਀㰀䴀䔀吀䄀 渀愀洀攀㴀䜀䔀一䔀刀䄀吀伀刀 挀漀渀琀攀渀琀㴀∀䴀匀䠀吀䴀䰀 㠀⸀  ⸀㘀  ㄀⸀㄀㤀 ㄀㤀∀㸀㰀⼀䠀䔀䄀䐀㸀 More than just a load of hoopla
By Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - United States Vice President Joe Biden's visit broke new ground with his Chinese counterparts, but an unexpected brawl in Beijing between American and Chinese basketball teams is, with hindsight, perhaps most useful to all parties. For the first time it clearly illustrates the many and growing cracks in a system that superficially is considered a monolithic dictatorship.

Biden managed to gain China's leadership's strong support for the US economy. His direct host, Vice President Xi Jinping, said it was "highly resilient and with strong capacity for self improvement ... We believe that the US economy will achieve even better development as it rises to challenges."

Premier Wen Jiabao underscored the message, arguing that China had "full confidence that the US will overcome its difficulties", and he went on, "You [Biden] have sent a very clear message to the Chinese public that the US will keep its word and obligations with regard to its government debts. It will preserve the safety, liquidity, and value of US treasuries. I'm sure we'll give a boost to the investors' confidence in the US economy."

Furthermore, Biden pledged he would push for more Chinese direct investment in America, a measure that would increase both reciprocal commitment to each other's well being and confidence overall in both countries' economies and political systems.

However, this atmosphere was ruined by a totally unexpected brawl on a Beijing basketball court. It is impossible to think, as some observers had suggested, that the Chinese Ba Yi ("August 1", a military team) planned the brawl at the behest of the top leadership to scuttle the visit. To ruin the occasion, it would have been enough if the leaders had just been more lukewarm in their assessment of the US economy. The brawl was caused by the bullying culture of the Chinese team.

Yet, during the match, nobody on the team or on the court saw fit to rein in the Chinese players by reminding them that the ultimate goal of the game was not to win it but to establish amicable relations and send a friendly message to the audience both in China and in the US.

This fact, this lack of control over the players, proves that the issue we detailed some months ago (see Too many cooks spoil foreign-policy stew Asia Times Online, January 7, 2011) is widespread and pervasive. It is the breaking down of China's monolithic system - it doesn't limit itself to the interests of the many ministries, departments or provinces comprising the state system.

It moves down to single offices and single people, who are experiencing a degree of freedom from their bureaucratic leaders that creates an environment verging on irresponsibility and anarchy.

The soldiers representing China in the game were not thinking of China's overall goals in the game, transcending their own little particular interest in scoring a point or two. They totally forgot that they were not there to win or lose a game - or rather, they were there to lose or win a game only in so far as it improved China's overall image in China, the US, and the world.

Losing sight of the right alignment of one's self-interest in relation to the interest of the state and of the world and stressing one's own interest over the interest of the state and the world seems to be the root cause of China's modern-style anarchy and irresponsibility.

This behavior has good and sound historical origins. It originates from a time when individual rights and interests were totally suppressed in the name of abstract ideological interest. The rebellion from that abstract and false value system is right, but it cannot be translated into forgetting completely the interest of the state and the world to seek just one's own private benefit.

In fact, this is the ethical and moral problem in China now: one person interpreting on his or her own what is and should be in China's overall interest can actually spoil the fundamental well-being of the country and even of that person.

In a way, every Chinese person feels like a small emperor on his own about issues that do not open a political contrast with the ruling party. It is a degree of freedom with little precedence in China, where people are freer from the intervention of the state, of Maoist times, and also from the old fetters of patriarchal society and family, of imperial times. It is something that, within limits, could be beneficial because it promotes entrepreneurship and the effort to strive and push forward. In that way, this belief can be - and it is - at the root of the current Chinese economic development.

However, not every Chinese person should believe he embodies the broader Chinese interest and that all Chinese people should follow him. Every Chinese person embodies just himself, and this should be clear, from his point of view and from the State's. The difficulties in this interpretation of one's own role in the system - ie, how a person interprets himself or interprets the country - stem from the dissolution of both the Imperial and Maoist state and value system, the absence of a new, entrenched value system.

But it has also to do with the lack of concentration of power at the top, which in turn derives from an issue of representation and legitimacy of China's top leadership.

Why does the municipal, provincial, or state leader have a post that millions of others don't? This question is de facto not answered in the Chinese system, and therefore undermines all authority, which then has to be exercised ultimately by force or by the consensus granted by mere immediate economic success - which in this way is conceived almost as a form of bribery: give me support now and I give you money now.

Then, Chinese leaders, in order to bolster and enhance their authority, need to enhance their legitimacy. This is, in turn, has been achieved historically only by three means. The first is a war, conquering power by force, invasion, or revolution - it doesn't make a difference which. The other is hereditary succession the third is some form of election, a selection process now commonly defined as "democratic". To buttress its power the Communist Party has to choose between those three or a mix of them.

It is impossible to think that the party will wage a new war to reclaim the power it does hold. To wage a new war would be tantamount to denying its present hold on power; it would be self-defeating and therefore impossible. The deaths of Mao Zedong's sons and the structure of the present bureaucratic system make it impossible to claim rule by hereditary lines. To do this, the party would have to openly claim that the road to succession in leadership is based on bloodlines, something that it is unwilling to do and would be very difficult to justify in contemporary China.

The other way is through some form of democratic election rules. Presently, the selection of leaders is conducted through a mix of evaluation by top leaders and lower cadres. It is very cumbersome, very murky, and subject to continuing revisions over the past 20 years.

Those revisions prove by themselves that the method is not stable and needs great corrections. Structures of elections historically have many differences. Even the system of election of the pope, the most ancient Western institution, can be regarded as democratic: a selected number of electors are convened in a secret meeting, and they freely elect their leader, the pope.

Other democracies work in different ways. The American democracy, arguably one of the most ancient of the modern times, has an election process that lasts, in practice, at least two years, selecting candidates through a process of primary elections. Other democracies have different institutions calling for popular elections from a selected number of candidates with a limited campaign lasting a few weeks.

In whatever form, the election guarantees legitimacy to the leader, and even people who lose the elections are called on to be responsible and accept the outcome of the elections by pledging allegiance and fealty to the elected leader. The defeated cardinal or the defeated presidential candidate, as his first act, admits his loss and pledges loyalty to the newly elected leader publicly.

These customs nip in the bud any possibility of widespread undermining of the leadership. The defeated party cannot stage a revolution to protest the rout, and it can only bide its time for a rematch in the next election. In the meantime, this system allows for forms of loyal opposition to the government action. It offers an opportunity to vent popular grievances and help government actions by underscoring challenges, which leaders in power may underestimate.

None of this occurs in China, where leadership and political actions are muddled and confused. This in turn creates a political space where a single soldier can feel the duty to interpret in his own terms the ultimate goal of China, and he may think that this goal requires kicking an American student lying on the ground.

China, in other words, needs a systemic reform to rein in that soldier so that if he were to misbehave in a basketball court or anywhere, it would be clear that this constitutes a private act of insubordination. If this does not occur the Chinese government is de facto held hostage by any given official or even any Chinese citizen who can single handedly undermine whatever policy is decided above.

Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be reached at fsisci@gmail.com