Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The China Syndrome

This week's meetings between presidents Hu Jintao of China and George W. Bush of the US have drawn new press attention to Sino-US relations. Today's media reports underscore the degree to which China's accelerating oil consumption will figure prominently in the discursive agenda. I agree with those who note the inconsistency of rebuking China for its fossil fuel consumption while that of the US goes on unabated. Aside from its diplomatic shortcomings this tack is an error in "grand strategy," in that it affirms and endorses a form of political inertia that poses a serious threat not only to China and the US but to the world at large.

In brief, the greatest danger in China is not the pace of her economic liberalization and growth, but the extent to which it has exceeded the pace of desperately needed political liberalization. China's political system is snared in a structural deadfall that is taking an ever-increasing toll on its ecology, social institutions, and communal stability. Unless something is done to alleviate the situation the system is sure to experience dramatic collapse, and the longer that cataclysm takes in coming the worse it will be.

The question raised by such conditions is, of course: what sign is there that China's current leaders are aware of the present danger and are moving to respond? Unfortunately, the answer can only be "not much." Last year Hu Jintao's government launched a mass campaign to reaffirm Party authority by compelling all CCP members to study the written works of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping (an ideological shotgun wedding if there ever was one). In March a colloquium was held to debate the merits of economic reform at which calls for further political liberalization were shunted aside. Abuses within the judicial system and rural unrest continue to intesify and accelerate and are met with purely tactical, short-term responses from Beijing (for example, the deterent beating and intimidation of those who attempt to bring lawsuits before China's high courts).

China is obviously on the cusp of a major historical change (when exactly that change will occur I wouldn't venture to predict, in chronological terms China can remain on "the cusp" of a major change for 50-100 years), the current system cannot persist as it is and will eventually give way to another. The only open question is whether that change will go hard or easy. In this regard it is perhaps instructive to compare the situation in China today to that one-hundred years ago. By 1905 the legitimacy of the Qing dynasty had so eroded that the need for fundamental change was obvious to virtually all actors along the entire political spectrum. In that year the Zhonghua Tongmeng hui (Chinese Alliance) was formed under the leadership of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. That group was dedicated to the very radical proposition that the 2200+ year-old Empire should be replaced by a Chinese Republic. As unlikely as this must have seemed at the time, it in fact transpired a mere 6 years after the Alliance's formation.

Though its practicality or achievability is an open question, there can be no doubt that the Alliance confronted the collapse of the Empire with a clear and proactive agenda. In simplistic terms the Alliance program had three basic components- nationalism, democracy, and socialism (these would, in fact, become the "Three Principles of the People" after the Alliance was restructured as the KMT). The 1911 Revolution only minimally carried through on the first goal of nationalism, the latter goals of socialism and democracy were aggressively and violently quashed. This was not because the Alliance failed to play a key role in the transition from Empire to Republic, but rather because it members were compelled to cooperate and share power with constituencies whose economic, social, and regional interests clashed with the imperatives of democracy and socialism.

The Alliance's debacle exemplifies a common pattern in Chinese political history. China is such a vast, diverse, and complex realm that substantive changes require the coordination of widely and at times antipathetically divergent forces. Most mass movements tend to collapse or implode in the face of such obstacles. Those that survive and carry through to an enduring outcome spontaneously narrow in focus and effect until they settle upon the "least common denominator" among the interests of the myriads involved. Thus the Alliance's threefold program of nationalism, democracy and socialism in 1911 won through to a partially realized expression of nationalism.

The situation of China today is quite comparable to that of the Qing Empire in 1906. The People's Republic is deeply disfunctional and must be transformed. Economic liberalization and modernization must continue, but they must be coupled with a robust program of democratization and political decentralization. Unfortunately, the same type of inertial forces that derailed the 1911 Revolution seem to be at work in the PRC today. Many leaders within and without the government recognize the need for democratization and decentralization, but institutional energies and policy initiative remain exclusively focused on the more broadly palatable goal of continued economic reform.

This situation poses dire peril not only for China but for the world at large. The failings of the 1911 Revolution led ultimately to complete collapse and an extended period of anarchy and partisan civil war. It is far from impossible that a failure to address the mounting crisis in China today could lead to an equally cataclysmic and violent outcome, only this time within a strategic domain containing nuclear as well as conventional weapons. As apparent as this urgency is, it does not afford obvious or easy choices for US leaders in the shaping of America's relationship with China. It is clear, however, that US leaders should be less focused on the dangers of China's economic growth and more concerned with its political stagnation. Rather than warning Beijing about its expanding economy, Washington should express concern about the growing sources of instability and unrest within Chinese society

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Coetzee Principle

The release of journalist Jill Carroll has understandably sent a wave of relief through all concerned observers of Iraq. Though her return to safety is a cause for celebration, some of the circumstances surrounding her release should give US policymakers pause to contemplate. The statements that she made on tape just prior to and just after her release about the “lies” of the US government and the “good treatment” afforded her by her captors were, according to Ms. Carroll herself, coerced, and should by no means be held against her. Such statements give some aid to the propaganda efforts of the insurgency, but it would be unreasoningly cruel to expect Carroll to lay down her life rather than make them.

Her captors reportedly told Carroll that they had infiltrated the Green Zone and would be watching her closely after her release. If she “cooperated” with the US embassy she would be killed. This would explain why even after her release, when she was already in the office of the “moderate” Sunni political party to whose custody she had been given, she continued to make recorded statements about being “well treated.” Her colleague at the Christian Science Monitor ultimately had to persuade her to come into the Green Zone, the place where (had she been thinking reasonably) she would have realized she would be safest. After witnessing the murder of her interpreter and having been in the life-and-death power of her captors for almost 3 months Carroll cannot be blamed for having taken their threats at face value.

Indeed, the deliberate nature of her captors’ threats and the specificity of the comments they elicited from Carroll were transparent attempts to mitigate the damage from what was ultimately a political victory for the Coalition. What is difficult to explain, however, is the tacit assistance Carroll’s captors received toward their propaganda efforts from the “moderate” political party that managed the actual exchange. Why, immediately upon arrival to “safety” was Carroll placed in front of a camera and interviewed about the treatment she had received from her captors? Though Carroll may clarify what her state of mind was after she has recovered from her ordeal, it seems likely that she was still in the very impressionable state of terror induced by her captors’ threats, and nothing had yet been done to reassure her that she was, in fact, safe. Why would her “liberators” record an interview with her before she had been securely passed into the hands of the US embassy (or at least the Iraqi security forces)? The intent may be murky (to a degree), but the effect is quite clear. The fact that Carroll repeated her statements about being “well treated” once she was already “safe” provided corroboration for the video recorded by her captors prior to her release.

Reading about these circumstances brought to mind the novel Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. In that book set in post-apartheid South Africa, the white protagonist, David Lurie, and his daughter are assaulted by a group of black men. Lurie is later shocked to discover one of the assailants at a party being hosted by his employee, a black farmer named Petrus. It turns out that the men are kin by marriage. Though shocked and angry, Lurie does not believe that a conspiracy has transpired. Rather, he deduces that he and his daughter have fallen victim to something far more “anthropological.”

The hasty interview by Jill Carroll’s “moderate” Sunni liberators may well be an example of the sort of “anthropological” occurrence Coetzee describes, and it is only one instance of many in which such “anthropological” forces have worked and are working to subvert the Coalition mission in Iraq. Sunnis who have entered the political process are almost certain to retain cultural and social ties to kin and associates fighting as part of the insurgency. Attempts to end sectarian or ethnic violence will be sabotaged by tribal allegiances, persistent blood feuds, or patterns of religious authority.

In a recent OpEd piece Thomas Friedman coined a new epithet for the Iraqi insurgency: “Islamonihilists (a term which I will confess brought The Big Lebowski immediately to my adolescent mind).” The US could not have anticipated, says Friedman, the emergence of such a foe- one that is committed only to destruction without any positive plan for what to build amid the ruins. This portrait is clearly wrong. Any serious student of Iraqi history, society, and culture should have been able to anticipate the insurgency currently faced by the emergent Iraqi government and the Coalition. There is no denying that the insurgency is tragically nihilistic in its effect, but this is because of the disparity of its constituents’ goals and the asymmetry between the insurgency’s power and that of its opponents. The insurgents do not “believe in nothing,” they believe in a whole bevy of goals, ideas, and motives. Some of these are reducible to simple self-interest as understood in a particular social and cultural context. Some of these are fantastic dreams whose impracticality is matched only by their potential destructiveness. Some of these are crypto-fascist ideologies that are truly repugnant. If the insurgents were truly “nihilists” their defeat would be a much less complicated affair. In fact, as the circumstances surrounding Jill Carroll’s release demonstrate, the insurgency draws fuel from a whole complex of historical, ideological, and “anthropological” forces that make its defeat by the US extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible.