Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

China and its transition imperatives 10: facing and confronting the core, most fundamental challenge 1

Posted in macroeconomics by Timothy Platt on June 20, 2014

This is my tenth installment to a new series on China and its recent Party and government leadership transition, looking back over the past year since that formally and officially took place and to now and China’s current situation, and forward (see Macroeconomics and Business, postings 154 and loosely following for Parts 1-9.)

I wrote in Part 9 of the need for fundamental change in China, and for its government and in its entrenched political systems. I wrote of selecting and following through on smaller changes and in ways that would put a clear, bright public spotlight on more underlying systems that tend more to be taken for granted and that have been unquestionable. And I ended that discussion by noting that the core underlying problem in China, and the source for many if not most of their other societal problems stems from their unquestionable, sacrosanct one Party system with the Communist Party of China ruling all and at all levels.

I wrote at the end of Part 9 that I would at least begin addressing at least one possible approach for confronting the challenges of China’s one true political third rail: its system of one Party rule. And I would begin that by discussing what is simultaneously the greatest fear that China’s leadership holds, and its greatest potential strength if it is to effect necessary change: their fear of widespread and growing public unrest, and not just as isolated discontent from among some single ethnic group as is the case for Uyghur separatists. And this is where cell phones, and increasingly web-ready cell phones, and personal computers and internet access enter this narrative. But I would begin this discussion with the fundamentals, and with an already built-in language of discontent that challenges China’s Communist Party leadership now.

• When Uyghur and other ethnic minorities in China act out in protest of their marginalization, and particularly when they do so in ways that can be seen as threatening and even endangering other citizens of the larger and more general public, they do not represent themselves as a larger, existential threat to overall social order or to the political order in place as a whole. When ethnic separatists lash out in frustration this does not readily, automatically become a rallying cry for supportive action from the ethnic majority Han Chinese or even from within other minority groups.
• China’s Party and government leadership sees these local and intrinsically self-contained and self-limiting rebellions as cause for concern. But their real fear is that the larger ethnic majority population might reach a point of discontent that would prompt widespread and even nationwide calls for change and action too. And this brings me to a point of language, and of widespread awareness of the gulfs of wealth and opportunity that exist in the People’s Republic of China today and that continue to grow there: their Crown Prince Party.
• I have discussed this privileged societal demographic: China’s top 1% and even top 1% of 1%, a number of times in the course of writing this blog. They represent the politically connected inner circle of power and voice, and the children of inner circle families, all tracing their special status back to Mao Zedong’s great revolution, and to the overthrow of the emperors and of Chiang Kai-shek’s noncommunist, nationalist government challenge, at least on the mainland. The term “Crown Prince Party” and the closely related term “Princeling” may have had their origins as designators of membership in other differentially favored groups but they have become widely used as terms for members of the Communist Party’s own elite now.
• Communism came to power in China as a result of challenging and defeating the old imperial order, yet their own people identify members of their Party elite in imperial-insider terms. This is important; these are not western labels. They are endemic Chinese labels, here simply translated into English and precisely so. And this perhaps minor example of how a potential for discontent is woven into the fabric of the Chinese people’s awareness and into their very day-to-day language, is emblematic of a larger underlying source of fear that China’s leaders hold.

From its very beginning, China’s Communist Party has sought to control the conversation – all conversation in China, and by controlling both what is permitted to be said and also how it is said: the basic language used. In Mao’s days this meant training and encouraging children and teenagers to inform on others and even on their own family members if they said or even seemed to think anything that might be disloyal to the monolithic state (see, for example, Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and how young members of the Red Guard were organized, indoctrinated and used.)

In an increasingly online and digitally connected China, this same drive for control moved online too and the result was their Golden Shield Project, also colloquially known as their Great Firewall of China (see, for example, the ongoing discussions of this that I have posted in my series: The China Conundrum and Its Implications for International Cyber-Security, at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time as postings 69 and loosely following for its Parts 1-23.)

Online connectivity and societal use of and mastery of the online context and cyberspace are considered essential if China is to become a leading global power; online connectivity and societal use of and mastery of the online context and cyberspace are considered sources of fundamental threat if used in ways that could lead to organized widespread knowledge of China’s challenges and in ways that would raise doubt about their one Party system and their current leadership as empowered by it.

But increasingly, wherever you go in China you see people with cell phones and with smart phones that are web connected and that have cameras. “Local” cannot stay local when word of it and even direct photographic image of it can and do go online and can go nationally and even globally viral – and particularly when it is a seemingly local that would show corruption or its consequences or otherwise raise concern and doubt that can spread. The Great Firewall is adept at blocking web sites and specific online content. But new ways to bypass that barrier for more widely accessing and connecting into online resources continue to emerge too. Citizen posted content that would not meet the censor’s guidelines keeps going online. It is usually taken down quickly and usually within a few hours but the people of China know to share and post and to follow postings quickly so they know this type of material is going online and then being deleted under government orders. And China is home to some of the largest and most far-reaching internet companies in the world now. Consider, by way of example, the Tencent Holdings Ltd. with its microblogging site Tencent Weibo among other publically connecting and enabling resources, and the increasingly functionally diverse interactive online and web services company Baidu, Inc. And I write this for later live posting, just as the Alibaba Group is about to go public through a Western market launched initial public offering (IPO) that is expected to break all previous records for valuation reached by any newly publically traded company.

• China’s leadership and its Party leadership in particular see their own people as a potentially restless sleeping dragon and one that is increasingly interconnected and united and in ways that are increasingly less possible to centrally control and define.

And this brings me to two central questions that I have been leading up to in this:

• Can China’s current leadership and current system of governance and leadership endure long-term if they do not and cannot adjust and evolve to meet the growing awareness of their citizens?
• And how can they do this if they remain hidebound and hemmed in by the rigid strictures and corrupt inefficiencies of their one Party system as its will is locally, regionally and nationally defined and enforced?

And I finish this posting by going back to its beginning and to the unrest that is building among the Uyghur and I add a variety and range of other, scattered local minorities in China. And I add in those of all ethnic affiliations threated by local environmental danger from industrial and other Party approved and enriching practices that ignore the impact of what is being done on local residents. My point is that China can be seen as a patchwork quilt of local sources of public discontent and concern. And China’s leadership’s greatest concern here is that more and more people will come to see all of this as being connected, and as being facilitated by if not caused by the Communist Party and those who locally run it. The increasingly ubiquitous online and telephonic connectivity that is bringing China’s people together and into the 21st century hold grave potential to do just that too, even as this connectivity is needed if China’s leadership is to see their country become a world leader, fulfilling their own greatest dream.

I will continue this narrative in a next series installment, starting with the conundrum that I have been noting here that China’s Party and governmental leadership face. In that, I will continue my discussion of the potential that public pressure holds for shaping Party and governmental policy and for driving change, and I will also more fully discuss the pressures that a vital and growing private business sector can play in this too. And I will at least offer some speculative thoughts on how this potential for crisis could be used as a lever in framing and arguing a case for enacting real, more fundamental change and even perhaps in their one Party system. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Macroeconomics and Business.

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