History belies tranquillity as long-term vista for mainland

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 April, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 April, 2002, 12:00am

LARGE MULTINATIONAL corporations frequently talk up their long-term commitment to China, emphasising investment horizons as long as 50 years.

Such bland statements of confidence have become so routine that most chief executives mutter them reflexively, especially when in the presence of high-ranking mainland officials.

But how many senior corporate executives have really thought through all of the assumptions implicit in such professions of faith? Any multinational which claims to be in China 'for the long-haul' - as another common cliche has it - is basically predicting decades of political stability.

Yet even amateur students of mainland history know that, if the past is any guide to the future, it is probably in for - to quote an old Chinese curse - 'interesting times'.

People who believe that China is destined to become the next economic superpower are basically taking the mainland's admittedly impressive achievements in the past 20 years and projecting them forward indefinitely.

Yet it was only 30 years ago that Deng Xiaoping was sent by the Gang of Four to labour in a Jiangxi tractor factory. Go back farther than that and the cataclysms - encompassing everything from famines to cultural and political revolutions - are separated by even shorter intervals.

In other words, the historical track record has repeatedly demonstrated the inability of its rigid political structure to manage fast-paced economic and social change without turbulence.

None of this is to argue that China is about to collapse - another extreme argument that is as flawed as predictions of the country's supposedly imminent superpower status. Indeed, those who think China is a safe place to invest billions of dollars during the coming decades may be proven right.

But unless they are genuinely convinced China's political system will evolve in such a manner as to avoid the political earthquakes which have rocked it so frequently in the past, then their confidence is based on little more than wishful thinking.

Last week, foreign journalists and diplomats in Guangzhou were given a rare opportunity to witness one way in which China's political system might become more flexible and responsive to the profound economic and social changes swirling about it.

At Changban village on the city's northeastern outskirts, 1,312 of 1,317 registered voters turned out to elect a new village committee - responsible for managing Changban's considerable communal assets which generate an annual revenue stream of more than 20 million yuan (about HK$18.74 million).

Watching democracy with Chinese characteristics is an enlightening - and frequently entertaining - experience.

For one thing, Changban's election was remarkably clean, especially in the eyes of a correspondent whose Boston-Irish forefathers clawed their way to power through inspired electoral chicanery.

Changban's voters were given 10 yuan each for voting. But this was an above-the-table subsidy. In poor villages that - unlike rich Changban - cannot afford to give cash subsidies for voting, the route to voters' hearts is through their stomachs rather than their wallets.

In such villages, election committees often try to entice voters to the polls by barbecuing a pig and frying up noodles.

Changban's villagers ticked off their secret ballots in makeshift classroom polling stations, with each booth separated from its neighbours by - ironically - red, white and blue plastic sheeting.

Anyone who wanted could watch the vote-count, which was tallied for everyone to see on large chalkboards.

The process was so clean that James Michael Curly, the 'rascal king' of mid-20th century Boston politics who once won re-election while serving a federal prison sentence for mail fraud, and three Boston-Irish supporters could have stolen Changban's election.

But being dead is not necessarily a barrier to electoral office. It certainly never stopped the Boston-Irish from voting.

A United States diplomatic observer also monitoring Changban's squeaky clean election said: 'Give them time to discover electoral fraud. They're still new at this.'

A Singaporean businessman who has invested in a factory near Changban was impressed.

'I think this is a really good educational experience for the villagers. Hopefully, we Singaporeans will also one day have such an opportunity.'

But do elections at the village level foreshadow the emergence of a more supple political system and - as a consequence - less risk for foreign investors? Probably not.

Voters were concerned with village issues and - in particular - with the size of the dividend they reap each year from the management of Changban's communal assets.

The mainland's 20-year run of luck notwithstanding (does anybody still remember Tiananmen?), China's political system remains as brittle as ever.

'. . .their confidence is based on little more than wishful thinking'