I have now been living in China for almost 4 month and I’d like to write a little about my impressions so far from personal experience and in talking to the people. As you all know by now, my views on things like the rule of law, human rights and democracy may be quite different from some of yours (see the posts and comments here, here, here, here, here and here for example).
With regard to the rule of law, I see it as the best practical solution for the foreseeable future to secure basic dignity of the vast majority of Chinese citizens despite the ideal of trying to institute society-wide virtue may be a better ultimate solution in the very long-term. I also believe that democracy (at least some versions of democracy) is a good in itself. Many of you have disagreed with these views (though I’m still not completely sure the reasons why) in vigorous debates we have had. The rule of law, which for me, is simply the practice and desire of making law as objective, transparent, reasonable and non biased as possible so as to protect against abuses and misuses by interested parties, has been rejected by some of you but you haven’t supplied any feasible alternatives in its place in any of your criticisms.
However, my experiences in China so far has confirmed my views quite palpably to me. China does need serious reforms. Not only that but the people are very vocal for these kinds of changes. They demand them. Every single person I have spoken with (and I have spoken with quite a lot so far as I have made it my goal to speak with people about what they thought about their country and government) have serious criticisms and grievances of their country. Granted the people I have spoken with may be different from the average Chinese as I am in the Haidian area of Beijing (where the so-called Chinese Silicon Valley is located) where the average person is probably significantly more educated than the average Chinese but I see no reason to believe that their views are that much different than the folks in the rest of China.
There are massive problems with modern Chinese society. The country needs reforms. There is rampant corruption, abuse of power resulting in the poor and regular people’s lives being destroyed, and massive income inequality. I see this everyday and hear people talking about it almost daily. There is essentially little to no rule of law. Whoever has money and connections almost always get their way, the evidence be damned. This is widely known in Chinese society. There is wide-spread poverty and despite the growth and improvements, many people even in the large cities such as Beijing live lives substantially below the standards of living in the US. The property prices have roughly doubled in the last 3 years (due to a housing bubble caused by rich investors buying houses not to rent them out but for profiting on the resale) and many people can hardly afford homes. The environmental problems are serious (but from what I hear improving) and the food safety issues are a constant worry for many Chinese.
From what I hear from people, they demand changes such as instituting further the rule of law and they demand more rights. Granted their concerns are often not what the western media portrays as what China really needs. They receive quite a bit of personal freedoms of expression, for example and that is not quite their concern. I don’t believe there is much concrete difference in this regard with the US nowadays when every criteria of freedom of expression is taken into account. But their quality of life is significantly harmed by a lack of fairness and objectivity in the legal system, a lack of security in financial and health matters, anger over corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency, environmental worries, etc.
Now I do believe that many of these issues are deep, society-wide problems in which the government has done quite a bit to help out so far. It takes the whole society to be truly civil and modern. For example, take the terrible traffic. It’s not that China doesn’t have the right laws regarding traffic. It’s that drivers and pedestrians are very ignorant and that there are not enough resources in terms of civil engineering, traffic police, and competent legal system to curtail the behaviors (disobeying the rules of the road) that cause traffic jams. It’s not that China doesn’t have good laws. Even Chen Guangcheng said that China has very progressive laws in protecting workers and the disabled. It’s that the other aspects of the rule of law that are not in place. Such things as a well-informed population of their rights and willingness to take action necessary for affirming the institutions of law such as bearing witness and so forth, the lack of competently trained lawyers/judges, standarization of legal and police procedures which causes huge problems for society.
As China grows more prosperous and educated, I believe many of these problems will be ameliorated due to those very factors. But I can’t help but think that the government can do more in many of these instances such as train lawyers and judges, enforce the laws, make the system more efficient, more transparent and to educated the public on their rights. In fact, during speeches by China’s new leaders, they acknowledged many of these problems and have promised to institute many of these measures Chinese people demand. It’s not plausible that those who live in the US and travel to China on occasion for vacation only to go back to their homes in the US know more about China than the Chinese people or the Chinese leaders. These are not stupid or western-media-brainwashed people. They are proud Chinese who live and deal with the realities of modern Chinese society everyday. I believe that it’s time to take a serious, sincere look at China for what it is both good and bad. We have all done a great job of defending China when it is needed. But we must never forget that China has many weaknesses and if we are true sinophiles, we must also not blind ourselves to the reality and do what is right for China’s future.