Could The Tables Be Turning...?

When I was studying abroad at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China last summer, the urban myth thrown around campus during those hot and smoggy days was that, a couple years ago, a young Japanese businessman had been recently relocated from Japan to Beijing. This young Japanese business man was apparently a very health-conscious man, and so he went on long jogs around the city every single day. Within a year, he had developed cancer and died.

Needless to say, the air in Beijing (nor in the rest of China for that matter) isn’t great.

This is due, in great part, to the proliferation of massive factories and construction in China in the past decade, with little to no environmental regulation.

The common refrain is that this is, again, one of the many failures of China’s one-party authoritarian government system, which is focused on growing the economy at perhaps great cost to society, and the masses have little means of protesting otherwise.

Yet, the summer that I was abroad was also the summer that Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, and the government, ever conscious of its image in the world as always, saw fit to clean up the pollution in the city for incoming athletes and international guests. So what did it do? Perhaps provide incentives for people to carpool? Or impose a carbon tax to motivate factories to reduce their waste?

Of course not – with the authority that the CCP has in China, you go straight to the problem. And with that, the CCP waved its hand, issued a decree, and BAM! All the factories within a certain radius of the city were shut down, and half the cars in the city were taken off the road by allowing cars with license numbers ending in odd and even numbers drive on alternating days. Now this is something the U.S. government could never get away with in a million years, as it breaks just about every foundation of democracy and free-market capitalism that one can think of, but I have to say that I noticed the effect of the decree almost immediately. Suddenly, the sky outside my window was bluer and I could see the mountains, that I previously did not know existed, in the distance for the first time.

Now don’t get me wrong, a blunt decree like that won’t viably/significantly/permanently fix the environmental woes that plague China, but it does emphasize the incredible swiftness and effectiveness with which the Chinese government can enact legislation as needed. I wasn’t the only one who took notice of this advantage that the Chinese government possessed. For example, in the time immediately after the banking crisis, the Chinese government was able to quickly and handily loan money to other countries and pass a domestic multi-billion stimulus package to keep its economy chugging along. Meanwhile a similar stimulus package in the U.S. remained mired in legislation for several crucial months. As for the environment, the Chinese government has now set its sights on becoming a leading developer in solar power and is quickly catching up to the U.S. and Germany (the current world leader) in the field, thanks to the generous government subsidies it has enacted (see this Reuters article for more details).

Now Thomas Friedman, the noted New York Times Op-Ed Columnist and the author of the books The World is Flat, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, and the recent Hot, Flat, and Crowded, has jumped onboard as well in a recent column.

Opinion may be slowly shifting, if not turning around, on the Chinese system of government. While the U.S. won’t turn to a Chinese system of government anytime soon, it is interesting to see that people are now starting to see another side to Chinese government, one that may actually be positive.

-Submitted by Veronica Wang (CAS '11)


  1. The swiftness and effectiveness of one party rule merits no praise. Marveling at this attribute of an authoritarian regime is just the same as finding surprise at the fact that fish can breathe underwater. The goal of any incumbent political party fundamentally is to remain in power. Here in the United States, the Republicans and Democrats spend millions of dollars left and right to place their candidates in office. Once in office our political leaders have to obey the will of the people to remain in power. So it is thus that the old Latin proverb, “Vox populi, vox dei” (“The voice of the people is the voice of God”) manifests itself in our national politics. As we all know, in mainland China the CCP does not have to hold elections in order to stay in power. Rather, the party itself acts as God in mainland China through its godlike exercise of the ruthless powers of the State. Dissidents and any nascent threats to the communist party’s absolute grip on power are expelled or never are heard from again.
    Sure, it is nice that the Chinese Communist Party was concerned about the image of Beijing and promptly eliminated a large amount of pollution for a while, but let’s think about the underlying reasons. Since the spent ideology of communism withered during Mao’s rule, the Chinese Communist Party has since Deng Xiaoping had to rely on nationalism and economic liberalization to stay in power and avoid the total collapse of the mainland Chinese economic system. Just as keeping its host alive is necessary for a parasite’s development, putting on a good show for the world during the Olympics was essential for the CCP to maintain control and legitimize its rule through national pride.
    Mainland China’s exquisitely choreographed opening ceremonies and record number of medals won during the Olympics are probably the glitziest manifestations of direct one party rule but the blackened, human sacrifices for these Olympic achievements are less well known. For instance, hundreds of thousands of Beijing residents were forced to abandon their homes to demolition to pave the way for Olympic construction. Many of these old “hutong” neighborhoods were built seven hundred years ago and existed as living relics of Chinese culture. The mainland Chinese regime swiftly and effectively bulldozed through such neighborhoods and today that past has been eradicated and can never be revived.
    In addition, it is wise bear in mind Lord Acton’s famous remark: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In a one party political system like in mainland China, this statement holds true, as year after year public officials from all levels of government are executed for scandalous crimes. In the United States with our essentially two party system, we have the ability to replace all of our elected public officials for their crimes and the political parties pay for their transgressions every election cycle.
    Despite Thomas Friedman’s lamentations on the gridlocked nature of legislation in Congress, our two party system deserves merit for the fact that differences of opinion can be openly heard and debated in this country. Not everyone supports Mr. Friedman’s political agenda, and the gridlock in Congress reflects this. Questions such as, “should the United States consign its citizens to the inevitable queuing and rationing that result from this health care ‘reform,’” and “should America, the land of enterprise, subject domestic businesses to onerous charges, taxes, and fines accompanying climate legislation,” are too important to be rammed down our throats without open and honest political debate, a virtue that is sadly absent from the political arena in Communist China.

  2. To the anonymous commenter:

    I agree that swiftness and efficiency should not be standards for validating one-party rule. After all, as Prof. DiIulio argues, the cumbersomeness of legislation in the US Congress is a strength which prevents fickle changes from occurring without careful deliberation. However, my sister Jane points out that the analogy to 'fish breathing underwater' is inaccurate. Since not all one-party states are swift or efficient (i.e. North Korea, Cuba), these two attributes are not automatic consequences from the political structure, and should not be accredited to one-party rule alone. Accordingly, your comment reads like a stock, boiler-plate refutation of praise for China. Instead of getting so worked up, we must achieve a more detached, analytical understanding of other countries' histories and political events.

    In general, my sympathies for history and issues of cultural heritage make me sad about any loss of the material past -- indeed, I have often wondered if the inevitable cultural losses caused by rapid industrialization causes anxiety in mainland Chinese, as British literature from the 19th century expresses anxiety about the rapid changes due to industrialization. However, one must be careful not to fetishize the past, as a tourist often does in marveling over ancient relics. Are we better off looking backwards at the past, or focusing our energies and resources on moving forward into the future? I suppose neither must be emphasized at the expense of the other. While I don't know much about the hutongs, the principle that it has been standing for 700 years does not alone validate its continued existence. My sister also points out(which is not my position) that if new things are to be built, they must be built somewhere; otherwise, space will run out.


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