Global Voices and me
I joined Global Voices in September 2009. At the time, I just finished a few months of research at the political section of the European Union Delegation to China in Beijing. One of my tasks there was to monitor Chinese language official sources, Chinese academic literature, and various citizenship media and blogs. It was how I came across and began reading Global Voices, a community of bloggers and translators whose official mission is to "aggregate, curate, and amplify the global conversation online - shining light on places and people other media often ignore."
I am a fan of Global Voices because it shares the human side of stories and provides unique perspectives, quite a refreshing departure from mainstream media. I think it is also for this reason that diplomats at EU read it as a source for understanding China. I decided that it is a worthwhile endeavour, and wrote to the Northeast Asia editor Oiwan Lam that I want to write for Global Voices. She wrote back immediately, and my very first post, about a video showing a Chinese school girl saying that she wanted to become a corrupt official because it brings ‘a lot of good stuff,’ was published.
In the case of China, because of its political censorship, these blogs also serve as a historical record of events taking place in China. This was evident, for example, when John Kennedy, Chinese language editor of Global Voices, extensively archived the Twitter-based ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in China during February and March this year.
China and Hong Kong
I believe that one great theme of the 21st century will be how the world responds to the rising power of emerging nations, in which China is an, if not the most, important component. In Hong Kong, where I was born and raised, the rise of China is keenly felt. As set out in its mini-Constitution, the Basic Law, citizens of this former British colony is guaranteed basic freedom and rule of law after its return to China in 1997. Therefore, Hong Kong’s tradition of freedom of expression is still alive. But that is gradually eroding. That the vast China market is just sitting beside represents tremendous economic opportunities for Hong Kong, but this is also the Achilles’ heel for Hong Kong’s freedom.
Thanks to China, Hong Kong has a vibrant economy, but this is leading to excessive patience and complacency when it comes to political progress. The Basic Law promises universal suffrage for its Chief Executive and Legislative Council, but this is only partially realised. The Central Chinese government originally promised universal suffrage by 2007, but it was first postponed to 2012, and then to 2017. One key reason is that the upper echelons of Hong Kong’s political and economic communities are the beneficiaries of economic opportunities offered by China, gained at the expense of conforming to the political priorities of Beijing. As for the general public, many seem to pay more attention to their economic well being than political rights. In the words of prominent liberal mainland writer Ran Yunfei, Hong Kong is akin to a ‘boiling frog’, unaware that its freedom is eroding bit by bit.
China and the EU
In a similar way, the EU is also a beneficiary of the economic opportunities offered by China. But one thing that has become apparent in recent years is that China does not share many values which Europe upholds. These are due to differences in ideologies, culture and social and economic developments. It is again an issue of how to balance the economic opportunities with political challenges. The mutually beneficial trade and economic relations will continue, but rifts will occur on issues like China’s participation in global governance (climate change, Iran, North Korea, etc) and human rights. In addition, when it comes to strategic and military leverages, the EU appears less important than the US, or China’s neighbouring countries of Japan and Russia. In the foreseeable future, the economic dimension of EU-China relations will be more important than the political one.
Social change in China
China is still in the early stages of economic development. There is still enormous room for expansion. Two or three decades from now, I believe China will be more important economically and politically than it is today. The Communist Party of China has brought prosperity at home and dignity abroad for Chinese, who suffered foreign encroachment and internal disorder during the ‘century of humiliation’. These are formidable achievements we cannot deny, and they indeed are appeals that few Chinese resist. But during these same years of economic development, social inequality has spiralled, corruption has become wide spread, and political rights of the public are curtailed. While the Party is determined to resolve various social problems, its primary intention is to preserve the one-party system of governance without significant political reforms.
In China, recurrent moods of Westernisation and Great Han chauvinism have tended to alternate over time. As China grows stronger, the mood is now swinging from the former to the latter. The recent promotion of Political Confucianism illustrates this. Externally, it acts as a culture for global penetration, and a defense against the Western values of democracy and freedom. But it also serves the Party internally by invoking the hierarchical politics of Confucius teaching (with its own interpretations) to justify authoritarian paternalism.
In the short term, I do not see that great social change will come anytime soon. Political control is tighter than ever. The fruits of economic achievements are enough to keep the majority in ideological conformity. Party members, students, the middle class and professionals are co-opted. There are a few brave dissenting souls calling for political reforms, but they are the minority. The rich and privileged see little reasons for change. The weak and poor fight for their livelihoods and fair share of wealth, but seldom political rights, freedom and democracy. Will rising living standard bring about higher political expectations and democratisation? Or is authoritarian paternalism here to stay? When it comes to political progress, I am more pessimistic than optimistic.