Tuesday, 18 January 2011

"The great leap backward"; thoughts on Bo Xilai

I thought I'd posted this letter to the South China Morning Post on 25th November, but find on housekeeping, that I'd not, so here it is, for the record:

David Elmer decries Bo Xilai’s “latest wheeze”, the suggestion that college students spend some of their time on placements with farmers, factory workers and the PLA. (The great leap backward, Nov 25, copied below*).  This is, he says, “grimly reminiscent of the 1970s, when educated and urban youth were ‘sent down’ to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.”As one of the few foreigners in China in the 1970s who was part of a similar program, let me offer some perspective.  I was at the Peking Languages Institute in 1976-77 and part of the course involved “open door schooling (kai men ban xue 開門辦學), in our case with stints on a People’s Commune outside Peking.  That was also the year of the Tangshan earthquake (our classes moved outdoors, in tents), the deaths of Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong. Those momentous events aside (!), the best memories I have are of the times with the “peasants” on the People’s Commune.  Of course, we were foreigners, on a jaunt.  But over the years I have spoken to many Chinese who spent their times “up the mountains, or down in the villages” (shang shan, xia xiang 上山下鄉).  In many cases their experiences were very rough; but in no case did they wish they had not had them.  They often spoke of how the experiences had matured them and given them better perspectives on life.
Surely, I have a bias towards Bo Xilai.  In 1995 I was the senior Austrade representative at a function in  Dalian, where Bo was Mayor.  I introduced a female participant to him, and she later became my wife.  But that doesn’t gainsay the huge improvements he had made to the town, one I’d first seen in 1978 on an Embassy visit, when it was tawdry and dirty.  Bo’s policies had greened it, made it liveable  and its residents appreciated the work of “Lao Bo”.  Indeed it won a United Nations Habitat Award.
I believe Bo’s influence in all the posts he has had is rather more positive than negative.  What David Elmer calls “tired excuses for ideas”, such as sending youth to the country, could be just what a now self-centred Chinese youth needs.  Perhaps a new kind of “old” -- a domestic Peace Corps.
Peter Forsythe, etc...
*The great leap backward 
David Eimer 
Updated on Nov 25, 2010 
When it comes to China, foreign leaders are now performing like trapeze artists trying not to fall. British Prime Minister David Cameron's speech at
Peking University this month saw him straining every sinew not to offend his hosts, and so jeopardise any lucrative trade deals, while also trying to satisfy the mainland's critics in Britain who wanted him to push Beijing on human rights. It was the same story at the G20 summit in Seoul, where President Hu Jintao was treated as the 800-pound gorilla in the room whomeveryone tip-toed around.
But Cameron need not have been so worried about the reaction to his speech. All the evidence suggests that Beijing no longer really cares what the West thinks about its political system, or of the way it props uprenegade regimes like North Korea and Myanmar. At the same time, the inconclusive G20 summit made it clear that Beijing isn't too bothered by the ongoing recession in Europe and the US, which it regards as a Western crisis that it feels no obligation to help resolve.
For all the talk earlier this year of both increasing the state media's presence overseas and of using soft power to give China a more positive image abroad, Beijing's recent actions indicate that it is now the world's bully. In recent weeks it has been picking fights with its neighbours in the South China Sea over various territorial disputes, as well as warning foreign diplomats not to attend the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony.
As for any prospect of political change at home, that has never seemed so far away. Apart from the wearyingly familiar stifling of dissent that has followed Liu Xiaobo's Peace Prize win, the Communist Party seems intent on recycling its past policies. Like a pop star who can't write good songs any more but wants to keep the cash rolling in, Beijing is now releasing its greatest hits. How else to explain the latest wheeze from Chongqing's high-profile mayor Bo Xilai ? Last week, he suggested that college students spend part of their time on placements with farmers, factory workers and the People's Liberation Army. It is a plan that is grimly reminiscent of the 1970s, when educated and urban youth were "sent down" to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Bo's new scheme follows his crime crackdown that started last year, when suspects were tortured and denied a fair trial, and his staging of mass rallies where the crowds belted out revolutionary-era songs.
It is telling that Bo is behind these tired excuses for ideas. With his obvious love of publicity and fondness for populist campaigns, he is often touted in both the domestic and foreign media as the closest thing the mainland has to a Western-style politician. He has had a successful track record in his previous posts. Yet, it is his far less flashy fellow princeling, Xi Jinping , who is expected to step into Hu's shoes come 2012.
Bo's proposals, though, are so retro that it makes one wonder just how devoid of fresh ideas the party is in general, especially as it is now clear that Wen Jiabao's recent, teasing references to political reform werenothing more than empty sound bites.
Nor does the next five-year plan promise anything too different economically. State media have been trumpeting the emphasis on boosting domestic consumption, but until Beijing does something to ensure that people don't continue to hoard their cash to pay for health care, education and overpriced apartments, the mainland will remain a state-driven, export-orientated economy.
The lack of any new policies designed specifically to address the challenges mainland society faces in the coming years is perhaps not such a surprise. There has been much debate about how Xi, Bo and the other members of the fifth generation of party leaders might alter the direction of China; that they may be less hidebound by some of the tenets held dear by the party since it took power more than 60 years ago, not least its complete reluctance to share power.
Yet that ignores the fact that Xi, Bo and many of their contemporaries in the party elite are princelings, the sons (and they are all men) of former party chiefs. They owe their positions in part to their fathers' status.
It is no shock, then, that they are showing they have little desire to tinker with the system that made them. Anyone expecting dramatic change during Xi's tenure as president will be disappointed. If anything, the party is going backwards, not forwards.
David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist