Wed, Feb 02, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Is politics losing ground in China?

By Sushil Seth

The disgraced Chinese communist leader Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), who died recently, lived in relative anonymity imposed on him by his successors. And they made sure that his death would be as much of a non-event as they could. There was some expectation that Zhao's death might become a catalyst for protest, as was the case when premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) died in January 1976, and subsequently with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) secretary-general Hu Yaobang's (胡耀邦) death. Hu's death triggered the democracy protests leading to the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989.

Zhao's efforts to moderate the party's violent response to the student protest were overruled, and he was dismissed from all posts for "supporting the turmoil." He spent the rest of his life under virtual house arrest.

One might well ask: Why did his death pass virtually unnoticed in China? There is a view among some China scholars, encouraged by Beijing, suggesting that politics has been subsumed by economics, ie, the Chinese are mesmerized by their country's growth and have no time for politics.

As one Australian scholar has argued, in the context of how even Mao Zedong (毛澤東) has been commodified. "What we are witnessing, the German sociologist Ulrich Beck would argue, is a very political form of depoliticization. In this sense, one can indeed say that political reform has been visited upon China. It came, however, not in the form of institutional transformation of the state-based political system that swept away the Communist Party, but in a far subtler yet profoundly life-transforming manner. No longer are people enthralled by the political, or even intimidated by it."

In other words, it is "the end of history" argument (used by Francis Fukuyama in another context) for China because its communist leadership has perfected the system, allowing them to rule forever. The problem, though, is that China's rulers go to extraordinary lengths to control dissent. If people were politically apathetic, Beijing wouldn't need to ban political dissent and protest and outlaw movements like Falun Gong, whose followers are rotting in Chinese jails.

Besides, the argument that economics has subsumed politics simply ignores the 800 million to 900 million people living in rural and regional China.

China's so-called miracle economy is the story of urban economic growth, with its attendant problems of urban squalor, labor exploitation and social alienation. It is in many ways a robber-baron economy based on what a perceptive writer has called "the marketization of power" and "the carving up of state property by China's power elite."

As Zue Xueqin has written, "To talk about reform [economic growth] while ignoring the political content of Chinese economic structures is to weave a set of the emperor's new clothes." In other words, the new economy is politics in another garb, but this time to entrench and perpetuate the power and wealth of the party elite and their hangers-on. Therefore, to imply or suggest that China has found the ultimate solution by virtually superseding politics is delusional.

Even those commentators who see China as an unstoppable economic juggernaut and a superpower of the future concede that China has huge problems. Paul Sheehan, an Australian journalist who often interviews Fu Ying, China's ambassador in Canberra, and calls her "a beauty," highlighted some of these problems in a rather laudatory commentary. For instance, China's "800 million rural people have yet to share in the economic miracle."

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