Reflections on China

With a mere 12 days in country, there’s admitedly little to reflect on that wouldn’t be shallow or naive. But here’s my collection of random, semi-intelligible thoughts.

People were gracious and welcoming, as you might expect. The food was hands down a highlight of the trip. Turns out that pointing randomly at Chinese characters on a menu gets you a pretty excellent meal, after you get your food restriction sign language down. “No pork” was interesting to mime, however unsuccessful. (Note to Communist Party: teach tourist industry charades.)

One surprise: my Chinese counterparts at Fudan University, senior members of the intelligentsia, and for the most part educated abroad, had a much higher regard for the status quo and lower regard for democracy than I expected. Most were critical of the Party, thought things could be run differently in a thousand ways, but regarded multi-party politics anywhere from a low priority to a downright terrible idea at this time in Chinese history.

Lively debates were had. The most common rationale: China was too big, too diverse; party competition would be destabilizing at this point in Chinese history, and democracy was better postponed to the next generation or two.

They may be right, but I received few satisfactory answers why the same is not true for India, Indonesia, or Brazil–big diverse countries themselves. That’s not to say such arguments can’t be made, but the idea did not seem to have occurred.

I wonder how much the Party’s media control feeds this attitude, even among elites. The propaganda in the English language press is cruder than that the Chinese-language one, or so I’m told. This is good to hear: the China Daily’s propaganda was as clumsy as it was infuriating (“Ethnic minorities celebrate Han Chinese curriculum in schools” was one egregious example).

Twitter, Facebook and (to my surprise) all of Blogger are blocked. So are favorite blogs, like Marginal Revolution. This mass censorship I find doubly infuriating. It occurs, had I not moved my blog to a private server last month, I could neither have read nor written in my own blog this trip.

I shouldn’t dwell on the negative–in general I was overwhelmed with the wonder that is the Chinese economy (and, I can’t help but repeat) the cuisine. Also, I’d hate to get censored in its first few weeks of inception.

Perhaps in my favor (O Communist Party overlords), I love most of all my antique mechanical Mao-era alarm clock. It even has a little fist that pumps back and forth with the ticking of the second hand.

My main concern: I only plan for carry-on luggage. US airport security is just going to love a ticking communist alarm clock in my bag.

If you never hear from me again, please send flowers to your local immigration detention center…

8 thoughts on “Reflections on China

  1. Isn’t it possible to see the Chinese Communist Party evolving to a nominal political party with absolute but nominal powers, just like the British monarchy? In Australian (and presumably British) constitutional law, the Queen posses full executive power, has the power to dissolve Parliament and full discretion to make judicial appointments. The way these powers are exercised are limited by pure covention. There is nothing to prevent the Queen from dismissing the Cabinet at any time or to dissolve Parliament.

    Already, there are conventions developing around the transition of executive power in China. If anyone can become a member of China’s communist party and seek election to party positions, the next key step is for rival factions within the Communist party to become more visible, with further conventions developing around internal factional rules and intranet-factional conventions that result in factions taking turns to lead the Communist Party. Such a system would not be much different from democracy in the United States where the Republican and Democratic parties (factions?) have a de facto monopoly on political power in the United States. Both parties are very much to the right of politics (at least from the perspective of an European electorate). A socialist might well complain that there is no real democracy in the United States.

    It seems to me there is no need to get hung up about the Chinese Communist Party remaining a permanent institution within China’s political system. The important issue is whether the Chinese political system is responsive to the aspirations and needs of the Chinese people (including minorities). It is arguable that China’s political system, acknowleding its imperfections, has been more attentive to the welfare of the people in China than India’s political system. China has much higher literacy level than India and China’s government has done more to tackle poverty than India’s.

    Given China’s history where a successful dynasty (such as the Tang or Ming) lasts a few centuries, it is likely that the “communist dynasty” will last at least a few centuries and may well turn out to be the longest lasting dynasty in Chinese history if it manages to evolve into a nominal political institution like the British monarchy. The communist party can then play a valuable symbolic role in times of national crisis like earthquakes and other natural disasters. It can draw on its legends (such as the Long March) to inspire the young.

  2. Congratulations! You’ve done it! If your blog wasn’t blocked, it will be after this post :D

  3. Very interesting to hear the opinions of local elite professors. A question: Do you contact people with whom you already have some connection (mutual friend, read their paper, etc.), or do you just go on their website and try to find those most similar to you, such as a fellow junior professor of conflict/development?

    Also, why don’t you eat pork?

  4. From the point of China’s history, it makes sense to maintain the status quo in order to grow or keep the strength of the current “empire or dynasty”. One only needs to look at Chinese history to understand why they would not push for democracy right now. Keep in mind that while China has a great amount of diversity and is a large country like Brazil, Indonesia, it is probably the only place where you have a written history that goes back 5000 with multiple rise and falls of great dynastic rules and wars which the is deeply ingrained into the culture of the people. Few countries have this to look back on as a point of reference.

  5. yep, the thought control in china is rather impressive…

    My favorite question is to ask whether Vietnam invaded China, or China invaded Vietnam… then follow it up with questions about whether Chinese soldiers were tortured by the Vietnamese, and whether chinese would ever torture. The answers (of course): Vietname invaded China, tortured chinese soldiers, and chinese would never invade another country nor torture (ever).

    on the one hand, it is impressive, on the other, editorials in the People’s Daily are more intelligent than what one would find in the Wall Street Journal…

    more at

  6. For a great read on why democracy/human rights are often narrated so differently across the Pacific, see Richard Madsen’s China and the American Dream: A Moral Inquiry. I think propaganda is a factor, though not the sole or even dominant one. If only I had the patience to become a historian…

  7. Blogger has been blocked for a while, but FB just since what happened in the nw this summer. It might be an interesting study to look into how many people are getting around the blocks however, as I had a number of Chinese friends connect me w/different kinds of proxy servers for access. If my Chinese were a billion times better I would love to get into the Chinese blog world, one of the few places it seems active criticism of the government is alive and well and, actually, somewhat effective (from what I have heard anyway) at accomplishing some level of change and accountability.

    Re: governmental change, I have an American friend who has lived in China for a number of years who comments that China changes, but simply at a much slower pace than we’re used to in the west; he connects this partially with the long history of the country. An interesting thought anyway… I’m still gathering observations myself to try to reach some sort of conclusion.