The fascinating life of Mr. Yu

Recent Chinese history is full of contradictions, and this interesting New York Times profile of a relatively high-level CCP official illustrates that many Chinese today embody those contradictions because their lives have been so shaped by them:

Mr. Yu grew up in the tumult of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the decade between 1966 and 1976 when concepts like universal rights and free speech were viewed as bourgeois contaminants from the West. Class struggle was the watchword of the day, and Mr. Yu, the son of rice farmers from coastal Zhejiang Province, was anointed the leader of his school’s Red Guard battalion. He was not quite 10 years old.

He recalled terrorizing landlords and merchants during so-called struggle sessions, a wooden revolver tucked into his pants. “I was so small I had to stand on a chair,” he said.

In 1978, two years after the death of Mao, during the gradual return to normalcy and the reopening of schools, he was one of the first of his generation to go to college. “I literally crawled out of the paddies to take the entrance exam,” he said, smiling and shaking his head at the memory.

Mr. Yu was a teacher at Peking University during the spring of 1989, and he said he went to Tiananmen Square several times to look after his students, who were part of the throngs protesting corruption and inflation and demanding democratic reforms. “I was so worried about them,” he said, recalling the denouement — a bloody military crackdown in which hundreds died — as “a regrettable tragedy.”

But he said those events taught him that China must have legal avenues for its citizens to express their disdain for injustice, or their desire for change. “In any nation, when people are demanding reform, this is a sign of prosperity,” he said. “To ignore these demands is to invite instability.”

…after he left Duke [University] to travel across 30 states on a Greyhound bus. He said he saw the chasm between the grotesquely rich and the abjectly poor, the lack of respect for the elderly, and the apathy on Election Day, especially among the “common people” who would seem to be the most invested in political change.

Mr. Yu also had a personal brush with a downside of abundant liberty. He said he was mugged twice, once by a man who put a knife to his back in a public restroom in Indianapolis.

To many outsiders, China seems oppressive. Economically, many Chinese industries today are quite free-wheeling (though others are heavily influenced or controlled by the national and provincial governments). Politically, China’s one-party government is relatively oppressive. But it’s no North Korea. As long as you’re not trying to organize political opposition, you can speak relatively freely. And the media does expose some wrong-doing (though often only after Netizens have spread the news).

Change is slow, but many Mr. Yus have studied in America and Europe and are pushing nudging China’s governments — national, provincial and local — to be more responsive to the people’s needs, even if China’s not adopting multi-party democracy any time soon. To me, responsiveness — doing the people’s will and serving the people’s interests — is more important than democracy.

In America, elections are bought with corporate campaign contributions, and bought-and-paid-for politicians do giant corporations' bidding. In reality, multi-party democracy per se guarantees little in terms of responsive government. A large majority of Americans are mad as heck at Congress and recent presidents. American democracy is broken because it’s not at all responsive to ordinary people’s needs and interests. Though China has serious problems (horrible pollution, child labor, low wages and excessive workweeks, etc.), China has arguably done a far better job in recent decades for its people, whose incomes have risen by double-digits annually for many years, whereas American real incomes have stagnated for decades, aside from the top 10% (who have done extraordinarily well).

Mr. Yu’s emphasis on responsive governance is spot on.

Posted by James on Sunday, July 25, 2010