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Harmony roads

China’s Party can’t see that thriving civil society lends it legitimacy....

Written by Nimmi Kurian |
September 4, 2009 4:07:19 am

As China approaches its 60th national day this month,it has begun obsessing over “harmony”. A nervous state has begun an aggressive hot-pursuit of harmony with a series of crackdowns on “troublemakers” for “subverting state power”. The old Dengist slogan — “stability is the overriding priority” — has made something of a comeback,with “stability preservation officers” being appointed to act as the eyes and ears of the government. But harmony is proving to be a fast-moving target,difficult to pin down; and the obsession is fraying state-society relations like never before. As it grapples with this policy-induced crisis,the question before China is: can harmony be saved from itself?

The Chinese characterisation of harmony has always been an odd compact between state and society. But the compact has held together,albeit with some unusual experiments in negotiating social space. For instance,stringent rules make it extraordinarily difficult for nonprofits to register with the Internal Affairs Bureau. Several organisations in China thus end up registering themselves as for-profit companies. Interestingly,there has been a fair degree of official tolerance for this. There are good reasons why. It is being acknowledged that conceding an increasing sphere of public autonomy will be in the government’s enlightened self-interest. Thus,the Sixth Plenum of the 16th Central Committee of the Communist Party in 2006 drew a direct correlation between continued prosperity and the need for a “democratic society under the rule of law”. All these seemed to augur well for an expanding sphere of public action and greater transparency in the decision-making process. Or so one thought.

The trouble has been that the goal posts of permissibility have been shifted once too often. This is not so much out of an inability on the part of the leadership to make up its mind as much as wishing to retain at all times a control over what measure of social space it is willing to concede. The current crackdowns have shown that it is not coy about drawing red lines without warning. Thus it has struck down hard on civil society initiatives,particularly singling out those working on human rights issues for harsh treatment. Recently,Xu Zhiyong’s Open Constitution Initiative,a prominent legal-research and advocacy group was closed down and slapped with fines of $205,000. Licences of more 50 lawyers known for their human rights work have also been revoked.

China might do well to ponder the wisdom of such backsliding at a time its society is going through a complex transition. Social unrest has risen,with several public expressions of anger in the form of protests,riots and strikes. Civil society initiatives have played a critical role in filling the accountability deficit — thereby shoring up regime legitimacy. If this operational space is now being systematically encroached upon,how will the Chinese state begin to identify social red alerts at an early enough stage? These will have serious implications for its political legitimacy — and even its survival. Why is the Party throwing it all away?

The problem has been that harmony is beginning to be seen as an end in itself. The democracy debate has reflected some of this confusion. Even as it permitted a growing arena of personal freedoms to its people,the political class convinced itself that democracy was the expendable,messy bit in the jigsaw of social harmony. But,India’s own experience of managing high growth rates with democracy presents a model muddle for China. What is striking about recent attacks in the Chinese media against the “so-called great Indian federation” is not their stridency but their peevish and petulant tone. Mocking at India’s laggard economic development had been standard fare in Chinese publications with their self-congratulatory tenor. But today,India’s experience confues and confounds these comfortable and simplistic beliefs.

An on-now,off-again approach to ordering social space is also creating a dangerous psychological barrier in the psyche of the Chinese citizen. Reneging now on the carefully-opened social space will mean throwing away all that has been cobbled together bit by excruciating bit. Regaining public trust is the biggest challenge facing the Chinese state today. The first step towards course-correction? Understanding that harmony is not a static concept but a dynamic,evolving one. Above all,the state must see it as a conversation: a two-way dialogue between itself and the citizen. Failing to do so will be like fighting with one hand tied at the back.

The writer is an associate professor at the Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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