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It's not the 1960s Anymore

Sunday, April 1, 2012

By Chris Eberhardt

BEIJING - About a week and a half ago a co-worker sent a message in Chinese that army vehicles were spotted in east-central Beijing near where I used to live. That day and the next rumors swirled, in no part due to the fact that Bo Xilai, the Mayor of Chongqing, the largest city in China had recently been dismissed. In subsequent days there have been articles in a multitude of news sources about Bo Xilai, following earlier articles about Wang Lijun, his dismissed police chief who created news by fleeing to the United States Embassy in the nearby city of Chengdu.

Earlier this week I was having dinner with some old neighbors and friends and the army vehicles came up. I mentioned the rumors related to both past and president leaders of China and how they don’t agree on policy to put it simply, with the current generation of leaders less willing to develop at all costs. Sometimes I joke that President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are both sociologists paying attention to issues like unemployment and health care in the countryside.

An old neighbor said that probably only “old hundred names,” the common people can really know what was going on, and that its not worthwhile to get too caught up in rumors. In the New York Times there has been a storyline in multiple recent articles that Bo Xilai in many ways was incubating a neo-Cultural Revolution. While he was seen to be tough on crime, in actuality it was more a matter of him being tough on those who stood in opposition to him, and the law was followed when it was convenient. The New York Times points to quotes from Wen about remembering the problems of the Cultural Revolution when in some ways a state of chaos existed. Wen is also notable for the fact that he openly discussed his own family’s experience during the Cultural Revolution while speaking at a high school in his hometown of Tianjin last year, breaking with party norms about discussing such personal issues.

Yet in addition to the storyline of a neo-Cultural Revolution, is the story of China’s economic expansion and divides along ideological lines. In an analysis by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, there is the argument that one can observe a rightist-leftist divide emerging in China, with those on the left more concerned with the economically disadvantaged and those on the right favoring further political and economic reforms.

A third related story, is that of open political conflict, a characteristic of the Cultural Revolution. After the death of Mao Zedong, and the consolidation of power by Deng Xiaoping, in many respects political disagreements went behind closed doors, and political transitions were to be smooth as demonstrated by the visit of assumed president in waiting Xi Jinping to the United States in February of this year. To understand the fissions over the last thirty years one can read the diary of former party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang who died under house arrest or The Party by Richard McGregor.

It’s a little hard to make sense of the comments by Premier Wen, whose own words about democracy and reform have been censored when he has spoken abroad. In 1989 Wen, serving as deputy, stood by the side of General Secretary Zhao, who in tears told students at Tiananmen to go home before he was dismissed. While the story of 1989 is better known outside China than inside, the post-1989 story in some ways seems to be better known inside China than outside.

Ed Hancox in his piece articulated the Neo-Truman approach of President Obama to contain China. Trying to play the devil’s advocate, I asked why not contain India, its also a large country building up its military might (see here). Ed's response was the following: India is a democracy, China is not; China is seeking expansion, India is not: China limits the freedom of internal groups, India does not. Based on work of scholars from India and China affiliated with the India China Institute I would at a minimum question the assertion that India is always more democratic than China. More importantly though I would bring up the case of McDonald’s, often cited by Thomas Friedman who I do not always agree with (see post).

Friedman asserts that no two countries that have a McDonald’s have gone to war with each other. As I walk to the suburban Beijing McDonald’s where I live not looking for war, but wanting to eat ice cream, I look to see how many Beijingers are using the drive-thru. I want to know how American and suburban Beijing is becoming and its implications for the environment. As noted above, there are internal power struggles that take place both behind closed doors and now to some extent again in public. Yet amid those debates is a recognition that this is not 1960s China, and that the problems China often faces today are quite similar to other countries that have McDonald’s like the United States. While Akash Kapur writes about India becoming the United States, I would make the armchair argument not having visited India, that in many respects in terms of social problems China is much more similar to the U.S. than India.

More than anything I’m not sure it does much good for China, the United States or other countries around the world for the United States to recycle a 1950s or 1960s mentality while China recognizes that this is no longer prudent.

 

Follow Chris on Twitter @enviroeberhardt

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Chris Eberhardt, originally from Tacoma, Washington, holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from The New School for Social Research. He was a 2008 India China Institute Student Fellow.