Liu Baozhu is doing production-line work in a textile factory in Guangdong province. The vast majority of the clothes that are being produced in this factory are for western clients and will soon be sold in Paris, Berlin or London. Liu Baozhu makes about 80 euros per month.
How compatible is democracy with China? Is the democratic West moving inexorably towards “paralysis and insolvency” while China aims for xiaokang, a state of modest wealth within a morally just society? Shanghai-based journalist Harold Thibault takes a closer look at contemporary China by talking to ordinary citizens, businessmen, philosophers and leaders. To accompany his report and allow a greater sense of the country today, The Global Journal looks through the lenses of Swiss photographers Monika Fischer and Mathias Braschler. The duo traveled through 30 of China’s 33 provinces, independent cities and autonomous regions on a 30,000 kilometer journey, in order to understand more about this fascinating and contradictory country.
If you want to understand how the average Chinese person views Chinese politics today, just head over to The Treasure Hunt Store, a modest clothing shop like so many others, situated in the center of Shanghai. Talk to the shop owner. He’ll tell you, “I think everyone, both Chinese and foreigners, know what China is today.” It’s his discreet way of implying that the country is anything but a democracy. He’ll then politely explain why he doesn’t want to disclose his name to you. “We can’t talk about democracy here. I don’t want to have anything to do with politics. I just want to sell clothes.” At best, he’ll acknowledge that China is faring better today than it did before the first wave of economic reforms, which were initiated some three decades ago.
Since then, China’s economy has grown exponentially. In 2010, it trumped Japan when it became the world’s second-largest economy. But when it comes to politics, China hasn’t exactly modernized. Like most Chinese, the owner of The Treasure Hunt Store is not blind to this lack of progress. “If I were into politics, I’d say that having only one party is not good,” he says.
He explains that the masses don’t care who their leader is as long as he succeeds in spurring economic growth. “The system has been in place for many decades now and the people are used to it, they’ve been tamed,” he said on Monday (June, 4 2012), exactly 23 years after the Tiananmen Square massacre when tanks rolled into central Beijing and Chinese soldiers shot unarmed students.
He’s not the only one who thinks this way. In a 2008 interview with CNN, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was confronted with a picture of himself standing next to the Communist Party’s progressive and soon-to-be-purged Secretary, Zhao Ziyang, talking with students at Tiananmen Square, trying to convince them to head back home. The CNN host, Fareed Zakaria, then asked Wen about the June 1989 massacre.
The popular leader replied: “The core of your question is about democracy in China. I believe when we talk about the development of democracy in China, we talk about progress to be made in three areas. Number one, we need to gradually improve the democratic election system so that the state power would truly belong to the people and state power would be used to serve the people. Number two, we need to improve the legal system, run the country according to law and establish a country under the rule of law; we need to build an independent and just judicial system. Number three, government should be subject to oversight by the people and that will call on us to increase transparency in government affairs and particularly it is necessary for government to accept oversight by other parties.”
Now, four years later, just a few months before Wen is due to leave his post, none of these aims have yet been achieved. Instead, the few bold citizens who in 2011 hoped to run for local elections – which are systematically monopolized by the Communist Party – were relentlessly intimidated. The rule of law is non-existent, as shown by the extra-judicial house arrest of Chen Guangcheng, who escaped a legion of 70 peasants paid by the local government to guard him. Upon his escape, Chen took refuge at the US embassy in Beijing and later flew to New York.
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Report by Harold Thibault.
Photography by Monika Fischer and Mathias Braschler for The Global Journal.