Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Five No's and the Seven Unmentionables

The Chinese government, nervous about the energies released by reform, seems to be turning toward authoritarianism. Lately they have been cracking down on critical voices and especially on foreign influences, mixing Marxism and nationalism with grim ideological rigor. Former president Hu Jintao launched this move to limit change with his famous "Five No's":
No to multiparty politics; no to diversification of [the party's] guiding thought; no to the separation of powers; no to a federal model; and no to privatization.
New president Xi Jinping has extended the argument, partly through historical revisionism. He has attacked critics of Mao, said that accounts of the early 60s famine are exaggerated, and denounced any division of recent Chinese history into pre- and post-reform periods. (This last item is sometimes coupled with a defense of communism's accomplishments into the "theory of the two cannot-negates.")

Now Xi has gone Hu two better by extending the Five No's into the Seven Unmentionables. This first came up in the context of university reform; to keep universities from become centers of dissent, Xi announced a program to "seize control of the lectern" from wayward professors. Lists of the "seven unmentionables" vary -- I suspect translation issues -- but a typical version includes:
  • "universal norms" 
  • "civil society" 
  • freedom of the press
  • "civil liberties"
  • "privileged capitalist class"
  • the party's historical errors
  • the independence of the judiciary.
The determination to keep out dangerous foreign ideas seems clear.

On the other hand the party has continued its assault on corruption, and they have launched high-profile prosecutions of several party officials. I suspect, though, that they will find the same thing Mikhail Gorbachev found, that the only way to really rein in corruption is to encourage a freedom of the press and a habit of confronting officials that are hard to reconcile with authoritarian rule. Since I do not expect any major change in Chinese politics, I think that means China is stuck with entrenched corruption for the foreseeable future. The Chinese have certainly survived worse problems.

I think any notion that democracy is "inevitable" in China is silly. The current regime has overseen one of the most spectacular periods of economic growth in human history; it has restored China's status as a great power; it has encouraged the resurgence of genuinely popular Chinese traditions; it has kept a lid on terrorism; it has avoided large-scale ethnic violence like that in Burma and India; and it has avoided the terrible class conflict between peasants and the urban middle class that has ruined democracy in Thailand. All in all in is a pretty good record. So far as I can tell, most Chinese people appreciate this, and they are not much interested in trading their stability for the unknown seas of democracy. Yes, there are major problems in China and issues that people worry about -- corruption, pollution, lack of clear property rights, continued poverty -- but they can look to India and see that democracy has no obvious solutions to these problems.

On a lighter note, I am sorely tempted to come up with a list of Seven Unmentionables for my children.

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