China's Worldview Imperative: Don't Rock Our Boat

Everything that registers on China's international -- and, for that matter, domestic -- radar does so because it, directly or indirectly, impacts stability.
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Everything that registers on China's international -- and, for that matter, domestic -- radar does so because it, directly or indirectly, impacts stability. Pragmatic to the core, the PRC cherishes one thing above all else: order. Stability has always been, and remains today, the platform on which progress is constructed.

Western definitions of human rights -- the "pursuit of Happiness" unencumbered by the state -- remain a vague, albeit lovely, abstraction. Hearts race and tears flow if China's progression to prosperity, on both individual and national levels, is affected. The American Declaration of Independence elicits respect. But the "Chinese Dream" -- a material Utopia replete with Armani suits, well-appointed living rooms and four-door family sedans -- is the Han Shining City on a Hill.

Make no mistake. The Chinese are cautiously optimistic about their future, a rising economic tide lifting many boats. The people are thrilled by the nation's growing clout in global affairs and its destiny as a superpower. Thirty years of top-down orchestrated growth fuels hope and bravado. Parents believe children's fortunes will exceed their own. Even angry youth holed up in "ant apartments" respect the central government's technocratic efficiency. But they take nothing for granted. Esteem is not unconditional. Faith is not absolute. Middle Kingdom optimism morphs into infectious ambition only when the coast is clear. China's Everyman -- from farmer and worker to middle class striver -- is afflicted by an underlying anxiety it could all go wrong, that the fault lines in contemporary society will cause walls to come tumbling down.

A Common Thread: From Egypt, to Japan and Back to China

That stability matters above all else becomes clear once one considers reactions to events seemingly unrelated but linked on psycho-emotional levels: the Jasmine revolution; a broad crackdown on human rights activists, artists, bloggers and defense attorneys; the trial of Yao Jiaxin, a moneyed princeling who murdered a pedestrian; and Japan's concatenation of tragedy (earthquake, tsunami and radiation).

The international community was taken aback by the breadth and depth of the Communist Party's Spring 2011 crackdown on any "alternative voice" -- i.e., not directly under the control of the government. But given the CCP's extreme sensitivity to even the slightest whiff of independent discourse, China watchers should have anticipated the clampdown. The CCP, always on the qui vive for even the narrowest opening of organized dissent, was sure to be spooked by the "people power" that fueled the Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East. (The word "jasmine" has been banned from the media; jasmine flowers are no longer sold in flower markets.) The sensitivity of the upcoming leadership transition only exacerbates China's leftist lurch.

Ai Weiwei is a renowned visual artist who played a prominent role in designing Beijing's iconic Olympic Bird's Nest stadium. However, his more recent works smack of insubordination and criticism of China's "spiritual drift." He was the most prominent public figure dragged into house arrest. But there were many others. To name a few: defense attorney Gao Zhisheng, human rights advocates such as Run Yunfei and Ding Mao, democracy advocate Liu Xianbin as well as countless bloggers -- for example, spy novelist Yang Hengjun. To boot, the party has begun a new clamp down on any of its own members who fail to "vigorously" support the party line.

The Jasmine Revolution: Doesn't Concern Us. Perhaps a bit more unexpected has been the public's apathy regarding both the democratic revolution in the Mideast and the rights rollback it triggered back home. Regarding Egypt et al, people were unmoved. One restaurateur exclaimed, "The Chinese people are not stupid! Look at China. Look at the Middle East. Laobaixing (the common man) is doing okay. Over there, everything is still backwards." My barber, an ambitious native of Fujian province who is well known in fashion show circles, was dismissive of any connection between Egypt's revolution and China's situation. Rolling his eyes at my "naiveté," he said, "You've been here for thirteen years. You should know we don't like the central government. But we respect it. They keep everything moving." Anonymous micro-bloggers issued calls for "silent walking" protests, but they were quickly squelched.

Domestic Human Rights Crackdown: Tremors Ahead? Regarding the domestic round up, sentiments were subtle, pragmatic and stability-focused. Few had heard anything at all, a testament to the government's prowess in framing public discourse. The few who did -- i.e., English speakers who read foreign newspapers -- were not up in arms about "rights violations." Their reactions were not indignant.

That said, some were unsettled by the party's ham-handedness. The crackdown's breadth signaled a growing insecurity amongst political elites, bureaucrats who may doubt their own ability to navigate the cross currents of Chinese society: rich versus poor, coastal versus inland, urban versus rural, young versus old and homeowners versus renters. A fragile "faith" in the central government's ability to "manage" remains the gravitational force that prevents bedlam from erupting. Over-the-top repression weakens confidence in the Middle Kingdom's ruling clique, all technocratic engineers. The CEO of a large bank whispered to me, "Now they're arresting gadflies. It's means they're afraid of losing their grip." Another friend, the boss of a local advertising agency, confessed, "I don't know if they can keep the good times rolling. I'm glad my family has Canadian passports." The Chinese general manager of a western media company complained, "Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have never led economically-powerful provinces. The were consensus candidates, 'safe choices.' But now they don't seem 'safe' at all. I hope Xi Jinpin [Hu's heir apparent] will be more effective. At least he succeeded in Fujian and Zhejiang. They have money there."

Death to Yao! Theoretical debates about human rights do not set pulses pounding. However, the dark side of China's legal system -- random, rigged against the little guy, manipulated by land-hungry provincial bosses, dysfunctional in advancing the interests of "small potatoes"- triggers deep hostility. And anxiety. On the surface, the nation's apoplectic reaction to the April 2011 trial of Yao Jiaxin was about justice, plain and simple. The defendant, a 21-year-old music student and son of privilege, murdered a working class pedestrian, Zhang Miao, to prevent her from reporting an accident to the police. Bloodthirsty howls for the death penalty were testament to a strand of angry nervousness that infests everyday life. Yes, there was sympathy for the victim and her family. And an unremorseful Mr. Yao, savaged by local media as an amoral princeling, made a great villain. (His tearful excuse on CCTV, the national government mouthpiece: "My parents forced me to practice the piano.") But most virulence was directed at an inbred power structure, protecting itself at the expense of ordinary folk. To 99% of the population, Ms. Zhang's sudden demise was a cautionary tale; without connections, life is precarious. As a JWT colleague said, "The same thing could happen to my mother."

More than "right" or "wrong," judicial corruption is inefficient. It is unpredictable. It blocks individual advancement. It is a violation of the covenant between the Communist Party and the people: political subservience in exchange for competent management and meritocratic opportunity. I have not met a single person who advocates lenience for Yao - e.g., life without parole. In the words of a typical netizen, "He deserves to die but, more than that, he needs to die. If he doesn't, the government loses legitimacy." The crime metastasized into a cautionary tale of the powerful versus the powerless. Extenuating circumstances - the defendant's youth, voluntary confession four days after the murder, no previous misconduct - are irrelevant. What counts is a clear signal that all levels of government are in sync with the interests of the people. (It is not expected to represent them. The Party exists on a different plane than ordinary folk.) If Yao is not quickly executed, cynicism will spread. Confidence in the robustness of China's institutions, still strong at the national level, will drop. (As of May 30, Yao had been sentenced to death but many believe the judgment is only a temporary pacification. Who knows, people ask, what "tricks" could lead to milder punishment.)

Japanese Civility: Are We Missing Something? The Chinese are willing to forgo a "civil society" only if the lack of one does not impact "my" or "my family's" material circumstances. An underlying anxiety that China lacks cultural and institutional building blocks to safeguard individual economic interests was laid bare after the March 2011 earthquake in Fukushima, Japan. Since 1949, the government has systematically transmogrified anti-Japanese sentiment into fierce, pro-Party nationalism. The people of Japan have been dehumanized in everything from elementary school readers to propagandistic media tirades, particularly during spasms of leadership insecurity. (The derogatory term xiao ribenren, or little Japanese, connotes a combination of pettiness and cruelty.) The Chinese were, therefore, surprised by Japan's post-disaster civility. Despite Biblical catastrophe, anarchy did not break out. The best aspects of Japanese society - graceful stoicism and dignity; consideration towards strangers; patience as a virtue, not a competitive weakness - were beamed across the nation. The victims of calamity inspired. These on-line postings were typical: "We have something to learn from them. We were not so well-behaved after the Sichuan earthquake," "Japanese society is so well ordered! They can face anything," "They line up to make telephone calls. We fight over bags of rice." Rapid reconstruction of factories in the disaster zone, despite officialdom's sclerosis, further impressed. For the first time, Japanese "attention to detail," often derided here as an obsessive-compulsive tick, suggested adaptive strength. For the first time, the Chinese looked across the East China Sea, saw qualities they lack and asked, "What if?" and "Could we?"

In Conclusion

The Middle Kingdom's worldview is, paradoxically, both broad and parochial. Anything the promotes cohesion and stability - the creation of the G20 economic forum, even American involvement in the Taiwan Straits - is appreciated, explicitly or tacitly. Anything that militates against China's "success" - the U.S. Federal Reserve's quantitative easing policy, interference in the PRC's Africa engagement, meddling in the South China Sea - is resisted. Anything that does neither - advocacy of democracy in the Mideast - is ignored.

A Few Quick Tips. In China, pragmatism (i.e., incremental progression towards attainable objectives) is golden. Stability is sublime. Foreigners who land in China must accept this reality. Leaders who preach values without defining achievable goals will quickly fail. Politicians without lecture about human rights without linking them to efficiency will be snubbed. Corporate chieftains who promote corporate responsibility must frame "green" in terms of family welfare and national productivity. The Chinese, always results-oriented, treasure engagement with the world. But only if risk and return can be meticulously prognosticated.

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