Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Taiwan's Democracy Runs Deep, Says Chinese Scholar

The second half of a speech given in China on May 9 by Yu Jianrong, Director, Centre for Social Issues, Rural Development Institute, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. His discussion of Taiwan begins in the third paragraph.....note how he uses Taiwan to pessimistically assess China.


Yu Jianrong: Rigid stability: an explanatory framework for China’s social situation (part 2 of 2)

Time: May 9, 2009 Place: Yanshan Auditorium [2nd half of speech, relevant to Taiwan]

Third, we must carry out judicial reform, establish a judicial authority. I've believed that in Chinese society, given its various problems, we opt for petitions as we cannot find a better system to resolve disputes. We often say that the petition system necessarily arose due to judicial unfairness and corruption of the judiciary. So I think the reform of the judicial system is a very important reform now. If China is to resolve the social problems brought about by rigid stability, judicial reform is imperative.

How to change the judicial system? Speaking of the need for judicial checks and balances, who is to be checked and balanced? Use the judicial power to check and balance the grass-roots levels of government. The judicial problems relating to rights of the Chinese people are mainly at the level of lower and intermediate courts. Can we think of a way to take them out of the hands of local governments and officials? Can we first change the grass-roots courts and procuratorates, to the point where at least the personnel, finances and material of county and municipal courts are not under the control of local governments? I think that on the one hand, give authority to local county government, so that it had a certain degree of autonomy; on the other hand, there must be the check and balance of judicial power: when the judiciary can take on social responsibility, acting as the last baseline of society, the incidence of conflict will be much less.

Changing this rigid stable structure, that is, politically reforming it, including reforming the judicial system, is what I’ve been thinking about the past few years. In December 2004 I went to Taiwan to visit make a speech at the National Taiwan University. After giving the talk, I asked them to send a driver, give me a map, send someone to pay the bills, and let me go from Taipei to Tainan map in hand. I asked the Taiwanese people many questions. I asked, what would you do if your officials demolished your house? 99% of the respondents said: impossible, how could he wipe my house out? Because this house is mine. I kept on asking: if it were demolished, what would you do? They said they would report it to the court, the court would sentence them, which would be big trouble for the government. What if the judge was corrupt? I asked. They again replied: impossible. The judges could not be corrupt, because I have a title deed, I have ownership, so the judge cannot make an arbitrary determination. I kept asking, what would you do in case of corruption? Because on the mainland 90% of people believe judges may be corrupt. The people of Taiwan are different, he said, I can go to my Member of Parliament, who would be delighted to look into it immediately, hold a news conference, the judge couldn’t stand up to it. I then asked, what if your member of parliament was corrupt too? He said this was impossible, how could it be? Others may be corrupt, but for MPs it was impossible. If I didn’t believe it, we could just give the MP a phone call. So he took out his mobile phone and called his MP, saying “I’ve found out about something going on here, please get over here right away.” His MP, he said, would come up with something and come over directly. The MP would be delighted and really worked up. Why? He hoped something like this would happen, because once he started looking into it he would be able to gain great amounts of political capital. So if you go to Taiwan, you often see people calling their MPs, who immediately come out, and as soon as they have done an investigation they notify a lot of the media. Next, I asked what if the MP was corrupt? They said that corruption is impossible, he will have to come around to lobby for our votes, if he hasn’t solved my problem, if he is corrupt, he won’t get my vote.

Returning from Taiwan, I summed up a number of the most important characteristics of a harmonious grass-roots level society: Taiwan's grass-roots society is very stable, all expression takes place within a statutory framework. A very important feature of what we call mass incidents, is that they have nature of a non-legal order. My feeling on first visiting Taiwan was not like people say, many Taiwanese people have never met a mainland person, they invite you for dinner, take you to their town. Noticing they hadn’t lock their doors, I said “your door isn’t locked,” “It’s unnecessary,” he said, “No problem, we have a security camera in the house so we can see if anyone is coming.” I thought, “With us over here, if anyone came they’d take the camera as well.” (Laughter). Observing Taiwanese society, I think, first of all, a stable society determines property rights, whereas we are uncertain whether what you is said to be yours is in fact yours, and what is not yours is in fact not. Secondly, a judiciary with authority, when there’s a problem you can go find the judiciary; there is judicial authority in Taiwan but not here -- in the eyes of the people most judges are corrupt. Third, a genuine system of representation, one that relies on votes, and behind which is an open media.

Stable transition from rigid to resilient stability in China must start with these things. Some people ask whether they can be achieved in mainland China. Basically, they can't. Because what we have here is revolutionary legitimacy, reform has no driving force, officials blindly flip-flop [zheteng], there is no consensus in the society. I see that yesterday a magazine printed the talk I gave Japan, and people wrote to me saying that what you speak of so well is not achievable. When I say this my heart is undecided. I’m not sure if it’s achievable, is there another, achievable way? Revolutionary discourse has distanced itself from us, revolution is no longer legitimate.

If it’s revolution you want, you can’t achieve it with the people: when surveying the peasants in Hunan, I asked them, what did they think of what they learned from Mao about starting a peasant association? “Don’t believe them,” they told me, “after those people left it was another group of corrupt officials, you want to start a revolution again, don’t make it yet another fraud.” In recent years I have gone many places and found that people do not agree with the adoption of violent means to break the order. Going online to express your grievances is OK.

Although revolutionary discourse has no legitimacy, the many problems it brought about has caused it to lose momentum. Reform has a lot of problems, to be sure, because reform in China is always led by a particular department, and the choices that are made are always in its own favor. It’s difficult for us to place great hopes in reform, and another big problem is that without sufficient pressure, would a ruling team be willing to release its power? Since Sun Yat-sen copied party rule of the state from the Soviet Union, party and state have been tied together. Political reform involves the distribution of power, can we place hope in the power-holders voluntarily letting go of power? So we can’t see where see the real driving force for reform of the political system is located. The power-holders blindly flip-flop for the sake of self-interest; the elite tell us not to flip-flop, but not to flip-flop is not to reform. On these issues therefore, China can not find the force and motivation for reform.

Another important issue is, the elite having failed to achieve consensus, and the forces of civil society not having been integrated, there is no mode of expression. Frankly, I simply don't know what ultimately is to be done. I know where the road is, but who is going to lead us onto it? Who can lead this nation onto it?

Chinese scholars are of two minds regarding social stability: one is that many people still argue that it’s still stable and we don’t want chaos, once there’s chaos the Chinese nation will take many years to restore order. The other is, chaos—bring it on. While we hope that this country, this nation, this people will not be damaged because of social unrest, we also know how we should reform, but can’t find the force, find a pathway, we feel that there is no power, we feel great difficulty. Although our hearts are full of confusion, we are still looking at the stars, hoping the nation can find a path of stable development. I wonder, what those looking up to the stars today will eventually do for this society? Do to move this society from rigid to resilient stability? My mind is full of doubt.

Moderator: Thank you professor for you brilliant speech. Despite our lack of strength, let's look up at the stars, and press forwards. Now is the time is for free questions.

Question 1: If personnel, finances, and material of county and intermediate courts were not under local government control, couldn’t judicial corruption be a bit better? When would this be possible?

Yu Jianrong: Recently, I discussed this issue with the President and Vice Presidents of the High Court of Yunnan, what should be done in the current case in which China is unable to carry through a democratisation of the party? Because the interests of the people are directly affected by the county and intermediate courts, they are what people have least belief in, hence the people’s lack basic trust in the judiciary. I feel that were the personnel, finances, and material of county level courts controlled by the province, the problem of localization of the judiciary will be overcome, which would help reduce judicial corruption.

Question 2: Thank you for your address.

The reason the rigidity stability you speak of can be carried out in China: the regime is currently in a process of outward tightening and inward relaxation, is this manner of coping what causes rigid stability be practiced in China?

Yu Jianrong: It’s not outward tightening and inward relaxation so much as inability to think of a solution. The greatest problem of rigid stability is rule by division of spoils, they check each other through stability. If you want to stabilize things, then you have to listen to me, otherwise what will you do when the country is destabilised? Nor do the people want instability. But rigid stability doesn’t strive for genuine harmony in the country, or move toward resilient stability. In my view, what this stability was is absence of disorder; even legitimate demonstrations are thought of as unstable, because you may be able to challenge my power. The rigid stability I speak of is in fact mainly a challenge to power itself, rather than fundamental turbulence brought about by the social order. So my view is that it can seek a temporary stability, as to how it will be in the future is for future generations to decide. Deng Xiaoping was very intelligent, he always said that those coming after us are smarter than us, it will be a problem for future generations how things should be then.

Moderator: It’s time we came to an end. We’re very grateful for the professor’s speech: how Chinese society makes a transition from rigid to resilient stability will affect the well-being of every one of us. I feel you are a bit pessimistic, you feel that there is no consensus in this society, I think there is consensus, a most basic one being that everyone wants this nation can avoid the tragic fate of 2 millennia of the cycle of alternating chaos and order. And given such a consensus, we have a lot of room for effort, so we should full of strength, and press onwards.
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Anonymous said...

I think many people fail to assess how Taiwanese have always viewed their political existence in terms of their own political peculiarity, or at least since the time when Austronesian speakers lost most of their power as major political actors. With each successive regime there was an expectation that Taiwan, as an island/frontier/colony/etc... should be regarded as "different" or an "exception".
I think this understanding of particularity helped foster a deeper sense of "shared" governance that translated into the "grassroots" stability that this scholar is seeing.

In China, the Chinese nation has always had trouble mitigating its policy of a strong, political centrality with its past imperial/colonial baggage. China is not, and has never been, the homogenous nation state it often portrays to outsiders. Instead the CCP has spent decades masking the political rifts between regionalism and centralism, but the warlords of old are not too far away.

Carlos said...

It's nice to step back from seeing China in Taiwanese terms (a threat) and just think about it as a large nation still developing its economy and political system. There's no question that accountability would help the credibility of its officials. Looking at Taiwan's democratization, it isn't quick, simple, nor reliable in stopping corruption, but it's better than what they've got now.

There's also the whole issue of the mentality that the CCP tried to impose on the Chinese during the PRC's early years. I don't know enough about it to comment.

But Yu Jianrong must have interviewed Taiwanese people with short memories.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if what we're reading here is part of or a prelude to the movement proposed and abetted by many in China and Taiwan -- that of a federated China (7 federations including Taiwan), and no more central government (either Beijing, Han Tribe, or Emperor), is a solution for damming the flow of the long, bloody river of China's history.

Ben Goren said...

I love the use of 'impossible' in Taiwan which alternately often means "it shouldn't be allowed to happen". However, in the English translation it appears a very definite statement of fact about the possibility of something happening. I think this truncated quote from Sherlock Holmes might be useful for Taiwanese to remember:

"How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?"

Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of the Four ch. 6 (1890) (Doubleday p. 111)

Unknown said...

@Arthur Dent. The trouble with that Sherlock Holmes quote is that knowing something about its author, Conan Doyle, the proverbial irony meter goes off BIG TIME.

My favourite impossible quote is from Alice Through the Looking Glass:

"`I can't believe that!' said Alice.
`Can't you?' the Queen said in a pitying tone. `Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.'
Alice laughed. `There's no use trying,' she said `one can't believe impossible things.'
`I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. `When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast...'"

BTW, that's the White Queen. She'll be really at home in Taiwan!