China’s Changing of the Guard

by Patrick Nohrden

Note: This article was written in 2004. Since then, world political and financial situations have change.

Jiang Zemin has finally retired. I wonder what that will mean for China. The name may not ring a bell. It is difficult for me to remember Chinese names, until I have heard them a few hundred times. Let me remind you.

Jiang Zemin was the General Secretary (Chairman) of the Communist Party of China (CPC), President of China, and Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission. Considering the fact that the Chinese judiciary is nothing more than a mouthpiece of the CPC, there was not much of a system of checks and balances when old Jiang was in charge. Perhaps you will recall his name associated with the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. He is the dude that called in the tanks that squished all the students.

The CPC thought that in the future, perhaps all of the power should not be vested in one person. So when Jiang decided he did not want to be the CPC Chairman anymore in November 2002, they appointed Hu Jintao to take his place. Then Jiang thought he would step down as President of China in March 2003. In his place for that position, behind closed doors, the powers that be picked who? Hu, that’s who. So at that point, Hu Jintao was the Party Chairman and the President, but his power was held in check by Jiang’s retaining the position of military boss. That seems like at least a tentative check on the power granted to Hu. But on September 19, 2004, things changed. Jiang resigned his post as the leader of the military. Guess who they picked? Hu! This would certainly complicate things more were Abbot and Costello to talk about it. Who’s on first? Hu. Who’s on second? Hu. Who’s on third? Hu. Who’s pitching? Hu.

To shed a different light on this phenomenal vesting of power in a single man, you might compare it to the meteoric rise and centralization of power in the one individual in Germany who started World War Two. Hitler, who was the Chairman of the National Socialist Party (Nazis), became the Chancellor of Germany in 1933, the when the president died in 1934, he was elevated to the position of Fuhrer, literally “leader.” Perhaps the change in title was because the Germans, who like things very neat, thought it duplicitous for a person to be both Chancellor (Prime Minister) and President, so they just cleaned things up creating the single position of Fuhrer. The Chinese have no problem with being duplicitous.

With a CPC assuring the “democratic” process Chinese style, it is hard telling just how Hu got these jobs. Anything they ever do is nothing more than a rubber stamp of what they are told to do. If they do not approve who or what they are told to approve, they are not “re-elected” the next time around and often resign very soon. I am not really sure how these guys get elected, anyway, as there never seems to be any elections in the news in China. There was an election last September while I was here, but I did not know about it. I only heard the results when it was over.

Hu Jintao must be very special. Despite China’s draconian law prohibiting families from having more than one child, Hu Jintao has both a son and a daughter. But I digress.

Hu Jintao has been touted as the person that will bring China into step with developed, western countries. He will ensure the continuing “opening” of the Chinese market (and society?) while at the helm. Or will he? Certainly, one cannot believe that he will encourage the free thought of the Chinese people, which is a necessary engine for the development of a free market. Considering that he was the Secretary (Chairman) of the Tibet Autonomous Region between 1988 and 1992, he almost certainly has the skills required to keep society happy and well-ordered. “Well-ordered” in this case does not mean “neat.”

Now I will purposely digress, but you will see why in a moment.

Recently, my former roommate from Australia and another friend, an American teacher, both teachers at Bohai University in Northeast China where I taught before coming to Nantong, were engaged in what might pleasantly be called a fracas. Well, it was really more than that. Kyle, the American, had made arrangements to meet James, the Australian, at the main gate of the campus. James was just approaching the gate from off campus with his Chinese girlfriend, Kathy. Kyle was approaching the gate from the other direction. James was laden with bags of merchandise, as he and Kathy had just been shopping. There was a group of four or five men at the gate who were playing visiting their friends, the campus police. There were six campus police officers at the gate. Kathy accidentally bumped one of these visitors.

The custom in China when somebody bumps another is to ignore it. There are almost one and a half billion people in this country, and if you stopped each time you bumped somebody to say “excuse me,’ your voice would be horse before the end of the day. So Kathy said nothing, as is the custom. However, the men who were visiting the campus police thought that Kathy bumping one of them was a good excuse to beat up a foreigner. Seizing the opportunity to do so against James who just happened to be walking through the gate with Kathy, with his arms full of merchandise-loaded bags, they started hitting him with their fists and kicking him in typical “tough guy” fashion, from the rear. Kyle, who was with a male first-year student, saw what was happening and came to the rescue.

The melee lasted a few minutes, with the poor freshman bearing the worst of it. James received a severe knot on his head, as well as a loss of hair. Kyle was hit in the face and received an injury near his eye due to the proximity of his glasses. Only the student received injuries that required medical treatment. James and Kyle fought valiantly enough to drive away the thugs. Meanwhile, a very large crowd had gathered to watch the most exiting event of the semester.

Now the story will get interesting.

The six police officers all watched. That is all they did. I take that back. When their friends had run off, the police officers told the crowd to disperse. They otherwise offered no assistance to James, Kyle, or the hapless freshman. They would not even call for medical attention. Using a cell phone (that means “mobile phone” for my non-American readers), they summoned the Jinzhou police who transported the four of them (including Kathy) to police headquarters. Before the Jinzhou police arrived, all but one of the campus cops had departed the scene. The man in charge of looking out for the welfare of the foreign teachers at Bohai University, Victor Zhou, was called and later met them at the police station.

Involving the police and Victor achieved a result other than expected. Both the police and Victor chastised James and Kyle for allowing the incident to happen. Unfortunately for Kathy, she received the harshest criticism for starting the incident in the first place. When James and Kyle voiced their objections over their reprimand, they were told that they were wrong, that James was particularly wrong for not apologizing to the man that Kathy bumped when she bumped him. James and Kyle pointed out that although the responsibility of the campus police is to protect students and faculty members from this sort of danger and that the six officers that were there did nothing to help them, the response was that, according to one of the campus cops, there were only five of them, not six as James and Kyle described. So?

James looks Chinese, but he is not Chinese. Only his ancestors were. He is still a foreigner, and he was with a Chinese girlfriend. The campus police know who he is. Everybody at Bohai University knows who he is. The students constantly talk about the foreign teachers, and James often stops to chat with the campus cops. They all know who he is. The thugs who tried to prove their manhood at James expense, who, by the way, did not reckon on James getting help from passers-by, were talking to the campus cops. They were inside the guardhouse by the gate as they saw James and Cathy approach. It is all too likely that one of the campus cops mentioned to one of these guys that they know the foreigner walking with the Chinese girl.

So, just how does this relate to the passing of the torch from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao? Nothing changes. Although China professes now to be an open society, one must question the Chinese definition of being “open.” After all, their definition of democracy is much different than our own. The Chinese boast of their freedoms, such as religious freedom, saying things like “our people are free to practice whatever religion they like in accordance with the law.” It is that “in accordance with the law” phrase that all raises my eyebrows. I wonder how that squares with the fact that last year approximately 400 Catholic churches were closed down by the government in Zhejiang Province alone. Somehow, those Catholic parishioners were not worshipping in accordance with the law.

Somebody in this country has all the power. He has absolute power. Power breeds corruption and abuse, and absolute power breeds the worst corruption and the worse abuses. Hu Jintao has already made two trips to Europe within the past six months to further cement the relationship between China and the European Union. With each visit to the heads of state in Europe, two distinct things were discussed: that European nation’s commitment to recognize the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate China and to refrain from any official recognition of Taiwan’s government, and to coax the lifting of the EU’s arms embargo of China.

We are living in a time that will be talked about in future history books. Today is part of tomorrow’s timeline. Just as the European and other western powers overlooked Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930’s, as did the British Prime Minister Chamberlain, we are overlooking a significant development in the shift of global power and potential regional conflict that might some day envelop the world—again. Despite the grinning faces, handshakes, and participation in international efforts to retain world stability (i.e. the Six-Party talks associated with the North Korean nuclear program, etc.), China is preparing to make itself the great and powerful nation that it has always said that it will become.

Nothing has changed. China is still doing what it sat out to do in 1949 when it forced the Republic of China government to Taiwan. China has taken Tibet by force, is negotiating boundary disputes with Russia, and has conflicting claims with Pacific islands with the countries of Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. And the Chinese attitude is that if it is not Chinese, it is not right. If you are not Chinese, then you do not deserve to be treated with any dignity, right or wrong?

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