Internet-brought democracy yet again imminent in China

Nicholas Kristof today writes about how the internet is bringing democracy to China.

This is the latest, and one of the most explicit, in a long line of American fantasies about how "the Internet is hastening China along the same path that South Korea, Chile and especially Taiwan pioneered. In each place, a booming economy nurtured a middle class, rising education, increased international contact and a growing squeamishness about torturing dissidents."

I'm sitting right now in one of those Chinese internet bars that Kristof seems to think are bestowing American-style liberalism directly upon the Chinese. But as I look around and see all the kids playing first-person shooter games and reading about new movies, I have my doubts. And as for chatting - I don't know about Kristof, but every political discussion I've tried to have over AIM or MSN Messenger has died in seconds.

As the rest of Kristof's formulation indicates, the internet is only a part of the dominant understanding in the USA of how "democracy" is won, viz. market reforms create a middle class which then demands elections and freedom of speech, assembly, &c.

This might be very flattering to the middle class, pro-market writers who propogate it, but it doesn't have much relation to the historical reality of the supposed models or to current trends in the supposedly democratizing countries. South Korea's democratization (such as it is) owes a lot to student and worker protest, very little to the commercial and professional classes that mostly disapproved of such disorder until reforms that served their interests were actually won. In China, the middle class is even less interested in major changes since they're intimately linked to the ruling class thru education and personal connections, and share a deep fear of workers and peasants.

If something is going to happen in China, it won't come from the complacent gamers in internet bars, and it won't follow the smug certainties of privileged Americans.


China's reserve army of labor

There's been a call from my loyal readers for some outrages from China, so here's the best one I can think of offhand.

Chinese cities are overrun with private guards. Guards in parking lots, guards at movie theaters, guards at the post office, guards in front of every housing community (unlike in the USA, a lot of Chinese cities' residential areas are all set up sort of like gated communities, so they're gated off and their access roads aren't thru streets). Most of these guards don't really do much of anything, since you can freely walk into most of these areas without them stopping you. Not that you'd be that intimidated in the first place - most of the guards look like they're 16 or 17. China is one of the safest places in the world (as long as you play by the rules), so I'm also not entirely sure why people feel the need for guards.

But the outrage isn't that there are guards, but the work conditions of the guards themselves. My school and the associated dorm/hotel has its own set of guards. All the guards are migrants from the countryside. They work 12 hours every day, 7 days a week (2 days off a month). They get paid 400 yuan a month, roughly $50, ie about 10 cents/hour. For comparison, a foreigner with no teaching skills (eg, me) can make the same amount of money teaching English for 4 hours that they make working 350 hours.

To be fair, the guards are given housing and food by the hotel. It's almost insultingly inadequate food and housing, but still an important benefit since they can save most of their income. But even this is compromised since the hotel uses it to regulate their personal lives. They have to sign out and sign in when they want to go anywhere, and apparently aren't allowed to consort with students off the premises (weird).

They've been promised a lighter workload (8 hours/day, same pay) as soon as more guards can be hired. But last month after a couple new guards were hired, a couple other ones were promptly fired, restoring the old 12 hour days.

So there you go. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, since migrant laborers work in similar conditions in every shit job in the cities, from construction to waiting tables to retail. Migrant workers aren't entitled to any of the social programs that city residents get, like health care or education. And city residents generally look down on them as uncultured and possibly dangerous, just as every migrant group in every other country is treated.

All this is the completely predictable outcome of market reforms, which not only encourage the commodification and exploitation of people but have also supplied them by dismantling the countryside's social insurance and forcing China's extraordinary number of surplus laborers off the land and into the cities.

Yet it's important to acknowledge the positive side of these changes too. Before market reforms it was impossible for people from the countryside to move to the cities because the party decreed that migration wasn't allowed. Because it controlled the entire economy, the party could enforce this by simply cutting off the food supply of anyone who had a different idea. Thus peasants were essentially held in serfdom and exploited for surplus grain that could be invested in industrialization. In important ways, the advent of markets have made China's people much more free. Whether or not trading the party's epic totalitarianism for the petty totalitarianism of one's boss represents a big step in the right direction is more debatable.


A liberal says it straight for once

It's rare that the basics behind ideologies of power are stated explicitly. Generally debates are carried on thru rhetorical strategies that emphasize "the common good", "democracy", "freedom", "prosperity for the nation", &c. A good number of people who have never been exposed to the internal records of governments or corporations - where the rhetorical overlay is more frequently dispensed with - even take these appeals to selfless principles seriously. The media are especially culpable in this, casting George Bush as a fighter for democracy, or Bill Clinton as deeply concerned with the disadvantaged of the world, or closer to my home, the Chinese media casting Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao as doing their utmost to help China's peasants.

So it's worthwhile to note when a writer or politician skips the ritual obeisances and comes right out and says it, as Thomas Friedman recently did:
at its best, the U.N. has been, and still can be, a useful amplifier of American power, helping us to accomplish important global tasks that we deem to be in our own interest.

The U.N. still represents the closest thing we have to a global Good Housekeeping seal of approval for any international action. Whenever the U.S. is able to enlist that U.N. seal on its side, America's actions abroad have more legitimacy, more supporters and more paying partners....

I don't much care how the U.N. works as a bureaucracy; I care about how often it can be enlisted to support, endorse and amplify U.S. power. That is what serves our national interest.

Thomas Friedman is one of the most popular writers on foreign policy in the USA, and he consistently voices the liberal perspective. This is the liberal approach to the UN - use it whenever possible to gain legitimacy for American policy, otherwise dispense with it.

The neoconservative perspective is that the UN is more a hindrance to America's overwhelming power than an amplifier, and it should thus be destroyed at the earliest possible date.

It's an important tactical difference with clear policy implications. But it should not confuse us into thinking that the two sides have different ultimate goals. Rather, they share a single aim, namely to advance US "national interests", ie to expand the power of the American state and businesses.

The radical alternative is to take seriously the idea that humans are equal and that the interests of one nation (or one ruling class) are not the same as the interests of the world. That means acting to restrict the power of the USA, to build institutions that decentralize global power, and to fight for an equal distribution of wealth in the world.