Category Archives: interview

“Is Democracy Chinese?”

Why does the New York Review of Books occasionally have great China articles? If I recall correctly they’re all from Ian Johnson, who interviewed CMP fellow Chang Ping about his past and whether or not China is suited to democracy:

Q: So you thought everything was great. You heard about the developments in Beijing and were excited.

A: Yes and I was doing well in school too. When you’re personally successful, you tend to think that things are going well. You’re optimistic. I thought things were going well but in some ways I was an angry youth. There’s no contradiction there. You believe, but you want to improve things. During the 1986 student movement, people like Liu Binyan, Fang Lizhi, and Wang Ruowang criticized the party and Deng Xiaoping. I remember hearing about it on the radio and felt in my heart that they were heroes.

At the time I loved literature. In the 1980s, literature was at a peak. I subscribed to a lot of magazines like Harvest and People’s Literature. I remember reading Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum and thinking, Wow, someone can write like that. I remember vividly that I was sitting outside and was so moved by that story. I didn’t quite understand everything but was influenced by it. Also Yu Hua’s short stories, for example. But you know that at that time I was still a complete believer. The books I wanted to read the most were the original works of Marx and Engels. I wanted to learn German to read them.

[Later] Q: So you’re a pragmatist?

A: Actually, many people think I’m more of an idealist. I still think China needs democracy, that it needs to change. I really oppose several arguments [that are commonly made] about why China can’t have democracy, such as the argument that China is unique—that Chinese people need to wait because their “quality” [a Chinese term, suzhi, that implies everything from educational level to manners] isn’t high enough and other ridiculous things like that. Some people said that democracy wasn’t part of Chinese culture, and then Taiwan became democratic. Then they said that Taiwan was a special case. Now look at Wukan. They had their own elections. People say it’s special, but in fact Wukan is really typically Chinese. It’s a Chinese town but they organized everything. So what argument are you left with? If Wukan can have democracy so can other parts of China.

I’m not saying that China should have western-style democracy. In fact, there’s not a single western model. What do they mean? Germany didn’t copy America and America didn’t copy Britain. The issue isn’t copying. It’s do you or don’t you want democracy? Of course democracy has a lot of problems but it’s a way forward.

Since the 1980s, Chinese have been pragmatic. The question since the Cultural Revolution has been: can it work? This was Deng Xiaoping’s biggest influence on Chinese people. They ask if it’ll work or not. Now China has the world’s second-largest economy and could overtake the US. So in terms of market economics it’s been successful and I support this. What we lack is justice. There is no justice in the current system. It’s a practical issue. We need justice. Democracy is a way to bring justice. This is why democracy is necessary.

The government doesn’t discuss rule of law much anymore. It’s become more and more a hooligan way of ruling. They just arrest people and throw them in jail or mental asylums. So the past decade has seen a hooliganization of the political system. Many of the old virtues are destroyed by this. The virtues of humanism, responsibilities of the government—the bottom line is things are disappearing.

Q: What about the writer Han Han’s recent blogposts arguing that democracy may not be well suited to Chinese people? This seems to echo some of the other critics who say that China isn’t read for democracy.

A: He mentions that people have a “low quality” and that democracy could become a problem because it could lead to violence. This is a view the government has propagated for a long time. It’s like saying you can’t practice swimming until you can swim and you can’t swim because you can’t practice. Also, the arguments aren’t new. Many were made publicly last year, around the time of the centenary of the 1911 revolution.

The rest of the interview is here.

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“Han Han’s U-Turn?”

The latest to chime in on Han Han’s three essays is NYT blogger Eric Abrahamsen, who looks at the suzhi argument and writes that:

In this he’s exactly right: China’s deepest problems are cultural and social in nature, problems best addressed by reform, not revolution. It’s not that the Chinese are “not ready,” it’s that this will be a slow process.

“When the drivers in China turn their high-beams down as they pass each other on the road, they will be ready for revolution,” writes Han Han. “Of course, by then, revolution won’t be necessary.” Instead, he argues, the process will be a gradual one, in which the cultural values conducive to democracy evolve along with democracy itself. “Democracy is a long process of negotiation.”

Anyone who’s sat in on a Chinese primary school class, or a management meeting in a Chinese company, or witnessed authority being wielded at nearly any level of Chinese society, knows how long this process may be. An unhealthy deference to power is taught from an early age, as is a deep reluctance to pass on responsibility downward. The “not ready” argument is employed constantly within Chinese society, from parents who won’t let their children run in the park, to judges who aren’t allowed to make independent rulings. Many Beijing driving schools don’t include on-road training, because it would be “dangerous”— never mind what happens after the license is issued.

Sure, reform would be better than revolution- but both Abrahamsen and Han Han seem to ignore the Communist Party’s consistent sidelining of political reform. If reform is better, but it’s off the table, why are we talking about reform?

I still dislike the insinuation that Chinese people are somehow unworthy of democracy, too. The argument that Chinese people leave their high-beams on while driving seems fairly irrelevant- people all over the world do stupid things to each other. If China’s greatest problems really are cultural and social, is the CCP doing anything to address these problems?

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An Interview between Arjia Rinpoche and The China Hotline: “Why Inner Mongolia? Why now?”

As protests spread across Inner Mongolia, I wondered about who might be able to answer some questions on the subject. One consequence of the lower visibility of Inner Mongolian issues is that there are far fewer activists in the spotlight than there are for Tibet or even Xinjiang. I reached out to Arjia Rinpoche, and was delighted to find that the Rinpoche himself and his staff were willing to give me some of their time.

Arjia Rinpoche was born in 1950 to an ethnically Mongolian nomadic family in Qinghai province. At a young age he was identified as the reincarnation of the former abbot of Kumbum Monastery, a major monastery near Xining that is renowned as one of the six great Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhist institutions. This privileged position made him a natural target during the tumultuous Mao years, however, and he would spend 16 years in a labor camp before being released in the 1980s. He returned to find Kumbum in ruins and dedicated years to rebuilding it before finally choosing to escape to the United States and live in exile. Since then he has run the Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, Indiana, and released an autobiography entitled ‘Surviving the Dragon’ two years ago.

TCH: Inner Mongolia has generally been much less restive than Tibet and Xinjiang for the last few decades. Why do you think these protests are happening now?

Arjia Rinpoche:  The situations in Tibet and Inner Mongolia have much in common. In the 50s, there were many conflicts and confrontations. The Inner Mongolian People’s Party at that time aggressively sought for independence. However, the Communists really cracked down then and accused them of being “Counter Revolutionaries.” They managed to sabotage the movement by taking some of the leaders of the protesters and promoting them to Chinese leadership.

After this turbulent period, things seem to have quieted down, but Inner Mongolians were still restive. Then two things heated up the pot: a) the resettlement plan whereby 20 million (I think that’s the number) Han Chinese settled in Mongolia and caused Mongols to be a minority and b) the Mongolian Autonomous Region was carved up into 7 prefectures that were controlled by the Chinese, thereby making Mongols unable to hold any power. Their energies were reduced and they seemingly became quiet.

Now with [the killing of Mongolian herdsman] Mergen, the pot has boiled over. Long-held grievances have come out in the open and caused the protests to become very active. The Mongols want to protect their culture and their environment.

TCH:  You called for Mongolians to refrain from further protests- what is the best way for them to move forward?

Arjia Rinpoche:  I am not against protests, but they have to be planned very carefully in advance. The spontaneous ones usually don’t succeed. It is important to have a non-violent protest that is not around the time of sensitive dates such as June 4 (Tiananmen Square) and other Chinese holidays

TCH:  In your life you have seen China go through many changes. How hopeful are you that conditions in China will improve over the coming years?

Arjia Rinpoche:  China is definitely changing because of the economic transformation; however, the control of the communist regime is stronger than ever. Even though there are many improvements, there is no freedom and crackdowns are harsh and violent and very common. The central government wants to control everything, particularly the minorities and especially with issues dealing with the Muslims and His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] and Christianity. However, even the “regular” Chinese people are becoming very dissatisfied with this measure of control. All we can do is wait and hope.

TCH:  Your staff informed me that you are traveling through Mongolia- how close are the bonds between Mongolians in China and in Mongolia? Is there much interaction between the two groups?

Arjia Rinpoche:  There is little or no interaction. Mongolians in the free republic find the situation to be too sensitive and try their best to avoid any political issues. I, myself, will be aware of this sensitivity during my present trip and will concentrate my efforts solely on charitable and religious matters.

TCH:  Is there anything else you think foreigners should know about the situation in Inner Mongolia today?

Arjia Rinpoche:  They should know the history and they should be well aware of the complexity of the issues and particularly of the intent of the Chinese Communists to maintain total control.

I would like to thank Rinpoche and his staff for their cooperation. I hope readers and the internet at large find his answers enlightening.

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