Thursday, July 3, 2008

Article - China's modernisation: No great leaps but little steps forward

An elderly Chinese couple negotiate through traffic on their scooter on the busy Nanjing Rd shopping area of Shanghai, 05 December 2006. The case of a 71-year-old homeless man who committed arson to get a place to live - jail - has highlighted the plight of millions of desperately poor elderly and reflects growing social pressures in China, as the number of elderly without family networks explodes. China's modernization is partly to blame, because old customs like the obligation to venerate and care for the elderly are breaking down.

Photo (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

Straits Times (3 July 2008) -
By Goh Sui Noi

SOME 100 years after the process started, Chinese intellectuals are still grappling with modernity.

The times and the circumstances have changed, of course. China is no longer a melon being carved up by Western imperialists, as it was in the late 1800s.

Neither is it the bamboo curtain of the Mao era, which saw brutal and disastrous campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. It is now an economic powerhouse and a rising political and military power.

But its intellectuals are still seeking to complete the modernisation process begun a century ago, as Beijing-based philosopher Zhang Boshu put it. This new intellectual stirring is the subject of a book - What Does China Think? - by Mr Mark Leonard, executive director of the European Council of Foreign Relations.

Published early this year, it suggests that China's ascent is changing the world's ideas about politics, economics and order. The West, he argues, faces a formidable alternative in the Chinese model.

Some analysts think it is too early to talk of a 'Chinese model', as the Chinese themselves have yet to reach a consensus on how they should move forward. Others, like Professor Zhao Suisheng of Denver University in the United States, say there is already a 'Beijing consensus' - a model of success that combines authoritarian rule with free-market capitalism.

Chinese intellectuals who advocate this model believe rule of law, good governance and stability are more important than liberal democracy. But many disagree.

The first flowering of modern Chinese intellectual life was in the 1910s and 1920s, after the Qing dynasty fell. Precisely because there was no central power, there was relative freedom. And there was also the 'tremendous stimulus' of foreign thought during this period, as the late distinguished China scholar John King Fairbank noted.

This generation of intellectuals, he wrote, 'had run the gamut from the breakdown of Confucianism to the acceptance of progress, evolution, and social Darwinism, combined with the rise of fervent nationalism and reappraisal of Chinese tradition in order to save the nation'.

Indeed, 'save the nation' was the watchword then. It is telling that the intellectual drive of that period is dubbed the May 4th Movement, after the student demonstration against the terms of the Treaty of Versailles on May 4, 1919. The treaty, among other things, had handed the former German concession of Shandong to Japan.

Exercised by the urgency of saving their country, intellectuals put science and democracy on the back-burner, noted Dr Wang Fei-ling, visiting senior fellow at the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.

'Unfortunately, because of various domestic and international events, the Chinese intellectual enlightenment was sidetracked by the rise of nationalism,' he said.

The intellectuals felt that only force could safeguard the country and that only Soviet-style revolution could help that cause. The gradualist approach of Chinese liberal reformers was swept aside by revolutionaries impatient to save China overnight.

After the communists won power in 1949, intellectuals were tightly controlled. Independent thought was stifled and political dissent suppressed. There was an attempt in 1956 to enlist the support of intellectuals - 'let a hundred flowers bloom, let the hundred schools of thought contend,' Mao Zedong urged - but this turned into a persecution of intellectuals in the Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957. Intellectuals were also persecuted during the Cultural Revolution.

After Mao's death in 1976, in the relatively free atmosphere of the late 1970s and 1980s, intellectuals again took an active part in the modernisation drive.

In the 1910s and 1920s, they pushed for a strong state because of the circumstances of the time. In the 1980s, they fought for democracy in response to their painful experiences under Mao. But they played the role of a 'loyal opposition', focusing on reforming the system rather than overturning it.

This should not be surprising. A salient feature of traditional Chinese social structure is the close identification of the scholar with the state, wrote Fairbank. This is still true today, with leading intellectuals aspiring to give advice to the state.

Still, there has been a widening of intellectual culture since the late 1990s, with some intellectuals keen on fostering intellectual autonomy and others seeing themselves as critics of the state, noted Dr Gloria Davies of Monash University in Australia.

The late dissident writer Liu Binyan wrote scathingly in 2004 that most elite intellectuals from the 1980s were 'interested in reform primarily as a way to recoup their own social status, material comfort and creative freedom. They were not very interested in moving the larger society forward'.

This is a little harsh. Many Chinese intellectuals have indeed been co-opted by the government. But there are also many who, disillusioned by the brutality with which the authorities suppressed the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations, work outside the system to agitate for change. And there are those like Dr Zhang Boshu who, though part of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, do publicly express independent views.

But those outside the establishment charge that yuyong intellectuals - or intellectuals used by the emperor, like those working in think-tanks - are too timid.

For example, Dr Yu Keping, the deputy director of the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, who wrote in 2006 a controversial article Democracy Is A Good Thing, has been criticised for not stating clearly the kind of democracy he is advocating. He called for a more responsive intra-party democracy and stopped short of calling for a multi-party system.

'Most intellectuals are careful to neither criticise one-party rule nor advocate multi-party democracy. The few who venture to do so are prevented from publishing in China and their activities are closely monitored,' said Dr Davies.

Dr Wang noted the lack of freedom of speech meant there is no great innovation among Chinese intellectuals - only copying, applying and marginally improving the ideas of others.

Dr Zhang thinks Chinese intellectuals have become less courageous as their living conditions have improved and they have more to lose now than before.

Still, there is no doubt that today's China is more open than before, and the Chinese can and do speak their minds more often. And as they did 100 years ago, they are now energised by interaction with foreign thought.

Though it would be an exaggeration to say there are 100 schools contending in China today, there is a great deal of debate going on.

It is anybody's guess what this churning will throw up in the end. What is clear, though, is that urbanites - intellectuals included - are not contemplating a revolution.

The gradualist approach seems to be the way forward for now. One-party rule coupled with capitalism will be the order of the day for a while yet.

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