July 04, 2005

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Violent democracy

Quite frankly, this is extraordinary. The SCMP carries an interview with Chen Xiwen, a vice-minister in charge of agriculture in China. Most of the report is reproduced below the jump but here's a summary of the incredible things Mr Chen says:

1. Village riots are a sign of democracy. Of course in most democracies farmers or other aggreived parties have easier methods of expressing their problems, such as courts or the media. In China, apparently, massed riots are the thing. Talk about democracy with Chinese characteristics.
2. The central leadership quickly responds to farmers' problems. Which implies either the central leadership has no idea what's going in the countryside and is relying on those who defy the state's own censors to hear about it. Talk about communication with Chinese characteristics.
3. Mr Chen lauds the role of the internet and media in reporting on riots because it allows the central government to respond as in point 2. So are we going to see a massive relaxation in censorship laws anytime soon? Don't hold your breath.
4. The protests are an inevitable consequence of the massive social and economic changes taking place in China. I dare suggest it is just as likely to be about incompetent and/or corrupt local authorities fleecing farmers who have no form of redress.

A final question before the article proper: when was the last time you heard about a village of farmers rioting in India?

Update July 5th

Naturally ESWN has more on Chen Xiwen, including a Chinese language interview.

Violent protests by the mainland's farmers are inevitable due to the country's enormous social and economic changes...Chen Xiwen also hailed farmers' willingness to speak up against injustice as a sign of democracy.

While stressing that he did not approve of using violence, the recent spate of protests demonstrated that farmers now knew how to protect their rights and interests, said Mr Chen, vice-minister of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs.

Reports of such protests also helped the central leadership act quickly and solve problems faced by farmers, Mr Chen said..."On the one hand, riots like the one in Dongyang are a tragedy and show that local authorities failed to do a proper job," Mr Chen said. "But on the other hand, they show that our farmers know to protect their rights, which is a good thing. It shows farmers' democratic awareness is improving, but unfortunately their sense of law and order has not improved as quickly."

Mr Chen, who has studied mainland agricultural issues for more than 20 years, is the key official credited with drafting a series of central government documents in the past two years that have helped reduce farmers' tax burden and allocated more funds to boost agricultural production. Uncharacteristic of officials' usual aversion to sensitive issues, Mr Chen is ready to admit the problems and discuss policy from a unique perspective. Referring to several damning reports on the plight of farmers that have attracted international attention in recent years, he said more protests had gone unreported.

"There are at least 3 million villages across the country and you can imagine how many problems crop up each day," he said. "If there are 30,000 villages having problems, that accounts for only 1 per cent of the total. People have to look at this from a national perspective and against a backdrop of phenomenal social and economic changes taking place.

"Overseas media tend to play up the riots, and it is their job to do so. But you have to remember, things are getting better for farmers generally and few of them would tell you that they want to go back to the past, despite their complaints."

Mr Chen hailed the role of the media and internet in reporting the riots, which he said enabled the higher authorities to act quickly. "Now, thanks to the internet, any incident will quickly come to the attention of the highest level of mainland leadership. In the past, they could easily be covered up by local officials," he said.

He said as China was going through a critical stage of reform, the interests of certain groups like farmers could be easily hurt.

posted by Simon on 07.04.05 at 01:32 PM in the


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riot watch ii
Excerpt: Simon points to an interview with Chen Xiwen, a vice-minister in charge of agriculture in China, who talks to the SCMP on riots in China. Simon's full post is here, in which he responds to the vice minister's main points
Weblog: asiapundit
Tracked: July 5, 2005 10:18 AM


to answer your last question, last year? Last month? INdia is plenty violent.

posted by: doug on 07.04.05 at 02:20 PM [permalink]

I will have to second Doug. Indian domestic politics isn't really my element, but if you think domestic unrest is unique to China alone, or even excessive, you would be wrong. India faces the same sorts of problems, and dissaffected farmers haven't simply been rioting against the government, some have even taken up arms. Besides the sectarian violence in Jammu & Kashmir, unrest in India's impoverished Northeast provinces are commonplace. There are literally still Maoist guerillas operating in India, launching attacks against government and police forces.

posted by: Jing on 07.04.05 at 02:59 PM [permalink]

OK, point taken. But set that aside...this interview is still pretty startling.

posted by: Simon on 07.04.05 at 03:03 PM [permalink]

I know what you mean Simon, the statements made by agricultural vice-minister are textbook Orwellian. Riots are democracy, censorship promotes government response, Black is White, War is Peace, etc etc.

The only thing he has half right is the last statement is that these incidents of unrest are inevitable to a certain degree. Economic liberalization, while good for the many will leave some behind feeling marginalized. Irrespective of the quality of government this is not going to change and the only way to put a stop to them is to either reverse course or suppress them with force.

posted by: Jing on 07.04.05 at 03:22 PM [permalink]

What is startling is what I won't say because of my conflict of interest, but what we are all thinking....regarding, well...the repo...

posted by: doug on 07.04.05 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

I googled 'Chen Xiwen' and 'democracy'. It seems that our Mr. Chen is quite fond of using the 'D' word.

I, however, have to wonder if he knows it's true meaning.

I mean, does anyone remember that Chinese official, forget his name, who was mobbed by HK/mainland reporters during the ridiculous patriotism debate in HK coming out of some hotel. He lost it with the reporters and told them all that they were 'violating his human rights'. Scary stuff.

posted by: Martyn on 07.04.05 at 08:36 PM [permalink]

The point made by Chen that everybody seems to miss (especially ESWN who ignores it completely) is his clear statement that village democracy IS NOT going to be expanded beyond villages (which don't count as administrative units in the CPC hierarchy) to townships or counties. Any experiments in this regard are deemed "illegal" by Vice Minister Chen.

posted by: dylan on 07.05.05 at 12:29 PM [permalink]

Hmmm, I think I missed that as well. Time for a re-read. Thanks Dylan.

posted by: Martyn on 07.05.05 at 02:37 PM [permalink]

the election of town-level or above officials was not the point in the Chen Xiwen interview. he is involved in agricultural policy, not political reforms. he may be able to give some personal opinions, but that won't be official position.

in any case, the argument against town-level or above arguments are obvious.

a village may have 2,000 residents living in close proximity. everybody knows the candidates. it will be an informed vote, and the voters will be able to watch in close-up what the new leader does.

a town might have 50,000 residents scattered in 20 villages. some villagers may have never been to some of those other villages. most residents don't personally know the candidates. who wins the election? the outside experience is simple: the guy with a lot of his own money, support from black gold, slick ads, owns media porperties, owns factories and shops that employ many peole, and has no compunction about lying and triangulating issues. do these properties guarantee that he will be a good town leader? most probably, they will probably mean that he is going to be one bad dude. it is true that you can toss him out in three years' time, but that's three lost years, after which you will elect someone else like him.

i don't think democracy is bad per se. i just don't accept on face value happy talk like "good things are guaranteed if only we are allowed to hold elections." it is not guaranteed, but people don't want to think about what pre-conditions and safeguards are necessary.

you can move up the ladder in geography. who wins the election for mayor of hefei city? the governor of sichuan province? the same set of characteristics listed above. add another doubt: what does the winner of the election know about running sichuan province with more than 100 million people?

posted by: eswn on 07.05.05 at 05:28 PM [permalink]

Dylan, you didn't expect a vice minister of the CCP to say wider democracy was a good idea, did you?

ESWN's point is right - democracy is not just about people voting once every few years. It is about proper rule of law, accountability via a free media and working courts, firm property rights and plenty more besides. That said I disagree that greater voting rights won't work above village level. No one said voting is perfect, but with the other pieces and institutions also in place, it's the best system we've got. It allows people a say, it creates accountability from those in charge.

It's the only system that has sustainably worked over long periods of history.

posted by: Simon on 07.05.05 at 05:40 PM [permalink]

the democracy bit wasn't in quotes, how do we know chen said it? (yes, yes, he may very well like the d word, but he wasn't quoted with it here.)

if you look at what he said in quotes it was roughly 'they know their rights and that's a good thing'. that doesn't necessarily equal democracy.

posted by: echo on 07.06.05 at 01:10 AM [permalink]

Sentence of the year by ESWN:
"i don't think democracy is bad per se". Hu Jintao should be proud of you.

Another pearl "most residents don't personally know the candidates". Ah, ok, great argument against democracy. Now, I'm convinced: I think I'm going to turn myself in a CCP dictatorship apologist as soon as possible. And, of course, no more voting in my decadent western country: fuck to these bourgeois conventions! Thank you.

The more I read ESWN the more I realize that a picture is better than a thousand words.

Really, how Simon can seriously answer such statements is beyond me.



posted by: Enzo on 07.06.05 at 01:34 AM [permalink]

i'm current reading the book by the Henen AIDS doctor Gao. in one section, she has gone to an AIDS village and distributing free drugs bought from money that she raised. more than a hundred people have queued up. the next person in line said, "You are so wonderful. Did Chairman Mao send you?" Gao had to patiently explain that Chairman Mao died more than twenty years ago. Enzo, if you think that there can be a rationally determined direct election in Henan province, population 100 million mostly in such rural areas, GOOD LUCK! It will be won by the person who legally changes his/her name to Mao Zedong, or a television actor. And that will surely help to improve the lot of the AIDS villages!

posted by: eswn on 07.06.05 at 02:28 AM [permalink]

ESWN quotes from two articles about Chen Xiwen's statements, one from SCMP, but completely ignores the other article in SCMP about Chen's statements where he is directly quoted on village/township democracy and the illegality of experiments in township democracy. The article to which I refer is by Cary Huang "Shake Up of Grass Roots Government in Pipeline".

posted by: dylan on 07.06.05 at 06:01 AM [permalink]




posted by: Enzo on 07.06.05 at 06:03 AM [permalink]

ESWN, I'm not convinced. It sounds rather patronising to say villagers aren't ready for democracy and they will vote for Mao. If real candidates feel there is something worthwhile to campaign for, and so long as corruption can be kept in check, the candidates will have an incentive to educate the electorate in the merits of their case.

posted by: Simon on 07.06.05 at 09:28 AM [permalink]

Echo, I tracked down the below article which actually quotes Mr. Chen unlike the SCMP:
"It shows farmers' democratic awareness is improving, but unfortunately their sense of law and order has not improved as quickly," Chen, who was in charge of agricultural policy, was quoted as saying.
From Reuters alertnet.org:

posted by: Martyn on 07.06.05 at 11:27 AM [permalink]

Hey, I think a Chinese offical made a joke just there! Good one.

posted by: Martyn on 07.06.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

"It sounds rather patronising to say villagers aren't ready for democracy"

america's founding fathers didn't think americans were ready for democracy either. that's why they insisted on that pesky electoral college thing.

posted by: echo on 07.07.05 at 01:07 PM [permalink]

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