Saturday, July 24, 2010

Dark before the dawn: China

It is always darkest just before the Day dawneth.

-- Thomas Fuller (1650)

In the long run, China will be free, under the rule of law. How to get there; that’s what frightens us. The dark before the dawn.

Geremie R. Barmé, director of the Centre on China in the World at Australian National University, writes about the overseas Chinese. He says overseas Chinese are playing a crucial role in China's economic reform, especially helping integrate China into the global economy.

Figures supplied along with Barmé’s article tell us that, including Hong Kong (residents carry separate passports from the mainland’s), there are 66 million overseas Chinese. If they were a separate nation, they would be the world’s 20th largest country, bigger than France. But as overseas Chinese, they are more important than France, because of their impact on China, the world’s #1 country in population, and its #2 economy. The 55% of overseas Chinese from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Britain, largely connected by at least two languages including English, are especially well-positioned to influence China’s future.

Still, Barmé has a warning:
To be Chinese [leads to an] expectation that you understand the overt rules as well as the unspoken codes of your native land. . . When things go well and there are opportunities to be grasped, the overseas Chinese, with their inside-track appreciation of the distinctive modus operandi in the People's Republic, ride high. When [things don’t], however, these intuitive insiders, the commercial compradors with local knowledge, are particularly vulnerable.

One overseas Chinese is Minxin Pei, Adjunct Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Pei is, presumably like most overseas Chinese, hopeful China is progressing toward the freedoms enjoyed by Chinese abroad. He writes:

➢ [signs exist of a] broader political re-awakening in Chinese civil society

➢ migrant workers who have risked their jobs and personal safety [are] joining. . . strikes

➢ if . . . authorities fail to end the current labour unrest in foreign-invested firms, disgruntlement will likely spread to workers in . . . construction and mining, where working conditions are dangerous and pay extremely low

➢ [Chinese activists] focus on issues directly related to their economic interests, property rights and social justice. . . fighting off local governments’ attempts to build polluting factories, seize farmers’ land without compensation and evict urban residents from their homes

➢ criticism of government policy and performance in delivering public services and protecting social justice are routine in Chinese publications and on-line venues

➢ the information revolution—a direct result of economic modernization—has helped change values and reduced the costs of organizing collective action[, and] magnified the political impact of such moves

➢ the rapidity with which the latest labour unrest has spread would [be] inconceivable without . . . the Internet and cell phones

➢ rising physical mobility [gives] ordinary Chinese . . . opportunities to compare . . . conditions [in] diverse localities, [gaining] awareness of the political and social injustice [at home] and becom[ing] less tolerant of such injustices

➢ the Communist Party’s own populist rhetoric has . . . raised the people’s expectations, but meeting those expectations would be economically costly (more redistribution and social welfare) and politically risky (greater popular political participation)

➢ [it’s] harder for the government to continue . . . its post-Tiananmen strategy of promoting economic growth at all cost[, creating tensions leading] to greater disunity within the elites [with some] tempted to exploit rising populism for personal political advantage

Still, Pei concludes, “Most activities that challenge government authority are uncoordinated, disorganized and short-lived.”

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