Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

Change of political weather [Straits Times]


A commentary by Chinese historian Wang Gungwu draws lessons from the Chinese language through the window on how Chinese see the paradigm of change. Anyone thinking that an Egypt is about to occur in China should read this. By addressing the parallels of an explosion for democracy some have painted between Egypy and China, he says, ‘China is not Egypt, and biantian 变天- making changes to meet Heaven’s wishes – is not something that any Chinese should fear.’

He also adds, ‘In China, the stress has been on concerns for stability. The range of emotions on display in Cairo’s Tahrir – or Liberation – Square was largely downplayed. Not surprisingly, words such as freedom, democracy and revolution were not to be found in Chinese reports.’

– – –

Change of political weather
By Wang Gungwu
Source – Straits Times, published February 16, 2011

Photo - ST

One aspect of the reports deserves attention: These noted that China’s media kept its reporting of the events in Cairo low-key and that the word ‘Egypt’ was kept off the Internet. Ever since the middle of last month, when the Tunisian President fell, the Western media has noted what the Chinese press has failed to report.

In China, the stress has been on concerns for stability. The range of emotions on display in Cairo’s Tahrir – or Liberation – Square was largely downplayed. Not surprisingly, words such as freedom, democracy and revolution were not to be found in Chinese reports.

However, in anticipation of President Hosni Mubarak’s departure, Chinese blogs did compare Liberation Square with Tiananmen. The consensus was that China was different from Egypt but that there were lessons to be learnt.

At one extreme, as one might expect, there were voices calling on the Chinese people to see what the Egyptian people had achieved and thus not be afraid. At the other, there were sober assessments of the damage done to Egypt’s economy.

Among the many comments in between were reminders that the income inequality in China had become more obvious, that efforts to limit widespread corruption were superficial, and that political reform had not been pursued as promised. Others chose to emphasise the need for China’s economy to grow further.

Wherever possible, people were finding reasons to say why China was different from Egypt, although much remained to be done in China. Underlying all the commentary was the idea that change was normal and always to be expected. Nothing can remain the same for long.

That belief comes from the classic of change, the Yijing , and is an idea that the Chinese people have lived with and believed in since their civilisation emerged over 3,000 years ago.

But the popular word for change is not yi but bian , now a powerful word employed in many contexts. One of its recent uses is captured in the term biantian , a changed sky or heaven.

This is derived from innocent references to sudden changes in the weather. Especially in our era of global warming and climate change, it is a term appropriate for describing the sudden snowfalls and unseasonable floods and droughts that have been reported everywhere.

But biantian has also been used in the language of politics, notably for regime change. The term is notoriously imprecise. It was first applied to the overthrow of reactionary rulers. Mao Zedong approved its use for the fall of the Manchu ‘bureaucratic state’ as well as of the inept and corrupt Kuomintang regime, but the word did not become popular.

Probably in retaliation, Taiwanese politicians popularised a variation of the term, bianse , using change to refer to changes of colour – for example, from blue to red, a reference to when the ‘red’ communists won on the mainland in 1949, overthrowing the ‘blue’ Kuomintang.

Recently, the word has also been used in Taiwan to describe dramatic changes via the ballot box – as in blue to green when Mr Chen Shui-bian won the Taiwanese presidency in 2000, and back from green to blue when Mr Ma Ying-jeou won eight years later.

For such changes, no matter how dramatic, words such as revolution and liberation do not apply. Biantian can represent change without violence and bloodshed. Thus the word has even been applied to the election of Mr Barack Obama as President of the United States, a dramatic and once unthinkable event that put an African-American in the White House.

This term has since been used to describe what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt. The blogs using the word reflect the hope that peaceful biantian can occur in China in ways that will not threaten stability.

By implication, this suggests that the Chinese leadership need not fear instability when it responds more tangibly to the people’s wishes for justice and respect.

But will the usage of the word in this context be accepted in China? The Chinese language is wonderfully plastic.

Biantian once had astrological connotations, alluding to the victory of the yang of light over the yin of darkness that led to the creation of all things.

In modern times, it came to refer to dramatic weather changes but also, following Mao, to the act of replacing a reactionary system with a progressive one. Today, it still captures the idea of regime change for the better.

In the word tian, heaven or sky, many Chinese would also think of change that receives Heaven’s blessing and is thus a righteous cause. And as major Chinese philosophers since Confucius and Mencius have all proclaimed: The mandate to rule comes from seeing the people’s wellbeing as the source of social harmony.

China is not Egypt, and biantian – making changes to meet Heaven’s wishes – is not something that any Chinese should fear.

The writer is the chairman of the East Asia Institute, NUS. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight leading figures in Singapore’s tertiary and research institutions.

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Filed under: Beijing Consensus, Chinese Model, Culture, Democracy, Domestic Growth, Education, Egypt, Environment, Human Rights, Internet, Media, Nationalism, People, Politics, Reform, Social, Soft Power, Straits Times, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities

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