China’s political system is wilting

By Sushil Seth  / 

Mon, May 02, 2011 - Page 8

China’s ruling oligarchs are afraid of their own shadow. Otherwise, they would not be engaged in a harsh crackdown of the country’s dissidents, who simply want the political system opened up.

These dissidents and human rights activists are the mirror that reflects China’s reality. And what the rulers see is not at all pretty. Indeed, it is downright ugly. Hence, they want to smash the mirror that reflects this ugliness.

Take the case of Ai Weiwei (艾未未), one of China’s most famous contemporary artists. He disappeared when he was arrested on April 4 as he tried to board an airplane to Hong Kong and his family has no information on his whereabouts.

The Chinese authorities are now defaming Ai by disseminating cooked-up information about fathering an illigitimate child, pornography, tax evasion, etc. His real “crime” is that he spoke in favor of reforming the country’s political system.

In a recent newspaper article, the author Salman Rushdie said: “These accusations [against Ai] are not credible to those who know him. It seems that the Chinese regime, irritated by the outspokenness of its most celebrated art export, whose renown has protected him up to now, has decided to silence him in the most brutal fashion.”

Rushdie then goes on to list some other prominent Chinese writers and artists who have been silenced by the Chinese authorities with long prison sentences or disappearances.

Comparing these disappearances with what happened in the Soviet Union, Rushdie wrote: “We needed the samizdat truth tellers to reveal the ugliness of the Soviet Union. The government of China has become the world’s biggest threat to freedom of speech, and so we need Ai Weiwei, Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) and Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波).”

This is precisely why the Chinese regime wants them behind bars, so that they won’t reveal the ugly truth.

However, just as the Soviet Union failed to crush the spirit of dissenters and writers that significantly contributed to its collapse, China’s communist oligarchy might also be headed in that direction.

A country of China’s size and population can’t sustain a top-heavy political system of monopoly power, especially in this age of information access — despite the regime’s concentrated efforts to censor, control and suppress “undesirable” information and political views.

China has drawn the wrong lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its rulers believe that the Soviet Union collapsed because of former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (political restructuring), leading to the erosion of power for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

And they seem determined not to let it happen in China. The Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 was a forewarning to Chinese that a challenge to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political monopoly would not be tolerated, even if it meant killing people.

In other words, the CCP’s power monopoly is a prerequisite for perceived social stability and economic growth.

And Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) successors are following his script quite faithfully.

Indeed, they have come to fear that the country’s dissidents, activists, human rights champions and democracy promoters might become the vanguard of China’s own “Jasmine Revolution” on the lines of Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East.

At some deeper level, China’s officials are afraid of their own people, despite all the propaganda that the party and the people are one.

Indeed, the ongoing crackdown on dissidents has been widened to include those Chinese Christians who refuse to conform to officially approved religious practice.

On top of it all, the Tibetans in China are once again being rounded up after some monks in a monastery fell afoul of the authorities.

There are so many blemishes in the mirror that China’s oligarchs are starting to see phantoms everywhere.

The Soviet Union is the only large communist country that might offer some explanation for this phenomenon.

Contrary to the belief among China’s leaders, the Soviet Union did not suddenly collapse because of perestroika. It collapsed largely because the system hollowed out from inside — starved of the oxygen of life for a political system.

After former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, his successors died one after the other, literally and metaphorically.

By the time Gorbachev came to rescue the system, the state and the system had already reached a terminal point.

In a collegium of a handful of top leaders deciding the nation’s destiny without any reference to people, a limited political gene pool is bound to lose its vitality.

This is also true of many of China’s economic corporations run by the sons and daughters of CCP leaders at different levels.

There is an incestuous connection between China’s politics and economy, which does not bode well for the country in the medium and long term.

It is true that China’s economic growth is a positive point.

However, it is misdirected and unbalanced, favoring industry over agriculture.

As Lester Brown recently wrote in the Washington Post: “As old deserts [in China] grow, as new ones form and as more and more irrigation wells go dry, Beijing is losing a long battle to feed its growing population on its own.”

“Enter the United States — by far the world’s largest grain exporter. It exports about 90 million tonnes of grain annually, although China requires 80 million tonnes of grain each year to meet just one-fifth of its needs,” he added.

The point to make is that China’s economic growth has its limits, creating sectoral imbalances within manufacturing, as well as between manufacturing and agriculture, a widening rural-urban divide, inflationary pressures, real estate bubbles, improper allocation of resources, top heavy control of the economy, lack of coordination, environmental damage (some of its major rivers are polluted), etc.

On top of it all, the rampant corruption in the country is further skewing an already difficult situation.

No wonder, China’s oligarchs are afraid that the Middle East contagion of popular unrest might catch on and reach China too.

Since China’s dictatorship has no other way of dealing with its critics and people but to use a sledgehammer, even this approach is unlikely to work over a period of time, as all the dictators in the Middle East are finding out to their cost.

Sushil Seth is a writer based in Australia.