Saturday, 16 June 2007

Slavery in China - How Could It Happen? Oh Too Easily.

Jonathan Watts, the Guardian's China Correspondent has, amongst others, brought to the attention of the British public one of the most shocking episodes to emerge out of China for several years.

Shocking though this episode is, it would not come as too much of a surprise to experienced China analysts. There is an ancient Chinese saying "Tian gao, huangdi yuan" which translates as "the sky is high and the emperor is far away". In modern parlance this literally means that local authorities can do as they like since the Central authorities are not keeping a close eye on them. For over a decade now the Central Chinese Government has had significant problems keeping an eye on government officials in townships and villages, some of whom have been notorious for running their patches as personal fiefdoms and creating ever more ingenious ways of overtaxing the local population. Some of these officials, due to a lack of democratic accountability and a corrupt relationship with both police officials and local businessmen have found the temptation to take kickbacks, fail to enforce environmental regulations and labour legislation (which are actually pretty poor in China anyway) and turn a blind eye to appalling practices in mines, brick kilns, construction sites and factories just too hard to resist. After all, Deng Xiaoping said "to get rich is glorious". They control the power so why shouldn't they see some of the benefits?

When combined with the general attitudes of city dwellers towards their fellow citizens from the countryside which frankly verges on total contempt ("nongmin"=farmer/peasant is a term of abuse in China amongst city dwellers) and you have the background conditions for what has gone on in Shanxi and Henan.

The Communist Government is now reaping what they have sown. They have tried to have their cake and eat it. They have wanted the economic development that capitalism brings but they have failed to create the institutions which are necessary to underpin it which includes political pluralism. They have set their face against the roadmap to a liberal democracy which was followed in Taiwan. By doing so they are going to unearth even more examples of this sorry episode.

The only tragedy is that the Chinese people will probably be unable to see this episode for what it is. Proof that a one-party state fails to protect the interests of the vulnerable and the poor. China is no longer Communist but the regime, through the kind of society it has created, is showing an increasingly unpleasant resemblance to Pinochet's Chile. The only positive out of this whole sorry episode is that at least the Central authorities allowed the media to show what had happened. The problem is that the glaringly obvious political lesson will not be learned.

China really does need to start liberalising and then move towards a multiparty state where competition for power will reduce the incentives for local government officials and police officers to take bribes and abuse the human rights of their fellow citizens. The Communist Government has to realise that it is incapable of supervising itself. Supervision has to come from the Chinese people themselves.


jonthanfryer said...

Glad to see you addressing these issues, Toby. I am worried that in the rush to cash in on China's growth, too many Western countries, companies and institutions are letting Beijing get away with murder (and more). You may be interested to know that the Chinese Liberal Democrats (in the UK) and Liberal International British Group are having a joint event on China on June 26, including Anna Lo, at SOAS -- dinner in the Russell Restaurant, more details from Emma Perry on 07983 342393 or on 'Flock Together'

Toby Philpott said...

Hi Jonathan. I'm a member of the Chinese Liberal Democrats. However, to be slightly controversial here, I am a bit concerned that they are happier to be an ethnic pressure group rather than champions of human rights in China (including Hong Kong). I hope that the current leadership of the Chinese Liberal Democrats will prove me wrong on 26th June which I am sorry to say I will not be able to attend.