Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"Look up, Hannah !" - Some thoughts on China and the "Charter 08"

"In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it is written the kingdom of God is within man, not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power. Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill their promise. They never will! Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness ..."

These words were spoken by a little guy, with a funny little mustache, in a German uniform. No, they're not Hitler's words -how could they be ?-, they're Chaplin's, and I was wondering who, among all the people that have ever watched the speech of Chaplin's barber, mistaken for Adenoid Hynkel in "The Great Dictator", could ever oppose democracy again ? It is telling that Chaplin's first "talkie", to which he reluctantly diverted after the era of silent movies that had brought him to fame, ended with one of the strongest anti-fascism and pro-democracy statements ever made.

I thought this excerpt of Chaplin's speech would be a good intro to my contribution to the "Charter 08" debate, that seems to be picking up heat in the blogosphere, more than 2 months after it was released. To be sure: this post will have nothing to with fascism, for it has no place in the current Chinese context, but I thought it important to point out the target of Chaplin's words, since I chose to use them here. It WILL have everything to do with that other, that infinitely more peaceful term, "democracy", that nevertheless always seems to set off a whole lot of triggers just as well.

There is still the ongoing debate -and it will continue for some time to come, no doubt- on how democracy should be understood and whether its' concept is viable at all for China. I am no expert at this kind of political / social issues and questions, but I would like to refer here to a line Israëls' president Shimon Peres used in his now (in)famous speech on the World Economic Forum in Davos, result of which Turkish prime-minister Tayyip Erdogan angrily walked off. Peres said:

"Democracy is not a matter of elections, it is a civilisation".

I may find fault with a lot of what has recently happened in Gaza, but I think this line hit the mark. Of course, democracy does also have to do with elections, but they may not be it's defining factor. When Bush stole the election from Gore, the democratic rules were strictly speaking violated, yet I wouldn't dare to say that the United States were no longer a democratic country. The aura of democracy got more tarnished by the stories coming from Abu Ghraib, the secret prisons from the CIA, the waterboarding techniques, etc ... which in se have nothing to do with elections but are all about the decline of civilised behaviour. This civilised behaviour finds it's purest expression in respect for the other and means, in a democratic context, offering the people a chance to vote for their opinion. Not having elections in this respect is less of an evil than denying people the right to have elections. And this is precisely what I think the "Charter 08" is attacking: not being offered a choice, being denied the basic respect for each opinion.

Now when it comes to China, this "democracy" discussion in the West is often equaled with toppling the government or the CCP, which of course is just as well an expression of lack of respect for a different system because, let's face it, the CCP has come a long way and has figures to prove it: hundred's of millions raised above the poverty level, a literacy level other developping countries can only dream of, a decade of GDP growth over ... well, ok, let's skip that one, I bet everybody is getting tired of hearing that figure repeated over and over again, like a mantra. The problem is, the CCP has constantly been driving a one-way lane, with, admittedly, a lot of success since the open door policy came into vogue, but also developping tunnelsight as it went. Deng Xiaoping's "Let some people get rich first" has probably already far exceeded of what he had in mind with that "some", but it's never been asked if the others that are left out would have agreed to the principle at the outset. China is an authoritarian state, undoubtedly trying to make the best of it's development, but it's always avoiding the question whether there wouldn't be an alternative that comes at a lesser cost to the total of its' people. Alternatives are typically what you arrive at when you allow people to speak their mind. And that is what the "Charter 08" is after, in my opinion.

Last year, I took a company course on "negotiating skills". The first thing we discussed in terms of strategy was how to structure the opening bid and the advise we got was to go with an "extreme offer": try to figure out where you expect competition to position their offer, and then go just beyond it. What I think is happening (making abstraction of the competitive factor) is that "Charter 08" is putting such an extreme offer on the table, in what is clearly a negotiation request to the Chinese government: reaching for the max and expecting to be negotiated down .. a lot. The signatories have gone as far as possible, hoping in first instance to get the government around the table. For all of us who have been watching China from far or from nearby, I suppose no-one thinks it is likely to happen, but anything less radical would not even have caused the ripple on the surface it is at least causing now. On the contrary, anything less high profile (or call it prolific) would have been even more dangerous for those who drafted the document, for not catching the attention from outside that is needed to protect them from being silenced without anyone even noticing it.

It has further been uttered here (in the "Comment"-section) that the Charter misses impact by staying too vague, leaning too much on western-inspired semantics and debating only some high-brow priciples while shying away from any concrete proposals. My take on this is quite different. Under the circumstances "with chinese characteristics", I see it as utterly impossible to come up with any concrete proposals until some sort of legitimacy of any movement putting forward such proposals is at least recognised. "Intruding" in the day-to-day business of the government seems not a viable option to me. What if for instance the Charter had come up with interesting proposals in the field of health care, environment or whatever ? The CCP could never give due credit to any such kind of proposal, as this would reflect badly on them for not coming up themselves with such an idea and it would thus be lost as a possible solution in the future as well, because it would always inevitably be linked to "the wrong party" proposing it. Any movement serious about itself needs a framework of principles, a justification for what it is (or will be) doing and this is what we find in this text.

"...We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine. And remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to associate, to speak and to defend the causes that were, for the moment, unpopular...The actions of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear -- he merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. Good night, and good luck"

Another great speech, from another great movie: reporter Edward R. Murrow (played by David Strathairn) attacking Wisconsin Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy in "Good Night and Good Luck". The drafters and signatories of the "Charter 08" haven't been afraid to write and defend what is unpopular with the Chinese government, who no doubt will mislabel their dissenting voices again as disloyalty, while I am convinced both groups -government and charterists- ultimately share the same goal: make China progress. The difference lies in the means to get there. While the government still favours the authoritarian method and seems not likely to change anytime soon, the Charter says it wants to give the people its' voice back. Now the question arising from that is "Is that what the people want ?". To be honest, I don't see a big basis of support yet and I doubt that China would be served by the kind of major overhaul like is suggested in the text. I do believe in the necessity of the gradual transition to a different system to release all the powers that are present but often hidden in today's China for fear of being labelled "dissent". Virtually all the great men and women in history had to push a few buttons that were not very liked by the ruling class (or clergy), but by allowing them at least to speak their mind, entire societies have greatly benefitted. The "Charter 08", I think, is subscribing itself in that tradition of people and texts that challenge the existing status quo, that look for alternatives and is concerned with the next stage in China's development. "Cassius is right: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves". The Roman empire finally ended because of the evils of self-indulgence and stagnation. China should be happy and proud that the voice of it's intellectuals still makes itself heard, for instance through this text, to keep the country on alert. I don't see any major change will take place because of it, but at least yet another seed has been planted and eventually some time, someone will want to harvest it. By the time when China's leaders will further refuse to associate the "dis-" with "dissent" and "disloyalty" but will rather prefer to integrate it in terms as "discourse" and "discussion", that will be the time when China will no longer just be regarded as an economic miracle, but as a beacon to watch and learn from also on moral grounds on the international scene.

Then the words of the little guy with the funny little moustache, standing in front of that microphone and facing the camera, will resonate again:

"Look up, Hannah ! The soul of man has been given wings and at last he is beginning to fly. (...) Look up, Hannah ! Look up !"

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