For as long as I've been blogging about Tibet and China, I've had problems with Nick Kristof. Any reader of my writing knows that I think New York Times columnist Nick Kristof is one of the most intellectually dishonest and profoundly unserious members of the American press who write with any regularity on China. That's why I found it quite surprising last night to read Kristof's column on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. Kristof was the Beijing bureau chief for the Times then -- something I did not know -- and was covering the protests. His retelling of the protests and the zeitgeist in Beijing in 1989 is powerful and it seems Kristof is walking down what for him is a rarely walked path: criticizing the Chinese government and ruling Communist Party. Of course I was wrong to get excited about the first half of his colum, as what followed in the second half was Grade A wankery.
I saw it coming when I read this line:
One stocky rickshaw driver had tears streaming down his cheeks as he drove past me to display a badly wounded student so that I could photograph or recount the incident. That driver perhaps couldn't have defined democracy, but he had risked his life to try to advance it.
Yes, because obviously an uneducated worker in a totalitarian state has no idea what democracy looks like. No idea what his basic rights are or why it is fundamentally wrong for a government to respond to mass protest by rolling out armed troops and giving them the order to fire on peaceful students. How could this man possibly know that a government must be accountable to its people and not the other way around? Naturally Kristof's column only got worse from here.
So, 20 years later, what happened to that bold yearning for democracy? Why is China still frozen politically -- the regime controls the press more tightly today than it did for much of the 1980s -- even as China has transformed economically? Why are there so few protests today?
One answer is that most energy has been diverted to making money, partly because it's a safer outlet. One of my Chinese friends explains that if he were to protest loudly, he might be arrested; if he were to protest quietly, it would be a waste of time. "I may as well just spend the time watching a pirated DVD," he said.
Another answer is that many of those rickshaw drivers and bus drivers and others in 1989 were demanding not precisely a parliamentary democracy, but a better life -- and they got it. The Communist Party has done an extraordinarily good job of managing China's economy and of elevating economically the same people it oppresses politically.
Living standards have soared, and people in Beijing may not have the vote, but they do have an infant mortality rate that is 27 percent lower than New York City's.
Kristof apparently was the lone member of the press who covered the lesser-known Tiananmen Square protests for government action to increase infant mortality that faced a brutal crackdown leaving hundreds dead in June of 1989.
Kristof asks "Why are there so few protests today?" First, Kristof is clearly unaware of the country that he is writing about. Earlier this year The Strait Times reported on the number of mass protests in 2005: "China's Public Security Ministry reported 87,000 mass incidents in 2005, up 6.6 per cent over the number in 2004, and 50 per cent over the 2003 figure." To put it differently, in 2005 in China there were on average of 238 mass protests every day. What Kristof likely means, though his word choice does not make this clear, is why are there so few protests of the scale of Tiananmen that garner international attention? That's a much harder question to ask, but I would hazard that the Chinese government has learned how to stifle these protests, detain dissidents, and jail advocates for democratic reform prior to any boiling point. Tiananmen Square is surveilled by countless video camera, armed guards, rooftop sentries, and undercover security officers. There have not been protests there on this scale because China has created the ultimate security state where the government monitors and restrains its citizenry dramatically.
Not all is sweet: The environment is a catastrophe, an ugly nationalism is surging among some young Chinese and even nonpolitical Chinese chafe at corruption and at Web censorship (including the blocking this week of Twitter, Flickr and Hotmail). Balancing that, their children now get an education incomparably better than in earlier generations -- better overall than many children get in the United States.
When you educate citizens and create a middle class, you nurture aspirations for political participation. In that sense, China is following the same path as Taiwan and South Korea in the 1980s.
Yes, except that on the same timeline of censorship and political repression and economic liberalization, South Korea and Taiwan actually became vibrant democracies. On the same scale, China became more repressive and less free for political discourse. While the governments of Taiwan and South Korea moved intentionally towards democracy, the Chinese government has deliberately stopped political progress.
Some of my friends are Communist Party officials, and they are biding their time. We outsiders also may as well be similarly pragmatic and patient, for there's not much we can do to accelerate this process. And as we wait, we can be inspired by those rickshaw drivers of 20 years ago.
Kristof's closing line really gives away his bias. The outside world - governments, the media, people of conscience - really should just keep our mouths shut and not do anything to unwind 20 years of silence and repression in China for those who seek democracy. We cannot do anything about the jailing of political dissidents, nor the deliberate steps towards eradicating the culture and thus political legacy of Tibet and East Turkestan. We cannot do a thing when it comes to stopping the persecution of people for their religious beliefs, be they Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, or practioners of the Falun Gong. There is simply nothing to be done about the Chinese government shooting Tibetan refugees as they try to flee to Nepal or India. How can the global community possibly stop the Chinese government from using secret trials to sentence dissidents to long prison terms for thought crimes, let alone stop killing cell phone networks, internet access and popular online news sites (including this one) every time a politically threatening anniversary arrives (See Wired's reporting on the banning of Huffington Post and Twitter)?
Kristof preaches complacency and do-nothing-ism. Leave the Chinese government to its own devices and all will be alright in the end. Sure, they've had two decades to listen to the wills and desires of Kristof's ignorant rickshaw driver, but maybe in another twenty years they'll magically decide to listen to the sentiments of the populace forty years prior.
Unfortunately what Nick Kristof does is ensure that his readers will continue to ignore the moral imperative to help people achieve freedom and democracy. The Tiananmen Square protests are one of the great inspirations of nonviolent political action in pursuit of freedom, a symbol for the best of what we can do for our beliefs akin to the work of Gandhi, Otpor, and the work of the Dalai Lama. When Kristof looks at this heroic activism, his response that we should all do nothing is simply bizarre. It is thoroughly disappointing that the editors of the New York Times continue to allow Kristof to write about China, as this sort of writing will someday be a monument for how Western passivism in the face of the Chinese economy lead to the prolonged tenure of a totalitarian government.