Tuesday, March 8, 2011

LETTERS FROM ABROAD: Middle Eastern Upheaval in Shanghainese Eyes

By Erik Walenza-Slabe
Foreign Correspondent
March 7, 2011

Ask around on the streets of Shanghai about political upheaval in the Middle East and expect a sea of indifference. The nature of that indifference depends upon whom you ask, but the core sentiment seldom wavers. Xiao Zhang, a fruit vendor in a wet market, represents the most pervasive attitude: “I’m just a small person with real concerns...” As with many Shanghainese, Ms. Zhang was unaware that democratic reform undergirded many of the demonstrations. Government censors limit coverage of the protests, ensuring, instead, that the Chinese media highlight the ensuing turmoil rather than the peoples’ grievances with their governments.

In contrast, the cosmopolitan youth who frequent the posh cafés and clubs of the area known as the French Concession have likely stumbled across uncensored accounts of the protests while browsing English websites. They are also more likely to voice an opinion, but opinions in Shanghai’s cafés often lack vitality. Democratic sentimentalities are strongly discouraged in China. They are neither taught in school, nor tolerated in public dialogue.

But, perhaps most importantly in this most capitalist of cities, political ideologies are not profitable.

For young Shanghainese, concern over the democratic yearnings of distant peoples is at best a pointless diversion and, at worst, a fine way to stunt a promising career. This is not to say that Shanghai lacks a political conscience. Shan Wang, a recent political science graduate, promptly quit his post with a prominent newspaper after being tasked with the responsibility of deleting user comments that contrasted with the party line.

Wang is as happy as any Elliott School student to spend an afternoon discussing the prospects for political reform in China. He also actively seeks government employment. He knows political dreams will not support his parents or attract a wife. A promising government post on the other hand… China is, above all, a pragmatic nation.

However, not all foreign policy issues are so far removed from Shanghai’s attention as Middle East politics. Events involving the balance of power vis-a-vis the United States or Japan are more likely to engender interest. China’s economic ascendance is covered so comprehensively that retired grandmothers in the park display a surprisingly robust appreciation of key macroeconomic issues.

Domestically, there is also strikingly little interest in actively seeking political reform. The causes of this reticence can be attributed to cultural, structural and economic dimensions. Culturally, Chinese are relatively hesitant to challenge authority, be it in the home, the office or the government. A young office worker is as unlikely to request a promotion as is he inclined to public demonstration. Even when Chinese privately complain of government corruption or rising prices -- as they often do -- the possibility of protest does not enter the conversation.

Of course, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has erected an impressive array of structural impediments to public demonstration. A small army of Internet censors removes provocative content and monitors social media networks for signs of nascent coordination. Facebook, Twitter and an assortment of smaller networking and file sharing websites are banned. Print and television media are likewise heavily regulated and monitored. This may be considered the soft side of the CCP’s defense against inconvenient ideas.

There is also a hard side, as was apparent during the recently attempted Chinese version of the “Jasmine Revolution”. Despite the organizers’ inability to reach and mobilize a large following (thanks largely to Internet censors), the gathering points were preemptively saturated with hundreds of police officers. Beijing is clearly unwilling to allow the smallest buds of public activism to develop.

Economic factors are also at play. While life remains difficult for many farmers, laborers and recent college graduates, incomes are rising quickly. The government has demonstrated its awareness of the danger of a widening income gap by seeking to double the minimum wage nationwide by 2015. This is part of a larger move to increase the importance of consumption relative to investments, a move that should simulate the emergence of a middle class.

Shanghai is prosperous relative to the Chinese average, but it is also relatively expensive. Given the importance of owning (or at least renting) a decent apartment prior to marriage, housing prices are a constant concern for bachelors. Recent droughts in the north and floods in the south have driven up food prices, which had already been rising at a worrisome clip. Nonetheless, abject poverty is rare and there does not exist in Shanghai, or in most of China, the sense of economic stagnation that helped spur the Egyptian protests.

Finally, China’s rising economic and political clout help moderate political sentiments. The Chinese form a proud nation, and the Shanghainese may be the proudest among them. So long as China’s economy and international stature continue to march forward, the government will enjoy emotional legitimacy. Should the long march falter, the streets might indeed become alive. For now, politically at least, the Shanghainese remain a small people with their own concerns.

Erik Walenza-Slabe is pursuing a joint MA International Affairs and MBA and was a Sigur Center Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellow last summer for Chinese language study in China.


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