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Only Reasonable Politics Can Turn Trouble Makers into True Citizens

Feb 20, 2011

Premier Wen Jiabao  brought a group of people from various ministries and commissions to the State Bureau for Letters and Calls yesterday.  This is the top office for voicing grievances to the government and he spoke with petitioners there.  Xinhua reported that this is the first time for a premier of our republic to speak face to face with people who traveled to Beijing to speak with higher officials.

From a different perspective it can also be said that this is the first time for a premier in our republic to demonstrate publicly how the government ought to listen to people’s concerns and how to have a rational conversation about it.  Or one might rather say that this is the first time a premier has set a public example of a government which reasons with people.

Petitioners, especially those who have to travel to the capital, are seen as trouble makers in the eyes of some officials.  Trouble makers are essentially instigators and there is no way to have a normal conversation with this type of person.  These officials routinely employ various tactics to deal with them, such as using violent means to cut their visits short and using the notorious security firm Anyuanding(安元鼎)to round them up.  These people are also sometimes labeled mental misfits and are “re-educated” through hard labor.  Methods used to deter and maintain stability are not limited to petitions.  They are used against anyone who is seen as a critic and this has become a  conventional part civic administration for some who are in power.  This has led to a proliferation of cross provincial renditions, and the ravings of a certain cadre from Chongqing who claimed, “It is evil to oppose the government.”  In other words, they feel they must have a knife in their hands that they can wield freely. Without this kind of weapon, they cannot make people fear them which undermines their authority.  It prevents efficient governance, not to mention development.

Letting people freely express their grievances is in essence to let them have a rational conversation with the government.  This is a restriction on power which nurtures a more modern government and is a prerequisite for civilized politics.  Finding a way to allow people to express their complaints freely and have a reasonable discussion with officials is one of the keys to the advancement of Chinese politics and society.

It was on this point that Premier Wen set the best example when he met face to face with petitioners yesterday.  He was calm and collected while being confronted with criticisms and appeals.  If it is possible for the highest officials in this land to dialogue with those who come from the humblest circumstances, then what low level government office or cadre has the right to refuse a rational conversation with members of the public?  Speaking in this way ought to become a norm for those in power and a rational government should become China’s standard for politics.  This is one important message we can take away from Premier Wen’s meeting with the petitioners.

If a government wants to have a rational dialogue it must rely on reason to govern society and not the coercive power of the state apparatus.  Mr. Dong Biwu [董必武] spoke to this point very clearly a half century ago when he said the government’s authority is not predicated on the fear of the public but their trust.  For the government to earn their trust, they need to speak rationally and there needs to be justice without any partiality.  This kind of accumulated credit ought to be a government’s largest source of capital.  Absent this everything else is at its core a fabrication.  There is nothing to rely on and there can be no lasting peace and security.

This is to say that the people have the innate right to ask the question of right and wrong of anything when it comes to government affairs.  This is not something officials have the choice to put up with but rather they must respond with the utmost respect. Under a modern government, the people are like heaven and their will is like the will of heaven.  To show contempt for this or to rule contrary to this is to disdain heaven.  It is tantamount to treason and it is supremely unethical and utterly illegal.  This should be the most fundamental common political knowledge for our cadres.  On a certain level, Premier Wen used his physical presence to teach this.

Knowledge, however, is not enough.  There is a realistic order to administration that underpins everything, which is guaranteed especially through legal procedures.  This includes a government’s reverence for the right to criticize, respect for the supplications of their people, and an instinct to speak rationally with the public.  The will of the people may be the will of heaven but this will cannot be abstract and ambiguous.  It should have substance and specificity.  It should be measurable and verifiable.  And this is not all that complicated.  This problem was solved long ago with modern governing techniques.  An accurate count and unimpeded expression of the will of the people can be guaranteed if there is a set of strict procedures to follow.  Then petitioners would have no need to petition.  They could simply make a phone call to their local representative who would pay a visit to their home.  The media might also report on the situation.  And if that didn’t work, one could resort to the legal system.  This natural flow of public sentiment is an effortless way to promote good public policies that influence the whole of the nation and it can easily make politics a bit more sober.

The most important thing to note is that this kind of rational political process is extremely well suited to fostering a more rational populace.  China has not lacked political passion over the last hundred years but it has lacked a rational citizenry.  When political passions are driven by an unreasonable population it is a terrible passion to behold, often leaving disasters in its wake.  This has proved itself out many times over the course of history.

But the so-called trouble makers of today are precisely the ones who posses the most potential.  They perhaps are a precious resource in our country because they have the strongest awareness of their rights and of what rational conversation with government should look like. Rigorous legal procedures could ensure their right to speak on reasonable terms and satisfy their demands to be heard.  It would convince them through personal experience that having a rational dialogue with the government poses no risk.  It would seem a viable and useful option, and one that is dignified.  They would see government in a new light and respect it.  They would become conscientious cooperators, thereby turning trouble makers into true citizens.

Premier Wen has already set the example.  The most pressing question now is how to translate this example into a rigorous public process that can be perpetually reproduced and operates of its own accord.

Xiao Shu is a columnist of Southern Weekly,a weekly newspaper based in Guangzhou, China. This article was first published in Southern Weekly.

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