Many China watchers, myself included, tend to think that if it were at all possible to isolate the single largest problem afflicting Chinese politics, it would be the lack of a separation of powers. It seems pretty clear that without some degree of independence in the judiciary, executive, media and legislature, any kind of democratic system would be doomed to failure. Any system without checks and balances is bound to have a high degree of corruption and the public will lack a release valve for their frustrations.
The Chinese Government’s reaction to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, even one year on, is a stark reminder of how seriously the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views this as a threat, but I’ve come to conclude that this isn’t merely because they see it as a threat to their power.
I think a fair proportion of senior CCP members don’t believe it truly exists. Anywhere. When foreign governments talk about the rule of law and independent institutions, I rather suspect many Chinese officials believe this is a ploy to lecture China, as they actually can’t comprehend of a system where those ‘in charge’ can’t make decisions in areas outside their sphere of influence. Naturally, there will be exceptions to this (particularly around Guangdong, where government and media are far more liberal) but at present, they aren’t the ones in charge.
First, lets review the latest in the Liu Xiaobo saga. It’s crucial to remember that Liu was jailed for authoring Charter 08, a petition which asked the government to gradually and peacefully work towards a separation of powers. This (particularly the sections which called for separating the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from the CCP) earned him 11 years in jail and his wife has been under house arrest ever since (despite the fact that she wasn’t charged with anything).
The ramifications are still being felt one year on. Norway is taking China to the WTO over claims that China is imposing import controls on Norwegian salmon, in retaliation for the Nobel Committee’s awarding of the Prize to Liu Xiaobo.
Here’s the thing – it was an independent committee. The Norwegian government had no say over who the Peace Prize committee chose. Yet, the Chinese government remains determined to punish Norway. There are a number of possible reasons, all of which may be true to certain degrees. There are probably Chinese officials who genuinely think that the Norwegian government was somehow complicit in the decision. Some think that pressuring the government will result in the government pressuring the committee (smarter, but still underestimates the resilience of the separation of powers, which tends to be pretty strong in Scandinavia). There are also some who are angry and want to punish Norway whatever way they can, and as always, a significant number who are doing it to demonstrate their nationalist credentials.
This is far from an isolated case. Remember Lai Changxing? He was a Chinese criminal kingpin who went into hiding in Canada. The Chinese government wanted him back and seemed to genuinely think that the Canadian Government had the power to wrest him from the courts and hand him over. Citing comments from Canadian officials, Sinocism quotes a book which said:
“‘They never, never, never got it that we could not force the outcome, right up to Zhu Rongji and the highest levels. It was beyond their comprehension. They just did not believe that we cannot tell our courts what to do.”
It brings to mind a discussion I had with a Chinese friend of mine. It was around the time Obama’s ratings were starting to take a hammering, and I mentioned that there were probably a few news commentators on the Fox network who would be gleefully preparing reports on that. My friend asked quite honestly why Obama didn’t just close down Fox news. I wasn’t quite sure where to begin answering that, but in fairness, she wasn’t somebody who follows the news closely – but I think she does represent a fair sampling of how many ordinary members of the Chinese public think governments – all governments – operate.
It’s common for western commentators to point out how ignorant the West is when it comes to China. What many don’t understand is that the ignorance cuts both ways, and through all classes. One perception in the West is that senior Chinese officials are masters of politics and most are adept at manipulating world politics to their own advantage – the reality tends to be that they are masters of Chinese officialdom – keeping their head down, working their way up through the ranks and building guanxi.
Chinese senior officials rarely have a background that would give them any idea of how foreign political systems work. That may seem like a pretty contentious statement to some, but let me back it up with some statistics.
This fantastic report details the background of the various movers and shakers in Chinese politics. The first section includes information on provincial party chiefs and points out that 76 members of the politburo have had experience in this role, so it’s a good place to start. Page 12 lists the educational backgrounds of the current crop of provincial chiefs – less than 5% have a background in law, in contrast a quarter studied engineering. Granted, a quarter studied ‘politics’ or ‘CCP affairs’ but the report also points out that many of these studied at the central party school and only a few studied overseas. The other largest crop studied management or economics.
All of which, adds up to a cohort of technocrats. Hardly a revelation, but it’s nice to have some concrete numbers to prove it. It’s hard to see where these people might gain an appreciation for the complex relationships between the kinds of independent institutions that operate in most developed countries.
So when Chinese officials hear Western governments or commentators calling for a ‘rule of law’ I rather suspect that A) most don’t know what it means and B) they suspect it’s just a way of diluting the power of the Chinese government.
In some ways B) is correct, but not necessarily in the way these officials think.