Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Perceiving China – East and West 5

Posted in in the News, macroeconomics by Timothy Platt on June 6, 2012

This is my fifth installment in a series in which I discuss China as that country is perceived, and both from within and by the outside world (see Macroeconomics and Business, postings 78, 80, 82 and 85 for Postings 1-4.) And I begin this by repeating a question that I posed at the end of Part 4:

• Will Bo Xilai and his group be treated as an exception and as a rogue group, or as more symptomatic of a widespread problem, and if the later what lessons will be learned and by whom, and what fundamental changes will be enacted to limit if not prevent a recurrence?

China has a track record of changing and of seeking to control the historical record, and a penchant for seeking to define and redefine the historical reality that its Here and Now are based upon, and that will form its future. When Mao Zedong and his revolutionary forces marched into Beijing and into power, Mao orchestrated a rewriting of the history leading up to his taking leadership of China. And the boundaries between history and myth blurred for the Long March and for so much else, and for both the triumphant and for those defeated.

When Deng Xiaoping and the voices of change he led challenged areas of Mao’s legacy through actions such as the Gang of Four trials with all of the public repudiations and recriminations they generated, once again a big part of this developed as the closing out of what had been considered historical truth. Voices were silenced. What had previously been assumed and known went away into the oblivion of a past that had now officially never happened.

This certainly happened after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and the massacre that ended them. To this day and regardless of photographic and other evidence to the contrary, those events never happened. This pattern has been followed many times and for both large and far-reaching, and small and far more locally forgettable news and historical narratives.

When Bo Xilai first fell into disgrace a campaign began to remove his story and much of his record, leaving a simple and even simplistic stereotype of corruption and guilt.

• That means organized, systematic amnesia as to his gang trials and all of his anti-corruption efforts and initiatives and even where they sought to achieve societal good – especially then.
• Bo actively sought to promote state owned business and industry, and of a type that many in power in the Politburo and its Standing Committee still strongly favor.
• Bo actively promoted foreign investment, and bringing technology and knowledge-rich foreign businesses into China and under terms in which Chinese enterprises and workers could gain in skills, knowledge and productive capabilities. He in fact led a significant number of these technology and knowledge transfer initiatives that have enriched the Chongqing that he led.

Much if not all of that is simply disappearing from the conversation and from the official records and all that is reliably left is his own corruptibility and his own corruption, and that of his family and of his key supporters and enablers – with one category of exceptions to that. Members of China’s national level Politburo and its Standing Committee who were supporting and advancing Bo and his career up until his downfall have been deleted from this story as ever having played a supportive role for him of any sort. This definitely includes members of China’s current leadership who had supported Bo’s advancement towards a spot on the Standing Committee and into China’s most senior Party and Government leadership. Now, that never happened and any public at least, record of it has for the most part evaporated and certainly within China.

I argue the case that even effective and honest leaders can make mistakes and that people can be deceived and into supporting those they come to see as having not been worthy. So even if members of the Standing Committee and more senior and influential leaders of Party and Government had supported him – it happened and that needs to be remembered and learned from.

• If the embarrassing details of history and of the historical record are simply made to go away, what can be learned from them to limit their recurrence?
• What can be learned as to what their root causes and enablers were?

Bo’s senior Party and Government backers came to regret their support of him and for many reasons. Embarrassment and even deeply held personal embarrassment have to be considered to occupy the heart of that. And what lessons were buried with this story and with this history? There are many but I will only note one of them here.

Ideological nepotism and the advancement of those who hew to and support the one party line as an only criterion for advancement, can only lead to mediocrity and short-sightedness at the top – and to the corruption that would support them and that in fact feeds off of them too. Acknowledging Bo Xilai and his full story, positive as well as negative, and how he advanced to the positions he held could only serve to challenge the one Party state – free of any of the checks and balances that a more openly and publically contentious and challenging political system would bring.

Political and business-centered corruption can always take place and even in highly politically contested and competitive settings. But open eyes and the capacity for long memories and for a diversity of facts, opinions and perspectives does expose the corrupt and their activities. And this does at least create opportunity for actually learning from them.

Party and Government in Chongqing operated a maze of bribe-based and supported bureaucratic systems and if anyone, Chinese or foreigner wanted to accomplish anything in Chongqing, they needed to find and pay off the right people who would then open the necessary doors and fill out the necessary forms. Bo may be gone but this only means a new set of enablers and gatekeepers have to be found and paid – and according to the same pattern that has been in place since well before Mao. What has been learned? What is being learned? What can be learned when the lessons of history are buried and made to go away, along with all of the troubling details that they would be expressed and understood through?

I am going to turn in my next series installment to consider the still upcoming changes in leadership that China will be enacting later this year, 2012 and into the next. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Macroeconomics and Business and also see Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time.

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