China Avoiding European Mistakes

China’s quest for economic prosperity substitutes the quest for democratic rights

When China appears in the European media, it is usually either with enthusiasm over what regimes can achieve without the restrictions of civil rights, or with outrage over the lack of these civil rights. Three years after the completing of the third terminal at Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK), the Chinese government announced that since PEK is already operating close to its capacity limit, a new airport, Beijing Daxing, with 8 runways and a capacity of up to 200 million passengers per year is already under construction and scheduled to replace PEK by 2017. While the government was announcing this, thousands of residents were already being relocated against their will and without knowledge of what they would have to leave their homes for. (...)

On the other side, there is the issue of the state of autonomy of Tibet, the relations with the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, and the status of the many ethnic minorities like the Uyghurs remains as unclear as those of religious groups.

And then there is the issue of Taiwan, which China still considers as part of the People’s Republic, while Taiwan does not acknowledge the independence of Mainland China, hence its official name, « The Republic of China ».

Voting rights, by Europeans believed to be the most important part of any functioning state, are not likely to be implemented any time soon, with the Chinese government even banning the Chinese version of « Pop Idol », because viewers were able to vote on their favorite singer.

And finally, there is heavy criticism to employment conditions, working hours, wages and other rights we favor, like those of forming labor unions.

However, when viewing these issues Europeans usually forget that what they see are merely snapshots of a long term development that started long before China flooded our markets with cheap textiles and toys. As we concentrate on China’s economic progress while completely disregarding its current economic state of pollution, income inequality, inefficiency or sustainability, we seem to take exactly the opposite approach when it comes to China’s state of civil rights. We compare freedoms like those of expression, religion or political engagement with ours and disregard the fact that China has come a long way from a Maoist communism that gave its people close to no rights and choices at all.

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Fast food wars as symbol of an expanding Middle Class

This McD was the first to be opened in mainland china in the 1990s, now Mc Donald’s China plans to open a new store every day in four years. source : flickr, flickr.markus -

Today, it is easier than ever for Chinese to freely chose their occupation rather than having to care for the few square meters of land that the government calls your farm. As restrictions on businesses fall and taxes stay low, more and more goods become available, more restaurants open and with wages increasing roughly 10% per year people actually do get to enjoy this.

That is, as long as they are part of the new, emerging middle class.

Being part of that middle class means being educated on university level, owning a car and an apartment and being either employed by one of the many universities, private or state owned companies. Being part of that middle class comes with many economical benefits, most of which would not exist either without the reform policies of the communist party, or, in case you are part of the communist party, without the efforts of the working middle class.

One interpretation to this is that more than twenty years ago, when the student protests of 1989 so infamously failed, the frustrated protesters either gave up on politics, or decided to enroll in the party to change things for the better. And they struck an implicit deal, that one would leave another alone, knowing that one party’s success will heavily depend on the other’s achievement.

So as long as business women and men do not involve themselves in politics, their businesses are free from political interference, and as long as universities keep debates to themselves, they will unlikely face restrictions on what they debate.

While there still are taboos, like questioning the personality cult around chairman Mao, or the Tian’anmen Massacre, the communist party is opening up more and more to discussion. As China realizes that it in fact can easily feed over 1.4 billion people, the necessity of birth control becomes less evident, and with it the legitimization of the one child policy. Criticizing corruption within the system is no longer frowned upon, but rather almost encouraged, and with the Special Economic Zones rising from their dark pasts as dangerous sweat shops to prosperous industrial centers, economic liberalism seems more en vogue in China than anywhere else.

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queues to sit next to the Hello Kitty astronaut

©by : Leonhard WEESE

We ought to admire that process

Europe too had periods of starvation, political oppression, economical hardship and violence. Today, more then ever, we advocate in favor of revolutions and support political overthrows which have very rarely led to true process in our own history. Neither 1779, 1848 nor 1918 helped the European people to achieve sustainable freedom or prosperity. The quest for democracy and political participation has always led to violence, where the benefit of economic prosperity appeared as a rather rare side effect. What China seems to be doing is substitute the quest for democracy with a quest for prosperity. And if this quest for prosperity establishes a few political freedoms on the side, so be it. However, for now, it seems to be a far more stable and peaceful path than the one Europe took.

And while Europe is still struggling to find the least painful way to reintegrate it’s dozens of puzzle pieces, China is not forgetting about its unity along the way. China, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Macau and at times even Korea want to be Chinese. The disagreement lies on what this China should look like.

Threat to the progress

What seems to unite the middle class of China with the political class is the fear that this path might fail, and with it the peaceful and stable way to prosperity. They look with angst to their trade partners’ purchasing power and see democracy failing in the attempts of European leaders to deal with their exploding debt.

While for the European people ’voting’ has always been the most important tool to political participation, emphasizing the sovereignty of the people, this very same “voting” mechanism is seen as the biggest obstacle to prosperity by the Chinese.

That is why both the middle and the political class of China fear their country’s poor, because they look at history and see revolutions harm their stability as well as their newly gained economical prosperity.

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Leonhard WEESE

On the internet

China’s future: Rising power, anxious state
The Economist

China’s Middle Class. Gilded age, gilded cage
National Geographic

Photo stream on middleclass prosperity and aging population
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