03 March 2018

Watch the west

The news out of China recently has been all about the abolition of term limits for the presidency, thus theoretically allowing Xi Jinping 習近平 to hold power for an unlimited time. The reporting in many English-language news outlets has therefore gloomily (and, frankly, arrogantly) taken on the cast of how ‘we lost China’ again. The term limits question was not the only one addressed this past month. Rural issues have also taken a front seat. China’s leadership is planning to loosen institutional arrangements around land ownership and increase credit flows to farms and small rural businesses. But the response in English-language media, where this has been mentioned, has been likewise dour.

The Chinese state can do a great deal of good in this area if it wants to, though it has to avoid the IMF-prescribed patterns of privatisation and neoliberal ‘reform’. I’ve seen it for myself. When I was working with PlaNet Finance (now Positive Planet) China, I dealt first-hand with the data that showed how successful the Postal Savings Bank of China was in making credit easily available to farmers and to the getihu 個體戶 œconomy. The Postal Savings Bank had a decided edge over the big commercial banks. A state-run organ like the PSBC was demonstrably far less squeamish than the Big Four about sending credit into areas that were considered higher-risk and lower-return. Postal savings banks work – and it’s an initiative that I support here as well.

But that’s somewhat beside the point. The bigger question is: is China ‘backsliding’ on democracy? Or, indeed, was there ever much hope of China becoming democratic? Those of you who follow my blog know that I’m generally rather sceptical of democracy in the first place. And in China’s case, I’ve long held that people ask the wrong questions about democracy. To discuss democracy in a country with China’s history and institutions is inescapably to engage in multiple levels of irony. Insofar as there was ever any hope for freedom and justice in China (a question which is related to, but far from identical with, that of democracy), it’s always come from the interior and never from the cities. If you’re looking to Shanghai or Hong Kong for either one, you’re barking up some very tall, but very wrong, trees.

But is it a hopeless question? It’s ever been only halfway hopeless to begin with. There are two tricks to it. The first is not to consider China ‘ours’ to ‘lose’ in the first place. The second is to look at the grassroots. The old narodnik dream of YC Jimmy Yen 晏陽初 and Liang Shuming 梁漱溟 is still alive and kicking, with people like Wen Tiejun 溫鐵軍 and Wang Hui 汪暉 going out to the countryside and assisting grassroots self-help projects in places like Anren village in Sichuan Province, in ways that deliberately recall the old movements for rural reconstruction. Anren itself seems to be a place to watch, if for no other reason than that the rural reconstruction programme there seems to be far more comprehensive than just the ‘slow food’ initiative.

Does the recent move to give Xi Jinping more time in office change anything? I’m not so naïve as to think it won’t. But Zhongnanhai is not the only or even the most important place in China to watch – and if Zhongnanhai is smart (and they normally are), they’ll be watching elsewhere too. If massive change comes to China, history shows that it will normally come from the countryside.

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