Tuesday, February 15, 2005

White Elephants

At home sick, catching up on my newspapers, I came across this week's Parade Magazine, with its cover story of "The World's Worst Dictators." Hu Jintao of China comes it at Number Three.

I don't wish to serve as an apologist for the CCP, whose abuses are well-documented. Tibetans, Uighurs, democratic activists - I could put out a laundry list of the persecuted in today's China. However, labeling Hu Jintao as the World's Third Worst Dictator strikes me as a gross oversimplification, whether through ignorance or more likely, the desire to present easily digestible info-bits to Parade's presumably less than sophisticated audience.

Let's start with the nature of the Chinese Communist Party's leadership. Throughout its history, the CCP has rarely been a unified monolith. Even at the height of Mao Zedong's cult of personality, different factions struggled and competed for dominance and control. It's hard to know with any certainty what goes on behind closed doors in CCP leadership circles, but clearly there are winners and losers within the Party at any given time. Many speculate, for example, that Jiang Zemin and his "Shanghai Mafia" hold onto power even though Jiang recently resigned the last of his official posts (the premature revealing of which is said to have led to the jailing of a Chinese researcher working for the New York Times - go here for a fascinating series of articles by Chinese journalism students discussing the case). Any leader rising to positions of power in today's China does so through consensus and coalition-building as well as competition. Hu Jintao might wish that he had supreme, absolute power - the definition of a dictator - but he doesn't, and it's really too soon to say what his intentions are and what kind of leader he'll be.

It's true that early signs are not terribly encouraging, especially disappointing to those who considered Hu a potential reformer, even China's Gorbachev. Many who wish to see a more democratic China point instead to Premier Wen Jiabao, who was, afer all, Zhao Ziyang's former assistant. But effective leaders in China tend to be those who are willing to take their time to get what they want. When asked for his opinion of the French Revolution, Zhou Enlai was famously said to have replied: "It's too soon to tell." Zhou was known for his wit, but he was also a man who took the long view of things.

Right now the CCP is struggling to reinvent itself, to maintain its relevence in 21st century China. I personally can't believe that every Party member is corrupt, brutal and dictatorial. There are those who would push for reform, for openess, who perhaps even recognize the virtues of competition. The optimist in me sees these people helping to move China forward, in spite of the corruption, the abuses of power and the sheer monumental difficulties of governing a country as huge and complex as China.

Part of my optimism comes from my personal experiences, from the vast changes I've witnessed in China in my own small lifetime. The China of 1979 was truly a police state. The State controlled nearly every aspect of the individual's life: where you lived, worked, whom you married, what you wore, what you said and who you said it to. You saw the beginnings of dissent - Democracy Wall, for example. I remember a particular discussion with one of my classes. "What will you do after graduation?" The answers from my students were almost universally, "I will be assigned to a position. I have no choice." One student said, "I would like to teach economics. But that is only a dream." Only one student said anything different. He was a handsome, confident guy - actually, I had him pegged for one of that classes' likely two Party members - but what he said was, "I'm going to become an entrepreneur. I think I will succeed at this."

Around Christmas that year, in 1979, Emma threw a party for her graduate students and teachers. It was a "White Elephant" party. Everyone was supposed to bring something they no longer wanted or needed and would exchange it for something brought by someone else. One of the teachers brought a handful of Mao buttons. "White elephants," he'd said with a sly grin. Everyone got a good chuckle out of that...the sort that comes with a nervous, backwards glance...

CORRECTION: Oops. Actually, Hu Jintao was #3 on Parade's Dictator list last year. This year he's dropped down to #4. My mistake.


JR said...


That's an interesting subject. Thank you for the link, does Parade come with sunday newspaper?I see Kim Jong IL, who is that third Asian man?

What is the definition of dictator?
I can say Mao was a dictator but I can't label Hu or Jiang as dictator. Neither of them have total control of China. It is more like a share of power between different sects of people, conservatives and liberals, within the CCP. Anyway, I wonder why he is number 3 "dictator". It surely sounds ignorant to me.

JR said...

Peter Jenning talked with Bill Gate tonight on ABC news, he sounds pretty optimistic on China's progress and even calls it a super-charged capitalism.

richard said...

Whether he has total control or not, he still controls the military and can put anyone he wants into jail. And he cannot be challenged, and he cannot be brought to account by the people. That is a dictator, whether you want to accept that or not. Now, whether he is one of the worst dictators on earth, that's another story, and I would first need to know what the criteria for "worst dictator" are.

Other Lisa said...

Yikes, I'm late to my own discussion. I have the world's worst cold. No SARS jokes, please...

JR, Parade is a supplement that a lot of newspapers include in their Sunday issue. The article should be available at that link in a few days. The 3rd Asian man is Than Shwe of Burma.

I'm in agreement with JR on this one. From what I know about Chinese politics (and I'm no expert), Hu has not consolidated his power to the extent that he fits the definition of dictator. He just doesn't have that absolute authority. Sure, he could have people arrested, but I think there's some question how firm his grip on the military is. Some have speculated that the whole queasiness over re-evaluting Tiananmen and the death of Zhao Ziyang stems in part from a continuing conflict with Jiang Zemin's faction - it's not clear to what extent Jiang has actually "left the stage." This is also why some are still giving Hu a bit of a pass on the crackdown on public intellectuals and so on when many had hoped he would be a force for liberalization. Anything that could be seen as an overt criticism or attack on the Jiang regime is being approached very cautiously, and I gather the speculation is that Hu's group is really worried about displays of public unrest - if Hu can't keep a lid on things, this would give the hardliners an opening to gain greater influence.

Time will tell, I guess.

Now, we can talk about a dictatorial regime, certainly. But not an individual as a dictator.

Today's China is authoritarian, but it's come a long way from the totalitarian state I experienced 25 years ago. I have to hope for the best.

JR said...


We need to define the term "dictator" before we can debate about whether Hu is a dictator or not. According to Webster online dictionary below:

"Main Entry: dic·ta·tor
Pronunciation: 'dik-"tA-t&r, dik-'
Function: noun
Etymology: Latin, from dictare
1 a : a person granted absolute emergency power; especially : one appointed by the senate of ancient Rome b : one holding complete autocratic control c : one ruling absolutely and often oppressively
2 : one that dictates "

With these definitions, you can say CCP is a dictating totalitarian party (oligarchy, is that the right term to describe the CCP?) but you can't say Hu is dictating China or the CCP as a matter of fact-ly. Simply put it, Hu does not have the authority to dictate the CCP.

It is becoming even clearer, if the term "dictator" is translated into Chinese, it means literally that one single person who rules absolutely over his subjects. In this case, Kim, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot or stalin can be called a dictator but not Hu or Jiang.


I just read your comment, you can explain it better I see.

I will comment on it again after I read the Parade on Sunday. I remember reading the editorial of one of these sunday sub-news, (I think it was the Parade.) As an informal semi-entertainment news, I was surprised to see that they were very much biased against Kerry before the election. In a light-hearted manner, the editor was poking fun of Kerry as being a coward, a Flip flopper and etc. It was an effective subliminal way to leave a lasting negative impression oof Kerry to the undecided voters.

JR said...

Dictator translated in Chinese into 3 words.
the first word means sole or lone
the second word means ruling
the third word means person

Other Lisa said...

yes - Parade is pretty much "red state" news-tainment.

Other Lisa said...

p.s. I really thought the leader of Uzebekistan should have been in the top ten - you know, the fellow who likes boiling dissidents - the U.S.'s new allies in the war against terror...