December 12, 2005

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The Rising Body Count

The WTO protesters should have no doubts as to which side of the border they ought to be on. Reports now place the death toll from the riots in Dongzhou village near Shanwei City in Guangdong Province (where local security forces opened fire against demonstrators last week) at 20 people, up from 3 when the Chinese government issued a statement last week Tuesday.

Amnesty International made a statement that the deaths from the riots were the worst inflicted by the government on its own people since Tiananmen, and the first time since that incident that security forces have actually opened fire. Of course we have no way of knowing that - maybe a few of the mine disasters were mis-reported... The area was cordoned off to visitors, and trucks in the vicinity reverted to tried-and-true CCP tactics of blaring PA announcements of "Trust the Government". According to the Taipei Times:

Yesterday, government banners hung at the entrance of Dongzhou said, "Following the law is the responsibility and obligation of the people" and "Don't listen to rumors, don't let yourself be used."
But the fact that the government has detained the commander on the spot for making some bad decisions (he does not need to be formally charged for the next 3 weeks) does show that maybe something has changed since 1989. The Guangzhou Daily reported on the killings as a mistake that was the responsibility of the charged 'Gong An' commander.

The 170 villagers involved in the protests, as our readers will know, are far from alone in making their grievances known the their governments. The Independent of Britain had this interesting factoid:

Official government figures say that 3.76m people took part in at least 74,000 protests in 2004, but many more go unrecorded.
Local Hongkongers should be even more sympathetic when they find out the protests were over a new (highly-polluting) coal-fired power plant blowing smoke in our general direction. The cause of the protests though were not for environmental reasons, but rather because the government had issued compulsory purchase orders for land that the villagers regarded as derisory. Any questions about whether it's the farmers or the city-dwellers that are getting the short end of the stick in China, or why there are so many unregistered migrants in China's urban areas?

posted by HK Dave on 12.12.05 at 01:12 PM in the China politics category.


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"But the fact that the government has detained the commander on the spot for making some bad decisions (he does not need to be formally charged for the next 3 weeks) does show that maybe something has changed since 1989. The Guangzhou Daily reported on the killings as a mistake that was the responsibility of the charged 'Gong An' commander".

I hoped not to read, at least this time, any excuses for a criminal government shooting at its own people again. But clearly and sadly there's always room for excusing a criminal regime. Sorry Dave, but you could spare us that sentence this time.

"Amnesty International made a statement that the deaths from the riots were the worst inflicted by the government on its own people since Tiananmen"

This could be true if we solely consider the deaths caused by known (and I underline known) square shootings. But in China deaths inflicted by the government on its own people include tortures, laogai system, summary executions, farce processes, disappearances and so on...



posted by: Enzo on 12.12.05 at 09:51 PM [permalink]

Dave, of course I'm not calling you an "apologist". I know you aren't. I'm only doubting the opportuneness of your statement in such a context.



posted by: Enzo on 12.13.05 at 12:09 AM [permalink]

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Title: China: Putting Lipstick on the Pig (Tiananmen II)

Excerpt: China’s communist leadership is trying to paint a smiley face over its most recent brutal suppression of dissent. Five days ago, protestors were gunned downed by police in a village not far from Hong Kong. The authorities blame a “few instigators” for the violence, but this event is indicative of growing socio-economic shifts in mainland China; namely the disparity between those profiting from communist experimentation with capitalism, and those left on the sidelines.

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posted by: Steve Jackson on 12.13.05 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

Hi Enzo, I appreciate the clarification. I don't see myself as an apologist for China. I frequently criticize the country.Anyplace that recognizes its power industry as they key to its growth and yet allows over 3,000 miners to die horrible deaths each year in illegal coal mines has something terribly wrong with the status quo.

But I do feel I am justified in pointing out that the incident, which was terrible, did not end in silence and a collective nightmare where everything goes on as before, pretending nothing happened. Such would have been the standard response 15 years ago. Instead, the Chinese authorities detain the commander and say outright that he was wrong to exercise deadly force. They also use a provincial newspaper to condemn the actions of the commander.

Of course, the government, as I point out, is still at pains to go through the motions of a cover up, not allowing journalists in and shouting empty slogans from trucks. But I think there is some difference in how they handled the situation today from the way they would have handled it in the past. It may be politically incorrect, but I do not think it is an inhuman observation.

That being said, there is still a long way to go before the Chinese government can claim to have anything but a terrible human rights record. Life is cheap in China, and has ever been treated as such. Chinese authorities trumpet the human rights of the community rather than of the individual, taking a totally fatalistic view about their own inability or unwillingness to go that extra mile to ensure the safety and well-being of that one marginal individual. Until that attitude changes wholesale, I do not see that Third World tendency toward denial, obfuscation and irresponsibility for the people involved, dissipating when tragedies occur. Let us simply hope that China's wealth and growing middle class will finally force the governments to recognize people and individuals as being as having the same right to life as top cadres and businessmen.

posted by: HK Dave on 12.13.05 at 07:32 AM [permalink]

One should note that in CCP parlance, "instigator" is very mild. They weren't described as "hooligans," "rioters," "criminal elements," or "black hands." Also there was no attempt to make the police look heroic.

Also the tendency to cover up is not a third world tendency. Any government official (or CEO) who *can* cover things up, *will* cover things up whether Chinese or American, Communist or capitalist. It's just human nature. The difference is how much the system will let you get away with covering things up.

The thing about this situation is that given the international press coverage, at this point it is impossible for the Chinese government to totally bury the story, and there are very strong limits to the degree to which the Chinese government can spin the story.

This all makes me wonder if these are improving or not improving. The Financial Times mentioned that it is probably not true that this is the first use of deadly force by police since TAM, just the first one that has massive Western coverage. I've noticed that an awful lot of these incidents happen in Guangdong, which makes me wonder if these sorts of things happen more often in Guangdong, or if it has something to do with the fact that Guangdong is close to Hong Kong.

I have this feeling that if something like this happened in rural Yunnan, that no one would ever have heard of it, and the only real reason that this got a lot of press coverage was because Radio Free Asia had been covering this for the last several months. If the RFA reporter had been in another village, it's likely we would have never heard of this.

posted by: Joseph Wang on 12.13.05 at 10:35 AM [permalink]

Looking at political systems, I've come to the conclusion that with a few exceptions, the people in one government are rarely morally better than people in another. Personally, I don't think that people in the Chinese government are less honest, moral, or prone to cover ups than people in the US government. It's just that the system in the US allows much less leeway to cover things up.

One corrollary of this is that if you put US government officials in a position where they can cover things up, they will behave badly, whereas if you put Chinese officials in a position where they can't cover things up or in which they feel that a cover-up is self-destructive, they will behave well.

One other corrolary is the idea that democratic officials are by their nature more moral than authoritarian officials is rather dangerous.

posted by: Joseph Wang on 12.13.05 at 10:46 AM [permalink]

- Life is cheap in China....

Life is cheap everywhere if those lives are people one doesn't feel any particular connection to.

posted by: Joseph Wang on 12.13.05 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

Joseph, I am sympathetic to your position that culture is far less important than institutions in determining social and individual potential outcomes, and thereby, assuming rational choice, individual behavior. I do think though that in the case of China, it is difficult to separate culture from institutions given the Jurassic-style bureacracy and institutions China has lived with for decades. While polices have changed substantially, the institutional framework in which modern China exists has not, nor has the people of China that have all lived through the same horrific shared experiences of the cultural revolution (resulting in the pendulum swinging the other way towards unbridled capitalism and self-interest).

At what point, for instance, if we make a generalization about an American, due to culture, and what due to the institutions of America? It is hard to separate the two because America has spawned a political culture and an enduring belief in its Constitution that are key components of American identity.

In the same way, I would argue to try to separate the two is simplistic in China. People and the government in China will do what they can get away with (which is a great deal) and so will Americans (which is substantially less). But it is still perfectly valid for me to criticize the government of China for doing something I regard as immoral, because whether a problem is systemic or particular to individuals.

I view the about face in Chinese press coverage of Dongzhou as indicative of the Chinese press realizing they could not get away with dismissing the incident. In that sense, things must have gotten better, even if the intentions and instincts of the press and the government (still more or less the same thing) have not changed.

And let's face it, if a country still lauds Mao even after the millions of people he condemned to death, (among a countless litany of examples) life is cheaper here than most other places.

posted by: HK Dave on 12.13.05 at 04:09 PM [permalink]

Dave, the reality is: a despotic power shoots again against its own people and the world knows it despite regime censorship. We should condemn without hesitations.
If we immediately underline that a local official was arrested without noting that he likely is a scapegoat, it looks like if we were trying to mitigate the responsibility of the despotic power by a convenient but wrong comparison: "look" - we are saying - "how better is the despotic power: it only killed 20 or more people, admitted 3 and arrested someone (to wash its own hands). It's not Tiananmen, we should be happy". Of course it's not Tiananmen but it's a new crime against chinese people. We should condemn it. Stop.



posted by: Enzo on 12.13.05 at 09:41 PM [permalink]

I'm not suggesting that it is wrong to criticize. However, the whole point of the exercise is to change things, and one can't reasonably change things if one doesn't understand the dynamics behind things. The trouble with moral indignation is that it suggests that the solution is to destroy the old system completely and start from scratch. Tried that, it doesn't work.

My experience is that people overemphasize "deep cultural factors" and this leads people to vastly underestimate how much and how quickly things can change (either positively or negatively).

If you put Chinese officials in a position where they have to defend their actions, they will very quickly adapt to stay in power. If you put American officials in a position where they don't, they will very quickly start behaving badly (see US behavior in Iraq).

Also acting from a position of moral superiority also implies that one would make better or more rational decisions if one was in a similar position. I have this sense (and this is from reading about police shootings in other contexts) that had anyone one of us been in the same position as the police commander with the same information and pressures, that anyone of us would have likely given the order to fire. (Which is precisely why the commander has to be dealt with quite harshly.)

The other problem with moral indignation is that it leads one not to question historical mythology. For example, Chinese government has had deep bureaucratic institutions for a much shorter period of time than the United States or Western Europe (pre-1949 governmental institutions stopped at the county level, the CCP is the first Chinese government in over a thousand years to have representatives of the government at the village and township levels.)

My own analysis is that a lot of the tension that has been attributed to deep Chinese historical values isn't. It's due to modern budgeting practices (in particular local governments are bankrupt.)

Also I wouldn't be too harsh on the veneration of Mao. In front of the Texas State Capitol is still a monument to fallen Confederate heros who fought and died to defend an institution that was arguably far worse than anything Mao ever did.

posted by: Joseph Wang on 12.13.05 at 09:58 PM [permalink]

The last sentence is enough to interrupt any serious debate.



posted by: Enzo on 12.13.05 at 11:20 PM [permalink]

-The last sentence is enough to interrupt any serious debate.

Why? No one today would seriously defend chattel slavery, yet there is a version of history has been written that minimizes the involvement of Southern Confederate generals in defending that institution, and focuses on their "heroic characteristics." It's not that different than what has been done to Mao. (Minimize role in CR, maximize role in defending "us" against "them.")

One could try to come up with counterarguments (i.e. the Great Leap Forward was morally worse than the enslavement of African Americans). But the position which compares the official history of Mao with the "Lost Cause/State's Rights" explanation for the US Civil War is appropriate. So it is worth debating.

I should point out that part of the reason I make this analogy is that I don't like Mao, and if were up to me, I'd have his picture generally removed and replaced with Sun Yat-Sen. But I'm willing to tolerate keeping up some old statues so that we aren't constantly refighting the Civil War (either Chinese or American).

Also, I'm more interested in getting things done than condemnation. The trouble with constant condemnation is that it gets to the point of self-righteousness and that gets annoying after a while.

A lot of my experiences come from being around overseas Chinese democracy activists post-Tiananmen. The trouble with taking a hard line "Chinese government is evil" stance is that pretty soon you get to the point that you are labelling as either evil or traitorous anyone that has anything good to say about the Chinese government. Pretty soon that includes just about everyone who doesn't agree 99% with your view of the world, and you end up just talking with yourself.

posted by: Joseph Wang on 12.14.05 at 12:51 AM [permalink]

Joe, I think you are under the mistaken impression that I am some American guy that feels moral outrage at China, and that you feel it necessary to remind me of things that are shameful in the American past or present. This is incorrect, and if you had read my comments more closely you would have figured this out. We both seem to believe that institutions are the most important thing. I would say, though, that you trivialize your own arguments by generalizing about Iraq in terms of American behavior there. You should heed your own words: "Also, I'm more interested in getting things done than condemnation. The trouble with constant condemnation is that it gets to the point of self-righteousness and that gets annoying after a while." If you're suggesting that all *I* do is criticize China, you should look through past pages.

I also don't really see the point of comparing Mao to Jefferson Davis. If we're going back to that point in history, we can compare the Civil War to the Taiping Rebellion (55 million dead). Which one was worse for the non-combatants? No-one today in America defends slavery. But many people in China still believe that the millions Mao sent to their deaths was 'a necessary price.' Which, I really think you have to admit, is a mindset that cheapens the value of life when you can say such a statement.

posted by: HK Dave on 12.14.05 at 08:45 AM [permalink]

HKDave: Part of the problem with forums is that threads get mixed up.

No one I know personally in China is willing to defend the GLF or the CR, nor have I read any intellectual or government official in the PRC who has anything good to say about the GLF or the CR, even as a necessary evil. I have heard Western Maoists do so, but I consider their connection with reality somewhat tenuous. The official PRC version of history is that the GLF and CR were "serious mistakes for which Mao was responsible."

The situation with Mao is whether respect he gets among people I know comes with what he did pre-revolution, and this is where the Confederate heroes analogy comes in. No one seriously defends slavery, but there are many people in the South who publicly admire Robert E. Lee and wave the Confederate flag, because these symbols have been "sanitized" in much the same way Mao has been in China. The state of Texas still celebrates Confederate Heroes Day.

I think Mao was a monster, but I regard his statues and pictures in much the same way I regard the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest (who founded the KKK) that sits in front of the University of Texas main building. It's a relic from an earlier time.

There is a problem with rewriting history though. One problem is that there are remarkably large numbers of Americans who seriously believe that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. The second problem is that pretty much no one in China today is willing to say anything good about the CR and GLF. I do worry about a "neo-Maoist" resurgence once the CR generation passes away in a few decades.

posted by: Joseph Wang on 12.14.05 at 10:00 AM [permalink]

HKDave: If you aren't American, then I apologize for making a rather obscure historical analogy. I wasn't trying to argue that the United States was morally worse than China, but rather that the process of "historical sanitization" that Mao went through isn't really unique to China, and you get it in the American South.

History is always complex, and people in the American South still have very complex attitudes toward the Civil War. One thing that is odd is that in order to deal with the legacy, people put different statues and symbols. The statue of Forrest is near Martin Luther King street, and there's been an interesting habit of putting statues of African-Americans near statues of Confederate heroes as part of a compromise. In Texas, Confederate Heroes Day is the same week as Martin Luther King Day.

posted by: Joseph Wang on 12.14.05 at 10:10 AM [permalink]

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