[Editor’s Note: The following is a partial translation of a lengthy, passionate and strongly-worded discussion of China’s history, current leadership and political reform by CMP fellow and veteran investigative reporter Zhai Minglei posted to his “personal newspaper,” 1bao.org. The article, removed yesterday from a number of mainland websites, is now available only outside the Great Firewall.]

I too have studied Wen Jiabao’s “southern tour” speech in Shenzhen.

We must always be very careful in our choice of words. Since Premier Wen Jiabao scribbled the phrase “Much stress regenerates a nation” (多难兴邦) on a classroom blackboard after the Wenchuan earthquake in May 2008, many disasters in our country have prompted the central Party to summon up this idea of China’s emerging greatness through the pall of adversity.

Internet users have responded by conjuring up their own phrase, “Much stress faced and overcome regenerates a nation,” or duo nan chuan bang (多难穿邦). This is a wonderful phrase.

I once asked Wang Qinghua (王庆华), the wife of Tan Zuoren (谭作人), the activist jailed for investigating the collapse of schools in the Sichuan earthquake, why she and her husband had so much courage to step out and tell the truth. Wang Qinghua lit a cigarette and said faintly, softly, that back in her childhood she had seen with her very own eyes how the Great Starvation in Sichuan had been manufactured.

That year, Sichuan had experienced more than a natural disaster. Its crops that year were bumper crops, but crops were not harvested and were allowed to rot in the fields. Soil was turned over them again, and seeds re-planted. No sooner had the seeds germinated to a finger’s length than soil was once again raked over. They planted again, and the shoots came up again, only to be buried once more. Planting, then burying. Planting, then burying . . . Was this madness? No. In fact, local leaders had ordered them to take photographs of each crop as evidence so they could report production of more than 5,000 kilograms of grain. That year, Sichuan, the Land of Abundance, was under the leadership of Party Secretary Li Jingquan (李井泉), an ardent believer in Chairman Mao. And this was how tens of millions starved. This experience, she said, was what gave her and Tan Zuoren the courage to speak the truth.

Each time, our government describes for us how the courageous People’s Liberation Army is battling this or that natural disaster for the sake of the ordinary people, and we don’t realize how many of them are in fact disasters resulting from human conduct and human decisions.

The Human Folly Behind the Natural Disasters

The estimated thirty million who died in the Great Starvation of the 1960s surpass the sum total of all recorded mass starvations in China’s history. It was a “Great” error by our “Great” leader. The Great Starvation had its origins in the Anti-Rightist Movement, which struck down all those who loved to speak the truth. From the grass roots up to the loftiest heights of leadership, lies seized people’s hearts. A few otherwise normal years wreaked death on a level equal to several atomic bombs dropped in the heart of China. The death toll even surpassed the global death toll for the Second World War, and of course outstripped the death of the Anti-Japanese War by a long margin. There were thousands of documented instances of cannibalism during this tragedy as well. Anyone can read in Yang Jisheng’s book Tombstone (墓碑) about the death toll and how Mao Zedong refused to open China’s grain reserves to save his own people. Close to one million people starved to death in Xinyang in Henan province, right next to a massive granary where harvests from both Henan and Hubei provinces had been stored.

On August 7, 1975, heavy rains in Zhumadian (驻马店) caused the Banqiao Reservoir Dam to burst, sending a massive six million cubic meter wall of water coursing down over the countryside and destroying everything in its path. Other dams burst in the wake of this tragedy, affecting eleven million people and destroying more than 7,000 square kilometers of crops. In all, that disaster killed 85,000 people, and became the world’s most infamous dam collapse.

World experts have been puzzled by this. The second worst dam collapses in history are the 1889 Johnstown Flood in the United States, in which around 10,000 people died, and the 1979 Machhu II Dam Collapse in India, in which 10,000 people died as well. No dam collapse elsewhere in the world has ever resulted in such a catastrophic death toll. So why is this the case? The answer, as we now know, is that more than one-hundred dams were built hastily in the 1950s in mountainous regions prone to severe weather, in a Party-led campaign for rapid progress on water projects. As a result, the dams failed almost instantly — two large-scale dams, two medium-scale dams, and scores of small-scale dams. It was through cascading failure and the combination of hundreds of disasters that so many people died.

Twenty years later Zhumadian became the center of yet another disaster.

HIV-AIDS was spread through the Henan countryside around Zhumadian as blood selling became rampant with encouragement from provincial health authorities who wanted to drive GDP growth. The whole province threw itself into the blood economy, but health and sanitation procedures were seriously poor. Blood products from donors were pooled together, the desired plasma separated out, and remaining blood byproducts re-transfused into donors with the idea that they could donate blood more frequently this way. By 2003 China’s Ministry of Health would finally state publicly that China had more than one million people infected with HIV-AIDS.

In 2003, disaster struck yet again — this time Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. As the whole world was engaged in a desperate fight against SARS, China, the place where the disease originated, was busy trying to cover the epidemic up through controls on the news media.

One Shanghai official even said to foreign media at the time: “You foreigners care more about each individual life than we do because your populations are so small. We care more about social stability. Covering up the death of a small number of people helps to preserve stability, and this is the proper way to handle things.” One high-level provincial official said: “It’s not the plague that we should fear, it’s the media we should fear.” Experience showed, of course, that the epidemic itself would not heed CCP leaders. But the bureaucratic system, in which one is responsible to one’s superiors and not to the people, could only try to kill off information for its own political ends and leave the disease to its own devices.

In 2008, thousands of students were buried during the Sichuan earthquake as their shoddily-built schools collapsed. A tragedy wrought by human folly.

This year we have the Zhouqu mudslide, a direct result of the systematic destruction of the ecological environment in the area through excessive logging and mining. In 2005, years before this year’s tragedy, twelve disastrous mudslides struck in the vicinity. Tragedies wrought by human folly.

The poisonous milk scandal of September 2008. A tragedy wrought by human folly.

What about the sandstorms that blanket our skies? I’ve been to the high plain. I’ve spoken to experts and herdsmen. The destruction of our high plains is a direct result of our destruction of indigenous nomadic herding culture. The high plain is a place of many different types of climates, prone to all different kinds of disasters. It’s ecology is fragile. Just a meter under the surface of the topsoil there is sand. There is perhaps a week out of the year when different parts of the plain are suited to grazing. And then the plains rest again. Now look what has replaced nomadic herding — the same contract responsibility system used in the Han Chinese regions of the mainland. The high plains have been parceled out, and each parcel is subjected to grazing for half the year, or even all year. How can the environment right itself? Plains that have been green for a thousand years have been destroyed within our lifetimes. This is a fact I have seen with my own eyes.

Is this a natural disaster, or a tragedy wrought by human folly?

Why are disasters happening more and more frequently? Because they are tragedies wrought of human folly. Tragedies wrought by human folly.

If political reform continues to be deferred these disasters will continue to come with different names. None of us are safe.

All of these disasters remind us insistently — in the same way that the Xinhua Daily (新华日报) once judged the Kuomintang government and its “one-party tyranny, wreaking havoc universally” — that only through democracy can we crawl out of this abyss of history.

Democracy is the Way, There is No Other

“Much stress regenerates a nation” means nothing if there is no process of reflection on the lessons of disaster. Today, we cannot even talk about a museum to the Cultural Revolution. We cannot publish books about the Cultural Revolution. We cannot ask after the issue of school collapses in the Sichuan earthquake. We cannot ask whether some level of warning system for the quake might have been possible.

We must ask, how has disaster made us strong? Only by facing and overcoming disaster can we grow stronger!

What is democracy? And why democracy? Actually, democracy is the best of our poor choices. As Winston Churchill said in his famous dictum: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” And just as Ludwig Von Mises once said, wars and violent revolutions are evils, and without democracy they are difficult to prevent. Democracy means avoiding destruction.

Democracy is not at all as many people have described it, leading to internal chaos. When governments work for the will of the people it is the plotters and tyrants who are most unhappy. Von Mises said: “For the sake of domestic peace, liberalism aims at democratic government. Democracy is therefore not a revolutionary institution. On the contrary it is the very means of preventing revolution and civil wars. It provides a method for the peaceful adjustment of government to the will of the majority.”

But wherever there is oppression there is opposition, and the opposing of tyranny is a basic human right. Therefore, if democracy does not form the basic fabric of society, then those who oppose potentially become a force of unbridled destruction, and this is the terrible soil of revolution. But when democracy forces political power to yield to the popular will, the basis for revolution is removed.

When people say things like, “Democracy is not suited to the temperament of the Chinese,” the people of India laugh. When people say things like, “Asian culture has no tradition of democracy,” the people of Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand all laugh. It was on Chinese soil that Asia’s first republic was founded last century, and 98 years later Chinese now say democracy is unsuited to China.

OK, so even if we do not oppose undemocratic systems, I’d like to ask how exactly it is that our good Party leaders are to be chosen. If it is not through democratic means, are we to resort to royal succession? Or executive appointment? None of these traditional ways can be used. If you don’t employ democratic means, what will you use — the laws of the forest?

Autocracy will not only destroy society, it will engender struggle within the ruling party and ultimately destroy it as well. This is Wen Jiabao’s basic logic in his words of support for democracy.

How Many People Believe?

Premier Wen Jiabao has made many speeches on trips to the south, but we’ve not seen any collective effort to come up with new and better ways to do things. So why is it that people no longer believe? Who will believe you when you speak empty words so many times and don’t follow up with real action? These are no longer the days when Mao Zedong speaks and everyone beats their drums and gongs in rhythm.

People ask, why have we paid lip service to political reform all these years, just so much thunder without rain? Why does Wen Jiabao say nothing about all of the specific reform plans reformers have come up with? Like Mr. Cao Siyuan, who has suggested that political reform begin with the live broadcasting of the National People’s Congress (NPC), so that television viewers can gain a sense of the real debates and conflicts that go on within the NPC — the idea being that there is hope for political reform only if the people attend to it. What a wonderful idea.

Why is it that while Wen Jiabao pays lip service to political reform, a reform experiment in Luojiangwan (罗江迈), Sichuan province, in which People’s Congress delegates serve full-time terms as representatives rather than just attend occasional meetings, is brought to an end? This, a small success in democracy, and its planner and executor was the public intellectual Yu Jianrong (于建嵘), one who has favor with the government. Not even this can be done?

Mr. Wen, you should do more to encourage the people to believe you.

The poet Lin Zexu (林则徐) wrote in the 19th century: “One must uphold the interests of the nation with his life, not looking to personal gain or evading his duty for fear of personal loss.” [NOTE: This is also a phrase Wen Jiabao used early on in his tenure as premier to express his sense of duty.]

This is a calling that Tan Zuoren (谭作人) has lived up to, that Hu Jia (胡佳) has lived up to, that Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) has lived up to. You, sir, have not.

And you have the capacity. As someone who has walked a mile as a political figure, as someone who saw for himself the tears of the students in the Square, who is literature and has read widely, who has always rushed to the front lines of disaster, I do not believe you are insincere. After I published a series of articles on earthquake prediction, the scientific experts I had interviewed were pressured.

At his most desperate, Mr. Pan Zheng (潘正) was visited by a certain mysterious official in the General Office of the State Council, who said he had a request from Wen Jiabao to read Yibao‘s series on earthquake prediction. Pan Zheng put all of the Yibaoarticles into his hands, and the official said to Pan Zheng as he left: “The Earthquake Administration in Sichuan will suffer its own major quake.” But after this there was nothing but silence. Eventually, Xinhua’s Oriental Outlook magazine ran its own series on earthquake prediction, sharply at odds with Yibao‘s series. This suggested that the State Council’s attitude toward the question of earthquake prediction had totally changed. Before long, the head of the Sichuan Earthquake Administration, Wu Yaoqiang (吴耀强), stepped down. This suggested wisdom on your part.

The Lazy Politics of Hu-Wen

One evening I watched the documentary film Living With Tears, which told the story of a Shanghai youth who had worked for more than twenty years in Japan, and only after some 13 years apart was able to see his wife again. When he laid his hand on his wife’s shoulder, he used only three fingers — their love was no longer familiar. He expended all of his energy on his wife and daughter, eventually sending his daughter to study at an American university and allowing his wife to live a prosperous life. In the end, he said: “Just as the Premier is responsible to the nation, I am responsible to my family, to my wife and child. The people of Japan have an unbending spirit that we in China would do well to learn from.”

I cried as I watched this Shanghai man on the screen that night. Exactly how many ordinary Chinese are paying the bill for China’s frightful policies, and paying with their lives?

Most ordinary Chinese take responsibility for their families. And who, in contrast, does not take responsibility? Is it you, the Premier of our nation?

Yes, it’s true that during SARS you acted resolutely, harboring in people’s hearts some anticipation of the new politics of Hu-Wen. You were acute in your handling of the Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) case. The repeal of the agricultural tax won the support of the people. But on freedom of expression we are stepping backward. The Golden Shield Project [for control of the Internet] is advancing, and judicial independence is failing.

The new politics of Hu-Wen that people looked to with such anticipation have become the lazy politics of Hu-Wen. You have performed poorly. Please do not fault people when they refer to you as “China’s best actor.” Because you have said so many things, and you have shed so many tears. But through it all there has been no real show of action.