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Essays

Is Chinese Democracy out of Reach?

In Lu Xun’s Nahan or A Call to Arms,” he makes an interesting comparison of Chinese society:

Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?” [In turn his friend in the story returns,] “But if a few awake, you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house. [1]

During his time, Lu Xun was an active critique of the existing warlord system of China. In China, democracy is not an influential idea. In Chinese democracy, priorities are evaluated differently from western democracy. Although there have been attempts at democratization in the past, liberal democracy will most likely not be achieved in the 21st century due to political strongmen, nationalism, and its authoritarian resilience.

A liberal democracy is vastly different from the current structure of the People’s Republic of China. Liberal democracy can be defined as a representative political system that is characterized by multiparty elections, separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government[2]. Whereas the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist position of democracy is built on an economic foundation. Mao is recorded as saying, “Democracy for the people and dictatorship over the reactionaries, the combination of these two constituent parts is the People’s Democratic Dictatorship”[3]. Under the Chinese communist system there was a written democracy, but decisions were still made by the unelected politburo.

China’s second core leadership, Deng Xiaoping, believed that China should never adopt a western-style democracy, the thinking was that the multi-party representative system and a system of checks and balances were a democratic monopoly of the capitalist class. Instead, especially in light of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Deng preferred incremental changes in his reforms rather than a shock therapy style. According to Deng, “without political stability, there could be no democracy.” And these stable reforms can be achieved through intraparty democracy[4].

These differences between the West and the East are the product of different histories. Whereas the United States, the typical example of a liberal democracy has a short history and its entire history is based in democratic tradition; China is one of the longest lasting cohesive histories, has no historical background to support democracy. Although that history alone can never determine a country’s future it does play a small role. The largest extent of democracy that existed in the Late Qing dynasty was a process called memorialization in which high ranking officials could draft a document on matters that concerned them and send it to the Emperor. The mainstream ideology of China, Confucianism focuses on the rule of virtue rather than rule of law[5]. So, they would examine the morality of a leader instead of whether that leader’s power was based in legitimacy.

Despite this history there have been pushes for democracy by the Chinese people and always someone willing to stand up and speak out. The May Fourth and the New Culture Movement was one of the earliest and largest emergences of a civil society[6]. Since then, any democratic opening or loosening has always been slammed shut by the Communist Party.

The economic reforms promulgated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has transformed china into a heavy hitter of the International Market. This economic development is a direct result of the reform of the traditional socialist economic system. Structure of ownership was reformed, and the economy was diversified. Communes were abandoned and replaced with contracts and pay-scales. This formerly shut, and thoroughly planned economy was to a small extent replaced by a free market system. Prices were now subject to supply and demand pressure and international exchange rates.[7] It is difficult to make such economic democratization and decentralization without social reforms as well. The CCP’s shift from absolute centralism toward an incremental democracy has resulted in many reforms.

China’s civil society has grown, in 1989 there were a little over 1600 civil society organizations and now there are at least 700,000 nationwide. There has also even been experimentation in direct elections and local self-governance at the village level. In 1979 the Law for the Election of National and Local People’s Congress Representatives mandated that all people’s congress representatives below the county level must be directly elected. A decade later, the Organic Law of the Village Administration of Committees of the PRC provided a framework for the gradual expansion of the self-governance system in villages, nationwide. By the end of 1997, 60 percent of villages nationwide had begun the transition toward the direct free election of village administrators.[8] However, when there is reform, people with vested interests, and economic gains to be had, corruption always follows. Reform leaders knew that there were some party bureaucrats were hindering economic reforms[9]. This corruption was due to the political system itself.

In response to this corruption Deng Xiaoping put forth the “Four Modernizations” but a democracy movement was brewing on the side streets of Tiananmen square. 1978-1979’s Democracy wall was the place where old Cultural Revolution wounds were given space to breathe. A notable example of a participant is Wei Jingsheng who was exemplary and unusual since he put his name and address on his work that he posted on the Democracy Wall. his wall poster campaign, called “the Fifth Modernization: Democracy” insisted that unless democracy was put into place, all other modernizations would fail. He was a part of the “sent down” generation and spent some time in the People’s Liberation Army. Wei edited an unofficial newspaper even though he only completed a high school level education. His core point in his “Fifth Modernization was that” democracy was not solely the result of social development, it was also the condition for the development of higher production.[10] But in the end, Jingsheng was arrested along with other activists and the regime tightened controls.

But the road from dictatorship to democracy is the most political transition of all and you cannot skip any stages of developing a democracy. The Arab spring has wilted, Thailand’s elections have only resulted in coups, and Cambodia and Malaysia both have had deeply flawed elections. There is no guarantee that a newborn democracy will survive to maturation. Any elections however, even if flawed or ignored can put a country on the right path since it can whet the people’s appetite for the real thing. Another feature of a successful transition is the degree of consent by the regimes being replaced. The military, often referred to in other countries as the “deep state” must have an incentive to not take the power into their own hands. Since it has empirically shown that violence begets more violence, if China were to have a change it must have a peaceful mass movement. A third-party mediator has been helpful in past transitions in other countries such as Myanmar as well as foreign sponsors to assist and buttress blooming democracies and the sprouts of rule of law.[11]

Perhaps the most infamous of all democracy movements of China is the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. This massive demonstration was one in which more than a million people participated and lasted months. It was complete with students, hunger strikes, workers, intellectuals, and others. It was initiated to demand a posthumous rehabilitation of the former communist party chairman Hu Yaobang and transformed into a protest against corruption and a demonstration for democracy. In response, the People’s Liberation army’s guns pointed at the people themselves and dispersed the crowd with live ammunition after almost a month of instating marshal law. No one is sure exactly how many people died but the estimates range from 180 to 10,454.[12] This protest more than any other called for the establishment of direct and competitive elections throughout all levels of government (Goldman).

After Tiananmen massacre, there were widespread predictions that the CCP would collapse, but they were proved wrong. According to regime theory, the CCP should’ve collapsed under such pressure. Regime theory puts forth the idea that Authoritarian systems are inherently fragile because of increased internal resistance, overreliance on coercion, over centralization of decision making and predominance of personal power over institutional norms. The resulting purges of the party muted the differences of opinion within the party and transformed the different ideologies to become more homogenous.[13] Per capita income was $250 in 1989 grew to $1200 in 2006. Although politically damaged the CCP were hardly without resources. They tightened control over the media and heightened crackdown on any dissent. The regime brought inflation under control, restarted economic growth, expanded foreign trade, and increased in absorption of Foreign Direct Investment. Political leaders are now better educated than any other previous Chinese leadership of the 20th century.[14]

Instead of failing under the democratization pressures the regime reconsolidated itself. This proves that the CCP is not weak nor is it lacking policy option. The argument that democracy, freedom, and human rights leading to stronger stability hold no appeal for these men. Now that China has abandoned its utopian ideology and cult leadership, empowered a technocratic elite, introduced bureaucratic regularization and specialization and they have slightly reduced control over private speech and action leads us to a disturbing possibility. China has proven that totalitarian regimes can adapt to modernity and integration with the global economy.

So, is there any chance of democracy in China? Based on the recent social crackdowns by Xi Jinping, the relative stagnation of the economy[15] and the new constitutional amendment that would change the Chinese presidential term, there may be an opening for another movement of democracy. Due to the change in the “electoral” system and other recent corruption events that took place in Peking University due to sexual harassment claims there have been the largest mobilization of student protest since Tiananmen.[16] The hunger for democracy that had been whet by local village elections and noncompetitive National People’s Congress elections may surface again. Modern technologies such as blockchain may facilitate Chinese democracy movements since the “great firewall” is still firmly in place.

In order for China to democratize successfully it must balance the power of the people, socio-economic conditions, and state capacity, and keep in mind that political elites will have a lot of say if China were to transition. To survive, the government needs to be strong enough to have a monopoly on violence, that is to say no one else can threaten its citizens other than the state. Historically, the CCP has had no issue with this point. If china were to democratize, it most likely would not follow the path of many middle eastern countries which have no history of “stateness” But those same citizens need to have enough power to constrain that violence. As we’ve seen with Xi Jinping, Deng Xiaoping, and Mao Zedong, the importance of political leadership in China has been paramount. This will most likely still hold true if China were to transition and consolidate democracy.[17] This will prove to be one of the largest obstacles in China’s democratic transition.

The Chinese Communist Party will do everything it can to maintain its own integrity. Political elites in China will be inflexible in providing the conditions for a peaceful transition. A history of uncompromising political leadership that has successfully stopped every push for democratization and has actually used those crises to strengthen itself shows disfavor toward the possibility of transition. Recently there has been an even greater uptick in Chinese nationalism in response to its joining the World Trade Organization and other pressures of globalization. There has always been a nationalist streak in Chinese history, its fundamentalist interpretation of sovereignty, its nonnegotiable one china policy regarding Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. But these contentions have created several conflicts that could easily spin out of control during a transitional period.[18]

All in all, while optimism prevents me from believing that democracy is completely out of grasp for the people of China, taking into account modern Chinese history, a functioning democracy will most likely be out of reach in the 21st century due to nationalism, uncompromising political leadership, and the CCP’s transition-based norms that foster its resilience. There will always be people, like Lu Xun and Wei Jingsheng who will speak out against corruption and injustice. Economic reforms create an opening for the people of China, but if stability is continued to be prioritized over all else, incremental democratic reforms will not be enough to make a full transition and China will not fulfill its full potential without its “Fifth Modernization”.

 

 

Works Cited

Edition, Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia 6th. Tiananmen Square. n.d.

Fewsmith, Joseph. China after Tiananmen. Boston: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Goldman, Merle. Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China, Political Reform in the Deng Xiaoping Era. Harvard University Press, 1995.

International, The Economist. From Dictatorship to Democracy the Road less Travelled. 26 November 2015. 13 May 2018.

Jingsheng, Wei. “Asia for educators.” 1978. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/cup/wei_jingsheng_fifth_modernization.pdf. 13 May 2018.

Keping, Yu. “Toward an Incremental Democracy and Governance: Chinese Theories and Assessment Criteria.” New Political Science (2002): 181-199. EBSCOhost.

Liu, Yu. “Lessons of New Democracies for China.” Journal of Chinese Political Science (2018): 105-120.

Nathan, Andrew J. Chinese Democracy. University of California Press, 1986.

—. “China’s Changing of the Guard: Authoritarian Resilience.” Association for Asian studies (2003): 6-17.

Yang, Yuan. “Sexual harassment cases Trigger China Student Protests.” 24 April 2018. Financial Times. 8 May 2018.

 

[1] Lau, Joseph S. M., and Howard Goldblatt. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature. Columbia University Press, 2007.

[2] Keping, Yu. “Toward an Incremental Democracy and Governance: Chinese Theories and Assessment Criteria.” New Political Science (2002): 181-199. EBSCOhost.

 

[3] Keping, Yu. “Toward an Incremental Democracy and Governance: Chinese Theories and Assessment Criteria.” New Political Science (2002): 181-199. EBSCOhost.

[4] Goldman, Merle. Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China, Political Reform in the Deng Xiaoping Era. Harvard University Press, 1995.

 

[5] Nathan, Andrew J. Chinese Democracy. University of California Press, 1986.

[6] Nathan, Andrew J. Chinese Democracy. University of California Press, 1986.

 

[7] Keping, Yu. “Toward an Incremental Democracy and Governance: Chinese Theories and Assessment Criteria.” New Political Science (2002): 181-199. EBSCOhost.

[8] Keping, Yu. “Toward an Incremental Democracy and Governance: Chinese Theories and Assessment Criteria.” New Political Science (2002): 181-199. EBSCOhost.

 

[9] Goldman, Merle. Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China, Political Reform in the Deng Xiaoping Era. Harvard University Press, 1995.

[10] Jingsheng, Wei. “Asia for educators.” 1978. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/cup/wei_jingsheng_fifth_modernization.pdf. 13 May 2018.

[11] International, The Economist. From Dictatorship to Democracy the Road less Travelled. 26 November 2015. 13 May 2018.

 

[12] Edition, Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia 6th. Tiananmen Square. n.d.

[13] Fewsmith, Joseph. China after Tiananmen. Boston: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

 

[14] Nathan, Andrew J.”China’s Changing of the Guard: Authoritarian Resilience.” Association for Asian studies (2003): 6-17.

[15] Liu, Yu. “Lessons of New Democracies for China.” Journal of Chinese Political Science (2018): 105-120.

 

[16] Yang, Yuan. “Sexual harassment cases Trigger China Student Protests.” 24 April 2018. Financial Times. 8 May 2018.

[17] Liu, Yu. “Lessons of New Democracies for China.” Journal of Chinese Political Science (2018): 105-120.

[18] Liu, Yu. “Lessons of New Democracies for China.” Journal of Chinese Political Science (2018): 105-120.

Categories
Essays

Invisible Prison

In “Hut on the Mountain” by Can Xue we see an experimental story where there is no discernable plot, complex family relationships, and a crisis of identity all rooted in a historical allegory. “The term avant-garde refers to a progressive, cutting-edge movement in which new and often surprising ideas in art, literature, and other areas are developed.” (Caffrey) Can Xue falls into this category with ease with this experimental short story. Avant-garde by definition is iconoclastic, meaning it doesn’t fall into traditional story telling modes or expression. She uses a cutting Franz Kafka-influenced darkness and absurdity to tell her revealing nightmarish tales. In “Hut on the Mountain” Can Xue explores the plight of individuality within conformist context of Chinese society, especially during the Cultural Revolution.

Like Kafka, she doesn’t utilize any cohesive plot in this nightmarish world, and since there is no logical sequence of events, nothing makes sense. But, when viewed in the context of history it becomes clearer. This story is tethered to a significant socio-cultural event, the brutality of the Chinese Cultural revolution that officially occurred from 1966-1979. The cultural revolution was a time of almost civil-war like violence, torture, execution, and re-location of anyone who had dissident views from Mao’s “treasures”. Including the author’s family who was sent away from their home to live in a hut near a labor camp (Raschke). Mao’s little red book as it was often referred to taught that the destruction of the old was necessary. During this time, adherence to Maoist thought was paramount and in fact it was crucial for survival during this time. Anything that was regarded as old, often regarded succinctly as the “Four Olds,” meaning the vestiges of imperialism and feudalism, were to be destroyed.  Old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits were sought out by the military student group called the Red Guard. During this time, paranoia was rampant since anyone could report you and have dire consequences befall you. There was a culture of snitching on each other, regardless of relation. Old values such filial piety was given up in favor of the revolution. Everyone in Xue’s story is suspicious of each other, ready to give each other up.

Can Xue utilizes a stream-of-consciousness first person narration. This style of narration she wields with vigor, trapping us in the narrator’s limited point of view and making us subject to her rambling interior monologues. For her purposes this is particularly effective to explain the irrationality of the narrator’s mind. Both modern and illogical; inexplicable sights and sounds and all interactions are filtered through the first person. In fact, the narrator’s experiences are entirely isolated from her family in the story. It is that no one believes her or they ignore her completely. They are not experiencing at all what she is experiencing. “There’s something wrong with everyone’s ears” (383) This affect creates tension and a barrier between the narrator’s individual vision and the communal one of her family. The communal vision is used to discount the narrator’s own personal thoughts since she is the only one who sees and hears the events happening, and is completely ignored. Can Xue’s usage of this narration style creates a very subjective storyline. The fact that the entire story takes place in and around this hut on the mountain locks the reader into a social context, forcing her to interact with her suspicious family until the end. Compounding the use of setting and point of perspective juxtaposes the opposing sides of self and society. It is a monologue where a dichotomy appears between the “them” in this case the narrator’s family and the “us” of course referring the narrator.

Placed within cultural and personal context events of Hut on the Mountain takes on a darker meaning. Persecution of the individual is hard to escape, and the reader feels oppressed by the conditions and tone of the story that take place. A concrete description of madness starts to take on more form, “When my eyes became adapted to the darkness inside, they’d hidden themselves-laughing in their hiding places” (384). Individuality becomes a cage that Can Xue locks the reader in, never being allowed to glimpse anything from the outside. When the narrator does go outside it is described as so bright and so hot that she cannot see or hear anything expect for what she describes as “White pebbles glowing with flames” (386).

Her Mother represents the extreme views of the cultural revolution. The Mother and the narrator have a lot of contention over the narrator’s obsession of tending to her drawers. “‘Huh, you’ll never get done with those drawers’ said Mother, forcing a smile. ‘Not in your lifetime’” Drawers by definition store and organize materials for use. When the narrator is told that her desk drawers were sorted, and she finds missing papers, she gets very upset. Clearly this is something very dear to her since she keeps going back to it. I believe that the desk drawers symbolize her mind, imagination, and largely her private thoughts. By interfering with her drawers, her family is attempting to purge daughter of her private thoughts by going through her drawers, taking things out and reorganizing them.

But the Mother not only has influence on the narrator, but also holds sway over her father who symbolizes the intellectuals during the cultural revolution, “‘In fact, no scissors have ever fallen into the well. Your mother says positively that I’ve made a mistake’” Her Father who is obsessed with those pair of scissors tells the story of how he would lie away at night thinking of the scissors rusting at the bottom of the well. As a result of his obsession his hair on his left temple was turning gray. The father is an example of an older intellectual during the cultural revolution. The scissors were his old values, and when he tried to go back to the well to fish them out he tells the story of how his hands lost their grip and so the bucket fell to the bottom of the well and shattered into pieces. Everything that he had once held tightly in his grasp were now rusting at the bottom of a deep well. His wife consistently tells him to forget about it but he grows older and grieves persistently without the pair of scissors by his side.

Although not mentioned as much as the narrator’s parents, the little sister seems to be very blunt with her words, “Everything has its own cause from way back. Everything.” (385) This seems to be the only attempt at rationalization and explanation in the entire book. It hints at the history and paths that had brought the family together to be at this point. The two sides, narrator and family are mutually suspicious but linked together in relationship. The dominating forces of reality are internalized by the family, resulting in a nightmare of which had perhaps even inevitable causes from long ago.

Can Xue’s use of objects; scissors, drawers, chess set, quilts are steeped with symbolism. Her description of objects are projections of internal images of the narrator or allegorical explanations that parallel the Cultural Revolution. In the Cultural Revolution, books escaped by being buried and in the “Hut on the Mountain” the main character keeps digging up a chess set that her parents warn her from retrieving. “Every time you dig by the well and hit stone with a screeching sound, you make Mother and me feel as if we were hanging in midair. We shudder at the sound and kick with bare feet but can’t reach the ground” (385) I believe that the pursuit of intellect is represented by the chess set. The parent’s feelings are similar to that of a person being hung. During the Cultural Revolution it wasn’t only your actions that would get you into trouble but the actions of those around you. This is demonstrated by her insistence of digging the chess set out of the ground because it often made her parents feel disconnected from the earth and the sky. Can Xue’s description of objects reveal the real meaning of her piece. Private thoughts are represented by drawers, for example when the narrator starts to oil her drawers, her mother doesn’t pay attention because it makes no sound but even with this precaution, “the light suddenly went out. I heard mother’s sneering laugh in the next room” (385) She is constantly being watched by her family and they revel in the chance to be an obstacle in her pursuits.

Fear and cold sweat are juxtaposed to provide even further a feeling of uneasiness and paranoia. “You get so scared in your dreams that cold sweat drips from the soles of your feet. Everyone in this house sweats this way in his sleep. You have only to see how damp the quilts are.” (384) The quilts are soaked with sweat which further illustrates the constant anxiety the people who had experienced the revolution went through. When you sleep you are at your most vulnerable, and that’s why anxiety would affect the characters in such a way.

A motif of the narrator is that she is often sitting in her chair. The armchair represents the feeling of helplessness and invisible imprisonment of the narrator, “‘Bits of ice are forming in my stomach. When I sit down in my armchair I can hear them clinking away.’” (385) Her sitting in that chair is mentioned many times throughout the short story. The ice is indicative of the freezing of her innards in response to not being able to feel the warmth and safety of an open society. Her own family are her guards and all she can do is sit. The narrator sits in the chair with her hands on her knees doing nothing but listening to the “tumultuous sounds of the north wind whipping against the…hut, and the howling of the wolves echoing in the valleys.” (383) Even her father is a wolf, waiting to devour and mourning. The wolves are of course representative of the carnivorous forces that lurk in the valleys surrounding the hut.

Xue’s background: her family was sent away from a residential area to a tiny hut about ten by ten meters at the foot of Yueyushan Mountain (Raschke). Can Xue herself has had experiences dating from before the Cultural Revolution that would caution her from expressing her individuality. Her father was branded as an Ultra-rightest and so, her and her entire family were sent to live somewhere else to perform hard labor.

In the end the narrator goes up the mountain that day “There were no grapevines, nor any hut” (386) first sitting in a chair and then goes “into the white light” (386) escape from the communal vision, reality and authority. It is not a light that is comforting by any means. The white light symbolizes freedom where there is no family, no hut, nothing that would watch her silently, waiting to pounce like a wolf. But it is a loneliness and a blindness that will be difficult to eliminate. The Hut on the Mountain is a form of imprisonment since someone is banging on the door during the night to get out. The cultural resonance of individual images in the story and progression of discourse from strange but realistic unveil the internal self which simply vanishes under the dominance of the material reality and pressure of society to conform to the will of society.

All in all, the “Hut on the Mountain” is an allegorical tale in which the author uses family relationships, motifs, objects, an illogical plot progression, and first-person subjective narration to tell the real history of the Cultural Revolution. An exploration of identity crisis in conjunction with the persecution of the individual results in a Kafkaesque nightmare-scape that is Can Xue’s avant-garde short story.

Bibligraphy

Raschke, Debrah. “Can Xue’s “Hut on the Mountain”: Ghosts of China’s Cultural Revolution.” Short Story, vol. 21, no. 2, Fall2013, pp. 69-78. EBSCOhost, 0-search.ebscohost.com.libus.csd.mu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=108487111&site=eds-live.

Caffrey, Cait. “Avant-Garde.” Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2014. EBSCOhost, 0-search.ebscohost.com.libus.csd.mu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ers&AN=98402029&site=eds-live.

Lau, Joseph S. M., and Howard Goldblatt. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature. Columbia University Press, 2007. Pp.383-386

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