[UPDATE 2/11: Evan Osnos of the New Yorker offers a very thoughtful reply to some of the points made in this post. Highly recommended.]
Election eve, many years ago, I was watching the evening news with a couple of friends when David Broder, the erstwhile columnist for the Washington Post, appeared on the television screen to talk about who would win California’s electoral votes. I’ll never forget the first words out of his mouth:
“I’ve been talking to the voters of California.”
“All 36 million of them?” One of my friends asked, with a laugh, as Broder then proceeded to detail his earnest and, in my opinion, meaningless, conclusions.
Now, I realize that it is the job of the columnist and blogger to generalize – or over-generalize – based upon a small data set. But, as Broder’s ridiculous claim to have canvassed California’s voters suggests, this can be taken too far, and at risk of obscuring the important, more difficult questions that should be asked.
Exhibit #1: the growing wave of columns/blogs from China-experienced writers, asking: “Could Egypt’s/Tunisia’s unrest happen in China?” Now, I tend to think that’s the wrong question to be asking – and I’ll get to the right one in a moment – but first let’s take a look at the kind of high-level nonsense that’s being marshaled in blogs and columns to suggest that such an event is impossible in China. I quote these passages directly from recent blogs, all by writers whom I admire, a couple of whom are friends, and one even an occasional (and much favored) colleague (because that’s what friends are for):
- “Older Chinese are usually quick to point out that the relative calm of present-day China is far preferable to the tumultuous violence of past eras. Nor do younger strivers necessarily want to rock the boat …” [UPDATE 2/11: this item was originally bylined 'Christina Larson;' her name has since been removed from it, and the entire item moved to David Rothkopf's FP blog. The current link is to the latter.]
- “Most Chinese, as we’ve said here many times, have little to no interest in democratic reforms … [T]oday’s Chinese have little appetite for chaos.”
- “But, at the obvious risk of oversimplification, the lives of average Chinese citizens continue to improve fast enough that they see no reason to upturn the system.”
Really, people? Really?
I’ve long argued that the phrase “average Chinese citizen” should be banned from the pages of any publication that wants to be viewed as a place where serious journalism takes place. But nevermind that – the problem with these kinds of answers/columns are that they require the reader to believe that the author’s social and work circle provides him/her with a reasonable sample of Chinese opinion to make such over-arching claims about Chinese society. But just as David Broder was never capable of personally accumulating enough interviews to claim that he’d been talking to “the voters of California,” I’ve yet to meet a China blogger/journo with enough friends to say something like “the average Chinese person is just too content to support an uprising at the moment.” There’s always a demographic counter-example, or, more damaging, a personal one. Like me: I happen to hang around with some fairly content Chinese people who – given the right circumstances – might just support an uprising. I certainly can’t rule it out. Whose “average Chinese citizen” is more representative?
So, then, what’s the right question to ask?
On Saturday, I was in an airport, when I struck up a conversation with someone I’ll characterize as an “average Chinese citizen.” We started talking about Egypt, and in the course of the conversation, he asked me – with a wry glint in his eye – “what are the chances that the US could experience an Egypt-style uprising?” Being a modern man, I promptly tweeted this question to my followers. My only response came from Virgina Postrel:
And what did you say about an Egypt-style uprising in the US? That we just had one & called it an election?
It’s an interesting point that I think is relevant, and overlooked, in any discussion about Egypt and China: uprisings are what happens when people don’t have any other means of venting their dissatisfaction and anger. Now, I’m quite aware that uprisings sometimes happen in countries where there are elections, and I’m also aware that non-democratic societies have their own, sometimes effective, venting mechanisms. But I’m not going to argue that point. Instead, I’m going to suggest that instead of journalists/columnists/bloggers opining on whether the “average Chinese citizen” has an appetite for chaos and revolution, it might be better – if not more empirical – to step back and ask whether China has sufficient, robust institutions whereby average Chinese citizens can vent their frustrations, anger, and grievances. And I’m merely talking about the same kinds of grievances that might exist in a Democratic country: taxes, schools, roads, eminent domain. Feel free to take it further to, say, human rights. However you want to extend it, I think the answer – rigorously reported – might offer a more reasonable and empirical answer to whether or not China is at risk of an Egypt-style uprising.
It’s certainly a question that’s on the mind of China’s leaders, as suggested by Premier Wen Jiabao’s recent, well-publicized visit to the national petition bureau in Beijing which, as David Barboza of the New York Times put it, serves as “a lightning rod for anger about official corruption, illegal land seizures, labor disputes and complaints of all sort …” Barboza’s article aside, I know for honest to goodness fact that Wen’s visit produced quite a bit of on and off-record eye-rolling amongst China’s foreign correspondents. Perhaps, in light of recent events in Egypt, it’s worth a second look.