Political thoughts from China trip

I am conflicted internally about the pros and cons of the so-called totalitarian Chinese political system. At a lunch one day one of my Australian colleagues suggested that totalitarianism has been a historical feature throughout ancient Chinese history, rather than a modern innovation. Indeed unification has been a recurring theme, only interleaved by periods of turmoil and unrest, which have always been considered undesirable for society at large. From a Chinese perspective the undesirability of a fragmented China is more than obvious: warlords engage in military campaigns against each other, with collateral damage of massive casualties and  and cultural and economic disruptions. The question is whether a unified nation-state is always good to its citizens. From historical accounts, that has consistently been the case. The possibility of partial and dishonest historians under the intellectual coercion of ruling emperors always exists, but we have learned many incriminating facts about ruling families throughout the centuries, and if Western schools were to take confucianism seriously, which they do to give the impression of pro-ethnic diversity stance, then they should treat the historians’ account with similar reverence, simply because those were continuations of the Confucian traditions, however self-perpetuating they may look.

One of the most contentious aspects of modern China is its suppression of freedom of press, which the west values highly, as a safeguard against corruption, and other forms of institutional abuse and degradation. China today is not shy about the fact that certain inconvenient facts are suppressed at the state level. The Great Firewall is an example, though the deterrence is not absolute. I’d like to draw some parallels with the early United States democratic history. Back during the founding period, slaves were not allowed to vote individually and yet boost the voting weights of slave-owners in the Southern plantation states. There is little justification aside from the fact that blacks were not recognized as legit humans back then by the prevailing Southern white community. Same goes with certain white indentured servants, Native Americans, women, and non-land-owners in general. In that sense, democracy is not absolute, and did not arise from the ideal of human equality, but through a compromise of self-serving motives. At least on paper this does not sound as great as how one might be taught at school, unless one belongs to the ruling class at the time. The voting is also not universal, but slightly hierarchical, in which general populations had to vote for representatives, who in turn cast votes for the POTUS and other important federal positions. This may be a result of technicality, but unfortunately (from the liberal perspective) the system is highly inert to change. From a conservative point of view, the two-stage voting system helps giving smaller states a comparable voice against large ones, and I would say prevent population from over-concentrating around the mega-cities, a problem China is struggling with today with varying degree of success.

The Chinese system today certainly does not embrace universal vote either, but chooses a rather hierarchical way of promoting leadership, hybridized with some top down successor-cherrypicking process. Because of the ostensibly longer feedback loops, and partial insulation from people’s wills, transparency is potentially compromised, and the prospect of corruption is viewed as higher. Indeed during the anti-corruption campaign spear-headed by Xi as well as earlier, several mega-corruption cases have been uncovered, with personal wealth reaching the 10s of billions, seating some political figureheads squarely on the FORBE’s list. American corruptions are usually of smaller magnitude, at least in terms relative to national income average or other measures of average wealth. Reports of senatorial net worth look paltry in comparison. Arguably, however, the extent of corruption goes beyond mere illicit wealth acquisition. Members of congress are not barred from inside trading, a rule that is meant to prevent conflict of interest, ironically. I do not know how the Chinese statutes stand on this matter. Spiritually, the party leaders should frown upon such capitalistic evil-doings.

In the media-dominated modern era, transparency, which is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy, is largely ensured by the media. That’s why China’s decision to ban certain websites is considered highly incongruent to western values. However, I would argue that juxtaposing American democracy during statutory slavery prior to 1865 and socio-economic slavery thereafter, the decision to ban certain media outlets is not worthy of much criticism. It is unreasonable to ask a 5 year old to reach the mental maturity of an adult by exposing her to pornography; countries also take time to mature to be ready for certain political forms. Cancerous material such as drug advertisement and violent pornography should arguably be outlawed completely. If slavery abolition was insisted during the US founding period, the British would still be ruling the continent, with her unjust taxation. If the Chinese government were to relax its media stronghold, unverifiable figures of governmental atrocities would surely instigate revolt by the under-informed mob, that would disrupt everyday lives of middle class families and free market economy. So peasantry/farming population in modern China played a similar role as slavery in the US, with an important distinction that peasants ascend socio-economic ladders through painful but viable migration waves to the cities, as did my grandparents generation, as well as millions of migrant workers who leave their children behind with grandparents in pursuit of better living. The blacks are struggling with basic civil rights even today, and gerrymandering is virtually a collective consciousness at the state congressional level, at least in North Carolina and possibly a few others. Granted the problem US is trying to solve has its unique challenges, mainly ethnic diversity. The Chinese challenges may be even more noteworthy, namely high population density. China also has ethnic diversity, mainly concentrated near the borders. It would be somewhat inconceivable to let a self-serving democracy run freely in the country and hope for a win-win happy compromise to come out. Anthropology tells us that usually there is only one winner in the end. The preservation of minority genomes is largely a conquerors’ hobby.

As the US confronts the spread of fake news, China’s state censorship seems to claim a rare but decisive victory. The climate denialism had no chance to go mainstream, and superstition driven policies find no home in the statutes. The US is developing its own defense mechanism against these manufactured truths, however it is in no position to counter religions, one of its core founding values. The process is somewhat similar to anti-trust laws, where corporate conglomerates were banned from collusions, despite operating under free market environment. Platforms like facebook and google receive injunctions to internally regulate media content, effectively injecting editorial discretions aligned with political agendas, however unquestionable the motives. Thus one should not be alarmed by the unsettling rise of fake news, but draw analogies with the legislative traditions of the past, and rest assured that the system will heal itself in due time. The Chinese government seems to approach the problem from another end, namely more strict starting point, gradually relaxed towards tolerance of dissension. I don’t think the government will ever tolerate fake news per se, since it is viewed as intrinsically bad, like mosquitos. Thus there is likely no formidable legislative adaption like what the US is going through right now. This does not mean the name fake news would not be mentioned many times in the written laws, but they will be more proactive rather than reactive. The disadvantage is that the system may be less resilient to future attacks of unforeseen kind. But there is always a tradeoff between explore and exploit, and the US path is definitely the more exploratory of the two. In terms of relative advantages, China can easily piggyback on US exploratory findings, and steer away from the failure cases to devote more energy towards key legislative improvements. The key however is not to copy the entire system, but only the end results and reconstruct it through more efficient means. In machine learning parlance, this is called distilled learning, and is known to improve results dramatically.


About aquazorcarson

math PhD at Stanford, studying probability
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