John Keane | Carnival China
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Carnival China

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The following remarks were presented at a recent public forum in Sydney to celebrate the launch of Kerry Brown’s Carnival China: The People’s Republic in the era of Hu Jintao; Essays on Politics, Society and Culture. They tackle the issue of how best to understand the confused and confusing political dynamics of contemporary China.

The booming business of China watching and China assessment has produced an assortment of glib orthodoxies, none more potent than the conclusion that the political system of China is ‘authoritarian’. The grip of phrases such as ‘authoritarianism’, ‘authoritarian rule’ and ‘authoritarian capitalism’ arguably stems from their imprecision, hence from their malleability in the hands of a wide range of scholars, journalists, politicians and pundits, all of whom like to portray China as an ‘authoritarian regime’, often to suit their own scholarly and political standpoints.

Consider some well-known examples. The American businessman James McGregor speaks of China as a ‘one-of-a-kind system of authoritarian capitalism that is in danger of terminating itself – and taking the world down with it.’ The Chinese political experiment, he says, resembles a hybrid combination of the so-called Gilded Age and the Robber Baron eras. Surprisingly similar language is used, for quite different purposes, by the darling of the hard Left, the Bolshevik clown Slavoj Žižek, who insists that the virus of ‘authoritarian capitalism is slowly but surely spreading around the globe, nowhere more so than China’. Žižek questions the claim that ‘political democracy’ is ‘the “natural” political accompaniment of capitalism’ by posing a provocative question: ‘What if China’s authoritarian capitalism is not a stop on the road to further democratization, but the end state toward which the rest of the world is headed?’

With less flourish, more than a few Atlantic-region political scientists sing the same refrain. They describe China either as a straightforward case of an ‘authoritarian regime’, or as a strange new form of ‘fragmented authoritarianism’, a polity whose rulers ‘show signs of responsiveness’ to the ‘increasingly diverse demands of Chinese society’, but nonetheless a political system that remains ‘authoritarian’ to its one-party state foundations.

What these contrasting interpretations of China have in common is their deep attachment both to the nebulous notion of authoritarianism and the belief that an ‘authoritarian regime’ is the opposite of ‘democracy’. Some observers tap this presumption for the purpose of welcoming the historic trend towards ‘post-democracy’. Others mobilise the same conviction to warn of the ‘rise of China’, or of the ‘China menace’. Great power theorists are especially concerned with the way rising powers provoke war with established hegemons, such as the United States. They say that the ascent of ‘authoritarian’ China is the defining story of our age; or that its system of ‘market authoritarianism’ confronts the global order with the great new challenge of rekindling ‘the drive among others to acquire and preserve democratic freedoms’.

The claim that ‘authoritarian’ China is fundamentally at odds with American-style ‘democracy’ has a notable pedigree (traceable to a classic essay on the subject by Samuel Huntington), but it’s an unpersuasive platitude. Or so contends the distinguished China specialist and public intellectual Kerry Brown, whose wonderful study of contemporary China is no ordinary book. It is remarkable, in several ways.

Most obviously, it is a ground-breaking interpretation of Chinese politics that openly admits its own biases, along the way strongly encouraging readers to nurture their own sense of wonder about the myriad dramatic and contradictory things that are going on in contemporary China. Brown shows that a common mistake among China analysts is their misplaced narcissism, their misjudged efforts to ‘find bones in an egg’ (jī dàn li tiāo gŭ tou), as the Chinese expression has it, as if China is best judged by their own political standards of American-style ‘liberal democracy’. In matters of China scholarship, he cautions against closed minds, along the way inviting readers to admit uncertainties, to explore their own ignorance, above all to see that contemporary China is no simple or straightforward actuality, but instead a cauldron of contradictions, a kaleidoscope of confusing and conflicting trends. China is a ‘reality’ which ought to make observers feel, in matters of observation, the truth of the common Chinese saying (xiā zi mō xiàng) that in these times all of us rather resemble the blind person sizing up different parts of an elephant that cannot be summarised in simple terms.

Fascinating and pleasurable to read in equal measure, this is a book that was never intended to be a book. Treated as a genre of writing, it’s a fine set of field notes, let’s call them, a political anthropology of contemporary China that represents much more than an alluring chest of treasured observations of the bamboozling ins and outs of social and political trends in contemporary China. Brown shows that China is a state of mind, a way of using words. For him, words really count when analysing Chinese society and politics, just as they do elsewhere. He probes the prevailing language through which Chinese politics is analysed, and shows it to be wanting, badly. Not only does he cast doubt on the prejudice of those commentators and critics who suppose that ‘authoritarian’ China is a standard post-communist polity tottering through a transition towards American-style ‘liberal democracy’, itself the normative standard by which Chinese politics should be adjudged. Brown pushes much further. He shows that China cannot be described, loosely, lazily, unthinkingly, using the term ‘authoritarianism’, to mean a type of regime in which established power supposes it has ‘authority’, an absolute right to assert itself against its actual or potential opponents. Brown’s objection is not that this way of describing things destroys the precious meaning and rich political significance of the root word ‘authority’ (which it does). He instead demonstrates that when used as a synonym for haughty power whose agents suppose their own unquestionable superiority, the term ‘authoritarianism’ wildly underestimates the carnivalesque lives of both the rulers and struggling citizens of China.

Chinese realities are bewildering. Contradictions are found in all leading institutions, at every street corner, in every nook and cranny of its vibrant multi-media scene. China is almost a fictional place, a country where tragedy and comedy come together on the same stage. China is a land where desperately poor and unhappy petitioners risk everything, even disappearance into terrifying black jails, for the sake of their dignity. It is a country where the strong prey on the weak; where a burgeoning middle class opposed to free multi-party elections is willing to stand up and be counted for more accountable and open government; a place where money-making is called socialism, where there are more billionaires, skyscrapers and card-carrying communists than in the rest of the world.

On Brown’s reckoning, China is most definitely not a ‘people’s democracy’, as its officials at all levels like to claim. It is certainly describable as a one-party-dominated political system marked by such well-recorded dysfunctions as vast undisclosed business fiefdoms, violence, censorship, corruption and hypocrisy. Parts of the system function in the totalitarian ways of old, using new methods, in the brutal repression of the Turkic-speaking citizens of Xinjiang, for instance. There are thuggish police tactics; excessive taxes designed to force land grabs; official brutality in crushing rebellions in the countryside. In the cities, there are the dreaded household registrations, enterprise layoffs, the confiscation of retirement pensions, arrests of those who want publicly to remind others that urban skies were once blue, or remember the Party’s past crimes.

China is also a land which sings the praises of the winner of a Nobel Prize for Literature (Mo Yan) and cracks down hard on thousands of free-minded and honest writers; a country that silences rights lawyers and passes an Open Governance Law (in 2008). It is a polity run by governing officials who pride themselves by day on their commitments to the principles of open government, promotion by merit and ‘smart power’ geared to serving ‘the people’, all the while fostering forms of government by moonlight lubricated by binge drinking, delirious sex, conspicuous consumption and rivers of cash.

It is said that money makes the Chinese world go round, yet Brown points out that this is a labyrinthine political system, if system it can be called, in which political patronage and politics broadly defined is very much in command. Party officials know that money grows on the trees of political power. They know equally well the need to parade their political power. They dress and eat differently; as Brown notes, even their body smell is distinctive. They are naturally mindful of their vulnerability, which is why (for instance) vast sums of money are spent on domestic policing and surveillance, much more than on outside military forces. It’s also why, in order to rebuild damaged Party authority, since 1988, across more than 600,000 villages, there have been over a million elections, with some three million Party officials chosen by voters. Brown reminds his readers that Party officials, like snakes after a long winter, have shed their belief in ‘socialism’; and we learn that a permanent tug-of-war between the authorities and those they try to rule is now a chronic feature of a political system that is sometimes so ramshackle, and so experimental, that it cannot accurately be described using any standard category drawn from political theory, or political science.

All things considered, what can be learned from reading this thoughtful, imaginative, illuminating book? Brown’s fine study teaches us that China is not what it seems. He’s sure that speaking of China as an ‘authoritarian regime’ is nonsense, simply because it ignores the ‘immensely complex and disunited’ qualities of a quasi-imperial state that is both riddled with dysfunctions and yet ‘sort of unified, sort of in control of the main levers of the economy’, and of the wider society.

Brown’s observations are especially astute on the subject of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Unlike the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which collapsed like a house of cards in the winds of popular revolution during the period 1989-1991, the CCP has actively recruited members, many of them prominent and powerful figures in the fields of government, business, university and artistic life. The Party seeks to rule through wealth creation and ‘the appearance of consent’. Its leadership treads carefully. It is acutely aware of the dangers of hubris and the need for government based on merit, performance and popular consent. Party leaders know well the Chinese proverb that powerful people fear fame just as pigs fear getting fat. They are well aware (says Brown) that the country grows ‘wealthier but scrappier, less harmonious and less content by the day’. So he points out that China’s dominant political class suffers from chronic anxiety. Its leadership, and plenty of its members, who make up only 7% of the whole population, often seem neurotic, or perhaps proto-democratic, in their constant self-examination, self-justification and relentless attention-seeking. There are times (purchasing overseas property, for instance) when Party members act as if their time is fast running out.

It comes as no surprise that they fear violent unrest, or that they are aware of the fine line that separates cowardice from civic courage. Hence their path-breaking laboratory experiments: their political interest in practices of open and publicly accountable government, such as live-streamed public forums, their calculated toleration of on-line public controversies and their hands-off attitudes to independently-minded ‘public opinion leaders’ (yú lùn ling xiù), figures such as the bad boy blogger Han Han, the young model Gan Lulu and Yao Chen, the award-winning actress with a bold tongue and a huge sina weibo following.

Brown does not probe these latter trends in much detail, or ask whether there is any truth in the claim that China is ‘the advocate and builder of democracy’ with local characteristics, or whether perhaps the Chinese polity, slowly but surely, is becoming a strange simulacrum of the type of locally-defined democratic vision sketched in such documents as the Charter ’08 manifesto. Critics may say as well that Brown’s account of the unfinished carnival of Chinese society and politics suffers from its excessive concentration on the ‘domestic’; that what’s lost is the overriding fact that China, the fabled ‘workshop of the world’, is now vigorously extending its planetary reach, from ‘soft power’ diplomacy and mineral holdings in Africa, to currency markets in the West, to oilfields in the Middle East, to agribusiness in Latin America and Australia, to the factories of East Asia. The objection would be unfair, and not just because he has written about the subject elsewhere, or that in these pages Brown argues forcefully against unthinking alarmism. His smart and discerning study of the carnival called China spotlights the many ways China’s global ambitions are held back by confusions and contradictions at home. Brown shows why China’s rich and powerful rulers are finding it hard to win the world’s love, why China’s global presence is more broad than deep, and why, in other words, China is a ‘partial power’ (David Shambaugh) that still lacks the domestic preconditions befitting a major world power.

More than anything else, Brown wisely teaches us to hold our breath. He knows that China will not escape the cast-iron rule that futures are never predictable. Using finely crafted words, he shows that the shape of things to come is always subject to the quantum principle of uncertainty, to the many not-yet-known causes and causers that shape people’s lives, and their environments. This quantum principle trumps money, power and influence, and that’s why Brown is right to say that when it comes to the future of China everybody – its rich and greedy tai zi dang, its Party officials at all levels, its 1.3 billion citizens and the whole world – are in for some rude surprises.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Image: China Carnival No 1: Tiananmen (2007), by Chen Zhou and Huang Keyi
White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney