Thursday, January 20, 2011

What is to be done [about China]?

Having survived death by a thousand cuts (finals week), a whirlwind week as a funemployed laowai in Andingmen, and 24 hours of travel, I finally am now tucked back into the cozy New England town called home. The overnight transformation still breaths shifty silence about me, not only eerie as a literal lack of noise but also as an ubiquitous agreement on [non-ironic] harmonious living. This unspoken social contract is borne by the daily litany of “thank you’s” and “excuse me’s” and the ever-confusing “sorry’s”. I was in the gym today drinking from the water fountain. A man came up next to me to wait for his turn (something in itself that is want in China), standing in such a manner that a clear shot to the locker room was slightly obstructed. “Sorry,” he said. For what? For troubling me to take an extra step? I was not sure whether to celebrate this apology as the resurrection of humanity, weep for it being a caricature of charity, or simply sigh bemusedly. Instead, the thought drowned jet lag and resurfaced later after a nap.

But first, my grandmother came over for dinner. Unlike many people of her generation, she is strikingly non-racist. More than that, she seeks only the good in people and cultures, seeing “cultural differences” where others may see a conflict of wrong and right. She is a lovely and brilliant woman who joined the Peace Corps in Nepal when she was in her sixties and continues to operate at a level five. She would probably still put warm milk out on a cold night if there were any neighborhood cats.

As is perfunctory but nonetheless enjoyable, we talked about Chinese society. The usual issues were discussed – plagiarism, cheating, theft, censorship, corruption, and what the West harbors ideologically that China does not - as an Australian classmate has tenderly put it, "Discussing why China isn't America." I summed up China’s main issues as sharing the common thread of lacking civic mindedness(缺乏公共意识). Consider the environment. Trashcans and recycling bins stand on every street corner, and yet the streets are littered with trash. The trend is to throw trash on the ground, knowing that a street cleaner will pick it up within the day. And forget recycling and trash being separated – that job is for beggars. If any given individual chose to take a stand, she or he could likely find her/himself in jail. Indeed, there is nothing more dangerous to be in China than an empowered individual. Disheartened, my grandmother asked, what is to be done?

Despite social trend stigmatizing the use of generalizations, and despite intellectual cool-kids’-club scoffing at the ready answer to Grandma’s question, I nonetheless answered her. “Gradual political reform.” I said. I didn't even couch my response in socially harmonious language (self-imposed 和谐废话 - see paragraph two of Amy Chua’s article). How thrilling.

One liberty that China lacks and that the Western media miraculously fails to point out is the right to civic mindedness. Most societal issues, if not soluble by active civic mindedness, are at least made more manageable as the responsibility can be shouldered by society as a whole instead of by the government. Tocqueville mentioned this in Democracy in America, noting that the decentralization of power allowed for common citizens to take an active role in the bettering of their society, or at least their immediate surroundings. A town primarily composed of farmers ought to be able to fix their own issues of agriculture and commerce, knowing that the state/national government exists as a parent and safety net. National government, state government, local government, and citizens form a gradient whose separation becomes grayer in each descending step. The necessity of democratically-elected local and state governments is in this way indisputable. People are more likely to be satisfied with self-selected and self-imposed laws, and that burden will be lifted from the central government so that the 林林总总 problems that it faces will be rightfully shared with the citizens.

Suggesting that China needs democracy at the local governmental level feels like a cliché at this point, but I’ve always thought clichés exist for a good reason. Beyond tangible political reform, there needs to be an ideology shift, an increased concern for the well-being of one’s surroundings, so that the factory owner will think twice before dumping two tons of ink into the river. There are practical ways of preventing factory owners from thus conducting themselves, or as I prefer to identify them, 当权者, people with power. This includes enforcement of no-dumping laws, though that in itself is an enormous issue (上有政策,下有对策). The tragedy of China’s legal enforcement abilities will not be discussed here. The focal question is how to encourage civic mindedness for the sake of civic mindedness, not for obeying law? (Albeit obeying the law would also be a positive first step.)

As Tocqueville said, the answer may lie in decentralization of power. When people feel the pressure of self-responsibility, only then will they cease to see themselves as the children of Mama Hu Jintao and Baba Wen Jiabao and instead as contributing members of society. So next time someone delivers the disgusting diatribe that “China is not ready for democracy, there are too many domestic problems!” feel free to enlighten this friend of the utility of democratically-elected local governments, and we can all hope that Tocqueville was right.

And then there is the nebulous but potent force of culture - cultural lack of civic-mindedness - which my American-born-Chinese friend has pointed out is a valid trend even in overseas Chinese. Decentralization may have the effect of empowering individuals, but in China's case it is more likely that, because of cultural influences, it will empower the group instead; that is, the group of farmers, the group of female senior citizens, the group of a county - but that is another discussion in itself. Cultural influences in this regard are certainly the most interesting aspect of the issue, and also the one that I am least equipped to address. Perhaps a more enlightened friend has comments?

So, Grandma, there is your answer: increased civic mindedness, to be sparked by decentralized power and democratically-elected local governments. China is trying this out, in various places, but conservatively so. Perhaps it’s time to take a leaf out of Deng Xiaoping’s book and magnify successful cases of policy implementation. I will refrain from criticism of the current regime, and finish with a Roseanne Cash quote, “The key to change is to let go of fear.” How many fears, indeed.