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Watching China

By Brian Hennessy - posted Tuesday, 24 August 2010


Recently, a two-star Chinese General, Liu Yazhou, warned the Communist Party and his People’s Liberation Army colleagues that, “China must either embrace US-style democracy or accept Soviet-style collapse”.

He continued: “If a system fails to let its citizens breathe freely and release their creativity to the maximum extent, and fails to place those who best represent the system and its people into leadership positions, it is certain to perish.”

These warnings were contained in an article he published in Hong Kong’s Phoenix magazine which is widely circulated in mainland china. Normally, such politically sensitive commentary would be extinguished immediately and the commentator jailed. However, somebody in the power elite is letting this general get away with murder. One wonders why. Particularly when his comments question the fundamentals of the state. Minor dissenters have had their careers and lives destroyed for less.

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Something else is going on here.

Before commenting this issue further, let’s take a look at some of the fundamentals of Chinese society today. As you will read, none of these fundamentals provide fertile soil for criticism of the government. Thus General Liu's comments are both extraordinary and courageous. They remind me of two other courageous men in recent Chinese history - Prime Minister Liu Shao Qi, and General Peng De Huai who criticised Chairman Mao's disastrous policies and who paid a heavy price for doing so. They were true patriots.

Some fundamentals of the current system

China is a one party state: The Communist Party controls everything and will not tolerate dissent. Historically, China has always been a one-party state - a top-down society governed by an emperor for over two millennia, and by the Party since 1949. Nothing much has changed. Confucian philosophy supports this type of political structure.

China is a collective: It has always been thus. The harmony of the group is regarded as more important than the rights of any individual. The stability of the state is more important than human rights. These are fundamental values held by most Chinese people.

Respect for authority: Most Chinese people think of the government as a parent who is responsible for the welfare of the family. They expect the government to make decisions and to take care of them. It is only when the government fails in its duty of care that the people revolt.

Peasants: 700 or 800 million dirt-poor peasants in the hinterland of this vast country don’t care about politics. They only care about parish-pump basics. They never think about, let alone discuss, alternative systems of government. Should they ever become rich, their thinking would remain the same.

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Wealth: Money - not politics or religion - is worshiped in China. I have friends here who are recent converts to Buddhism, not because they long for inner peace, but because they want to pray for wealth. Chairman Mao was right to label Buddhism in China as a superstition.

Middle-class Chinese: Many members of this growing segment of Chinese society swallow their dislike for the one-party system because at the moment they are benefiting from it. They are growing richer, and in China to be rich is glorious (quote from Deng Xiao Ping). Wealth gives them access to government patronage. At the moment they are not about to bite the hand that feeds them. The middle-class is selfish. It will take a severe recession to get these cynics grumbling openly.

Educated and talented people: These folk who are not part of the power-elite, are the only group in china who are dissatisfied with the current system. In reality, they pose no threat to the existing structure because: (i) the government keeps a close eye on them and punishes any public expression of dissatisfaction; and (ii) they are an underground minority. Their numbers are such a small proportion of China’s 1.3 billion population that they can generally be ignored. They have no power base.

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About the Author

Brian is an Australian author, educator, and psychologist who lived in China for ten years. These days he divides his time between both countries.

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