Today it was reported that Wen Jiabao, once again, has called for faster political reform at the end of the National Peoples’ Congress. There have been many political reforms over the past 30 years, to say nothing of social changes that have made the country more open. So what’s he worried about? Well, since he warned that he thought that turmoil of the order of the Cultural Revolution might be on the cards if China does not deal with this matter, he seems to be saying that the gulf between the power holders and the powerless is too great. That cataclysm was to a large extent about the fact that a greedy minority had got its hands on all the power and all the food and many people bitterly resented it. Sadly for the victims, the brutality was often deflected onto relatively powerless people, such as intellectuals on the survivors of the slaughter of the ‘bourgeoisie’ in the 1950s.
But today the situation is not the same. Vast numbers of people are much better off than before and the country as a whole is succeeding in improving life in every facet, which was definitely not the case before the 1980s. Little by little officials are subject to scrutiny and procedures – from peer review to elections to the Freedom of Information Law – that oblige them to be more accountable. And New Media has frightened the baddies and encouraged good behaviour.
What Wen is probably worried about are two great gulfs; first that between the highly educated, public spirited and competent central government policy world and the local officials with their immense power and their inclination, as always in Chinese history, to enrich themselves; then there’s the gulf between the latter and ordinary people, who find their efforts to run their businesses stymied by corruption and political obstruction. The state is both catalyst of change but also able to stifle it. The Party interferes in everything too, from investment decisions to court cases, ostensibly on ideological grounds.
It’s not only the Chinese Prime Minister who is concerned. Our famous commentators, from Neil Ferguson to Peter Hitchens, Will Hutton to Jeremy Paxman all opine. Their underlying themes, it seems to me, are twofold: how will China use its power in the emerging world order in which the USA is not the ‘predominant hegemon’ to use a Chinese expression, and whether the Chinese political system is fit for purpose, or whether it will collapse under pressure from a dissatisfied citizenry and because of its inability to control corruption.
Martin Jacques in his thought provoking WHEN CHINA RULES THE WORLD has made a good start on thinking through the first issue, but on the second, raised onto the domestic agenda again yesterday by Wen Jiabao, our great commentators are not very satisfying not only because they hold to the ideological position that the only workable government model is that of Anglo-America, but also because it’s really hard to know what’s going on.
Among a few others, the American academic Shambaugh writes very well on Chinese government, McGregor has done a good book on The Party and Kerry Brown at Chatham House has published a stimulating book on elections in China,Ballot Box China. They all help scope the field and they all tell us about the brilliant people at the top.
But the book that offers a deep insight into Chinese government at the local level – for me, at any rate – is a novel. A Civil Service Diary by Mouse tells the story of a young graduate in his first years as the lowest of all civil servants in a poor rural parish. Badly treated by his superiors because he has no contacts, he struggles to serve the peasants in his charge by getting built the road which will link them to civilization, allow them to sell their produce, make enterprise worthwhile and raise their standard of living.
Every stage of his battle with bureaucracy, his search for funding, his efforts to persuade villagers to give up land and contribute labour, his persuasion of the planning department to hand over the specifications, his need to grease palms to get permissions – every one is there. The detail is riveting because it all rings true. Young Mr Hou is a very competent operator in a world in which interpersonal relations, the ability to build networks and the guile to avoid corruption and its attendant dangers are vital skills.
The novel hides nothing. There are officials who have the youngest and newest girls at the local brothel reserved for them; there are the fund managers who demand payoffs for releasing mortgages and grants; at one point a government investigation team beats up Mr Hou and tortures him with sleep and food deprivation.
But at the same time there are able and decent people fighting that China may succeed and people get opportunities and material conditions that their parents could not dream of. You realise that what we call corruption can exist side by side with public spiritedness and dedication, sometimes in the same persons.
At the end of volume 1 Hou is elected to an important position in the teeth of the establishment, which does everything it can, bar breaking the law, to get his name expunged from the candidates’ list. Until Hou’s local colleagues submitted his name as a candidate with the requisite number of local signatures, no—one had ever stood against the official list. The local Party Secretary is incensed and his machinations as he tries to find ways of annulling or undermining the vote are comic; the shame of the official candidate who, in the elections, is knocked out by Hou, is awful, because we know that the ambitious competitor has built his hopes of future job security, achievement, marriage and reputation on winning.
There are 9 more volumes to go and I am going to read every one of them.
Today’s Chinese literary renaissance is like nothing so much as that of Victorian England. On this, I will keep you posted.