Saturday, March 10, 2012

What little we know about China

An observer from Outer Space might raise eyebrows at the apparently irrational way that Americans pick their Presidents, but at least the process itself is transparent.

Does China have a similarly-irrational way to pick its leaders? Who knows? That inscrutability is at the heart of why an otherwise esteemed publication like The Economist can, over its 170-year history, make so many mistakes in its reporting.

Given the size and importance of China, it’s surprising that even long-time watchers from the West have such a poor track record guessing what will happen.  On the surface, power transitions appear to be methodical, even boring affairs (in stark contrast to the Wild West of American national elections). But the recent case of the runaway police chief Wang Lijun and its affect on the political career of the emerging national figure Bo Xilai is a hint that China may do things more randomly than we think.

This was my takeaway from the panel discussion held this weekend at the Bookworm Literary Festival, held at Beijing’s premier foreign bookstore.  Three writers from the newly-created Economist dedicated section on China, Gady Epstein, James Miles, and Ted Plafker.

Who are the media censors of China? There must be literally thousands of well-trained professionals, skilled enough at English and savvy enough politically to pour through every magazine article to search for information that must be thrown into the memory hole.

But maybe the U.S. equivalent is the army of lobbyists who have no apparent function other than to steer lawmaking in the direction of somebody who is paying for it. There are thousands of people in Washington working full-time on behalf of various industry or other groups in order to change the way that laws are written and enforced. From the point of view of that space alien, is there much difference? In both cases, you have a bunch of people dedicated to influencing politics.

Another takeaway was the realization that nationalism in China isn't homogeneous. Chinese history is rich with stories of one village betrayed by leaders of another, with descendants now forced to learn a version of the past that denies their own memories. These losers of history see themselves as fiercely loyal Chinese -- perhaps the true Chinese-- with a nationalist pride that is especially poignant because they still feel exploited by outsiders. There are Christian communities, for example, hundreds of years old who see the current PRC era as a continuation of "the century of humiliation" that mainstream Chinese think has ended.

Lots to think about, and a reminder that although I've been in this country for three years, I really know so little. EconomistPanel