Friday, June 13, 2008

Do You Hear the People Sing, on the Ruins of the Quake?

-What has the seismic catastrophe brought to China's popular politics?

By Thomas Huang

It is no surprise that China's premier, Wen Jiabao, won an overwhelming popularity with his reactions over the earthquake. Many argue that his lightning visits to the affected area were hardly just political stunts: the presence of a top official could readily help bypass the labyrinth of China's local bureaucracies and - arguably - expedite the relief efforts. Wen's idiosyncratic down-to-earth personal style, which he has kept since his debut in politics, also attracted much admiration from the many traumatized hearts and souls of the Chinese people, who believe that they have had enough of the bad luck of this year: snow storm, Tibetan unrests, torch-relay disruptions... "Grandpa Wen," as he is affectionately dubbed, appears to be the premier genuinely "of the people" and "for the people," if not yet elected by the people.

At the same time, unassuaged parents, whose only children were buried under the ruins of the collapsed schools, unleashed a storm of furor at the unscrupulous officials and contractors, whose suspected corruption and negligence were seen as responsible for the flawed construction work that would not even stand the first few seconds of the quake. Many of these accusations seem to be, unfortunately, well founded: official media in China quote various civil engineering experts questioning the quality of those school buildings, and preliminary investigations by Sichuan's provincial government also points to the same problems, the most conspicuous one being substandard materials used in construction.

All these led to a rage of China's germinating populism. To put this mood into context: since the early years of China's economic liberalization, for which the country's then-leader, Deng Xiaoping, explicitly encouraged "allowing part of the population to get wealthy before others," dissensions against the new rich and the old powerful started simmering among the less advantaged groups. The 1989 student movement for democracy and political freedom, which culminated at the Tian'anmen square and has been widely publicized in the West, was initially aimed at ending corruption in government and speculation on prices that were spawned by political privileges and nepotism. Despite the presence of internet- and media-censorship, popular criticism of corruption and calls for greater transparency in governance have only grown louder over the years; even the D-word - "democracy," once a taboo in China's public discussions, popped up in newspaper commentaries as remedies for problems in the country's governance. Meanwhile, marketization of media also prompted the former loudspeakers of the government to look for real eyeball-catching stories, which inevitably exposes the dark side of the society: poisonous foods, slave labor, sweatshops, unsafe coal mines...

The earthquake, thus, provided an opportunity for China's newly formed middle class, not only to show a humanitarian sympathy to their suffering compatriots, but also to demonstrate a heightened desire to hold the government accountable. An outburst of vox populi, echoed around every corner of China's internet message boards and blogs, emphatically asks: why is it mostly the schools, not the luxurious government office buildings nearby, that failed to hold up in the disaster? In the name of the people, this inquisition unambiguously points the sword toward the new "red elites" who ignored the safety issues of school buildings.

Populism is generally considered a vicious flow in stable democracies as it works in favor of ambitious demagogues - at best to fool the electorate and at worse to derail the system; but for China, the story is slightly different. For almost two decades, the Chinese public have been widely criticized, by both domestic scholars and international observers, for being obsessed with economic gains. But the tide started to turn in the years before the earthquake: the bloody stories about the life of the poor trembling in the shadows of the cities' mushrooming skyscrapers and the dirty tricks of big businesses colluding with government officials to infringe upon property owners' rights, disseminated online or by traditional media, served as a wake-up call for the civic conscience of the urban middle class, who have been vocal players in the various types of Weiquan (rights protection) movements, including the one in Xiamen earlier this year that ousted the government-approved construction of a chemical plant from the city. As a result, government officials, though grudgingly, are getting used to having to come up with some sort of responses - however dodgy they may be - to popular demands and criticisms.

Therefore, the biggest credit for China's recent progress towards political liberalization should go to its lower and middle class, who are gradually reclaiming Mencius's idea of "People First, Ruler Second"; and the earthquake, despite giving a boost to the government's popularity, simply empowers the public with the moral vantage point to question the rulers.

Nevertheless, one should not be too optimistic about the Chinese public's zeal in politics: another byproduct of this process, nationalism, has more complicated effects on the political progress there. Next up: United We Stand: But Who's "We?"


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