A Fascinating Chinese View of the Occupy Movement

By James Fallows

(See update below.) For an essay that says interesting things about America, and even more interesting ones about China, please check out a new dispatch at China Geeks. It is a translation, by Alec Ash, of a Chinese essay by Wu Yun called "Let's 'Occupy Chang'An Avenue.' " To get the joke you mainly need to know that Chang'An -- "Eternal Peace" -- Avenue runs between Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in Beijing, so it is shorthand for the Chinese locus of combined political/financial power.

More later on the background of the essay. A few highlights: Initially much of the Chinese media portrayed the Occupy movement as yet another sign of America's decadence and imminent collapse. The author disagrees:

Democracy clearly has its flaws, but OWS shows not the defects of democracy but its advantages. That protestors do not "go missing" [as they have this year in China] is thanks to the benefits of democracy, and the lack of violent conflict or loss of social order is an example of its accomplishments. The US government has not condemned nor suppressed, but rather sympathised* with the movement, nor have the crowds challenged the legitimacy of the government or the democratic system itself. Rather, OWS is happening precisely within that democratic framework.

In other words: we must change our perspective and see this demonstration as a rational expression of democracy, and the normal activity of a healthy society rather than the upheaval of it....

The essay even has an unexpected answer to the standard left critique that Obama economic policy went too soft on the bankers:

After the subprime mortgage crisis, the US government had no choice but to bail out the banks - if they hadn't, the consequences would have been even more disastrous. Some say the bailout was in collusion with financial oligarchs, but we have no cause for complacency because the Chinese economic stimulus cost us just as dear. The difference is: how much money we paid out and where and how it was used was not approved by Congress, let alone made accountable to the Chinese taxpayer. 

And, the world round, essays about foreign events are often platforms for talking about one's home country. Sure enough:

Just because China has no demonstrations like this, it doesn't mean it has no problems...

On Wall Street, angry young men protest the market monopoly of a few capitalist bigwigs, condemning these oligarchical as predators of the economy. Unfortunately, China's oligarchical establishment far outdoes America's. The state-owned enterprises that monopolise the Chinese market are for the most part controlled by so-called "princelings" and their relatives. Publicly-owned enterprises nominally belong to the people but in reality, besides raising consumer prices as they like, they have no connection with the people whatsoever....

Financial supervision may be weak in America, but at least the public can protest and Obama can do something about it. In China, the bad debts of banks and levels of corruption among regulators and executives are so dreadful that we daren't make them public. The inequality gap may be large in America but it pales in comparison to China's. [JF: Surprising to most people outside China, but true. As is the next sentence.] America may have scant social security but China has virtually no social security at all.

A view in China and America of protest as a sign of social health would be encouraging about both countries and about their ability to deal with each other. For the opposite view by Chinese officialdom, as I saw it earlier this year in Beijing, see this article. But check out this new one.
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* Update: A Chinese reader wrote to correct to an earlier version of this translated sentence. Previously it said "has not condemned, suppressed, nor sympathised with the movement."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/12/a-fascinating-chinese-view-of-the-occupy-movement/249737/