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  • James Tam

Authoritarianism with Chinese Characteristics

Hong Kong’s Umbrella Freedom Fighters can’t possibly be fighting for “freedom” in one of the most indulgent communities on earth; it’d be like fish keep asking for more salt in the ocean. If succeeded, it’d turn them into anchovies.

A popular reason cited by supporters is that China’s an authoritarian state, therefore to be loathed unconditionally. Anyone who reads mainstream newspapers would know that much. If this fear is indeed the real cause, I’d like to take this opportunity to examine China’s authoritarianism by reviewing some known facts:

1. In 1949, when the Communist Party took over, average life expectancy in China was about thirty-five, illiteracy was 80%, and GDP was lower than Qing Dynasty’s. After a century of pillage and plunder by colonial powers, the country was struggling to recover from near-fatal wounds inflicted by opium, corruption, barbaric invasions and civil wars. Sixty-five years on, it’s the world’s second largest economy. In the past thirty years, the miraculous transformation (GDP growth, productivity, urbanisation of population etc.) of this continent-sized country is comparable to (relatively tiny) Britain’s evolution after the industrial revolution, which took about 200 years. Martin Jacques’ book contains a lot of hard data for comparison, in plain English However, economic development isn’t everything. It shouldn’t be.

2. According to PEW research, about 80% (fluctuating thereabouts) of Chinese are happy with their Government Admittedly, 20% represents nearly 300 million grumpy citizens, a giant headache. Deng Xiao Ping would have loved to offer them as “free immigrants” when President Carter requested. By contrast, American confidence in Congress has fallen to a historic low of 7% according to Gallup Poll 2014. The Japanese government has been hovering in single-digit for years. Many democracies don’t flare much better. One might question if they are technically still “representative” governments. However, China’s government doesn’t have “legitimacy” in their opinion.

3. America and allies have invaded more countries during the past few decades than China has since 2500 BCE. However, they are worried about China’s intentions.

4. The US dropped depleted uranium bombs on Iraqi civilians, and is still refusing to provide details to the UN to facilitate clean-up China is the only nuclear power unilaterally committed to “never use nuclear weapon on a country without nuclear capabilities”, and an unequivocal “no first use” policy. However, China remains a security concern.

5. Opinion surveys, backed by scientific data, say the environment is a top priority. As soon as affordable, China built the largest high-speed railway system, and became a world leader in renewable green energy. By now, China, with a population of 1.3 billion, also has the highest private home ownership rate in the world. However, all these are apparently negative.

6. The United States has more than 1000 military bases and installations in 63 countries, China has none. However, China is a military threat.

7. The operator of drone assassination flights and Guatanamo Bay routinely lectures China on human rights. Mysteriously, the reasons seem obvious to some.

8. China has State-Owned-Media with obvious confines. The West has (Wall) Street-Owned-Media with a hidden agenda. China’s State-Owned-Media are working hard to build credibility. The Western Press is doing its best to destroy (past) reputation by mixing facts and fictions unscrupulously. Are outright lies preferable to limited truths?

9. Google and Facebook are not generally available (unless one has a VPN) in China. Mr. Edward Snowden has subsequently told us why it was a shrewd decision. China’s homegrown equivalents are vibrant and enormous. Those who care to check can decide for themselves whether the freedom of (or restraint on) expression is adequate or excessive. To me, it’s chaotic.

10. Chinese police are normally unarmed, but the streets are relatively safe. Armed police are rarely called in to deal with drastic and violent situations. Deployment of American SWAT teams had jumped from a historical average of one thousand to 40,000 raids per year by 2011, mostly to handle ludicrously trivial offences However, China’s the police state to be feared. Countries responsible for millions of casualties and ruined lives in the Middle East (just during the past decade) continue to reprimand China for (according to Western press) a couple of thousand deaths at Tiananmen a quarter of a century ago.

11. The USA, with roughly 5% of the world’s population, houses 25% of all prisoners on this planet (excluding overseas dark cells such as Guatanamo Bay). Its incarceration rate at 716 per 100,000 is nearly seven times that of China’s However, the US is supposedly the land of the free.

Enough for now. Eleven is a neat place to stop, neither metric nor imperial, totally arbitrary, therefore quite fashionable.

China is far from perfect, and never will be. It's just trying hard. And life’s a game of relativity. The Chinese traditionally treasure “social consensus”. In a “globalised” context, this effort is clearly fruitless. The mainstream press seems committed to telling only the negative half of any Chinese story, concluding it with yet another doomsday prediction: Watch! China will soon collapse unless it listens! Their unsuspecting readers nod and sigh. Evidently, Orwell’s Double-speak warning was futile. The masses can’t connect the dots. Moulded minds are impervious to facts. In the brave new world, words speak much louder than actions.

Progress notwithstanding, China always have, and always will have, numerous internal and external problems because of size, history, complexity, and geopolitics. It shouldn’t waste time on insanely biased detractors. If China remains horribly “authoritarian” in reputation because the Chinese refuse to take authoritative instructions from others telling them how to live as a society (after having done so for a few thousand years), then let authoritarianism with Chinese characteristics be a good thing, embraced by at least one-fifth of humanity.

2014 10 08 James Tam

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