Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What Scares Me, and What Gives Me Hope, Part I

Yes, this does concern China and to a lesser extent Taiwan - I'm just going to take my sweet time getting there!

We've all been watching as governments across the Arab world have either fallen or begun to teeter, and hopefully have absorbed several lessons from it.

I include Iran in "the Arab world" even though I realize they are not strictly defined as "Arab", by the way.

The first thought that came to my head when Tunisia fell and Egypt followed was simple - "you can't force democracy. People come into it on their own". If you read my blog regularly at all, you've surely guessed by now that I'm a die-hard liberal who never supported the Iraq war. I don't think in this moment of hindsight that I need to defend that view by stating the obvious. I'm surprised it isn't being said more - that it hasn't become a cliche in the way that "have an adult conversation" has regarding budget deficits. It is painfully evident that our military, top-down, "Pappa knows what's best" attempts at bringing democracy and freedom to the Middle East failed, and that grass roots desire for change has triumphed.

Frankly, I'm not sure why this isn't talked about more - is it just too obvious to say out loud?

This was its own cliche years ago when we lefties originally protested the war (I went to an actual protest, and then because I didn't want to be too much of a stereotype, got a giant Starbucks latte) - "you can't force democracy". "Going into Iraq and taking down their regime for them will never work. Saddam sucks, but the Iraqi people have to want to get rid of him themselves". Even I admit that it all sounded a bit hippie-dippy: because of course if people truly want democracy they'll risk their lives to fight for it. Yeah right. It is a fact of life that while people do generally value democracy, they value their families and personal relationships, not to mention lives, more. I'm not sure anyone who said the above actually believed at the time that the Iraqis would, in fact, oust Saddam on their own.

Things change now, and I don't know about you, but if we'd never invaded Iraq, I could certainly envision a mob of angry Iraqis not unlike those in Tunis, Tahrir Square, Tehran, Bahrain and Tripoli storming downtown Baghdad and demanding change. It sounded hippie-dippy, but it turned out to be not far from the truth.

The second thing I have taken away from this is the driving home of the point that the basic rights of freedom and self-determination are not inherently "Western" even if they came from Greece (arguably the birthplace of much of our Western culture). India has had a messy but functional democracy for over half a century - I get the feeling that at the top the votes are accurate: all the election corruption seems to be on a more local level, Taiwan, Korea and Japan have frisky but working democracies, as do many other nations, and yet "democracy" can't seem to shake its reputation as a "Western import".

When we were sending in troops to cram it down the throat of a nation, it sure played the role with gusto: what could be more of a "Western import" than a democracy that the USA decided to force on another country? It cemented the idea of Western-style government as 'evil' and 'foreign' to many, all a part of our sinister American plans for world domination (mwahahahahaha).

Now that the Arab world is on fire (both literally and non-) not unlike the European revolutions of 1848 from a desire for self-determination brought on for the people and by the people, it doesn't seem so "Western" anymore, does it. It sounds more "human".

Finally, what I'm getting from this is a small but slowly growing hope that these non-Western homegrown revolutions will slowly creep their way over to Asia. Tiananmen was a failure (both in the immediate sense and the hindsight sense), but if it did anything at all, it was to open up a tiny fissure in the defensive wall of the CCP. There are still Tiananmen deniers in China, but I daresay that more Chinese than not have an inkling as to what happened. My own experience in China generally confirmed the idea that many Chinese will publicly "support" or at least not criticize the government, but privately their feelings are very different. It might not be revealed at the drop of a hat, but it's there.

I'm reminded of an anecdote from my last days in China, back in 2003. My boss, M. Huang, had a younger brother (they were pre-One Child Policy). He was the much-desired boy child of her family, and if you know anything about old-skool Chinese culture, you know that back in the day (and to some extent today, regardless of what Hanna Rosin says) sons were prized well above daughters. As a result, Q. Huang was raised to be spoiled, difficult and entitled. I strongly disliked him - he had misogynistic ideas about the role of women in society, made fun of fat people, smoked indoors while we were trying to eat (when we ate at work), tried to impose his views on people, had a "job" at the school but never did anything and was generally an ass.

My town (Zunyi) had a river running through it, with a bridge and cemented embankment (ah, China). The embankment was a gathering place for locals - it was the least polluted part of town and not far from the relatively attractive new Old City (the Old City was oldest part of town but had been re-developed as a tourist area as it had some intact buildings of Communist historical significance, so it was the newest part of town - hence the New Old City). Cart vendors selling beer, tea and snacks began to congregate there much in the way that they do in some areas of urban Taiwan, and it became the de facto town bar, with the cheapest beer imaginable.

At my going away party, we all went out to dinner and then some of us went down to the river bank to hang out at the "bar". Q. came with us, which I wasn't pleased with, but I was also already a little tipsy so I figured it didn't matter.

I changed my mind about Q. that night - not entirely, mind you, he was still a sexist ass - but he proceeded to get hammered and tell the only people he felt he could trust to tell exactly what he thought of the Chinese Communist Party.

Q. had been studying in Beijing in 1989 and went to Tiananmen with his friends to join the protests - none of them wanted the Communists to stay in power. My bad Chinese and Q.'s drunkenness made the middle of the story a little unclear, but Q. started to cry (alcohol, the great fermenter of emotions!) - the only time I ever saw a man in China cry and by the end of the tale, he was standing in a doorway spattered with his friend's blood. The friend had been shot in the face.

Why connect that story to the current narrative of the Arab revolutions? To show that the dissent and dissatisfaction is there in China, and I do hope that the tales of other non-Western oppressive countries toppling so many autocrats in such a short time will eventually wind its way eastward. China is already censoring search results pertaining to the Middle East (apparently at one point searches for "Egypt" brought up no results - yeah, because the Internet doesn't have any info on Egypt. Yuh-huh). They're clearly concerned.

For what it's worth, I'd like to see Myanmar fall, too.

What we can certainly take away from this regarding China is that revolutions have a better chance of success when they've got bottom-up support and are not instigated from abroad.

Neither America nor any other country or body can push China towards democratic reform - we all know that. It's bloody obvious. What gives me hope is that the Arab revolutions have shown that it is not as impossible as previously thought.

Soon, I'll write up Part II: What Scares Me

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