Friday, 15 September 2017

Politics and the average Chinese

The man in the street simply does not care ! At least politically !!

In a country of 1.2 billion, such a sweeping  statement is an outrageous generalisation. But it is broadly true. The average Chinese does not care because (a) what is the real choice (b) she has very little access to information that is even remotely political in nature and (c) she doesn't seem to be hugely interested anyway

And this is despite a startling fact; the country with the maximum number of protests from citizens is actually China ! On any given day, there are probably 800 odd protests happening throughout China. If there is such vigorous activity, how come the assertion that the average Joe (Mrs Li) doesn't care ?

Two sweeping statements can be made about the average Chinese's views (a) she believes (and it does not matter where or who she is) that the local government is utterly corrupt and inefficient
and (b) she believes that the central leaders in Beijing are extremely efficient, working hard for the country, are the best humans on earth and if only they knew of their specific problem, it would be instantly fixed.

All the protests are predominantly on local issues, and mostly against land grabs by local officials. It is therefore mainly economic in nature, not political. There are simply no political protests of any sort.

A major issue in China is that public opinion is greatly hampered because of virtually no access to true political information. The following is the information environment in which the average Chinese lives

- There are no independent newspapers at all. Foreign newspapers are mostly not available.
- There is only government TV . No foreign channels, except in top end hotels. Even those are censored - can you believe that CNN's broadcast to China is routed through a Chinese government controlled satellite !
- All films are subject to censorship. Foreign films are severely limited in number and if you have anything remotely political in your film, fat chance of being cleared. Ditto books. Ditto music. Pirated DVDs are freely available but then the market is mostly for sexually explicit stuff rather than political content.
- The Great Firewall of China, behind which the internet sits in a parallel universe, is one of the most remarkable operations of all. The Hall of Fame of sites that are completely banned and inaccessible from China includes Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google plus, Maps, Docs, Picasa, Dropbox, Flickr, ..... I can keep going. Every one of these have local equivalents which are of course severely censored by the authorities
- The Chinese are avid users of social media, but only on domestic providers. These are hugely monitored by armies of machines, men and software. Every offending post is deleted . If you realise that there are half a billion internet users in China and they are as active as anybody in online activities, you can imagine the scale at which censorship takes place.

Consequently, the average Chinese is poorly informed on political matters and therefore has limited and not fully informed views. In any social gathering in the West (even more so in India), the conversation will turn political. Not so in China.  Mao has been glorified as "70% right" - very few of the younger generation know anything about the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The Tiananmen incidents of 1989 have been airbrushed from history - when I lived in China I was amazed that my colleagues knew virtually nothing about what happened.

The sum total of all this is that public opinion in China is less intense and formed than in virtually any other country. Therefore the Party and the government are under less pressure than anywhere else. You see, the true check on any government in any country is not judiciary , or the constitutional checks and balances - it is really public opinion  represented by the media. In China, that check does not exist. The Chinese have made a pact with the Party - give us continuous economic advancement and we won't care about the politics. Thus far, that pact has held good.


Sriram Khé said...

"public opinion represented by the media"
Or, as trump refers to it, "Fake News" :(

My university does not have many foreign students. A few are from China. Anytime I have managed to talk politics with a Chinese student, the result is the same--complete and total blankness about Tiananmen and the awful famine that Mao unleashed on the country.

Given how much I love free speech and access to information, it is simply beyond my wildest imagination how Mr. and Mrs Li can live there. And to think that those are the kinds of circumstances that the American fuhrer and many of his voters would like to see happen here in the US!!!

Why does a CNN even broadcast into China then? Leave the ethics alone (business and ethics rarely mix anyway!) As a businessman, you explain to me why CNN finds its highly censored broadcast in China to be profitable.

Ramesh said...

@Sriram - I have been wondering if today I would go and live in China. As an expat, and unlike you, I would value access to information much more than free speech. When I went to China, the blockage of the Internet was not as all pervasive as today. Blogger was open (which is why I started on this tepid platform), but for many years now, Blogger is closed. Much as I appreciate and have admiration for the Chinese, I would not live there today, simply because I would be isolated from virtually all sources of information.

As for businesses compromising and doing business in China - its simply too large a market to ignore.

Sriram Khé said...

"Much as I appreciate and have admiration for the Chinese, I would not live there today"
Wow ... I mean WOW. Coming from you, that is one heck of a serious, and unexpected, statement!!!

Anne in Salem said...

The US image of the average person in China is a poor, almost starving farmer. This has changed much in the last decade, with many people in Chinese approaching middle class or more, courtesy of the tremendously successful economy. Perhaps the lack of political interest is economics-based - "My life is better, I have a better home, I have enough to eat. Why would I care about politics since politics as is clearly works for me?"

Relative to lack of information - do Mr and Mrs Li realize their poverty of information? If they've never known otherwise, how do they know what they are missing?

Ramesh said...

@Anne - Oh , China has come a long way from a "poor starving farmer". Indisputably, the country is middle class. I would even say that there is very little true poverty and certainly no starving.

Mr and Mrs Li certainly know that their information base is very small. But they don't seem to be too bothered by it. I think its a deeply cultural thing of conformity. Lots of Chinese travel abroad these days. They don't make a beeline for the newspaper or the TV channel.

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