In class two weeks ago we were watching the documentary series China From the Inside when one of my students asked, with some reason, that if there was so much hardship and discontent why does the CCP enjoy such broad support?
It was a good question, and like all good questions it depends on whom you ask and how you phrase the question. A middle-class manager in a multi-national company in Beijing is likely to have a more favorable view of current policies than, say, a farmer living next door to a factory that blatantly ignores environmental regulations while making the products sold by the middle-class manager in Beijing.
This stands to reason. But I think on a more fundamental level there is something which brings the farmer and the yuppie together: the question of what do you fear the most?
In Western Europe and North American our dystopian nightmares, those of science fiction and political thrillers, as well as in our history books, involve tyrants who acquired too much power and used that power to brutalize people. Hitler. Stalin. Darth Vader. (Even) Mao. The United States was founded on a profound paranoia over anything that has a whiff of “tyranny” about it. And in the past few months we have reaped what we have sown with legions of deranged birthers and the “There-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I” club arguing that providing sensible health care to uninsured Americans is just a slippery slope toward Chairman Obama renaming the country “The People’s Republic of Acorn.”
But when I’m asked by Chinese friends about the images on CNN of mass demonstrations with people screaming talking points spoon fed to them by pundits and the Republican Party, I’m inclined to sigh and suggest that this is an acceptable price to pay for free speech. It’s the same sigh I make when I need to explain the United States high crime rate (the price we pay for innocent until proven guilty) or rampant poverty and homelessness in US cities (An unfortunate by-product of a free market system).
And so I try to remind my students that the question to “What do you fear most?” looks very different from the Chinese historical experience, especially that of the last 140 years or so.
From the Chinese perspective, in particular as written in the history textbooks used in PRC schools today, the greatest horrors have not come at the hands of the all-powerful state, but in times when the state was too weak to defend itself and the people. Think of the depredations of the European imperialist powers in the 19th century at the expense of a rapidly weakening Qing Empire. Or the starvation and disasters of the warlord period in the early 20th century, when China was for all intents and purposes Afghanistan on steroids and the ‘central government’ consisted of a parade of military leaders in control of the 10 square blocks around the “Presidential Palace” in Beijing. Even under a period of relative prosperity in the 1930s, Chiang Kai-shek’s control never extended much past a few central provinces in the Yangzi region. Locked in struggle with the CCP, the Nanjing government lacked the political will or wherewithal to build a new society or improve the lives of China’s rural population, and soon that gargantuan task took a back seat to mere survival as the forces of both the KMT and the CCP were overrun by the Japanese onslaught.
Even if we look at the latter half of the 20th century, a period not covered quite so thoroughly in the PRC school curriculum, the personal experience of so many Chinese during the Cultural Revolution serves as fresh reminder as to what happens when the central government abandons order and stability in the name of “idealism.”
Whether you personally agree with this interpretation or not, the salient point is that many Chinese see their history through the lens of chaos/order with the forces of the latter fighting a constant battle against the former.
The arrest of dissidents? Censorship of the press? Corruption in the provinces? Environmental degradation? Few people in China are unaware of these problems, but for many the solutions (liberalizing the political process, loosening state controls on information, strengthening the ability of non-governmental groups to take political action) appear to lead to a slippery slope by which China would fracture and the horrific disasters of the past revisited in the present. As with homelessness or a high crime rate in the US, these problems are seen by many Chinese as unfortunate by-products of a system which keeps that which they fear most at bay.
Viewed from the outside, American anxieties of “socialist” health care plans and Chinese fears of “chaotic” free speech can seem illogical and paranoid. But that’s the funny thing about History. History, at root, is about memory, and how things are remembered, especially traumatic events, is not always a ‘logical’ process, but one in which emotions such as fear (and hope) come into play as well.