Chinese Peasants and Democracy
Written by Alice Poon   
Tuesday, 13 October 2009

I’ve been inspired to write this post by Xujun Eberlein’s (Inside-out China) recent posts titled "Why Didn’t Peasants Riot During China’s Three-Year Famine?"

Eberlein concluded in her blog posts that there were three reasons why peasants didn’t revolt during the three-year famine: the collective poverty (which was fairness in appearance, but not in reality), lack of information and the peasants’ traditional faith (though misguided) in the wisdom of “emperors” (or those in the ruling position).

Chinese peasants’ ability to tolerate great bitterness throughout Chinese history is just ironically tragic. Their helplessness and destitution, instead of inspiring sympathy and compassion in those more privileged and fortunate than they were, who were actually in a position to help rather than worsen their situation, seemed to have brought out a certain malice in precisely those same people. Lack of information was no doubt one crucial factor contributing to peasants’ helplessness. But in many cases, it was either due to the court officials’ (or party officials’) self-serving schemes to deliberately cut off or misrepresent information from the grassroots, or to their cowardice in not daring to tell the unsettling truths to their emperors, that huge man-made disasters happened, which could otherwise have been avoided. Somehow, that kind of human malice has been allowed to persist for thousands of years in China. The righteous few with a heart and a conscience who dared to speak the truth were often brutalized by the malicious majority. One glaring example was Peng Dehuai ???.in the Mao era. The tragic thing is that included in the malicious majority were those keeping silent about atrocious deeds and choosing to side with evil in the name of self-preservation.

I recently watched a TV series about the late Ming dynasty (I just finished the first DVD out of a total of 20). One episode is about how the government policy of turning rice fields into mulberry fields for breeding silk worms became an opportunity for some corrupt court eunuchs and officials to scheme to flood vast tracts of rice fields by breaking the river dams in order to force the farmers out of their lands, so that they could gain possession of those lands. Such events where the powerful and corrupt trampled on helpless peasants were ubiquitous throughout the dynastic times. Then there was the Mao era and the Great Leap Forward. In Eberlein’s post, we learn how Sichuan’s Li Jingquan’s unchecked power (from his crony connection with Deng Xiaoping) and his deliberate misreporting production figures indirectly accelerated the starvation and deaths of millions of Sichuan peasants.

What make up a nation are the people. What make up a government (ideally) are the choicest of the nation’s people. If the leaders and elitists have been able to get away with treating the nation’s destitute class like dirt, century after century, what does that say about the corrupting nature of power and its deleterious effect on society? No amount of resilience and ability to tolerate bitterness on the part of the down-trodden class can match the malice of unchecked power, or the callousness of the privileged. Who will give voice to the voiceless and the aggrieved?

I have often asked myself the question: why have we Chinese still failed to learn lessons from past history and come up with a sensible system with an effective check-and-balance mechanism to regulate the powers of those in ruling positions in all levels of government? Power does corrupt, and absolute power does corrupt absolutely, as this has been proven time and again in world history. In China, evidence of the marriage of money and power is everywhere and endemic corruption and raging rich-poor disparity (especially between urban and rural areas) are the persistent scorn of the citizens and the cause for numerous mass protests. A tightly controlled media and internet is less than helpful in letting the afflicted air their grievances.

Yet, the Chinese leaders seem to know no better than to muzzle discussion about democracy on the internet and in the press. They are so sensitive to the mention of the term “Western democracy” that it is taken as something plain evil that the schemers in the West are trying to spitefully introduce to China to wreck the nation.

If, for a moment, those in power can ignore the semantics and look at democracy from a purely philosophical angle, without obsessing with the specific forms of democratic government or elections that the Western or other countries currently have, then perhaps they can relax a bit and allow a more cogent and constructive dialogue to take place in society with an aim of achieving meaningful reforms to rid current social repressions, inequalities and injustices.

We all know that the democracy as it exists in the United States is verging on dysfunction, especially in terms of noxious economic concentration and the hijacking of Congress by powerful interest groups, as is evident in the massive bank bailout in the financial crisis, but that does not negate the fact that the country is still beholden to liberty values, such as equal employment opportunities, sex equality, racial equality, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of press (to a certain extent). But to my knowledge, nobody has ever said that China should follow the United States’ form of democracy, or that of any other country for that matter.

Taking the word “democracy” all the way back to its Greek origin, it basically denotes “people” and “power”. In political philosophy, democracy has two fundamental principles: equality and freedom, i.e. all people are equal before the law and have equal access to power and all people can enjoy legitimized freedoms and liberties. Some may call these universal values, but they can be more aptly called human values - ones that transcend geographical, political, racial, national, social and communal boundaries. To desire equality and freedom is simply human.

I’m not sure if I understand what exactly “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is, but so long as it can be imbued with basic democratic principles and implemented with sincerity, it would perhaps have a chance to evolve into one viable form of democracy - one that is suited to China’s unique situation. But of course the devil lies in the details of reforming the institutional and political elements, the most urgent being the serious reinforcement of the concept and application of rule of law.

Most democratic forms of government are premised on those two basic principles, with some functioning better than others. It may be fair to say that there is no perfect democracy as it exists on earth and nations who are committed to democracy are ceaselessly finding ways to improve their systems through trial and error. But teething pains in the learning process should not be seen as total failure in achieving the ultimate goals.

I’m sure that in time, China will ultimately find its own form of democratic government that suits her civilization best. Before that happens, open discussion may be helpful in demarcating a likely future path that citizens will be happy to accept. Besides, the Chinese society needs the freedoms desperately for its people to learn to think independently, to unleash their creative potentials, and to achieve greater heights in the cultural, literary, innovative, communication and philosophical arenas, which will truly elevate China’s soft power status on the world stage.