My Japanese friends have often said that China has a 5,000 year history of not living up to its potential. When I’ve passed that view along to Westerners, they’ve scoffed, viewing the Chinese juggernaut to be unstoppable.
The Japanese may yet be proven correct. This post at Gristmill points to an article by Christina Larson in Washington Monthly, “The Green Leap Forward,” which reveals an important development: that China’s central government is tolerating grass roots environmental activism as a way of pressuring the provinces to take corrective measures. As the post notes:
Environmental problems are getting so severe that they’re causing serious social unrest. But the central government in Beijing no longer has the ability to tightly enforce environmental rules in the provinces, which have — ironically due to the loosening of economic control — become all but autonomous.
So to bring pressure on regional polluters, the central government is loosening again: this time loosening restrictions on civic activism. That means a robust grassroots environmental movement is now growing in China.
Can the communist government thread this needle? Can they keep the economic expansion going, scale back on pollution, and keep the new civic activism from spilling over into more demands for social freedom? Sound pretty damn tricky.
The historical precedents for China’s program aren’t good. In the latter half of the 18th Century, France was a hotbed of liberal thinking, not just among the lower classes but the elites as well. Even though national prosperity was rising (albeit slowly), the monarchy was bankrupt, and so had to call a session of the Etats General, which represented Frances three estates: nobles, the clergy, and the bourgeoisie and peasantry, to vote new taxes, for the first time in over 150 years.
The session quickly devolved into an argument over the relative voting rights of the three estates (the lower orders had double representation in provincial groups and were particularly aggrieved, since they carried the greatest tax burden). The representatives of the third estate seceded from the Etats General and former a National Assembly, inviting the other two orders to join. When king Louis XVI tried to shut this group down, they decamped to a tennis court and swore an oath of loyalty that they would not disband until they had drafted a constitution. Enough of the clergy and nobles joined to give the group legitimacy.
How is this relevant to China? When an authoritarian regime starts to cede power, as the French monarchy did due to its fiscal predicament, and the Chinese are now due to their need for a countervailing force to rein in rogue provincial governments, it is hard to set new limits.
And the provincial governments are particularly hated. Even in the West, a casual reader of the paper will see gut wrenching stories of abuse of authority, ranging from merely callous to abusive. For every person in the West that has died or been crippled from the use of cheap toxic chemical substitutes, at least a hundred have suffered in China. Readers of Simon Schama’s Citizens may recall that the French Revolution quickly became an orgy of killing, with nobles’ heads on pickets a routine sight, as the peasants exacted their revenge for the abuses, serious and petty, they had suffered at the hands of the aristocrats.
I am running the risk of being corrected by a film buff, but what stuck with me from Bertolucci’s 1900 (having seen it over 25 years ago) is the opening scene: a middle aged couple being chased like animals, panting and terrified, across fields by angry farm hands, then brutally pitchforked and beaten to death. It’s a horrifying sequence. Yet by the end of the movie, after witnessing the senseless and casual brutality of the pair, who are aspiring fascists and farm managers, when the opening scene is repeated, the audience is rooting for the farmers.
If the Chinese central authorities provide an outlet for the considerable anger of the people towards their local rulers, there is no telling what sort of demons will be unleashed.