There were a few consolations that we could find from last week’s election, but not much in the way of actual good news. But there was one piece of election news that I found to be very heartening.
I’ve been referring my readers to maps showing county-by-county election results, and I want to refer them to one more. This is your typical county-by-county election map—except, wait a minute, what country is that?
That’s right, it’s China. This is one of those images that is just plain visually eloquent. I stared at it for about five minutes just in awe at the thought behind it. It seems to hold an even greater fascination for an awful lot of Chinese netizens. (Yes there is a word for this in Chinese: wangmin, literally, “citizen of the Internet.”)
This map was produced by users of Weibo, the Chinese microblogging service. (Basically, Weibo is Chinese for “Twitter,” except that in Chinese, you can say a lot with 140 characters.) The spur for this map is that fact that the decennial announcement of China’s new leadership committee—chosen behind closed doors in a (literally) smoke-filled room—happened to follow closely on the heels of this year’s U.S. election. The comparison inspired some Chinese Weibo users to imagine what it would be like if their leadership transition was more like ours.
China’s Web users have caught election fever—simulated election fever, that is. On the heels of a widely watched US election, and on the cusp of China’s leadership-transition-by-fiat at the 18th Party Congress, commenters on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, have imagined what would happen if the ruling Chinese Communist Party faced off against the Kuomintang (KMT), which in 1949 fled mainland China for Taiwan after losing a bitter civil war. The KMT is currently the ruling party in democratic Taiwan.
Hence the map above, in which the “red states” really are “red,” i.e., Communist. Here’s how it all started.
The “election” began in earnest on November 8 when a popular wit with the handle “Pretending to be in New York” (@假装在纽约) asked what might happen if China had a democratic election. He wrote to his 200,000-plus followers, “If China also had a national election, Zhejiang, Chiang Kai-shek’s birthplace, Fujian, and Taiwan would for sure go deep blue [for the KMT], while other southeast coastal provinces would also be a huge blue heartland; northern, northeast China and other revolutionary bases for the CCP would certainly go red; mid- and south-western China would be the dead-heat swing states. Ready to be phone-banked and canvassed!”
The most interesting part about how this developed is the number of Weibo users who declared that they would vote for the Kuomintang rather than the Communists.
But was Pretending To Be In New York overconfident in calling some districts for the Communist Party? Xiong Peiyun (@熊培云), a scholar and writer, thinks so. Xiong wrote, “[Depicting] the revolutionary bases as red is based on the assumption that they benefited greatly from the [Communist] revolution.”…
One user with the handle “Want to be able to raise a family” (@:宋体 想养得起一个家) wrote, “The revolutionary bases are still poor after so many years. I live in [Henan province in] central China, but there are not even highways at home. Why categorize us as red?”
What a groundswell of counter-revolutionary sentiment! I guess China may not have as many “red states” as you would think.
That is, if they were able to vote, which it doesn’t look like they will be any time soon.
In the lead-up to the transition, outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao gave what one observer calls a “Mao nostalgia speech.”
President Hu Jintao opened the 10-year power handover with a clear warning to modernizers that Beijing will not give up control over the commanding heights of industry and commerce.
In a valedictory state of the nation address after a decade in power—called “Firmly march on the path of Socialism” and delivered beneath a huge hammer and sickle—he insisted that “public ownership is the mainstay of the economic system” and warned that the party must “resolutely not follow Western political systems.”
The language was peppered with anti-reform code words and pointed references to “Mao Zedong Thought,” as well as a warning not to fall into “wicked ways.”…
The underlying message is that there will be no root-and-branch reform of the great behemoths that still dominate the Chinese system and are widely blamed for graft and wasteful over-production.
All of this was reinforced when the membership of the new Politburo Standing Committee, the junta of colorless bureaucrats who rule China, was announced. A few reformists who had been considered front-runners for membership—including Wang Yang, the sponsor of one of China’s few genuine experiments with representative government, in the village of Wukan—were conspicuously missing.
I don’t follow Weibo, but I follow some bloggers and columnists who do follow it and provide translations for us Westerners. And the absence of reformers was noted.
Chinese Internet users hoping for more aggressive political reforms in China or a liberalization of media controls were intensely disappointed. “Out of all the rumored permutations, the worst one has come true. Everyone go have lunch, nothing more to see here,” tweeted a former technology company executive…. One Weibo user wrote, “The two reformers [Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang] both lost out, and the conservatives from [former President] Jiang Zemin’s clique won a decisive victory. Disappointed!”
The promotion of Liu Yunshan, the propaganda chief who oversaw the tightening of media and Internet controls over the last decade, indicated to many that such policies are likely to continue. “The guy from the Ministry of Truth made it? Going to be another lost decade,” tweeted a Weibo user.
I should hasten to add that the sentiment of Weibo users is not necessarily reflective of the sentiments of all Chinese. We have to remember the Arab Spring effect, in which the modern, Internet face of the revolution was dominated by Western-influenced secularists, while the actual political reality, at least in Egypt, is dominated by a great mass of uneducated peasants who vote for whatever party they think is most religious. But in China, without the factor of Islam, my sense is that there is not such a great gulf between the masses and the educated liberals. Most Americans don’t realize this, but a lot of the protesters killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown were not students but workers—the common man who supported the students’ cause.
My sense, observing from the outside, is that China’s Communist Party lost most of its moral authority in the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. It has since used economic liberalization and a looser, authoritarian dictatorship to buy the people’s quiescence. But it has never really been able to buy back its moral credibility, which is why so many Chinese are declaring that in an election, they would vote for Chiang Kai-Shek’s party over Mao’s.
At the very least, it strikes me that there is a big gulf between what the Chinese people are talking about and what their leaders are doing. As in the years leading up to the Arab Spring, this is an inherently unstable situation.—RWT