China at Cross Road!

To say I am interested in China’s development is an understatement, China is in my blood. The irony is though I did not know her much until I have lived away from it for years. Nor did I seek to understand her as much as I do now.

We look to history for our interests and concerns about the present states of things. For my quest, I devour books such as Harvard Professor Ezra Vogel’s new book, Deng Xiaoping and China’s Transformation, one that fascinates me tremendously.

If I was politically interested and astute while living in China, I might have picked up more of or better understood what was going on in China. But still, few could have gained such broad and comprehensive understanding of China’s politics during the Deng years. Twenty years of research condensed into a book of more than eight hundred pages, Professor Vogel’s book is an amazing journey through the first fifteen years of China’s post Mao era, opening up what would have remained the Black Box of China’s top political circle.

Its research is thorough and its narratives intriguing. To name one, its account of the secrecy and complexity around the endeavor between Carter administration and Chinese government under Deng’s leadership to bring about the normalization of Sino-US relationship late 1989 and early 1990 rivalries a Hollywood espionage movie. Most importantly, it helps me as I seek to answer many questions about China’s future.arly to mid 1970s, after cutting ties with most of the world for decades, Chairman Mao Zhedong, in hope of forming an alliance to counter threat from Soviet, was willing to open China through a chink of door and started a dialogue with US government. Deng Xiaoping who was restored to power during this time had the opportunity to visit US and Europe and realized China had fallen far behind the developed world. Like many other Chinese top officials who had survived the Mao era, Deng had learned the errors and terrors of radical leftist policies first hand and took them to heart. But it was not till late 1978, almost two years after Mao died in September 1976, that Deng would became the paramount leader and China would embark on an audacious journey of Open and Reform.

Motivated by patriotism and personal ego to modernize China, Deng and his reform minded supporters were determined with their pursuit and brilliantly succeeded in finding a path unprecedented in history of China. They broke away from radical leftist Maoism while maintaining the support of the powerful conservatives and were able to unite the country under the banner of Four Modernization of China. Deng’s determination and ingenuity in coining new concept within the frame work of Marxism and Maoism to shore up support won him admirers and supporter.

Aiming to gain investment and modern technology that China desperately needed, Deng pushed vigorously to normalize relationship with U.S. and to improve relationships with others such as Japan. During his visit to U.S. in early 1979, shortly after normalization of relationship with U.S. was announced, Deng sought to have U.S. start receiving Chinese students. A group of more than five hundred government sponsored Chinese students came to U.S. later that same year. Chinese students and scholars have continued to pour into U.S. since. In 2010, about 128,000 U.S. visas were granted to Chinese students and the majority of them came on personal funding. It was a prescient vision and strategy of Deng’s, one that changed China and will continue to change China in ways that perhaps Deng could not have foreseen himself.  As these U.S., European and Japanese educated students return to China, they will not only bring back advanced science and technologies but also political and cultural influence.

The potential of the Chinese market has long been coveted by more developed part s of the world and target of their expansion. During the colonial days, it resulted in wars and China’s humiliating loss and cession of its important ports along its coastal line and later closing its door to the world almost completely under the leadership of Maoist government. Since the re-opening of its door three decades later in late 1970’s, international businesses, as they seek to expand profits, have continued to tap into China’s market and pour into China with investment and technologies desperately needed and vigorously sought by China, with only a brief period of slow down after the crackdown of the student movement in 1989.

Over the past three decades, China’s economy, previously that of a communist system of public ownership and tightly controlled by state planning, has transformed into one that is of a mixed of state and private ownership and a market economy with the state retaining economic dominance. The market-oriented, state capitalism economic system has spurred China’s GDP to grow at an unrivaled pace, averaging 10% per year. In 2010, it became the second largest world economy, right after U.S., pushing Japan down to the number three spot.

Becoming the economic juggernaut that it is, China has realized many of its ambitions. To name a few, China in 2003 became the third nation that has successfully launched manned spacecraft and it now boasts world class metropolis like Shanghai, high speed rail, fastest computer and longest bridge in the world. Forbes’ billionaire list now includes those made in China. The wealth and nouveau riche that China has created in turn have spurred fascinating phenomena. Worldwide luxurious name brands are contriving up marketing gimmicks to cater to the rising and seemingly insatiable consumer demand, one that comes with Chinese idiosyncrasies this time. And the world sees China’s influence continues to grow, far beyond the economic realm.

China’s transformation is truly impressive and, like that of Mao Zhedong, the name of Deng Xiaoping is gloriously inscribed in China’s history. Interestingly however, just as that of Mao, Deng’s legacy is marred. Among others was Deng’s decision in 1979 to close down the Democracy Wall and put Wei Jingsheng in jail and in 1989 to crack down the student movement of 1989.

Could Deng have embraced the call for democracy and forged political reform while he was at the helm? Could Deng have taken the stance taken by former Premier Zhao Zhiyang, who risked an end to his political power to stand on what he believed to be the right side of history?

Shortly after the crackdown of the student movement in 1989, former US President George H. W. Bush, who had established a good relationship with Deng, tried to maintain his personal rapport and a working relationship with Deng despite the strong anti China sentiment prevalent in US. He wrote to Deng to explain his countrymen’s outrage of the crackdown. Deng charged that US economic sanction is detrimental to China US relationship. Bush countered that it was China’s cracked down on the movement that had caused the problem. Deng insisted that US sanction had infringed on China’s interest and dignity. Deng, the transformational Chinese leader, could not understand that it was his crack down on the peaceful demonstration that had infringed on the universal human desire and right for freedom and dignity. It takes an enlightened mind to understand that Human Right is nobody’s internal affair; it is an affair that should concern the entire humankind.

China is one of those places where, oddly, individual rights and freedom have not gained momentum in its social conscience, despite its long history of civilization. Conforming to the norm and falling in line of one’s station in the great scheme of social hierarchy are expected. Criticism of and any form of defiance to the ruling body are almost always considered unwelcomed threat to the authorities and to this day invariably suppressed and retaliated in the name of maintaining order and stability.

Although pragmatic and bold with economic reform, Deng was in many aspects a traditional Chinese leader. In the meantime, he was a staunch communist and faithfully believed that maintaining communist’s party rule was the way for China.

Stability however could not be achieved by force but by winning hearts and minds. Chinese government has since resorted to the alternative, boosting economic development to win popular support. In the meantime, the world, wrapped around China’s finger tip for profit, continued to pour investment into China and China seemed to have succeeded largely in attaining its goal. More than twenty years later, Democracy Movement of 1989, one of the epic episodes in Chinese history, seems to have been forgotten and, despite murmuring dissent, the communist party rule has remained chiefly unchallenged and unchanged.

In comparison communist countries in Eastern Europe have gone through more fundamental changes. East Germans, in part inspired by Chinese student movement of 1989, later in the same year successfully pushed forward their own movement and torn down the Berlin Wall, East and West Germany finally united into one. Communist rules in this part of the world effectively disintegrated.

Like Mao, Deng was a transformational leader of his time and Chinese leaders after Deng have basically continued the same policies that Deng had spearheaded. And despite all the wonderful things happening in its economic realm, Chinese government has kept up the same rhetoric in its political arena.  As a result, political obscurantism exists to this day in ways of press and information control, censorship and suppression of dissent. To this day, few Chinese have learnt about Liu Xiaobo being awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Recent occurring of dramatic events further exposed concerning problems – rampant corruption and officials abusing power, acting out of and above law and practicing medieval thuggish politics.

Rule of law has not been able to gain strong foothold in China. For dynasties after dynasties, Chinese legal system has been a Potemkin village, façade of a system that has been used by authorities to punish those who are threats to the regimes. To this day, rule of law is not an established fact in china. Apart from the lack of an independent judicial entity, is it the profound repercussion of compounded repression over thousands of years? Is the Chinese psyche so damaged that once in power, few could escape the temptation and abuse it with vengeance? Does Chinese government lack the ability or will to institute an effective legal system that would bring about Equal Justice under Law?

What has enabled some people to break free from the thuggish medieval political and social mode and advance to democracy and rule of law? Is it economic advancement alone? What has enabled some governing systems to better curtail the abuse of power than the other? Do social traditions play a role?

Confucianism, which among others advocates inwardness and obedience to authority in the embodiment of elders, teachers and officials, etc., has been deeply engrained in all aspects of Chinese societies and heavily influenced and shaped social hierarchy and conscience. Maoists’ repudiation of Confucianism temporarily shelved it but did not actually erase it. What does the revival of it in the recent years by the government signify? Is it a backward step in its political reform?

China did not open its first university till 1898 and had no public education till nationalist government took over in 1912. China’s public education has however since grown exponentially and made great stride in education of science and technology. But innovation has stagnated. While Europe and U.S. have been taking quantum leap in science and technology, China is still singing songs about its Four Great Ancient Inventions of compass, gunpowder, paper making and printing and has unfortunately resolved to espionage or downright stealing of intellectual properties of foreign countries. Why?

It is not Science and Technology alone that have spurred Europe and U.S. advancement and placed them far ahead of societies that were once the greatest civilizations on our planet. Is it? What else is it? Is it the difference of religions, or lack of religion? Is it a culture or the lack of culture of equality, compassion and charity?

Isn’t it an irony that philanthropic and humane spirits are lacking in China where individualism is suppressed and communism exalted and that they are the norm of western societies where individuality, personal rights and freedom are valued?

The truth is Chinese communist party has not truly liberated its people as it claims to have done. To unleash potential of creativity, to stop further brain drain and to attract talents to come back to China, it must free hearts and minds that have been intimidated and suppressed and create an environment for independent and critical thinking.

The mosaic composition that represents China is a complex one. The need to reform is being countered by national pride that was once deeply humiliated but is now emboldened by unprecedented economic growth and ready to defy any outside influence at the slightest provocation.

China is at a critical juncture.  While its authoritarian and totalitarian ways persist, the high ideals of socialism and communism promulgated in its constitution have been abandoned de facto.  How will China solve its ideological dilemma? Will its leaders be able to transform its political system to one that could sustain the economic growth and support of its people and one that would implement democracy and rule of laws?

In Civilization West and East, a fascinating documentary by Niall Ferguson that seeks to answer questions such as what has enabled the west to ascend and dominate the past five hundred years? Will it be able to maintain its prominence? Will emerging markets like China and India become truly the leaders of the world in the 21st century? Ferguson lists six factors as the “Killer Apps” behind the west’s success, Competition, Science, Democracy, Modern Medicine, Consumerism and Work Ethic. What can and will China learn from history? Only time will tell. And I surely hope whatever happens will place China on the right side of history.

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