It's almost been a week since I landed in Beijing and I'm still getting over the jetlag. For the past few days I've been getting settled into my new city: got internet access, bought a phone card, scouted out nearby food sources, attended 2 meetups, tutored my first student, and got lost twice on the way to Tsinghua. Luckily I haven't needed to pull out my smog masks yet.
I've already met quite a few characters with great stories to tell. On the flight here, I had a long conversation with Mr. Li who sat next to me. He was a Beijing native and a product manager for a large tech company, on his way back from a business trip. He had spent a few years in Canada before moving back home, realizing that it was easier to find a job in Asia after the tech bubble. We talked about everything from China's state capitalism, to government accountability, to healthcare. Here are some interesting points about Chinese society and thoughts he had on the political system:
- State capitalism: China Telecom, China Unicom, and China Mobile are the three state-owned telecommunications giants in the country. China Mobile is state-owned in name, although its operations and organizational structure follow more of the Western style. It has more than 10x the revenue of China Telecom and China Unicom combined.
- Medical insurance: Both public and private insurance exists. Public insurance is available to all, although it provides very little coverage and has many limitations (eg. only allowed to use domestically produced medications, etc). People who have private insurance can be fully covered, but they are required to go to state-owned hospitals for treatment. There are essentially three categories of hospitals: state-owned, private (low-end), and private (high-end). Due to the minimal coverage of public insurance, it's often cheaper to go to the low-end private hospital which charges less but has very poor service.
- Failure of democracy in China: Some people would be surprised to hear that democracy actually exists in parts of China. Village elections occur in rural areas to choose local leaders; however, corruption is widespread. Candidates have no qualms about going door-to-door, bribing voters for support by promising them money. Winning candidates often misuse government money to create their own businesses and become very wealthy. Due to poor government transparency and accountability, villagers often do not realize they are being robbed. Once the elected leaders are wealthy enough to gain control over other important companies and even the local police, most people do not dare to speak out against them in fear of losing their jobs and their own safety. The cycle continues in subsequent elections. The lack of law enforcement and third party auditing of government finances has allowed for rampant government corruption at the local level.
- Power of Netizens: With rapidly growing social media platforms like Weibo, Chinese citizens are taking it upon themselves to sniff out corrupt government officials. In one case, the Head of EHS (environment, health, and safety) was photographed at an accident site. Bloggers immediately noticed that he was wearing a luxury watch worth thousands of yuan and grew suspicious about how he could afford it with his public official salary. Their suspicions of corruption grew as they found other internet images of him wearing many different types of luxury watches. The flood of outraged netizens put pressure on the government to hold a press conference, in which the Head of EHS said that his son owned a company and gave him the watches as presents. This motivated netizens to start researching his son and eventually the government was forced to implement a full investigation. The official was eventually sued for bribery. (A related news article)
- Thoughts on Ai Wei Wei (Chinese artist famous for criticizing the Chinese government): Originally the Chinese public appreciated artists like Ai Wei Wei for having the courage to speak out about issues in China; however, many people now see him as a puppet for foreign countries to push their pro-democratic agenda onto China. Mr. Li doesn't view Ai Wei Wei's work as anything extraordinary, and believes he only gained recognition because of foreign support for his political thoughts. He is frustrated that the artist only focuses on all of China's weaknesses and doesn't recognize the many improvements that the country has made.
- Thoughts on China's political system: "Look at what happened to Eastern Europe when they adopted democracy - not much has improved. We've tried democracy at the village level and see how much it's been abused. The CCP has its drawbacks, but with a multi-party democracy things could be much worse. I prefer reform over revolution. I hope that China can move in the direction of the high efficiency government that Singapore has in place.I quite like the National party that's in power in Taiwan now. They believe in peace and cooperation with China, in contrast with the Democratic Party. The Democratic party was too aggressive in its mission to become democratic and was against a unified China. The years it was in power, the economy in Taiwan did poorly.
China just wants its people to live peacefully as a unified nation. Right now it's not ready for democracy - society is not yet developed enough and would likely abuse the system like what we see at the village elections. There are many factors that cause this - the lack of understanding about the spirit of democracy, lack of education, and the fact that many people are still poor and act in self-interest.
For the government to improve, the most important requirement is third party auditing of its budget. There is also too much bureaucracy and lack of internal communication. It's not clear which offices have what responsibility, causing ambiguity and little accountability.
My concern is over how long China's strength will last. The CCP is changing, but we're not sure what direction its headed. We fear what happened to the Soviet Union and are wary of making the same mistakes."