Monday, October 31, 2011

Chinese Constitutionalism, Text and Meta-Text: Part 3

It is possible on a long walk to draw out complexity and juxtapositions. In some spots, the architecture and organization of a physical space—in the form of city, roads, buildings, people flows and the like—cam serve as a concrete expression of the social, cultural and political organization of the inhabitants. 
(From  Kenneth Tse, Shanghai Mapping - What is this map about?, Mapping Urban Infrastructure, Feb. 17, 2008 ("I found this ‘mapping’ of Shanghai without detailed description and legend. What do you think about the content of this satellite photo with different colour coding? I can hardly related it to anything, is it density? have no idea at all. But it seems interesting to have a guess."))

This is, of course, well known, from the symbolic expression in religious and funerary architecture in China and Europe to the social and political assumptions in the laying out of cities, from open cities in early Imperial Rome organized by function in a world that did not fear invasion, to the in ward looking and protective mazes that characterized medieval town in Europe designed to discourage the stranger. Such is the journey through Shanghai that took me from People’s Square on the Nanjing Road to the Bund and the statue of Chen Yi, then down to the old town and the Yu Gardens, Huxinting Teahouse and the rockery gardens, and from there to the Pudong and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower with its museum of the history of Shanghai to draw.

This walk provided concrete, if symbolic, markers of the realities and boundaries within which China develops both physically and intangibly. These complexities and juxtapositions could be summed up in two expressions that provide the parallel conceptual foundations between political/cultural and physical realities that are Shanghai, and the shape of the path to which the country is now committed in both senses. These markers are nicely mapped in two currently popular expressions:

The first:
To fight against corruption will kill the Party
Not to fight against corruption will kill the country.

At first glance, this expression suggests a fatal tension between the state and the Party in a State-Party system. An easy read would understand the Party as inherently corrupt, and the need to fight against corruption is really a means of fighting against the Party and the State-Party system. It also suggests that the interests of the Party are in opposition to those of the people. And the second part of the phrase looks to the effects of corruption as a cancer that will eventually destroy the prosperity and growth that has marked the opening up of China since the late 1970s. This idea, of corruption as a cancer that if uncontrolled can kill the country is echoed in other Asian states, for example Thailand:
“’I agree with many people who say that fighting corruption is not easy and could possibly end up being a waste of time,’ said Mr Dusit at the forum entitled "Against Corruption: Thailand's Turning Point", which was co-hosted by the TCC. ‘But we have to get started instead of doing nothing and letting corruption grow like a cancer that will eventually kill the country,’ he said.” Businesses demand war against graft: It's a cancer that will kill the nation, they say, Bangkok Post, 2-6-2011. Available at
So at the simplest level, the expression suggests sentiments and fears common to Asia—corruption will destroy prosperity and the legitimacy of the governance system. The legitimacy of the Party as a vanguard force is dependent on its ability to protect the state but it suffers from the same disease—corruption will kill both State and Party. Taken at face value this suggests something that can be understood as quite subversive; not merely critique but warning.

But there is ambiguity here as well, and also something substantially less subversive that is worth exploring. “To fight against corruption is to kill the Party” suggests an odd perspective. It implies that the fight against corruption comes from outside; it is not written from the perspective of the people and suggests destruction if the Party fails to police itself. If the Party is incapable of fighting corruption, and if others will have to do it, then the Party dies. The criticism is thus now quite different—the Party has an obligation to retain its role as a vanguard organ. That is impossible if it is not capable of disciplining itself. Now we have a very different meaning—a vanguard Party is obliged to serve both as example and to undertake a vanguard role especially in matters of Party discipline. To fail to do so is to betray the fundamental legitimizing role that the Party has been vested both by its revolutionary position and the terms of the state Constitution. “To fight against corruption is to kill the Party” now becomes “To fail to fight against corruption will kill the Party.” That reading now casts the second line in new light. The betrayal of the Party’s leadership role, as applied to corruption, will constitute a fundamental betrayal of the people and lead to the ruin of the country. Yet at the level of the administrative apparatus, the failure to fight corruption becomes matter for both Party and state officials. When the Party fails in its vanguard role, the State will come to ruin. Now the expression assumes a far less threatening meaning, but retains its powerful and warning critique. The Party that fails to uphold its own principles is a danger to itself and the State.

Now consider the second, and parallel expression:
To reform is to seek death
Not to reform is to expect death

The insights of the second also suggest both ambiguity and risk. The straightforward reading suggest conundrum—failure is the outcome of either reform or the status quo. The fundamental ordering is fatally afflicted; one could wait for failure or one could busy oneself with alternatives that also lead in the same direction. Frenetic energy and the appearance of activity hides systemic failure. This isn’t merely a case of “too little too late” but a more fundamental “never enough.” The yang principle here suggests both the destructive and constructive potential of the active principle.

Yet this simple reading, especially appealing to those who would see the system overthrown and replaced with something different, also hides the more positive message contained inside its walls. “To seek reform is to seek death” suggests failure, but not the inevitability of failure. One can seek death and find something else. To seek death is not to find it; and in the seeking something else might be possible. Hope is small but visible through the cracks. On the other hand, a determination to do nothing is to expect death. There is no other outcome possible.

Consider the recent debate about extent to which the state ought to open the Internet to a greater range of expression in the light of this insight. Reform is dangerous—it can lead to the sport of speech that supports action, which, if directed against the state, poses a great risk to order and stability. Death. But informal reform can also have another effect: First, it can provide a powerful method for monitoring and intelligence gathering on the activities and complaints against local officials (and thus in tandem with Shuangui provide a means of combatting corruption and disciplining cadres). Second, it provides State and Party officials with a window on popular sentiment to which both can respond. Third, it provides a way to manage the expression of popular sentiment in an way that contains such sentiment to the abstract plain of the Internet rather than to the concrete plain of the streets. Letting people blow off steam is useful when managed correctly.

Loosening control informally effectively creates reform without formal pronouncement. Informal reform provides a way to avoid death. But that avoidance, in turn, is only temporary. When people begin to believe that this approach is not enough, then the process begins anew, and the choice is presented again. In a political culture where the state claims a current perfection of governance, such a cycle can be fatal to the legitimacy of the state apparatus and its political leaders. But where the state pulls back and suggests an architecture for perfection—not the perfect space but the road to that space, it might be possible to avoid death again. States, and vanguard elements that understand this can be more likely to avoid death, and they certainly can more consciously manage the process of choice.

Together these provide a great window into the foundations of, and the constraints within which, much of some important strains of the intellectual discourse in China is now developing. Read together, these provide similar but distinct visions of the same issue—fear that the great forward moving enterprise that is China will falter. But they also suggest the close connection between Party, State and the welfare of the people that remains at the core of the Chinese approach to governance. Legitimacy, leadership and the welfare of the people then serve as the grounding lens through which the specific construction of the administrative and political components of the nation are understood and judged. This does not suggest the view that the State Party system must give way to something else, perhaps something more to Western tastes. But it does suggest the close tie between the vanguard role fo political leadership in the Party and the basis of the legitimacy of that position in relation to the state administrative (governmental) apparatus and the principal function of leadership focused not on the state apparatus itself but on the welfare of the people. This is the sort of basic constitutionalism that can be understood everywhere.
 (From Satellite Monitoring of Urbanization in China for Sustainable Development: The Dragon ‘Urbanization’ Project, Earthzine, Sept 27, 2011 ("Figure 8: Left: HJ-1B multi-spectralSVM Classification Results in Shanghai; Right: LST in Shanghai.")


Joel said...

Thank you for these wonderful essays on your recent trip. Keep them coming!

Anonymous said...

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