Monday, September 14, 2015

Stability is not a static phenomenon

Over the years, and many times in this blog, I have expressed my deepest commitment to free thinking and my distaste for politics--whether at my campus or in China--that does not allow free expression.

It is one thing for me to write about those ideals.  But, I am not that much a fool into believing that my ideal world is already here.  As even the neighborhood and campus politics suggest, the world is a far too messy place to allow for free thinking, unfortunately.

As I look across the global geopolitics, it seems like there is a growing attraction for a Singapore/China model of politics and governance in which individuals operate within well-defined limits to expression.  India's society and politics don't seem to want more freedom.  Russia and the Central Asian "Stans" resemble the old Soviet Union more than the relatively freer Eastern European countries.

What happened?
With the collapse of Communism, “what we may be witnessing,” Mr. Fukuyama wrote hopefully in 1989, “is the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
But couple the tightening of Chinese authoritarianism with Russia’s turn toward revanchism and dictatorship, and then add the rise of radical Islam, and the grand victory of Western liberalism can seem hollow, its values under threat even within its own societies.
In September 2000, I would never have imagined the world that it is today.  I would have described a world of freer people, and would have been emphatic about the coming future with less interference from government and religion.  Yet, here we are in September 2015 and the world is anything but that.

China fascinates me for the very reason that is articulated in that NY Times essay:
China is often cited as a counterexample to the universality of democracy and human rights. But what distinguishes China is its disinterest in spreading its model to the rest of the world.
Western universalism was real, if rivalrous. The Soviet Union tried to spread revolution and Communism, France had its “Declaration of the Rights of Man” and the United States its self-image as “the city upon a hill.” But China engages with the world in its own interest, divorced from moral aims, with little desire to proselytize.
The Chinese vision is not universalist but mercantilist, and Beijing is interested less in remaking the world than in protecting itself from vulnerabilities of globalization, including the chaotic freedoms of the Internet. China, like Russia now, pushes back against Western aspirations and efforts to reshape the world in its own image.
The China described here is the "new" China, in contrast to the old China of Mao that was certainly interested in influencing similar peasant revolutions in its neighboring countries, including India.  

A few weeks ago, the New Yorker featured a marvelous essay by Peter Hessler, who also described China and its entrepreneurs as dispassionate producers and sellers of goods.  The context for Hessler's essay was the strange juxtaposition of Chinese merchants selling lingerie to uber-conservative and traditional Muslim women in the smaller cities of Upper Egypt.  
Upper Egypt is the most conservative part of the country. Virtually all Muslim women there wear the head scarf, and it’s not uncommon for them to dress in the niqab, the black garment that covers everything but the eyes. In most towns, there’s no tourism to speak of, and very little industry; Asyut is the poorest governorate in Egypt. Apart from small groups of Syrians who occasionally pass through in travelling market fairs, it’s all but unimaginable for a foreigner to do business there. And yet I found Chinese lingerie dealers scattered throughout the region.
Hessler's essay is a beauty; I won't be surprised if it ends up a serious contender for awards that recognize nonfiction.  He writes there:
All told, along a three-hundred-mile stretch, I found twenty-six Chinese lingerie dealers: four in Sohag, twelve in Asyut, two in Mallawi, six in Minya, and two in Beni Suef. It was like mapping the territory of large predator cats: in the Nile Valley, clusters of Chinese lingerie dealers tend to appear at intervals of thirty to fifty miles, and the size of each cluster varies according to the local population. Cairo is big enough to support dozens. Dong Weiping, a businessman who owns a lingerie factory in the capital, told me that he has more than forty relatives in Egypt, all of them selling his products. Other Chinese people supply the countless underwear shops that are run by Egyptians. For the Chinese dealers, this is their window into Egypt, and they live on lingerie time. Days start late, and nights run long; they ignore the Spring Festival and sell briskly after sundown during Ramadan. Winter is better than summer. Mother’s Day is made for lingerie. But nothing compares with Valentine’s Day,
Hessler, too, notices how it is all about business:
I've never met Chinese people in Egypt who express an interest in changing the country. They often talk about what they perceive to be weaknesses—a lack of work ethic among the people, a lack of system in the government—but the tone is different from that of many Westerners. There’s little frustration; the Chinese seem to accept that this is simply the way things are. There’s also no guilt, because China has no colonial history in the region, and its government engages with both Israel and Palestine. Chinese entrepreneurs often speak fondly of the friendliness of Egyptians and their willingness to help strangers, two qualities that the Chinese believe to be rare in their own country. They almost never seem disappointed by the Egyptian revolution. This is not because they believe that the Arab Spring has turned out well but because they had no faith in it in the first place.
So, whither democracy and the rights of the individual?  Is America not the beacon on the hill?  Back to that NY Times piece:
“Our own preachiness and lecturing tendencies sometimes get in the way, but there is a core to more open democratic systems that has an enduring appeal,” he said. That core is “the broad notion of human rights, that people have the right to participate in political and economic decisions that matter to them, and the rule of law to institutionalize those rights.”
The result “doesn’t have to look like Washington, which may be for the good,” Mr. Burns said. “But a respect for law and pluralism creates more flexible societies, because otherwise it’s hard to hold together multiethnic, multireligious societies.”
But, China seems to hold together, right?
[Democracies] in whatever form seem more capable of coping with shifting pressures than authoritarian governments. History does not move laterally but in many different directions at once, Mr. Burns said. “Stability is not a static phenomenon.”
I am not sure if I can handle any more instability than what I see out there.


Ramesh said...

We have a fundamental difference on the extent of importance for "free speech" in a society - we have debated this many times before and will never agree on this. My point always has been that freedom does not equate to freedom of speech alone, and you come from a different perspective, so we will leave it at that.

I will however take issue on your position against the Chinese principle of non interference with local systems, beliefs and practices, including forms of government. You see this as mercantile self interest. I see a bigger principle, a principle that no power should seek to impose a certain form of governance on another. It is for the people of that country to decide. Just as the world has suffered enough from Russia's attempts to impose its view on many a country, it has equally suffered from America's attempts to do the same. One of the reasons America is so hated in much of the world, despite its so many admirable qualities, is simply because it bullies, preaches and interferes.

The Chinese position on neutrality is not without its own issues. Is it OK to stand by and watch Basher Assad indulge in genocide or Robert Mugabe bring his own country to its knees. Even the famously neutral Swiss face big criticism on their position with Nazi Germany. There are many shades of grey as always. But there is also much to commend in the Chinese position.

Sriram Khé said...

There is nothing to commend about the Chinese system. I will leave it at that :(

I am totally ok with the US preaching. My problems are that it does not preach the same to all the countries, nor does it follow up the right way. That's the biggest reason why the US is hated all over. For instance, remember that during the Cold War years, the US--with all its democracy and freedom preaching--worked against the largest democracy--India--and sided with the military dictators of Pakistan? The hypocrisy of the US is why everybody gets pissed off. If the US wants to pursue realpolitik, then it should simply stop preaching.

Finally, yes, the sin of omission is as horrible as the sin of commission.

Most read this past month