By David Bandurski — If I had a jiao for every time someone’s told me the Chinese don’t care about politics or democracy, I’d have enough chunk change to fund an American presidential campaign. “The new middle class is young, rich and happy. Just don’t mention politics,” Time reported not long ago. And we are elsewhere informed that “new-generation Chinese”, who exist in a “parallel universe,” “do not want democracy.”
Isn’t there an alternative? Between the Oz of the “China Fantasy” (that a rising Chinese middle class must usher in democracy as we know it), and the nationalistic notion of Chinese cultural subjectivity, the cop-out “parallel universe” of Chinese values in which “our white is their black and their black our white” and democracy could never take root? [Click here for historian Yuan Weishi’s critique of so-called Chinese “cultural subjectivity”].
[ABOVE: Screen capture of Tom Doctoroff’s blog at Huffington Post arguing Chinese exist in a “parallel universe” of values.]
The answer, the oft-neglected missing piece, is expression. These assumptions about the Chinese and their shallowest convictions fail to account for the salient fact that real dialogue about politics or civic life is now and has historically been suppressed in China. Speech, the basic condition of public participation in political affairs, is something the Communist Party has historically monopolized.
So while it’s basically true that politics and democracy are not readily discernible topics in China, it’s more to the point to say that China is a one-party state that does not tolerate political debate.
Just as the factor of speech is missing from these calculations about the political insouciance of the Chinese people, speech may also be the key to reading China’s political future.
Last week, CMP co-director Qian Gang (钱钢) wrote in Hong Kong’s Yazhou Zhoukan that liberalization in the area of expression in China is a critical precursor to political reforms. Continuing his analysis of Hu Jintao’s recent political report to the 17th National Congress, Qian Gang suggested top leaders might be thinking in this direction too:
Those keeping track of political reform in China noticed the phrase “protecting the people’s right to know, participate, express and supervise” (保障人民的知情权、参与权、表达权、监督权) in Hu Jintao’s political report to the recent 17th National Congress.
This phrase is in fact a slight revision from Jiang Zemin’s political report back in 2002. In Jiang’s report the fifth section, “Political Development and Political Reform” (政治建设和政治体制改革), said: In the matter of cadre selection and appointment, Party members and ordinary people should have more right to know, participate, choose and supervise” (扩大党员和群众对干部选拔任用的知情权、参与权、选择权和监督权).
In Hu’s rendition the term “right to select”, or xuanze quan (选择权), is replaced with the “right to expression”, or biaoda quan (表达权) . . .
While in Jiang’s report the above “four rights” phrase appears in reference to cadre selection, it is used more generally in Hu’s report to talk about democracy. And as Qian Gang points out, “expression” replaces “selection” in Hu’s rendering.
A reader asked us recently on the CMP site whether anything positive had appeared in the report to the 17th National Congress. This could, knock on wood, be read as a positive sign.
Calling the inclusion of “right to expression” in Hu’s report the “product of careful consideration,” Qian relates it to a phrase used by political activist Wang Juntao and others during the political reform movement of the 1980s. That phrase, “checking and balancing [power] with diverse expression by intellectual elites” (多元表达，精英制衡), meant essentially that democracy should begin taking shape in China through expansion of rights to expression. From there it should progress gradually toward direct public participation through electoral politics.
The term “right to expression” has in fact gained some traction in China’s media over the last 10 years, and is often linked directly with other basic rights like the right to subsistence (生存权).
Qian Gang’s point is not unlike that of Chinese political activist Chen Ziming (陈子明), who wrote (again in Yazhou Zhoukan) earlier this year that “social opening” (社会开放) in China, including tolerance for voices of opposition to the party and non-party media, would precede “political opening” （政治开放）.
In that article, Chen said — perhaps with a surplus of optimism — that “social opening,” including action on press freedom, should be a core task of the Hu-Wen leadership over the next five years:
Of course I hope that major political reforms can be pushed ahead in the age of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. But if in the next five years they can resolve the task of ‘social opening’ that would be adequate.
What Qian Gang and Chen Ziming are suggesting is that we can expect (and/or hope for) progress on the right to expression to precede political reform. For this to happen, as Chen justifiably argues, China would have to allow the formation of independent social organizations (社会组织) and independent media, laying down the foundations for civil society.
If this happened Chinese could begin the conversation about China’s political future that so many China watchers have found conspicuously absent. That conversation, says Qian Gang, is itself part of the democratization process, and we should not focus narrowly on participation through democratic election as the immediate goal of political reform:
We cannot lash freedom and democracy together. If one morning, freedom of expression and democracy were liberated from their bonds, this would not necessarily be a great blessing for the people. Democracy must proceed gradually. It requires that the people march ahead in their daily lives, and that march is freedom of expression. Freedom of expression cannot dawdle along. The most reliable path of political development in China would be a succession of openings – opening of expression (言论开放), then social opening (社会开放), then political opening (政治开放).
The process of expression has only just begun in China. But we are fortunately at a point now where we can begin listening to Chinese voices on issues of critical importance to the Chinese.
However the party might try to “guide” public opinion, these voices are growing daily more diverse. And what they are saying is far more complex than a simple, dismissive “No.”
There are enough voices already to belie the narrow chauvinism — the cultural, political and intellectual Great Wall — of Chinese “cultural subjectivity”. There are voices clamoring for universal values even as they seek China’s own path.
Nor should we forget that China’s “Me generation” is also its most expressive ever. We can of course glimpse this in Chinese weblogs and online discussion forums. But it’s in evidence in China’s traditional media too, where commentary sections are cautiously expanding to include a greater variety of voices on issues that include basic civil rights.
“We have so much bigger a desire for everything than [our parents],” Time quoted 27 year-old Maria Zhang as saying. “And the more we eat, the more we taste and see, the more we want.”
And the more, no doubt, they will have to say.