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JIA QUINGGUO: China has been undergoing three drastic and fundamental transformations. One is modernization. The other is systemic transformation from a market—from a planned economy to a market economy. The third is the transition of a generation of charismatic leaders to a generation of techno-bureaucrats.
KRISTIN MC HUGH: This week on Common Ground, China’s changing lifestyle.
BATES GILL: I think many Americans don’t really understand the historically unprecedented socioeconomic transformation that’s taking place in this country, China, of 1.2, 1.3 billion people. It’s really on an historical scale.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MC HUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. The People’s Republic of China will celebrate 50 years of Communist rule this October. But day-to-day life in China is not necessarily as structured and repressed as what many in the Western world and the United States believe. In this first part of a two part series, scholars Jia Quingguo and Bates Gill offer their perspectives on the changing landscape in China. Bates Gill is a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. Jia Quingguo is an Associate Dean and Professor for Peking University’s School of International Studies. Professor Jia says rapid economic growth is fueling China’s societal changes.
JIA QUINGGUO: I think China has changed a lot in the past 20 years. China’s economy has grown dramatically, on an average of 9% a year. And this has transformed Chinese life in all spheres. China has, Chinese people have been more prosperous for a long time in their modern history. In the old days I remember in the ‘70s, when a young couple got married what they aspired were three things: the bicycles, sewing machines, and watches. Today, it is quite different. They, most of the families have TV—color TV sets, refrigerators now, and other, you know, electronic items. Now they are, many families have air conditioners and some have their own, have bought their own houses or have flats, and some have, own their cars. Telephone sets have been common in Chinese urban families. So economically the Chinese have never been more affluent in the last, probably 150 years.
And also, socially I think they are freer than before, than any time probably in Chinese history, in terms of expression, you know, individual expression of their views. If you talk to the taxi drivers, you know, they are as liberal as tax drivers in any country. And also, they have the freedom of dispense their free time, unlike in the old days, when, you know, their, the state control extended beyond the eight-hour limit. And politically I think there is also more freedom in terms of expression. The state has also been trying to introduce grass level village elections. In addition to that the state has been trying to introduce the legal system. And on top of that the election of various representative organs, up from the local, up through the national level, has become more—I mean procedural. In other words the procedure has become more and more important. You have more candidates than the actual positions. So, more seriousness in terms of elections, even though they are still of course, heavily influenced by the government.
MC HUGH: Bates Gill.
GILL: I would just underline some of the remarks that Professor Jia has made because I think many Americans don’t really understand the historically unprecedented socioeconomic transformation that’s taking place in this country, China, of 1.2, 1.3 billion people. It’s really on an historical scale. And what is probably most important, I think to understand as Americans of what is happening there, is this notion of choice. In ways unthink—impossible just two decades ago. The typical Chinese individual has a wider range of choice today than he or she has ever had. And I mean this in terms of things like choices of where to live, choices of where to work, choices of travel—to a degree—choices of who to marry, and a range of perhaps, things we accept for granted in the United States but which are important transformational trends in China, as to ordering one’s own life in a way which is just inconceivable a few short years ago.
We have to remember, though, that the Chinese state remains in a position to assert its authority in certain ways, which we would probably as Americans not appreciate. Of course this is the one child policy, for example, which remains perhaps the most dramatic example of the state’s intrusiveness into the personal lives of Chinese citizens. But I think that is often justified really on the basis of practicality, given Chinese population problems, more so than on the basis of some effort by the state to assert its ideological authority. So it’s important for Americans to know that certainly the range of choice isn’t as great as it might be in so-called liberal democracies, but that the trend is fantastic and enormous in its implication. And we shouldn’t lose sight of that.
MC HUGH: Why do you think it is that those of us in the United States are probably not aware of all the changes that have been happening in China?
GILL: Well, China remains an oddly fascinating and yet distant place to most Americans. To understand China requires an enormous devotion of one’s time and resources—intellectual and financial—to try and become a person who is conversant and a little more better understanding of the situation over there. Lacking that, it is the tendency, not just in our country but I’m sure all over the world, and even in China when they look at America—when you lack that broader understanding you tend to fall back on stereotypes and simplistic explanations for situations. And in many respects in the minds of Americans China remains a poor, backward, maybe most importantly, Communist, authoritarian regime. And the impression that’s left is that, you know, China is a kind of last struggling member of the former Communist bloc. I think that’s a false impression. State power today in China is probably weaker than it’s ever been, at least under this particular regime, the Communist regime. And so there is a great amount of change taking place, as we said before, but, you know, these stereotypes remain embedded and all that really can be done I think is to just continue working through various exchanges and various education programs to try to improve our understanding of the situation in China.
MC HUGH: Jia Quingguo, do you agree?
JIA QUINGGUO: Yes, I agree. I think there is a tremendous amount of ignorance on both sides. But of course China is mostly on the receiving end. So China, China often views it being victimized by this ignorance and prejudice, to some extent. And I should add that things have become more complicated by the manipulation of the differences and problems existing in China on the part of the American politicians and some groups. China of course is still in the process of transition, okay, in the process of fundamental transitions. In the process, you know, there are many problems, including human rights problems. But you can look at the problems in, from two angles. One is to see them as problems on the part of progressive change. The other is to see them as problems for, as problems’ sake, for problems’ sake.
And many, many politicians in the US out of their own ideological interests and also material interests, try to take the latter approach when they look at China, when they try to explain to the Americans what is happening in China. So they try to magnify the problems in China while minimize the progress that China is changing. And also the trend, denying the trend of change in China. So that creates a sort of a false impression among the Americans about what is going on in China. As a Chinese I feel very frustrated about what’s going on in China because of the problems. But I feel more frustrated about how the Americans would think about China because of these manipulations. I think in the process of Chinese efforts to overcome these problems, Chinese need American support. But, when you have misconceptions on China this support, you know, is far from desirable. That makes a lot of Chinese feel frustrated.
PORTER: Coming up, more on China’s future from Bates Gill and Jia Quingguo
JIA QUINGGUO: China has moved on. And China has become economically more prosperous, socially more liberal, and politically—in a way—more democratic.
GILL: I think over the coming year or so, year-and-a-half, we should not have high expectations for our two countries to dramatically improve what is currently a rather difficult and tenuous situation.
PORTER: Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
MC HUGH: After the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia several Chinese were out in the streets protesting. In fact, several basically destroyed the embassy in Beijing. And at the same time Western culture has really taken over, especially in urban areas in China, as far food and fashion. Would you consider that a double standard?
JIA QUINGGUO: Well, I think the bombing of the Chinese Embassy, was a sort of a, a fuse to long-term, pent-up frustrations on the part of the Chinese, many Chinese, with regard to, you know, a whole series of attacks and accusations against China. So this misrepresentation of China makes many Chinese feel frustrated. And of course when the Chinese Embassy was bombed many Chinese felt the US was doing this out of a sort of malicious attempt. So emotions prevailed at the time, at least among some young people. So the bombing of the Chinese Embassy provided sort of occasion for the, sort of, outburst of emotions, which has been accumulated over the years. But of course after a while, you know, Chinese began to realize that things might be more complicated. And also, when they look at the US it’s not as, you know, vicious or hostile toward China. The situation is complicated. American politics might be manipulated by some politicians when they, when it is targeted against China. When they reflect upon their life, of course, they began to realize, they realized that, you know, integration of China with the rest of the world, and also developing a healthy relationship with the US is in China’s interest. The bombing of the Chinese Embassy should not be in the way.
MC HUGH: Bates Gill.
GILL: Well, the bombing of the Embassy really served as a kind of microcosm, a kind of crystallization of all that had accumulated over the previous several years, which many Chinese had as problems in the relationship with the United States. The bombing what they signaled as maliciousness. The weakness of China to respond. The unilateralism and random policy of Americans abroad, being disruptive, acting outside of the sanction of the United Nations, etc., etc., all piled up and was crystallized in that single event. And I think that helps explain the real explosion of pent-up frustration, which we saw. Interestingly, I don’t see that there’s necessarily a contradiction between that reaction on the one hand and the sort of, deeply held, sort of admiration, if you will, of many American concepts and ideals on the other. I think it’s an experience we’ve all gone through in our lives at one time or another, when someone whom you respect or look up to or who you wish to try to emulate, for some reason turns on you. And, and in a sense pulls out the rug from underneath you in all that you had hoped to gain in that relationship. And a natural reaction to that thing happening in our lives, of course, is anger and emotion. After which you settle back down again, you recalibrate the relationship as necessary and try to move on.
MC HUGH: The Tiananmen Square ten-year anniversary has come and gone. What has happened to the pro-democracy movement in China in the last ten years, Jia Jing Qua?
JIA QUINGGUO: Well, I think Chinese have become more sophisticated. In 1989 many Chinese intellectuals believed that democracy might provide a sort of panacea to Chinese problems. And this was a very important dynamic for the demonstrations. But after the Tiananmen incident the Chinese began to reflect the consequences, even if the demonstrations prevailed. They became quite scared because to them things would not move toward the better, especially in the light of the, the behavior, subsequent behavior of the so-called “democracy fighters” in the US. They fought more among themselves. And also behaved in a way that, that was no different from a corrupt official in China.
In addition to that, China has developed since then. China has moved on. And China has become economically more prosperous, socially more liberal, and politically—in a way—more democratic. So to most of the Chinese intellectuals they have become more sophisticated. Democracy, on the question of democracy, human rights, they believe that, you know, economic progress and a gradual approach to solve the problems is in China’s best interest. And in the long run it may be also good for China’s democratization and improvement of human rights. So they have, well in a word they have become more sophisticated on this kind of question. That to some extent explained why, you know, the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen incident went on without much of an incident. Of course China still has a lot of problems but China has to devise ways to move on without, you know, a simplistic resort to any panaceas that will solve China’s problems.
MC HUGH: Does this mean that the democracy movement, it’s certainly not dead, but has changed its focus?
GILL: I think the ability of individuals, let’s say individual dissidents, to have their voices heard or to form groups in opposition to the government, they’re virtually crushed in China. It’s extremely difficult today for anyone or any group to act in that way today. If you do you end up in jail. The penalties are very clear. Looking at it from an American’s perspective then, I think to the degree our policy focuses on single dissidents or the degree to which our perception of human rights in China depends upon our images of the lone man standing in front of the tank, or our understandings of certain high profile dissidents and their activities, I think that’s somewhat misguided. Because it has no resonance in China from a sort of socio-cultural perspective. And secondly, from a very practical perspective, it simply won’t be tolerated by the government in China.
Instead, I think it would be wiser for us to devote—while not giving up on dissidents, because I think they do serve an important practical purpose for us in our efforts to improve the human rights situation in China—but that while maintaining some focus there we need to do more to work within the society in China today and encourage these pluralizing trends which are taking place there. Encourage the development of semi-autonomous or even autonomous civic organizations in China who are working in different issue areas, not so sensitive as politics, but for example in the environment and other—women’s health issues, for example—and other less sensitive questions, but which empower groups outside of the state system to have their voices heard in China. We have an unprecedented opportunity to work down that channel and I think we ought to be devoting more resources to it.
MC HUGH: Jia Quingguo, any response?
JIA QUINGGUO: China is in great need of political stability. China has been undergoing three drastic and fundamental transformations. One is modernization. The other is systemic transformation from a market—from a planned economy to a market economy. The third is the transition of a generation of charismatic leaders to a generation of techno-bureaucrats. If you look at these transitions any one of the transitions can bring great social and political turmoil to China. So at this particular juncture, you know, China has three fundamental transformations in hand. Political stability is the prerequisite for progress to China. Only when we have political stability can we move on, can the society, can the economy develop, can the society become more liberal, and can, you know, China become more democratic in the days to come. I think most Chinese people, especially the Chinese intellectuals, support the idea that stability is the priority of the—political stability is the priority of the country. Because that’s the key to our future.
MC HUGH: What would you say is the future of US-Chinese relations? Considering all of the changing environment going on in China?
GILL: I think over the coming year or so, year-and-a-half, we should not have high expectations for our two countries to dramatically improve what is currently a rather difficult and tenuous situation. I think at best we should hope to continue putting out fires as they arise and simply try to stabilize our relationship. There will be some minor breakthroughs. I am confident, for example, that we can reach agreement about accession to the World Trade Organization for China, for example. We’re talking about two fundamentally different societies in many respects. One which is undergoing enormous and rapid change, another which I think is more or less status quo oriented. Looking at the international scene you have, on the one hand a country which dominates the international scene in virtually all realms, versus a country which is trying to find its place and may not always appreciate the dominating role which the other, the United States, plays. We could go down the list. My point is that looking out ahead those who wish to have a stable relationship between the United States and China, which I think is the direction we ought to be heading, those who wish to do that have a lot of very difficult and hard work ahead.
MC HUGH: JIA QUINGGUO
JIA QUINGGUO: As far as I see it, the differences are narrowing in the sense that China has becoming more and more like the US, with its development. So I, in the long run I take an optimistic view, that the two countries can work together. We can cooperate and jointly make the world more prosperous and more democratic. And of course in the intermediate run both countries should try to minimize the differences whereas maximize our overlapping interests. And I firmly believe that cooperation is in the best interest of the two countries rather than confrontation. And our future lies in US-China cooperation, not only for the two countries but also for the region and maybe to some extent for the world in the next century.
MC HUGH: That was Jia Quingguo. He is an Associate Dean and Professor for Peking University’s School of International Studies. We also heard from Bates Gill, a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free. Cassettes cost $5.00. To place an order or to share your thoughts about the program, write to us at: The Stanley Foundation, 209 Iowa Avenue, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Please refer to program No. 9935. To order by credit card you can call us at 319·264·1500.
PORTER: B.J. Leiderman created our theme music. Common Ground is produced and funded by The Stanley Foundation.
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