Why the Chinese government is not going anywhere

I heard someone ask today why the possibly 180,000-and-rising protests every year in China do not bring down the regime like they are doing in the Middle East. Here is my take.

First, protests in China are usually not against the regime. They tend to be against a crooked local politician. The book Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China’s Peasants illustrates decently, if anecdotally, the blatant corruption and brutal repression of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s local elites. Most of China’s protests and riots occur at a local level, for local reasons. The reason we see demonstrations against, say, Japanese claims to the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands on the news is that they are the exception. In fact, the Chinese government has usually been able to exploit popular discontent and direct it toward Japan (unlike Arab governments’ unconvincing blame tossed at the US and Israel), which means that the enemy is not the Chinese government but the Japanese government.

Second, the Chinese media wear a muzzle. News outlets played down or failed to report the protests in Egypt, and websites blocked keyword searches for “Egypt”. Naturally, they could not simply say nothing at all was happening, and as such, the state-run media towed the line it always has, that the violence is due to trying to implant democracy where it does not belong, and that all the Chinese people really want anyway is stability. Given that internet censors in China have in the past shut down Facebook, Twitter and the other online tools that have notably helped many protesters organise, they will not hesitate to do so again if Chinese citizens appear to be doing the same.

For the third reason protests will not bring down the Chinese government, you may first want to read this article. In it, Professor Joshua Tucker makes the point that, while we tend to focus on “the dictator”, dictatorships, like all governments, are more of a coalition of elites that support the guys at the top. If, say, the businesspeople and intelligence services decide their interests are better served deserting the government, they will do so. The CCP is an enormous collection of politicos, businesspeople, bureaucrats and military men, all of whom win money and face by being associated with the upper echelons, and few of whom have any reason to side with anti-government protesters. The government is very effective at co-opting various segments of society, and now comprises businesspeople and intellectuals, along with the usual suspects. The upper class is thus very happy with the status quo.

Finally, a large part of the middle class likes the government because they consider it responsible for the growth in wealth and basic stability they have experienced over the past generation. People often vent their rage publicly when the economy diminishes, and indeed is a major reason for the current anti-government riots; the Chinese economy, on the other hand, continues to grow (albeit unevenly). The young urbanites who participated in China’s 1989 anti-government protests have grown up and moved on. China’s population has aged somewhat since then, and a younger population usually means more popular outrage (including in the current Middle East protests). The middle class, too, would probably need to be won over before anyone could bring down China’s government, and most of it will not be. In short, an Egypt-like takedown of the Chinese government is not going to happen any time soon.

The Middle East’s 1789…or 1848

It is still far too early to know if the torrential protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, Iran and Syria will lead to meaningful change. Democrats around the world are hopefully predicting that every country will soon become a democracy. However, where will democracy come from? Democratisation is usually a long and winding road, unless it happens by revolution; and if it happens by revolution, a period of undemocratic violence could reign, as in France in the 1790s, which could lead to the election of another strongman who will restore stability, and the cycle of violence would begin again. After over a decade of experiment as a republic, France crowned Napoleon emperor in 1804, and brought in King Louis XVIII in 1815. Nonetheless, there is always the prospect for real change as well: after all, France is today a vibrant democracy.

Most of the protesters in the Middle East seem not to be demanding democracy but jobs, equality and an end to corruption. Rather than demanding democracy, they are protesting dictatorship. Some regimes will placate protesters by doling out gifts in the form of job-creation programmes, the sacking of the most corrupt ministers, wealth redistribution and so on, which is what democracies do, but others will be swept away. The important question is not have the Ben Alis and Mubaraks gone, but what will replace them?

Many of the democracies in the world are merely electoral democracies. In other words, there are basic freedoms and basic choices as to who will govern, but not much popular control of the government. Most governments are only accountable at election time. Egypt is certainly not a democracy yet, as the army is still in charge, and it might take a long period of hard work if the people truly want to be free. I expect many of the Middle Eastern dictatorships under fire are no more fortunate than Mubarak, but each country’s prospects for democracy are on similarly unsure ground.

In 1848, the people of Europe protested in nearly every major city on the continent. The reactionary governments in charge at the time were, like those of today, unprepared and insensitive to their people’s problems until revolt broke out. France’s terrified King Louis Philippe abdicated, much like the two dictators (so far) who have left their posts in North Africa. King Charles Albert of Piedmont issued a moderate constitution to quell riots. But the military everywhere knew they had the power to repress the revolts if they wanted. Prague was bombarded during its riots, which ended in failure. In Paris, radical republican and socialist protesters were suppressed. Austria’s new constitution was rescinded 1851, two years after its inception. International wars took place. Possibilities for all these occurrences exist in the Middle East.

Historian Robert Wiener explained the initial successes of the revolutions as indicative not of the strength and unity of the protesters but of the weaknesses of the governments they opposed. The protesters were not leaders and did not offer real economic or social programmes. The same might be said for today’s movements. Alexis de Tocqueville feared the revolutions he witnessed on the streets of Paris, because of the violent class struggle they indicated; Karl Marx, who wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848, welcomed them.

Historian GM Trevelyan believed that the revolutions of 1848, the Spring of Nations, failed, because on the surface, nothing changed. Yet, Hans Rothfels, another historian, said that, in fact, the revolutions had major effects: a leveling of inequalities, universal male suffrage, and the understanding throughout society that the people would no longer be held under the thumbs of absolute monarchies. A new generation of leaders took over after 1848. Today, we are witnessing (probably) successful popular uprisings that may or may not bring what the people want. We can take hope from one fact, however. The people of all these places have shown that they will not simply put up with anything anymore. Like in 1848, some things will change: formerly unresponsive governments will need to sit up and take notice, and foreign powers will benefit less by choosing sides and propping up corrupt regimes. For at least a generation to come, the people of Tunisia and Egypt, and probably everywhere else that is in turmoil right now, will speak of the time when they rose up against their masters, and they will do it again if pushed.

How to be an individual

I have a friend named Dave. He calls himself an individualist. He was born in the United States, but he does not consider himself a member of any nation, race or imagined community of any kind. When people ask him where he is from, he points to a world map and says “there!”.

As such, Dave treats you like an individual. He does not stereotype, because he knows that people vary within groups, and that anyway he does not know if something someone else says about a group of people is necessarily true. He has met many people from many cultures; he has met tall people, short people, smart people, stupid people, fat people, black people, hairy people and beautiful people; he wants to learn about all of them.

Dave is interested in learning about what is different about all of us, and also what is similar about us. George Carlin puts it well: “That’s all the media and the politicians are ever talking about, the things that separate us. Things that make us different from one another…. But I also like to know that I can come back to these little things we have in common.” So does Dave. It is good to know that all humans are very much the same in many ways, and in all the important ways. Any differences among us are no reason to deny someone his or her humanity.

He loves his family and friends. He does not love anybody he does not know, inasmuch as he can sympathise with anyone. Dave considers everyone in the world equally worthy of love, respect, kindness, dignity and charity. It bothers him just as much to know that 100 Ugandans died in a plane crash as to know that 100 Canadians, Australian soldiers or Andean farmers did.

He loves the NHL, the World Cup and the Olympics, but not because he is rooting for any one team. It seems strange to root for one country all one’s life. How do you know where is best if you have not lived everywhere? He also does not feel proud of any team, because he thinks pride should come from one’s own accomplishments, and not those from accident of birth. He volunteered for the Olympics in Vancouver because he wanted to be around people from every country. It is amazing what you can learn from people from other countries.

He doesn’t think he’s better than anybody else, because if we are all individuals with the same capacity for joy and pain we are of equal worth. Dave cares how you are as an individual and does not judge you for which group you belong to. He assumes you do not conform to anything he thinks he knows about your group until he gets to know you. Dave does not get offended when someone insults a group he belongs to. He does not really understand what it is like to get offended on behalf of a group. Surely, he reasons, it is not groups, or ideas, that need protecting, but individuals.

Dave is happy and he thinks all individuals should be too. He hopes to meet you one day and learn how you are different. He hopes you are an individual too.

The psychology of racialist violence

Having now watched three movies about neo-nazis, I am compelled to seek to understand why smart people get sucked into racist ideologies. The movies in question are American History X (1998), the Believer (2001) and Steel Toes (2006), and I recommend all of them to the observer of modern racism (who is not squeamish).

Each movie centers on a single, articulate, young neo-nazi who commits acts of violence against racial minorities. Each movie outlines why the young man in question is a neo-nazi. Their arguments are well presented. They have clear reasons for hating. After all the arguments about why Jews, blacks and all other non WASPs are bad, it is essential that we look beyond words to see why people hate those who are different.

The young men all had a sense that they were losing something, that their society was headed in the wrong direction because it was being contaminated by inferior races. Derek in American History X said that every problem in the US is race related; Michael in Steel Toes believed we were losing our superior, white, Canadian way of life to immigrants; and Daniel in the Believer declared confidently that spiritual life comes from race, and thought that the modern world is a Jewish disease where that spiritual life was being sucked away. (They are not the only ones who believe they are losing their world. Robert Pape has found that nearly all suicide bombings are motivated by foreign occupation. A study by the think tank Demos found much the same.) But all generations seem to have a feeling that something is lost, and that the world is not what it used to be. Why do these boys blame minorities?

Perhaps we are living in a new age of minorities. At one time in Europe, the minority, if there was one, was the easily-scapegoated Jew, Gypsy, or Huguenot. Now, minorities come from every country and bring their cultures, languages and skin colours with them. Because more rapid social change than ever before is occurring alongside more immigration than ever before, it is easy to conflate the two. Our supposedly sacred ways of life are changing, and the culprits could not possibly be in our group. Violence, segregation, deportation all seem reasonable when viewed through the warped prism of convenient blame.

For a second explanation of how these characters turned into radicals, let us consider what I call “opinion creep“, how we choose one path in our thinking and follow it until our opinions become extreme. Perhaps these people are simply victims of opinion creep. Opinion creep might also be what enables us to hold contrary beliefs, such as that the Jews instigated communism and yet control the world’s banking system. It sends our emotions spiraling down to the evils of our nature and can lead us to obsess over people we do not even know or understand.

Hatred is a natural feeling that any of us can fall victim to. Hate is anger with a direction. It can come easily when the objects are dehumanised, considered less deserving of respect than those in our exclusive group. Stereotyping simplifies the other and simplifies hatred of the other by turning him into a one-dimensional caricature of his group. The arguments against Jews, for instance, refer to them collectively, to say what they are and are not, imposing square pegs of what people are in round holes of what they could be. Uncomfortable with ambiguity, which might mean that we accept that everyone is sufficiently different to defy stereotype, we package things for our own convenience and lose understanding in the process. Sherif (1937) likened this removal of ambiguity to the slogans and propaganda that dehumanised the enemy and fired up the masses in the fascist movements of his time. By repeating canards about who the enemy is, we form images that fill us with hate.

Violence, likewise, is a powerful drive within us. In his excellent book on collectivist violence Blood and Belonging, Michael Ignatieff explains

[U]ntil I had encountered my quotient of young males intoxicated by the power of the guns on their hips, I had not understood how deeply pleasurable it is to have the power of life and death in your hands. It is a characteristic liberal error to suppose that everyone hates and fears violence. I met lots of young men who loved the ruins, loved the destruction, loved the power that came from the barrels of their guns.

[T]here is a deep connection between violence and belonging. The more strongly you feel the bonds of belonging to your own group, the more hostile, the more violent will your feelings be towards outsiders. You can’t have this intensity of belonging without violence, because belonging of this intensity moulds the individual conscience: if a nation gives people a reason to sacrifice themselves, it also gives them a reason to kill.

This drive to violence, especially on behalf of one’s group, may be carried out with the intention of domination. Those with authoritarian leanings are more ethnocentric and prone to prejudice (Altemeyer, 1996). Many such people endorse the myths that explain why one group dominates another in society, and either are afraid to lose their position at the top, as Michael in Steel Toes was, or aspire to reach the top (Sidanius and Pratto, 1999). They feel no reason to share society’s resources equally when they have reasons to believe others are less deserving. Moreover, the same people may see the world as either threatening or a competitive jungle where dominance is natural and desirable (Duckitt, 2003).

One final source of violence and hatred is internal conflict. The Believer, in particular, showed Daniel’s deep conflict between his past–a Jew, born and raised–and his present–a Jew-hating skinhead. While leading in the desecration of a synagogue, Daniel picks up a Torah scroll, takes it home and repairs it because of what it had once meant to him. Michael forcefully declares his membership in the Aryan Nation and then breaks down in guilt after reading that the man he assaulted died and yet bears him no ill will. He could not handle the human consequences of what his ideology proposes.

Another thing each movie had in common was to juxtapose the protagonist’s present life as a skinhead with an innocent youth, spent running and laughing and playing. One clear lesson from all three films was that hatred and violence do not lead to fulfillment, wisdom or happiness. They only lead to pain.