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Political Reform in China | Q&A with Yawei Liu, director, Carter Center China Program

Q:  You were in China in early March.  What has changed most about China over the last five to 10 years?

What struck me most about the country is not how the people have changed:  it is how the government has changed because of people.  The government seems to be more keenly aware of the people’s needs, of the growing gap between the rich and the poor, of the international pressure on China to change its policies on issues such as environmental pollution, global warming, energy saving, and of its own source of legitimacy.  The government has come to see that focus on GPD growth and economic development will no longer be sufficient to deliver its promise of serving the people.  There are people who are left behind, dislocated, and marginalized by the economic reforms.  These people are upset, angry, and ready to do things to force the government to be fair and just.  There must be ways for the people to vent their anger, channel their frustration, and feel they are part of the national decision-making process.

Q:  How has the Carter Center’s work in China been unique, and how has it impacted the average citizen?

The Carter Center’s work in China has been unique in that all the programming is the result of consultation with the Chinese government agencies and designed to deepen reform measures that are on the government agenda.

The Carter Center also enjoys a privilege no other Western organizations have: the household fame of President Carter.  He was the one who made the momentous decision in December 1978 to normalize relations with China.  This decision was only two weeks away from the Chinese decision to launch reform and opening up measures.  As Chinese are celebrating the 30th anniversary of reform and opening up, many Chinese scholars and officials share the notion that a hostile relationship between Washington and Beijing would slow down the reform very significantly.  In other words, the normalization decision and the reform decision were the twin engines of China’s economic growth in the past 30 years.

Like in Africa and Latin America, many of our activities are at the grassroots level.  We work with the Chinese government and research institutions to try to empower the farmers.

Unlike our work in Africa and Latin America, we sponsor multiple websites in China that have become popular platforms for gathering information and exchanging views on political reform.  One website is www.chinaelections.org  (Chinese) and www.chinaelections.net (English).  Its focus is to promote better governance and elections in China.  This website is known as the portal of political reform in China.  Another website,  http://www.chinarural.org/, is the most comprehensive website on village elections and villager self-government in China.

We will soon launch two additional websites focused on transparency and health care reform.  These websites are inside China and our editors, mostly part-time in different regions of China, will need to follow the Chinese government policies.  There are times when we need to compromise and backpedal, but it is important to lie low in order to nurture leaps and bounds in ideas and ideologies.

In addition to working with the government officials and using websites, we also work with professors in many leading Chinese universities.  These scholars will conduct applied research and organize regular forums on their campuses.  Currently, we sponsor two forum series, one on political developments and one on civil society and local governance in China.  Each forum draws a larger number of students and faculty to participate.

Q: Where do you see signs of political reform, even democratization, in China?

Despite numerous signs of a slowdown of or resistance against political reform, there is strong evidence that political reform or democratization of Chinese characteristics is inevitable.  The media is more active politically.  The market economy has forced the media to respond to popular interests and to be occasionally critical of government officials if not government positions.  People are even more politically engaged, and this engagement has been empowered by modern information technology such as emails, online bbs, and cell phone messaging.  Citizens in Xiamen were able to force the government to relocate a proposed chemical plant, and residents in Shanghai protested and prevented a Maglev train line from being built on time.  Parents of missing children, with help from a local television reporter and online support,  forced the government to confront and uncover a heinous slave scandal.  These are just a few examples of a nation and a people taking their government to task.

At a different level, government officials and some scholars, although still staunchly resistant to meaningful political reform, have come to see that universal practices such as elections, decision by votes, access to information, accountability, and rule of law are an integral part of any government that seeks to protect its legitimacy and sustain its rule of the people.

The pressure from the bottom, slow but real perceptional changes, and adoption of laws and regulations that insure citizens’ right to know, to speak freely, and to participate in politics, will eventually coalesce into a huge force that may quicken China’s steps toward a more democratic and  open government.

Q: How are the Beijing Olympics, and the window they already give the world to China’s interior, impacting the country politically and culturally?

The Games, alas, are ultimately a city thing, and a costly event to make urban residents feel good about the government, the nation, and themselves.  The only direct link between the Games and China’s vast countryside and its multitude of farmers is that it may have created jobs for China’s 150 million migrant workers in the past few years.

However, indirectly, the hosting of the Games may contribute to the improvement of the life of hundreds of millions of Chinese farmers.  First, different international groups are using the Games to pressure the Chinese government to make changes in its various policies.  This may get the government to be more responsive to popular needs.  In addition, China wants to showcase to the world an image of openness to criticism and readiness to address the growing social and economic problems.  It will do more and invest more in improving its welfare system and expand its safety net.  For example, the Chinese government will introduce a comprehensive healthcare reform package that includes plans to provide health insurance to most of the uncovered farmers.

Q: How would you explain to an average American the difference between their day-to-day life and that of an average Chinese citizen?  Are there similarities?  What are the differences?

Overall, the day-to-day life between average Americans and average Chinese is more or less the same.  Before the launch of reform in 1978, Chinese people were indoctrinated to devote all their energy to prepare to fight and eventually defeat the United States and emancipate oppressed people all over the world.  Since 1978, life in China has become less and less publicized, and the domineering Marxist ideology has become irrelevant.  Pursuit of individual happiness is not only a popular wish but also increasingly the cornerstone of governmental policies.

However, there are still essential differences between ordinary Americans and Chinese.

First, Americans have the opportunity to choose their leaders at all levels, from homeowners’ associations to the presidency, while Chinese can only elect their representatives at the very lowest level, and these representatives do not always represent them at all.

Second, most Chinese live in the countryside, about 900 million of them.  A quarter of those rural residents, including most of the young and better educated, are now migrant workers in the cities.  Because of the two-tiered system in China, these migrant workers are discriminated against and do not have equal access to healthcare, education, pension, and employment.

Third, it is relatively harder for Chinese high school students to be enrolled into colleges as everyone has to take the national matriculation exams, and about half of the college age young people in China cannot pass the exam to receive college education.

Fourth, Chinese print and television media are still heavily regulated and the information they receive is mostly filtered.  Although the growing cyberspace and increasing usage of cell phones have reduced the government control of information flow, citizens’ access to critical information about the leadership and government policies is meager at best.

Fifth, China still practices one-child policy and birth control is very much in place.  Most of the urban dwellers have accepted this basic national policy as it is important to the overall improvement of life quality in China;   but,  it has run into difficulties in the countryside and has created some negative demographic impact such as the aging of the population and lopsided ratio between men and women.

Sixth, while traditional Chinese culture values family and collective interests more, Chinese people are becoming increasingly more individualistic.  But the state still uses education, media inundation, and other means to promote nationalism, patriotism, and state interests over individual liberty and freedom.  Citizens are forced to learn from model workers, officials, soldiers, and even students with a view to turn them into unthinking and blind followers of government policies.  These efforts have lost their old luster and been ignored by an increasing number of young and old Chinese.

Differences are huge and real, but there are two common threads that are drawing the two great peoples together, the aforementioned pursuit of happiness and the growing scrutiny of the governments and their leaders.

Posted in China, China Program, Expert Q&A

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