by: Danny J. (Guest Contributor)
There is one group who the Western media has generally not quite given much face-time, a group who could potentially cause even more embarrassment to Beijing than the Tibet and Darfur protesters. This group is China’s general population of ‘petitioners.’
Beijing is said to have been home to 10,000 petitioners before the Olympics. Many of these people came to Beijing to petition because they believe they have ‘been denied justice in their home provinces.’ These people could expose untold numbers of stories of local corruption, and at least some of the stories would be true. Now, groups allege there has been a large crackdown that has swept petitioners, along with other undesirables such as ‘beggars and pickpockets’ out of the city. Also, to discourage undesirables (the poor, migrants, Uighurs, 等等) from residing in Beijing, the government ‘closed down thousands of cheap hotels and basement apartments where rooms could be rented for less than $1 a day’ and ‘demolished housing in entire neighborhoods where petitioners have lived.’
Anyone who has lived in Beijing is probably familiar with this sort of tactic, the clearing off the street of beggars before a big event – be it a Party Congress, or the Africa-China meeting. This time, however, the clearing is being done with an ‘unprecedented intensity.’
One common petitioner spot known as Kaiyang Bridge had somewhere around 10,000 petitioners before the crackdown. Now it only holds a few hundred. Such petitioners wish to have their problems heard, hopefully in front of a television camera. Gauging Beijing’s reaction so far, it is a bit unlikely that their problems will be heard before they are detained.
High profile protests have already begun. Pro-T^&(t activists unfurled some huge banners near the stadium, ‘others managed to screen a pro-T^&(t video, a U.S. swimmer unveiled an anti-fur advertisement and three U.S. Christian activists were able to enter T*(ananmen Square to protest briefly.’ No one was arrested, although it appears that all save the anti-fur swimmer were deported on the 9th, but all were quickly quieted and removed from their protest sites.
For something to look forward to, there are the ‘more than 40 athletes’ who signed an ‘open letter to china’s government to respect human rights and freedom of religion.’ Protests have also started and have been ongoing, to some extent, in many parts of the world.
What all this will lead to in the aftermath of both protests and the Olympic games, and whether or not the Chinese government can respond appropriately to unrest and dissent, might very well shape future Chinese domestic and foreign policy.
(ed: in the August 19, 2008 WSJ, page A10- Shai Oster noted in “China is Pitching a Protester Shutout” that 77 applications for protests from 149 people have been filed. 74 were withdrawn “because their problems ‘were [allegedly] properly addressed by relevant authorities…’ No protests have been approved. This could lead to simmering discontent among the people as Leslie Hook describes on page A15 in “The Chinese Want Property Rights Too.” In that article, Hook describes several petitioners’ struggles.)
Specifically of note (and for deeper analysis): Willy Lam of the Jamestown Foundation wrote a good article on the “Coming crackdown” post-Olympics games.
This piece does not necessarily reflect the views of chinacomment. However, it is interesting, so I hope you will find it enjoyable. Once again, I thank Danny very much for his contribution.
(Note: Chinacomment is currently on vacation and without constant access to computer until the beginning of September; however, updates will continue at the pace of 1-3 a week since Chinacomment does have a sizable backlog of relevant material to post.)
What Is A Superpower?
In comments on my site, and on the China Law Blog, Here and Here, several readers indicated it would be useful to define “superpower” when discussing China’s future propensity for achieving “superpower” status.
The debate about what defines a “superpower”, whether it is a high ranking on the Human Development index, whether it is equivalent or not to “hegemon”, whether it is “force projection”, or merely “military” or “economic” force, is quite expansive.
For the purposes of my post, I’ll take a simplified position. From what I gather, when the hoi polloi (common people… the laobaixing 老百姓) discuss “superpower” or what makes a nation great, they mean an entity that can project its force overwhelmingly and has the ability to influence geopolitical events on a worldwide scale. Other countries need to plan around this country’s policies. In that sense, the United States and the USSR were “superpowers”; to some degree, the economic Japanese juggernaut was a superpower in the late 1980s and 1990s. Increasingly, China is becoming an economic superpower.
While I acknowledge this definition can be debated, I hope to keep the definition simple so I can move into the point of the post.
Another issue perhaps worthy of consideration is that my article and Pomfret’s did not set a timetable on when China might achieve said “superpower” status. I assume Pomfret was taking Keidel’s statement of China surpassing the US in total GDP around 2030 as the date most people assume for China’s arrival at superpower status.
In listing possible challenges facing China, I’ve tried to base statements on the time horizon of 2020-2025, shortly after the sixth generation of PRC leaders comes to power. One inspirational source was the roundtable discussion of Cheng Li, Pieter Bottelier, Fenggang Yang, and David Lampton in “China in the Year 2020.”
To continue its rise to an economic and soft power status that can “shake the world” by 2025, China’s pressing challenges include a need to ensure energy supplies, tame inflation, confront environmental degredation, deal with dissent/protests/petitioning by instituting a rule of law and providing social services.
Below, I briefly cover these ideas. Eventually, I hope to deal with these challenges at length– a lot of good articles and books have been written on all of them and they are all large issues and deserve more treatment.
Energy Supply Maintenance
China will require 11.6 to 12.3 million barrels of oil a day, up from 6.9 million/day in 2005, and around 7.5 million/day in 2007, and allegedly 8 million/day in 2008 (according to IEA-2004 and DOE-2005 estimates, respectively (Kreft, 2) and more recent energy statistics.) Nearly 75% of this capacity will have to be imported since China can only produce around 3.7 million/day domestically.
China could also experience a deficit of 620-770Mt/a of coal in 2020 alone, according to He Youguo in a 2003 report by China Coal Industry Development Research and Consulting Co. Ltd. (7).
If current trends continue, Herculean efforts at ensuring an uninterrupted energy supply will need to be undergone to ensure that the lights stay on at China’s factories.
In 1989, part of the impetus for the protests was runaway inflation, rising unemployment and lowering standards of living. And as Pieter Botellier also argued; “the Communists’ defeat of the Nationalists in the Chinese civil war of 1945-1949 was greatly assisted by the run-away inflation of those years, which sharply reduced the popularity of Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (ROC) government. “
China’s economic system today, however, is more sophisticated. Still, this is the highest inflation we’ve seen in China since the mid 1990s, with over 20% price hikes on food and double-digit growth in gas prices.
Currently, policy priorities appear to be toward promotion of economic growth rather than inflation containment. Arguably, maintaining growth could contribute more toward long-term stability. Still, if growth only goes to the middle and upper classes and the poor bear the brunt of inflationary increases, and their lives stop becoming noticably better- and their standard of living stagnates… there may be problems. Every year, China’s ranking on the GINI coefficient, which measures wealth distribution, becomes increasingly unequal. Currently, China’s GINI hovers between .37 and .46 (depending on measurement), either slightly more equal than the US’ GINI rating, or much less equal.
China faces severe environmental challenges. Pomfret, Economy, and other experts have discussed this in detail. For China to continue 10%+ yearly GDP growth, it will have to clean up its polluting industries. According to China’s Green GDP, in 2004, pollution cost China at least 3% potential growth. The Green GDP numbers for 2005 were never released, and arguably China’s pollution increases every year.
Energy efficiency per unit of GDP improved 3.66% in 2007, and arguably should improve this year as energy-intensive factories are shuttered. But, partially due to rising car ownership, pollution expanded significantly in the 21st Century. China hopes to reduce energy consumption per unit of GDP 20% by 2010, but it is a little behind its goal of yearly reduction percentages. Small coal mines and plants have been shut to ensure compliance, but to avoid power disruptions, many mines have recently been reopened.
Stability and the Rule of Law
China could arrest dissidents en masse, growing more repressive, but this will increase tensions in its relations to the outside world, and might stifle ideas and innovation.
However, as China’s economic influence becomes felt around the world, it is possible that it might set up its own international framework in competition to the West’s APEC, WTO, and IMF. (See the last section of my article on Maslow’s Hierarchy and Rule of Law- Not Human Rights for more info.)
With sovereign wealth holdings of over $1.7 trillion, China has extensive ability to affect the world… Unless of course, that wealth becomes tied down in foreign non-performing assets, declining currencies, and a need to invest in overpriced resource markets.
China is a giant in terms of wealth, so it can take quite a beating in economic losses from its funds, but poorly performing assets can lead to public opinion backlashes.
Without strong development of a domestic consumer economy, China will have difficulty in existing isolated from international economic forces.
Providing Social Services
Pomfret identified China’s demographics, its aging, and its peak of a working age population around 2015 as being a large problem. I rebutted that. However, with China’s GINI coefficient rising (at increases of 6%, the fastest in the world for the past decade), and with a degrading environment, and 350 million smokers, perhaps 1/3 of the world’s total smokers, health care costs will rise and create public tensions if the government fails to aid sick people.
Fear of these tensions could be a reason the Party prevents cross-provincial NGOs from organizing, and is cracking down on Sichuan post-earthquake support organizations and people who threaten to challenge the Government’s handling of the incident.*
Crafting an efficient social safety net, or preventing unrest in response to lack of said net, will be an important challenge for future Chinese administrators.
* Note: I realize this particular person, Huang Qi, has a history of challenging the state which might lead it to be more repressive. However, the point still stands; the state has harassed and/or paid off families not to complain about allegedly faulty construction that may have caused more schools to collapse than should have if codes were followed.
To solve its many challenges, China could turn inward and become repressive, or turn outward and allow development of civil society, or it could mix the practices. While some commentators might paint China’s future as that of a “negative” (closed-society) or a “positive” (democratic society), both I and the commentators in “China in the Year 2020” tend to see opportunities from many points along the choice continuum.
China could “succeed” in achieving superpower status even in spite of democratization. Or it could fail to achieve said status even despite democratization and liberalization.
Once again, I welcome your comments regarding challenges China’s development could confront in the coming 20 years.
* On August 25, 2008, The Wall Street Journal presented its own ideas about which challenges China faces. (Inequality, Resources, Population/Aging).
With Beijing receiving the 2008 Olympics, controversy erupted over China’s alleged human rights violations and lack of democracy. Many Chinese often argue stability must be valued first before human rights can be guaranteed. While the Chinese might consider the issue too narrowly, international calls for democracy and human rights are a bit too broad and disorderly when unaccompanied by a theoretical basis that can apply to the Chinese situation. Instead of dwelling on broad concepts, China and international critics should join together to help China focus on promoting a standardized, streamlined, non-arbitrary Rule of Law.
China has progressed toward the rule of law. China currently has over 110,000 lawyers (as of 2000), 114,000 lawyers (as of 2005), and allegedly 165,000 registered lawyers (as of 2008). In 2002, the Chinese began having full-time government lawyers who advise courses of action. Still, as Xinhua states, China needs more lawyers. Its ratio of lawyers to populace is surprisingly low, so China has expanded schooling and opportunities to increase the number and quality of lawyers.
To bridge the gap of lack of legal expertise, China expanded its Xinfang system. According to Yale, “Some 10 million complaints are pursued through the traditional “letters and visits” (xinfang) system,” which can best be described as “aggrieved parties send petition letters or visit the xinfang office of a higher level of the administrative government in order to seek compensation, an apology or to correct mistakes made by a lower level of the administration…The xinfang office has its roots in the traditional top-down system of government where ordinary citizens rely on higher levels of government to alleviate their suffering” (China Labor Bulletin).
In China, extra-judicial solutions to problems are often practiced. “Some estimates based on available statistics reasonably suggest that there were perhaps four or five million administrative Xinfang petitions a year during the 1996-2004 period, but only around one hundred thousand administrative complaints filed with the courts” (Zhang, 4). According to the CFR, as of 2007: “There are 10 million to 13 million petitions filed every year as compared to 90,000 to 100,000 administrative lawsuits in China’s courts.
“Petitions, however, carry no legal weight to compel government offices to respond… according to some estimates only 0.2 percent of petitioners received a response in 2005.” That’s a huge problem.
The failure of Xinfang to fully address problems in China underscores a need for further establishment of legal tradition. When cases are administratively blocked or ignored, and root problems go unaddressed, the people lose, become bitter, and may join the over 70,000 protests that occur almost every year.
A better developed court system can help take some of the stress off of would-be protest-situations such as the harrowing Weng’an Incident. One party secretary stated that although the girl’s death may have been the incident’s proximate trigger, “the deep structural reason is that there had been frequent infringements of citizen rights over the relocation of migrants, demolition of buildings and mining rights disputes.”
The Xinfang system and the courts had failed to properly deal with these problems, which contribuited to the rationale for people to riot. Indeed, in Weng’an’s aftermath, Beijing fired people in the Weng’an government for mismanagement.
Currently, many judges lack full judicial training and sophisticated legal knowledge since many are merely ex-military officers. (Also, Will Hutton’s comments… Although he appears to have a chip on his shoulder about China, so perhaps his data should be taken with a grain of salt.) (Also, for a note on the quality of Chinese lawyers and some theories on why a fair amount of Chinese lawyers are poor in quality, please read this anecdote [also please see the post’s comments for more nuanced views by Chinese].)
Fear appears to be the basis for China at times falling short of a “rule of law,” since many are locked up for “endangering the state” and “releasing state secrets,” which are often trumped-up charges that supersede other Constitutional rights of free speech in even worse ways than the US’ notorious Alien and Sedition Acts.
Before “human rights” can be guaranteed, China’s existential fears needs to be eliminated. The country, the state, and the party needs to gain confidence that following Constitutional laws can guarantee the “interests of the people.” By following its own Constitution instead of being ruled by fear, China can guarantee a standardization of law that will make living and litigating fairer- which would do more to guarantee human rights than mere foreigners organizing letter-writing campaigns or in governments and Human Rights Watch scolding Hu Jintao.
If China moves from being “ruled by law” to practicing “rule of law,” then grasping of nebulous concepts such as “human rights” and “democratization” will likely follow, since base-lying concepts of freedom of speech and other freedoms are already enshrined in the Chinese Constitution.
It would be nice if Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and other NGOs dedicated to improving rights in China could focus more tightly on improving LAW in China. It appears a key failure in the Chinese system right now is lack of expertise. If money, time and energy is invested in developing such expertise, then China will more quickly see a modern legal culture emerge!
Zhang gives an interesting theory on the overuse of the Xinfang system, which only results in positive judgements for accusers 0.2% of the time, compared to 30% for administrative suits. As he argues:
“It may be possible to present the explanation proposed here as a more advanced version of the “rational choice” theory. This would necessarily be based on the long-term interests of petitioners: they might value their long-term relationship with local authorities more than their short-term interest in resolving the dispute…Since the heightened “adversarialism” of the litigation system would seem to damage that long-term relationship more than Xinfang petitioning, petitioners are willing to bear with a lower chance of short-term success” (Zhang, 31).
The main problem with this argument though is, after the Xinfang petition fails, why don’t the villagers bring the problem to the local courts? And Zhang admits that is a puzzle. He eventually conclude that “dislike of “adversarialism” had simply prejudiced petitioners against litigation” (Zhang, 31) and “the best explanation for the Xinfang system’s superior popularity over administrative litigation is the latter’s inflexible and more adversarial procedure, which stems from its prohibitions against mediation and private trials” (Zhang, 32). Ultimately, Chinese citizens’ predeliction for Xinfang is an interesting phenomenon, and one worth further study.
* Chinese Law and Politics Blog also discussed the Xinfang System.
Xinhua’s photo gallery is here: Although the Segway use can be justified (sort of- though they would seem to be pretty difficult to balance under stress conditions), a question arises looking at Xinhua’s photos, why is a flamethrower necessary for anti-terrorism drills at the Olympics?
In recent years, China installed fire extinguishers in Tiananmen to prevent people being lit on fire, after certain high-profile self-immolation protests in 2001.
One wonders how much danger the Beijing security details are expecting to handle– and with what degree of deadly force. I spoke with an Olympic volunteer and was told they were very concerned, as all people at all Olympics are, about incidents at entrances to Olympic venues.
Another especial reason for Beijing’s security worries; As recently as May 2008 an unexplained explosion that may have been intentional, went off on a Shanghai bus. Xinhua didn’t initially attribute the explosion to terror, but TIME Magazine and people on the ground have suspicions. At minimum, following the explosion, Shanghai instituted new regulations about carrying certain materials on buses and increased anti-terror patrols, which leads one to believe that there may be some reason for these heightened concerns.
With luck, nothing untoward will happen in China during the Olympics. For China’s sake, if something does happen, hopefully the police/military response is proportional and appropriate and that the coverage of said problem is transparent.
One thing that seems quite Odd is China has long believed very strongly that ignoring a problem, even after the problem has become well known, allows the country to save face. By covering-up details, forbidding publication of negative stories, and making everything seem happy, Chinese officials seek to win accolades (As I discuss in an earlier article). Thus, they barred reporters from T$$$bet during the recent disturbances, then denied Chinese-instigated abuses (which may or may not have happened- since the West lacked independent reporting all it really has is a “monks said/Beijing says” dichotomy).
Simon Elegant at TIME Magazine thinks the media’s coverage style is changing and the Chinese government is more willing to admit to problems rather than covering-them up; but he also points out difficulties suffered by Chinese trying to discuss incidents online.
Oh China, such an odd and amusing, but often frustrating place.