October 17, 2005

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Forests and trees

And I'm back.

Thank you to all the guest posters during my break. As usual, a wide variety of posts that will likely result in top billing for some strange Google searches. I particularly like this blog being referred to as "semi-formal". I was aiming for "black tie", but whatever.

As I left for holiday the now infamous Guardian article had just hit the press. In short, the journalist in question went to Taishi with a human rights advocate, thought he saw the human rights advocate bashed to death, wrote about it only for the same advocate turn up with some minor injuries in his home village very much alive and well and reading up on Mark Twain. Bingfeng has summarised the resulting uproar, with accusations that this reporting has damaged the cause of democracy in China and far more besides. As one commenter noted, the split has seemingly come down to those who are reflex anti-CCP and those reflex anti-mainstream media (MSM), this being one of those rare cases where it is not the same thing.

And yet all this debate is missing the major point.

For all the pretence that China's "new" leadership was all about grass-roots change, about closing the rural economic gap, about weeding out corruption, about making government responsive to people, Taishi has clearly demonstrated how far from reality this vision remains. There is no doubt that China's leadership in Beijing, even while occupied with the recent smackdown plenum, know about Taishi. This could have been a chance for a genuine, citizen driven democratic experiment. It was sufficiently small-scale, the mitigating circumstances in place. It was completely controllable and scalable should it have proved a success. While some of us have been blogging about it for months, finally some mainstream media sources cottoned onto the potential story and chased it. And then came the (pardon the pun) road smash. And now the collective energies of various sources of China-related information have been focussed on what a bumbling journo did or didn't do and what it does or doesn't mean. There are 1.3 billion people in China who have no idea about this debate. It's meaningless to them. But the potential result of the Taishi experiment, if it had gone another way, could have greatly affected many millions of those people, including the leadership.

So let's refocus on the real villians of the piece: who decided to stop the Taishi experiment before it could start? Why? And why do forked tongues remain so fashionable?

Related reading

  • Running Dog on Taishi and the woes of Government explains why Beijing prefers vested interests and corrupt local governments retain control.
  • ESWN is on top form with centripedal and centrifugal forces in China, a contradiction Taishi could have helped solve but instead will make worse.
  • Asiapundit defends the Guardian journalist, Benjamin Joffe-Walt, and his actions.
  • Rebecca MacKinnon hits the nail firmly on the head:
    Will Chinese netizens be successfully manipulated into foreigner-bashing as an acceptable alternative to communist party-bashing?
    Her next post is even better, noting that most of the Western media isn't interested in the Taishi story now that Lu Banglie turned up OK. Sadly the same is mostly true of the wider blogosphere as well. The crucial issue is what Taishi represents, but most media cannot seemingly view its impact without the frame of "authoritarian government beats human rights advocate and journalist". Forget about the "authoritarian government quashes constitutionally valid recall process to preserve vested interests" angle. And why does that matter? Because like it or not, if it's not in the media, it's not in the forefront of (Western) politicians' and most voters' minds. It's forests and trees again.
  • Sun Bin reports that there have been 52 village recall elections, like Taishi tried. He's more optimistic about the potential outcome for the future.
  • ESWN has the full chronology of Taishi, and has filled it in with more details filling in some of the blanks. He also comments on the Guardian debacle, and has the translation of well-known Chinese blogger Anti's anti-Joffe-Walt post.
  • Best of all, in a related post, ESWN talks about the dangers of working with Western journalists in China. Maybe that's the real lesson of this sorry episode.

Updated (10/17)

The Guardian's readers' editor (what does the regular editor do then?) defends Mr. Joffe-Walt's actions, saying he's been given a good talking to and packed off to a therapist until the heat dies down (pardon the pun). One could ask what kind of training the Guardian gives its 25 year-old journalists when dispatched to places such as China, where media freedom isn't quite what it is elsewhere. One could ask why the Guardian published a clearly potentially inflammatory article when there was little time for interaction with the [news] desk. One could ask if the Guardian staff know abuot the Stockholm Syndrome when we are told they have all developed some sympathy for Joffe-Walt, despite the fact that his report had threatened the credibility and integrity of the Guardian's reporting in China. Mr Joffe-Walt has expressed repeated apologies for what he had done and its implications for the Guardian, and indeed for the pro-democracy movement in China, and he had lost touch with reality when he filed his report.

Ian Mayes concludes The Guardian clearly has to protect its reputation. It also recognises a duty of care to Mr Joffe-Walt. The two things are not incompatible. No, they're not incompatible at all. Where the Guardian has fallen down was throwing a 25 year old novice into one of the more dangerous reporting assignments without adequate care or supervision. If we're sharing out blame, it's the Guardian itself that needs to shoulder a significant part of the responsibility. Don't hold your breath.

posted by Simon on 10.17.05 at 01:35 PM in the Taishi category.


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It's all about the Benjamin
Excerpt: Anyone who has been following the circus surrounding the controversial report filed by The Guardian's new (maybe former?) Shanghai correspondent Benjamin Joffe-Walt needs to go read the explanation/examination filed today by Guardian ombudsman Ian Maye...
Weblog: Shanghaiist
Tracked: October 17, 2005 01:48 PM

If you haven't totally OD'd on Taishi stories yet...
Excerpt: ...Simon has a superb recap of the latest media and blog coverage, and he comes to all the right conclusions. Excellent reading and great links....
Weblog: The Peking Duck
Tracked: October 17, 2005 04:41 PM

taishi: random thoughts and more questions
Excerpt: taishi: random thoughts and more questions
Weblog: Bingfeng Teahouse
Tracked: October 17, 2005 06:30 PM

Taishi and Village Impeachment
Weblog: Sun Bin
Tracked: October 18, 2005 04:25 AM

China, democracy and a place called Taishi
Excerpt: There have been two related developments in China's halting steps towards "democracy" in recent times. The first concerns a small village called Taishi. The excellent ESWN blog has a full chronology of events at Taishi....
Weblog: Winds of Change.NET
Tracked: October 20, 2005 03:24 PM


Welcome back!

The Anarchic Interregnum is finished! Long live the Simonocracy!

posted by: Dan tdaxp on 10.16.05 at 10:49 PM [permalink]

Every blog could do with a bit of anarchy every now and again. Thanks for filling in, Dan. You've certainly generated some interesting comments.

posted by: Simon on 10.16.05 at 10:58 PM [permalink]

Sunbin has pointed out that over the last five years there are dozens of examples of successful rural impeachments, and no one ever talks about those. Village mayor gets kicked out, and no one notices at all.

I think that is likely that had the township government not stepped in, no one would have ever heard or cared about Tashi. It's also likely that if the township government made it clear from the beginning that dissent would be treated harshly, no one would have ever challenged them and again we never would have heard of Taishi.

This is why generalization is very dangerous. Looking at Tashi by itself tells us very little about the situation in rural China or about the likelihood of success of the Wen-Hu reforms.

posted by: Joseph Wang on 10.17.05 at 12:59 AM [permalink]

Welcome back!

I hope we didn't loosen your collar too much!

posted by: Infidel on 10.17.05 at 06:16 AM [permalink]

So why did the Panyu government step in?

Read the chronology carefully.

In late august, the Panyu Civil Affairs Bureau rejected the petition on the grounds that it was a copy and not an original.
Over the next several days, villagers went and sat down outside the Panyu government building to demonstrate and some got arrested. But they got publicity and made the government look bad. The action led nowhere, though.
Finally, the villagers decided to file a new petition in an original document.

Question: What if the villagers skipped the demonstration part and stuck to the literal legal process (you want an original document, i'll give you an original)? Would the Panyu government have defined this is as a disruptive event manipulated by black hands?

We'll never know the answer to that question.

posted by: eswn on 10.17.05 at 09:37 AM [permalink]

Joseph - you're right, and I've linked Sun Bin above. What's important about Taishi is a well-established legal process has been deliberately contravened by local authorities without any repurcussions from those higher up. With the attention it is getting, it is becoming a key test of the Beijing leadership's determination to deliver on their promises. So far they've not followed through with action.

Infidel - it's hot in here, that's for sure.

posted by: Simon on 10.17.05 at 09:49 AM [permalink]

FYI, the Panyu local government has put together a press conference with a rather different spin on things


I don't know if they are lying through their teeth or not, but the simple fact that they feel compelled to hold a press conference and present their version of events is progress.

posted by: Joseph Wang on 10.17.05 at 01:26 PM [permalink]

I agree with Joseph Wang's comment above, and I would caution against arguing that the central government is directly responsible for the situation in Taishi. China's political system is a form of federalism, and the central government really has little control over what happens at the local level - and often they receive misleading or false information from local level governments who don't welcome any interference from beijing. I have discussed this in detail in my article, "The Myth of CCP Totalitarianism" (see the "China Artices" section of my blog) if anybody is interested. Essentially, I argue that what is happening in Taishi is a positive phenomenon for China.

Mark Anthony Jones

posted by: Mark Anthony Jones on 10.17.05 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

Curiously the way that the Central Government gets a lot of its information is through "internal reports" issued by People's Daily and Xinhua reporters.

The other question is do you really want the Politburo routinely intervening in local affairs? In this case, it may be a good thing, but I can think of situations in the past where the ability of local and provincial officials to ignore Beijing was a good thing.

posted by: Joseph Wang on 10.17.05 at 05:27 PM [permalink]

Excellent point Joseph - as I point out in my article though, decentralisation has had BOTH positive and negative effects. Many political scientists (even from the West) argue that China's current form of federalism is the secret behind its incredible economic success - a success which has lifted over 400 million people out of poverty! The type of problems we are witnessing in villages like Taishi represent the downside, but such villages are hardly representative.

Mark Anthony Jones

posted by: Mark Anthony Jones on 10.17.05 at 06:15 PM [permalink]

It's always amazing to see how one of the most repressive dictatorships of the world, one of the last redoubts of One-Party State, one of the worst places for individual freedoms and rights is treated by some "China-watchers" as a reign of rule of law, federalism (sic!) and forthcoming reforms. So, Taishi is a good thing, the wonderful Hu-Wen ticket isn't well informed ("Stalin will save us", USSR people used to say when Stalin thugs took them: detsination GULAG), they can't intervene in local affairs (first case of authoritarian country powerless in local issues, wow) and so on...
If one thing the Taishi-case demonstrates once aagain is that the so called "grass roots reforms" are a fiction (I should say a farce) and that when someone really exceeds the Party line there's no room for hope.
It's time to stop dreaming and to learn history's lessons: where Communist Party in power, no real reforms; where real reforms, no Communist Party in power. China's freedom and democracy won't come frome the same who today suppress them so effectively. We should support real democracy and real freedom fighters, not the despots, the violence and the tricks to avert it and silence them.



posted by: Enzo on 10.18.05 at 12:56 AM [permalink]

I bet you won't see BCChinese's analysis of the Taishi blog experiences on PKD, since he bans anyone/anthing he doesn't like:


"mentality or certain ways of observing the world, such mentality leads to distortion, ignorance or a vicious circle from prejudice to more prejudice"

Absolutely right. As the Taishi example demonstrates, the varying degrees of generalization based off Taishi, are not representative of China's reality, delima, and choices.

When it comes to our own problems and malfesence, it's complicated, so why should it by any different when it comes to China?

posted by: bobby fletcher on 10.18.05 at 04:20 AM [permalink]

One factor that hasn't been mentioned in why the Chinese press has been very active despite press censorship......

Money. Money. Money.

During the 1980's, the government cut off funding to all but a few newspapers, and most newspapers have been forced to survive based on sales and ad revenue. You don't get readers by repeating the party line. You get readers by talking about scandal, sensational events, and pressing the limits of censorship.

The same goes true with most blogs and chat rooms which are sponsored by for-profit ICP's.

posted by: Joseph Wang on 10.18.05 at 07:36 AM [permalink]

I have updated my post (simon has link above), to include a few other case studies (thanks to bobby for the links), where village mayors were successfully fired. Many involve long and difficult struggles, a few went through very smoothly. There are also set backs like Taishi.

There is an amusing picture of a mayor waiting for his verdict.

The current procedure has many flaws, one of them being a subjective ruling of "validity of complain", which was questioned by many legal experts inside China.

Almost all cases involve corruption, in particular selling of land rights.

We can debate on whether there would be fundamental change, or that small baby-steps would help to improve efficiency and curb corruption before there is fundamental change at the top (throught whatever process). IMHO quick conclusion based on subjective assumptions and opinions does not contribute to a rational debate.

posted by: sunbin on 10.18.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

Joseph - once again, you bring some sober intelligence to this conversation. What you say about the Chinese media is spot-on! Most Westerners who blog on these sorts of sites prefer instead to peddle the myth that all Chinese media merely serve as voices for the CCP. They couldn't be more wrong, and fort he reasons that you mentioned above.

And as for Enzo - well, he or she sounds as though they're still trapped in time, like they're still living out the Cold War during the Reagan administration perhaps.

Mark Anthony Jones

posted by: Mark Anthony Jones on 10.18.05 at 10:33 AM [permalink]

It is true that if you publish a newspaper that is explicit anti-Party and if you come out explicit challenging the authority of the Party, your newspaper gets shut down and you get sent to jail.


It's also the case that there are many issues about which there are multiple opinions within the Party and it is also the case that there are issues about which the Party has no opinion.

For example, take village protests. If you explicit say that you are challenging the Party, you are going to get sent to jail very quickly. However, if you make your demonstration *pro-CCP* by stating that you are trying to exercise the laws that the CCP has passed and are trying to implement measures supported by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, then the authorities become much more limited as to what they can do to you.

If the authorities really thought that the Taishi demonstrations were a threat to the authority of the CCP, they would have lasted for about five minutes and you would have never heard of the village.

As far as newspapers. It is true that they are either state or party-owned. It's also true that this actually gives newspapers some political protection. If a newspaper owned by the Guangdong party branch has no reason not to report on local corruption in Hubei to sell newspapers. Above a certain level, stories get squashed. I doubt that any Chinese newspaper would be able to report on a scandal that happened at the provincial or national level. However, corruption and scandal at the village and township level is fair game.

posted by: Joseph Wang on 10.18.05 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

You know, there are people like me trapped in the past (freedom, democracy, rights? naaah... Cold War remnants...) and people like chinese ruling class, enlightened and projected into the future.
It's so clear. How could anyone doubt it?
Have a good time with your "rational debate". Sorry but I can't help in it.

Thank you, Simon, as usual.



posted by: Enzo on 10.18.05 at 04:28 PM [permalink]

If Taishi is not indicative of the problems with democracy in China, why is Chinadaily responding with a long, very suspect report stating that it is a "A true story about Taishi village incident"? Is it because a foreigner was involved? And yet, despite his involvement the situation received very little outside press. So why would they bother making such a fuss about it in English?

posted by: Shaan on 10.22.05 at 10:49 AM [permalink]

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