October 9, 2010
Political Reform: An Impossible Mission for the Present ChinaBy Zhang Xiaomao
China has firm reasons for being proud of its economic achievements. Last year, China passed Germany as the world's number-one exporter. This year, China overtook Japan as the world's second-biggest economy and has the largest foreign exchange reserves (worth 2.5 trillion dollars) in the world. However, China's economic good fortune seems to be coming to an end.
China's exports are slumping; its domestic consumption continues to flounder. The problem is an ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor in China caused by a highly centralized system of power.
China's state-controlled economic development is obviously a bottleneck to further fiscal advancement; working on political reform is a must. Apparently, some of China's top leaders, who are all members of the Communist Party, have been well aware of the seriousness of the situation. These leaders, however, either as Marxists or as practical rulers, have all clearly known the close connection between political reform and economic development.
For instance, China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao delivered an important speech August 21 on the issue of political system reform. In this speech (based on a visit to the city of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong -- one of the richest and most advanced cities in China) he said, "[We] must not only boost economic system reform, but also move forward political system reform. And if there were no bolstering of the latter, the results from the former would be lost and then the aim of modernization would be not be realized."
The premier also referred to the issue of an overly focalized system of power. At the same meeting, he stated, "[We] must settle the problem of excessive concentration and non-restriction of power to create conditions for people to criticize and oversee government. We have to resolutely crack down on graft and corruption."
As early as the 1980s, China's second-generation leader, Den Xiaoping, was making kindred remarks and suggestions. Nevertheless, apart from trivial points, why is the Chinese political regime unchanged some thirty years later? There is no ground to expect that these repetitiously imperative speeches out of the mouths of China's top leadership should push political reform up to a new level, especially given the history of previous efforts of reform.
From a historical angle, present-day China's economic achievements repeat part of an old pattern. Fathers captured power by force, and sons firmed the power through economic growth; then grandsons or great-and-so-on grandsons lost it through lack of wisdom, cowardice, and incapacity. The alternation of political power with hereditary properties was supposedly ended when the Communist Party of China seized power in the 1940s. But the traditional political structure and attitude have not been abandoned.
Analysts and scholars, due to modern China's seeming commitment to equality and communism, have neglected this point. In China's long history, there has never been state reform with an attempt to transfer part of the political power to people. Before the 1840s Opium War, China's people had never known the sharing of power, much less democracy and science.
From a historical viewpoint, graft and corruption aren't peculiar to the present Chinese society; in fact, they have been perennial in Chinese history. Over the centuries, China's rulers have never effectively worked out this problem. Graft and corruption have always been an inherent part of China's social or cultural system.
Owing to long-propagandized history, Chinese people now seem to have no doubt that their ancestors once set up the most powerful nation in the world -- the Tang Dynasty. But, in fact, the sphere of influence of the Tang Dynasty never extended beyond Central Asia.
The Chinese often have a peculiar dual character. For instance, in the case of history and education, Japan occupied much of China during World War II. Chinese textbooks regularly deny this fact. Chinese textbooks are unwilling to accept that in the Second World War, the USA was the cardinal strength against and over Japan. The Chinese teach that they were the leading force for the triumph over Japan.
China seems to still dream that one day it can overcome Western powers by a combination basically featuring China's old culture and recover its lost dignity and honor. However, this approach could also sow the seeds of turbulence for its future. China's people don't seem to know that what they have done worst so far is accept a worn cultural foundation. If Confucianism were an effective political philosophy, China's history would have been much different. There wouldn't have been as many as fourteen or so dynasties since the West Han Dynasty.
Compared with its spectacular economic accomplishments, China's educational system reform makes it a paradise for plagiarists and dissertation traders. In today's China, buying treatises for getting a college degree or a professional or government title is as common as trading government offices. The trading of government offices has been an old custom in China for a few thousand years. Mao unsuccessfully attempted to eliminate the tradition. It has sprung fully back to life with the opening of the "new" Chinese society.
It is very easy to dig up information about the trading of papers in China: open a computer, find "Baidu.com," and type in the words "paper network" in the Chinese language into the search engine. Numerous paper-trading web addresses show up. Undoubtedly, the existence of the websites, which are run legally in China, will further exacerbate the decline of China's academic quality -- which has been very low in the past hundred years.
China's educational reform has been the worst failure; it has neither genuinely kept what it promised to fight for, independent academic freedom, nor brought to Chinese thought science, freedom, democracy, and individual rights.
China should be ashamed of its scientific education. China has never even turned out a Nobel laureate for science. Japan had its first Nobel winner for physics as early as the 1940s. Japan has had, so far, up to fourteen more Nobel laureates.
China seems deliberately keen to establish a new type of civilized criterion with China's cultural earmarks. Setting up Confucius Institutes around the world looks to be the first step of the plan.
In a country where the scientific tradition and democratic awareness have never existed, but where its people have always believed that power comes from force, why should we expect political reform with democratic significance to burst onto the scene in current China? More importantly, history and reality have demonstrated time and again that in undemocratic nations, economic recessions -- even total fiscal failures -- do not have to equal the end of political power. For example, in the present North Korea, and in China during the Cultural Revolution, the breakdown of the economy ended with inside struggles and corruption, not outside reform and improvements.
Few in China's top leadership have a Western educational background. This makes the possibility of the reform of democracy unlikely. In the world's history, there has been no precedent to suggest that non-Western countries, without a Western educational background, have ever led the nation to democracy.
Today's China abounds with the mood of restless nationalism. If China's people are constantly inculcated with Confucianism, then it is impossible that its people will have much insight into science, history, nature, the world, or human beings themselves.