Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

China beyond the Eurocentric mindset

<itorial, Mr. Hooker carefully articulated an argument prevalent among US and European countries, that “[b]y advocating capitalism, democracy [in China] is the inevitable result”. Whereas Mr. Hooker suggested that China will undergo democratic reform primarily for its inherent “financial benefits”, the most common argument is that eventual economic downturn will lead to revolt from unemployed peasant masses, who will force democratic reform.

I can certainly empathize with these views, as I myself once held them. However, after traveling throughout China, I now believe that this view is very, as Mr. Hooker puts it, “America-centric” (or more commonly, “Eurocentric”). The underlying assumption of most Americans is that because liberty is a “self-evident” truth which spans anthropological boundaries, its logical result of democracy is universally the most advanced and just form of government. In time, other nations will “inevitably” evolve towards democracy.

I have come to a different conclusion: that while democracy in China is possible, it is far from inevitable. The Chinese are unconvinced that democracy is for them, and on a more fundamental level, they do not place nearly as much emphasis on politics as Americans.

During my travels and work, I spoke with countless natives, spanning all socio-economic classes and nearly every major region, who were almost always willing to sincerely share their views. I compensated for my lack of time in China by talking extensively with longtime expats. And a word of caution: I made no attempt for an unbiased sociological study- these are just the observations from my experiences: please take them for what they are worth.

The most striking difference I found between the Chinese youth I encountered and their American counterparts is the remarkable degree of apathy which they displayed towards politics and political concepts. They almost unanimously expressed implicit (or even explicit) ambivalence towards any concept which Americans take as fundamental axioms, such as political liberty. They recognized that the media was censored and did not care. Ultimately, they did not see the abstract concepts of liberty and political representation as playing a role in their day-to-day lives.

They were overwhelmingly more concerned with the economic situation of China. They believed that economic disruption is to be avoided at all costs, and that any large-scale political reform would cause such economic disruption. They were quite cynical about their own economy, and often expressed a deep fear of losing China’s newfound wealth.

The most frequent complaint about the government was corruption. The complaints intensified as I moved into more rural areas. I was told appalling anecdotes about corrupt government officials, and how guanxi (loosely, connections) created a division between haves and have-nots. But interestingly, complaints were all lodged against the local and provincial governments, and never against Beijing itself.

My observations seem to be in sync with the way Beijing is acting. Mr. Hooker’s “democratic reforms” are in reality restricted to local (primarily rural) levels, and only to serve the function of giving disenfranchised peasants a method to channel their anger. During last week’s 17th National Congress, President Wu made anti-corruption and economic management his top priorities. As I said above, these reflect the primary concerns of the Chinese I encountered.

It is just as inaccurate to say that democracy in China is inevitable as it is to say that it is impossible; history supports neither extreme. Nevertheless, I do not believe that China will become democratic in the foreseeable future. First, the Chinese political apathy I encountered makes the prospects of a bottom-up reform improbable, and President Wu has made it clear that there will be no significant democratic reforms in the near future, eliminating a top-down reform. Second, China’s economy, despite its meteoric growth, is actually extremely unstable and riddled with problems. The transition to capitalism may be easier under authoritarianism (compare China to India), and Beijing is working furiously to solve these issues. Political overthrow in the near future could lead to catastrophic results in even the best scenario. Third, while massive peasant unemployment will undoubtedly lead to social unrest, it is a sign of “Eurocentric” thought to equate any revolt with democratic revolt: the peasants will revolt for economic improvement, not necessarily democracy. Finally, and most importantly, most Chinese I met seemed generally contented with their government, more so than most Americans.

In my opinion, China should concentrate first on developing a healthy and sustainable economy, and only then evaluate if political reform is necessary or even desirable. Despite our tendency to view democracy as the most desirable form of government for all peoples, Americans must realize that ultimately, the people who know what is best for the Chinese are the Chinese themselves.

I will conclude with an anecdote on the potentially dangerous limitations of Eurocentric thinking. While I was in the Himalayan Mountains, I translated for an Austrian man and his wife trying to get a lower elevation because she was rapidly developing AMS, a potentially lethal form of altitude sickness. Despite their ticket, they were told by local officials that there was no possibility that she could get a seat on the bus, and had to wait until tomorrow. As I fruitlessly tried to explain to the couple the concept of guanxi and why their tickets were now useless, the woman (who was already confused) went ballistic. Her husband shook his head, looked at me, and then turned to her. “This is not working. We are making a mistake. We are thinking too European.”

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *