, in Grass-roots Democracy in India and China: The Right to Participate, ed. M. Mohanty, R. Baum, Ma Rong and G. Mathew (New Dehli: Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2007) p. 37
[30] Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy”, The American Political Science Review 53:1 (March 1959): p. 71
[31] Shi Tianjian, “Rural Democracy in China”, East Asian Institute Contemporary China Series 24 (2000): p. 51
[32] David Zweig and Chung Siu Fung, “Democracy, Good Governance and Economic Development in Rural China”, in Grass-roots Democracy in India and China: The Right to Participate, ed. M. Mohanty, R. Baum, Ma Rong and G. Mathew (New Dehli: Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2007) p. 346
[33] For a humorous approach, take a look at these images from angry netizens:
[34] Shi Tianjian, “Rural Democracy in China”, East Asian Institute Contemporary China Series 24 (2000): p. 50

* Guan Juanjuan, Explaining Rural Democracy in China (Leiden: Master thesis Public Administration, 2005).

* Li Lianjiang, “The Empowering Effect of Village Elections in China”, Asian Survey 63:4 (July/August 2003): p. 648-662

* Li Lianjiang, “Political Trust in Rural China”, Modern China 30:2 (April 2004): p. 228-258

* Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy”, The American Political Science Review 53:1 (March 1959): p. 69-105.

* Grass-roots Democracy in India and China: The Right to Participate, ed. M. Mohanty, R. Baum, Ma Rong and G. Mathew (New Dehli: Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2007)
# David Zweig and Chung Siu Fung, “Democracy, Good Governance and Economic Development in Rural China” p. 339-362
# Mathew, “Local Government System in India and China: Learning from Each Other” p. 33-52
# Zhou Xiaohong, “Rural Political Participation in the Maoist and Post-Mao Periods” p. 73-92
# He Shaoying, “The Evolution and Function of the Kaxie System of the Lahu People in South-west China” p. 391-408
# Tony Saich and Yang Xuedong, “Selecting Within the Rules: Institutional Innovation in China’s Governance” p. 93-122
# Yang Shenming, “The Environment, the Family and Local Government among the Tajik People” p. 379-390
# Ma Rong, “Changes in Local Administration and their Impact on Community Life in the Grasslands of Inner Mongolia”, p. 141-160.

* Andrew J. Nathan, “Authoritarian Resilience”, Journal of Democracy 14:1 (January 2003): p. 5-17.

* Kevin J. O’Brien and Li Lianjiang, “Accommodating “Democracy” in a One-Party State: Introducing Village Elections in China”, The China Quarterly (2000): p. 465-489.

* Kevin J. O’Brien, “Villagers, elections and Citizenship in Contemporary China”, Modern China 27:4 (October 2001): p. 407-435.

* Jean C. Oi and Scott Rozelle, “Elections and Power: The Locus of Decision-Making in Chinese Villages”, The China Quarterly 162 (June 2000): p. 513-539.

* Michel Oksenberg, “China’s Political System: Challenges of the Twenty-First Century”, The China Journal 45 (January 2001): p. 21-35.

* Robert A. Pastor and Tan Qingshan, “The Meaning of China’s Village Elections”, The China Quarterly 162 (June 2000): p. 490-512.

* Minxin Pei, “Contradictory Trends and Confusing Signals”, Journal of Democracy 14:1 (January 2003)

* R. Keith Schoppa, The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 129.

* Shi Tianjian, “Rural Democracy in China”, East Asian Institute Contemporary China Series 24 (2000).

* Shi Tianjian, “Cultural Values and Political Trust: A Comparison of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan”, Comparative Politics 33:4 (June 2001): p. 401-419.

* Ray Yep, Maintaining Stability in Rural China: Challenges and Responses (Center for Northeastern Asian Policy Studies, The Brookings Institution, 2002)

* Chinasmack (visited 08-11-2008)

* Youku (visited 08-11-2008)

* Xinhua News, “在新的起点上推进农村改革发展一一党的十七届三中全会传递的政策信号” (chinese) (visited 08-11-2008)

* Xinhua News, “CCP Closes Major Meeting with Decision on Rural Reform, Development” (english) (visited 08-11-2008)

Read More..

Team China vs. the World

I realise how critical I can be about China. I recognise this critical attitude in the western media too. The western attitude has a big influence on the way people here look at foreigners, and consequently it influences the way Chinese see their own country. Chinese nationalism is reaching its climax this summer. Moreover, the Olympic Games are also recreating Chinese reality.


Part 1

The Critical Outsider

Why do I tend to criticise China? When I walk on Tiananmen Square, I always think about how many secret police officers there could be watching me, or how fast they could arrest me if I started shouting. Why do I love to take a Chinese newspaper and read it to my friends, saying how awful this propaganda machine is. Why do I feel uncomfortable when I see the commercials for the Olympics? Why do I speak about indoctrination, human rights and the lack of freedom every night at dinner? Worst of all, it’s not just me. It can be said about numerous western media too.

Western Media

The focus has been on China lately. Living here, I feel that the eyes of the world are turning towards this years climax in China’s capital. Browse through the newspapers and influential websites and you will see two things: people read and write about China, and they do it in a certain manner. The fact that institutions such as the New York Times, CNN or BBC are biased is common knowledge. It has been said before. Of course they are. The journalists from the BBC, whom I respect like a Chinese student respects his teacher, are human beings just like the rest of us. So naturally there will be a certain tendency to deviate from the objective reportage that is supposed to be the ethical standard. But still, when the Chinese government laments that the western media is against them, they have got a point. To see how biased the big western media are, you just have to look at the ten most recent articles and news items on China. They are all about human rights, thuggish security methods and absolutist rule. Why does America have an “administration”, and China a “regime”? What is the consequence of this western attitude?

Nationalism Revived

China has been suffering from a chronic minority complex for centuries. After the humiliation by their neighbors during the last days of the Empire, the Japanese invasion, a civil war and three decades of Maoist isolation, China has finally risen to the level of international relevance it deserves. What the Chinese people seem to be craving more than anything else, is respect. The Games in Beijing are not just a cry for attention from a developing country, they are the climax of a explosive rise to global hegemony, that allows the Chinese people to tell the world that they matter. What the Communist Party is giving the people this year is a reason to be proud of their country. To be a patriot, to love your country, is the latest big thing in China. It seems that everyone loves to be Chinese. And you can sense this nationalism throughout all the layers of the population. This wave of nationalism has been slowly developing for a while now, but recently it seems to be getting more and more extreme. It includes anti-Japanese sentiments, aggression to foreigners who work here and a fierce hostility to foreign media.

Chinese Counter-reaction

When the Chinese army troops marched into Tibet last month, two things happened at the same time. Western media lined up to condemn the government for their “crackdown on protests for freedom”, and Chinese media lined up to condemn western media for their biased coverage. The result of all this, apart from the bloodshed that we will never really be able to investigate, was that the people in the west felt assured in their opinion on the Chinese “regime”, and that the people in China felt harmed by the outside world. Again. We as foreign students in China spoke about the violation of human rights, desperately looking for recognition of our disapproval from the Chinese people around us. But almost all of us were disappointed, again, because our anger was not only not affirmed by the people here, but we were even met by anger from them, towards us.

Hostility Towards Foreigners

This anger is mostly hidden under the surface. But it is still there. They sense that our opinion on the actions of the Chinese government is different from theirs. They sense that we do not approve of some of the policies of the Party. Even if they don’t read the foreign media. When a foreign student was arrested last month for allegedly kicking a woman in a public bus in Beijing, the web logs discussing the news tumbled over each other to mention this incident, citing the state-run Xinhua news agency: “Foreign student kicks sixty year old Chinese woman out of the bus”. When the students were released from the police station, a complete assembly of Chinese reporters was waiting to photograph them, blocking their way and forcing them to cover themselves with their coats. Many people believe the west is conspiring with the Dalai Lama to overthrow the Chinese government. The websites claiming a foreign conspiracy to demonize China are numerous, and even though the government is involved in a lot of them, the general opinion of the Chinese people is still visible. is clearly sponsored by the Party, but the feelings expressed still seem to represent a genuine hostility towards western arrogance. You can sense the atmosphere in Beijing getting more hostile towards foreigners. This is where this summer’s Games fit in.

Olympic Pride

The Olympic Games serve as a platform from which the Communist Party can jump to greater heights. Everyone here is extremely proud of this event, and most people thank the Party for the success the Games will undoubtedly be. The Games “give face” to the nation. Ask the people here what the biggest progress is China has made in the past few decades, and they will all say the outside world finally respects them. Not wealth, development or any other form of material progress, but respect. They look at the newly built skyscrapers and know they will never enter such a building. They see that the cars on the streets in Beijing are becoming more luxurious every day, while they are still driving the three wheel bicycle. They hear the government saying, on one of the numerous CCTV-channels, that the average Chinese family lives in a three bedroom apartment, but when they look around them they know: that might be true, but not for us. There is only one thing that really gets to them, when they think about all the changes that China is going through. Pride. Because when those Games finally begin, the whole world will watch, and look on in awe at what China has achieved. Who else to thank for this than the Party?

Part 2

A constant frustration in my conversations with Chinese people is my failure to communicate with them what I feel is life in China. In this country, we are living under the rule of a “regime” with a violent history. Even though it is relatively quiet nowadays, once in a while horrible things happen to the people. You can sense a tense atmosphere, always and everywhere. But they don’t seem to care as much. They just shrug their shoulders and go on with their life. Why do the Olympics play such an important part in this Chinese reality?

Asking the Impossible

Anyone who has ever asked a Chinese friend about the events on Tiananmen-Square in 1989, knows what I mean. When I ask them if they know what happened those days in June, they will nod, while the look in their eyes turns vague, distant. They might say how awful it is that people died. They might tell you that they have never heard any such thing. They might get angry, saying that we foreigners are always looking for something to criticise. But what they will not in any case say is how criminal the actions of the government were. Not because they are afraid, or brainwashed, that’s too easy. But think about it. Those foreigners come here, thinking they know what is best for the Chinese people. They go around shouting terms like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’, thinking the Chinese will just get up and start throwing stones at the nearest government building. What we are asking them, is to deny their identity. Of course they know that the Party at times crosses the line. They live here, remember? They know exactly what is going on. But what are they supposed to do? Condemn the Party like the BBC does? It is their country we are speaking about, not some study object.

Living in a Communist State

If you expect them to criticise their government, you ask them to deny everything they hear, everything they see and everything they were taught. Because the Party, the system, the government, and even the country is all the same thing. Your teacher is a member of the Communist Party. Your housing is supplied to you by the Party. The government speaks to you in the subway, on the highway. They communicate to you through red banners on the buildings you buy your groceries in. They write your newspaper and they choose which television shows you watch. They tell you which movie is worth seeing. ‘They’ are everywhere, because ‘they’ constitute the people. There is no such thing as independent cinema in China. Or independent supermarkets. Not even Google is independent. Consequently, Chinese Capitalism is Communist Capitalism. Finally, thought is not free. Nor independent. If your government tells you that the army is being mobilised in Tibet to protect the country, you tend to believe them. When the western media tell you the army is there to violate human rights, you look to your government for an explanation. When the Party (or the television or the bloggers on-line) answer that the foreign reporters are only trying to destroy China, you will accept what they say. And gratefully so, because no one wants to doubt their own people. I point to the mass support amongst the people in the United States for the war in Iraq. It took five years for the majority to start asking questions. How long will it take them to question what really happened on 9/11 in New York? The Chinese people don’t have many choices in their lives. They have to live here, they have to justify to themselves every step they take in this country. They have to justify their existence. And they have to survive. Which, for most Chinese people, is still a sizeable task.

The Pride Paradox

Moreover, when China was chosen to host the Olympics a new chapter in the development of Chinese nationalism began. Criticising China, the government or the system, means something much worse than being a critical citizen. It means bashing the Olympics. The Games might be a ceremony for the Party, but they also belong to the people. The Bird’s Nest wasn’t built by CCP-cadres. It was built by those people that will be expelled from Beijing next month. The workers who come from poor places like Gansu province to work in construction. The people that the government will try to hide by any means. The people. And general opinion here is, that however wrong the system is, these Olympics are an opportunity for the people. It is authentic pride they will feel when the Games begin. It is their every right to be pride of something as massive as the Olympics. Because it is the biggest sporting event in the world, and the Chinese athletes will participate in every field, in their own stadiums. “We built that”, the people will say when then see the matches on television. It is an honour.
China is putting itself in the limelight, and everyone knows what that means. There will be criticism. It can either go very well or terribly wrong. This puts the people on the spot as well. They will see themselves confronted with a choice. Not to cheer for Team China, is equal to criticising the Party. Are you in or are you out? Do you support China, will you cheer for Team China? Will you approve of the actions of this government? The choice is easy. It is like asking them if they want to survive.


I started this article asking myself why it is so tempting for me to criticize this country. One of the reasons might be that I am, and always will be, an outsider. I will always be the foreigner, no matter how fluent in Chinese I may become. The Chinese society is very closed to foreigners. Another very important reason for wanting to criticise China is the fact that I study Sinology. Many people have come here for a week and think that they understand everything. Some resident correspondents don’t even speak Mandarin. I feel that I should be able to say more about China than most people, because I spent the last three years studying everything about it. I live here. Somehow this makes me feel in the position to criticise the country. It is like criticising your best friends. But lately I find it more difficult to criticise China. Because it is getting harder and harder to see China as my best friend.

April 23rd 2008

Thomas de Groot, Beijing, PRC
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