Several blogs have summarized two of the key findings from the 2008 Pew Global Attitude Survey in China . 1. The Chinese are overwhelmingly satisfied with the direction of their nation, its economy and its government’s handling of issues critical to their lives (often with consensus in the upper 80 percents). The Chinese satisfaction with the state of the nation has improved significantly since the last time they were surveyed a year ago. 2. Compared to their sanguine and optimistic view of the nation, the Chinese are far less satisfied with at least two critical aspects of their personal/individual lives, i.e., their career/financial situations and family lives. Their perception of their personal lives has not improved since the last time they were surveyed.
How would you explain the disparity between the Chinese attitudes toward their country on the one hand and their individual lives on the other? What do you make of it?
The data suggest that the Chinese personal/individual lives have been decoupled from China ‘s national life to a significant degree. The citizens’ personal success and satisfaction in material possessions and social relations are determined by factors that have little to do with the government in particular and the nation’s political/economic situation in general. Chinese personal lives are no longer mobilized and organized in a common cause imposed by the government (with exceptions like the Olympics. But the Olympics affect only Beijing’ers, who are too dumb to mind anyway.) The authorities’ control and constraints on the society have a light footprint with minimal intolerable impact on the citizens’ personal successes. The average Chinese tells the surveyor that “I am poor and lonely but it has nothing to do with the Chinese nation or government”. The Chinese society does little to prevent individuals from achieving their personal goals, and provides the resources that the Chinese can reasonably expect for their personal pursuits.
This picture demonstrates the paramount importance of “stability”. When your environment is stable and predictable, it becomes a constant factor (instead of a bunch of volatile variables). You develop routines and strategies to effectively cope with such an environment, work around the hurdles and contain the impact of the stressors in it. You can effectively navigate and negotiate with the environment.
This decoupling is far from sufficient, with striking exceptions. People still violently blame the system, especially the authorities for their personal misfortunes. The Weng’An riot in Guizhou is a recent example. A teenager’s tragic death is perceived as inflected by official corruption and cruelty, instead of a result of difficult personal development. Although the veracity of people’s perception in this particular case is open to discussions, the fact remains that in many segments of the society the authorities are still viewed as the burden and problem, instead of resources for individuals’ lives. Forceful evacuations and illegal land grabs fall in this category. I hope these salient problems are the exceptions, reflecting uneven development in the various regions of a complex and diverse country, and the flashpoints can be defused by improving the authorities’ compassion and administrative skills.
A question the data have not asked is “what exactly do the Chinese want from their government?” What is the average Chinese’s vision for a good Chinese government? What kind of a deal have the Chinese citizens made with the Chinese society, including its authorities? Although the survey was not designed to answer this question, I think it is interesting. To find out the intended purpose of a deal (a social contract), one needs to look at the deal-breaking condition, the threshold for a relationship breakdown. What is the deal-breaking condition for the relation between the Chinese citizens and the Chinese authorities? I would like to ask the following question if I could conduct a survey. “What would the Chinese government do or fail to do for you to revoke your loyalty and support?” Honest answers to this question should tell us what the Chinese authorities need to keep or start doing to stay in power.
The boundary conditions may very well be one or more of the concerns identified in the Pew questionnaire and confirmed by the Chinese respondents if further exacerbated, such as economic hardship (inflation, 96% of respondents were concerned), rich poor gap, government and business corruption, pollution and etc. The fact that these problems are currently not deal-breaking is probably because their severity is just enough to cause concern, but not enough for panic or hopelessness. These are perceived as “problems we encounter in development and progress”, and can be fixed without systematic changes.
The boundary condition is the tipping point for a phase change where the laws governing a process’s behavior in one phase are switched off, and replaced with laws governing a different phase. The mechanics governing the behavior of H2O change as a function of temperature, with zero degree Celsius as the boundary condition or threshold. Mechanics governing water as a fluid are switched off when the temperature gets below 0 degree C.
I thought about other scenarios as candidates for the boundary/threshold condition that would lead to a system collapse.
1. Taiwan declares independence and CCP does nothing. Would this be a deal-breaker? My personal answer is no. The Chinese can live with that, despite us emotional Fenqings.
2. Taiwan declares independence, CCP goes to war, shedding a large amount of Chinese blood, crippling the economy, but still fails to reign in the “renegade territory”. Would this be a deal-breaker? My answer is yes. The Chinese social fabric and collective resourcefulness are not strong enough to withstand a Taiwan Trauma. Every Chinese should send the Taiwanese people a thank you card for ditching Chen Shuibian in favor of Ma Yingjiu.
3. Another boundary condition for the viability of the Chinese society deserves more elaborate discussion because it has received a lot of attention from the outside (when will China become a democracy?), an abrupt implementation of the one-person-one-vote elections. This procedure will collapse the Chinese system. The CCP will not survive an election, not because the Chinese will have a better alternative to choose. There are no alternatives. The current authorities assimilate and co-opt all the political talents in the Chinese society. They are the cognitive elite and the only game in town. Even David Brooks at NYT knows that. The colorful dissidents do not have the raw intelligence, the academic and practical training, or the integrity to be viable alternatives. The current Chinese authorities will fail in an abruptly introduced democracy/election not because they will be voted out, but because the entire society will disintegrate and breakdown. The old Soviet Union has already done that experiment. Do we need a replication just to test the reliability?
Talking about the Chinese society’s boundary conditions, it would be interesting to look at the United States as a comparison. The American system’s boundary condition is exposed for intimate observation by the threat that terrorist activities can get out of control and destroy the pervasive, dis-embedded trust among the members of the society. This “basic trust” in the random other’s benign intentions is the foundation of modern societies(per Anthony Giddens). The American society will stop functioning in its normal way when many Americans refuse to travel by air because the next passenger cannot be trusted for not being a terrorist intending to kill himself and everyone else, and when many Americans refuse to take packages from the mailman for fear of bombs or anthrax. At this point fear will persuade Americans to turn the society into a “police state”. The current American social institutions are not designed to function as a police state. Dark spiritual/intellectual forces kept latent under normal circumstances will now be activated, and thrive by filling the vacuum, feeding on the fear and hunger for an ideology that helps them make sense of their current situations (justifying the police state). The most potent of all dark forces is America ’s own religious fanaticism, led by the right-wing religious groups. These ideologues will be radicalized and may even join force with the fringe groups exemplified by the Davidians, Jim Jones’ People’s Temple and the religious polygamists like Warren Jeffs. If you cannot trust other humans, you must find a power of a higher order to place your trust. The religious right who now would be content with banning abortion and homosexuality and forcing “intelligent design” into science classes will demand a full theocracy. Dramas like erecting a 10-ton stone tablet bearing the Ten Commandments in a federal court houses (in Alabama?) will become deadly serious. Once this process kicks in, its effect will not be contained within the border of the United States . The entire “free world” will go down with it.
The Chinese-American comparison is interesting in that the processes share the same mechanism. It is not the triggering event (Taiwan Independence, Elections or Terrorism), but the system breakdown due to overload, that will cause the demise of the society in question. In the American example, particular terrorist attacks will never directly overthrow the American way of life. Terrorism becomes fatal to the American way of life when the inconsistencies within the American society become intolerable contradictions and tear the system apart from within. In the Chinese example, elections in themselves will not collapse the society. The fatal blow will come from the underpinning cultural values, traditions, habits, tastes and preferences that are not designed to support that political system.
It is comforting to realize the probability for the boundary/collapse conditions for both China and the United States to materialize is as slim as the likelihood of an ET invasion.