"In short, when citizens in non-Western countries clamor for democracy, there is no reason to suspect elitism or Western manipulation or false consciousness. Not everything familiar is a sign of cultural imperialism. This is not to deny that power differentials continue to structure the relationship between the West and the East, but rather to suggest that overcoming the discourse of “us” and “them” will open up more promising avenues for responding to domination."
- Loubna El Amine, "Are 'democracy' and 'human rights' Western colonial exports? No. Here's Why," Washington Post
I'm sharing this from Taipei, where it was so refreshing yesterday to hear a 65 yr-old taxi driver tell me about the last 8 times he’s gone to the street to protest government corruption or corporate actions that overlook local wellbeing (buying votes, building unwelcome plants in harmful places, etc). “Democracy isn’t just a word,” 司机阿伯 said, “It’s something the people have to fight for. We pay the taxes - the country is ours."
The most compelling thing about liberal democratic society, to me, is this sense of responsible citizenship and reciprocal respect. You have a stake in your country. You pay taxes. The country is yours. If the authorities are doing wrong, you can speak. Pull them back. Demand accountability. You should care. You are worth something. This place is for you and your flourishing. Go for it. You may not achieve change, but there are laws and institutions in place to protect you from being hurt and forcibly silenced.
The impact is not what Chinese media and mainlanders think, that giving social space will lead to chaos and civil war. It’s that people feel like they have a stake in their country. I see it in the strength of Taiwanese civil society, people mobilizing voluntarily to ask questions about their system and the world’s systems, feeling responsible and taking personal action to create equality, inclusion and opportunity for the least and the marginalized.
I see the opposite in China, an overwhelming sentiment of numbness, disempowerment, and lethargy toward politics, enhanced by 12+ years of forced participation in “Marxist-Leninist theory” classes and contrived public events that reek of authoritarian doublespeak. The smartest kids in the nation’s top university all know that they are reciting maxims about 为人民服务 and empowering the worker while thousands of strikes and labor protests and silenced and suppressed. “We know it’s hypocritical, and no one believes in the positive propaganda either,” my classmates tell me. “But who am I to do anything about it?"
It’s manipulative and reductive when authorities and state media label and dismiss dissenters as “Western,” as if any demand for limited state power means alignment with Western imperialism, colonialism, and secret CIA plans to overthrow the government. When I meet the activists and protestors in Tunisia and other "Arab Spring" countries, most are vehemently against imperialism, the remnants of unjust colonial structures and hypocritical U.S.-led interventionism, including economic forms of neoliberal policy that exacerbate inequality and leave the شعب and 老百姓 disempowered. Saying these people are provoked and funded by Western plotters is disingenuous and illogical. It paints over a legitimate cry for human dignity with a false equation of public dissent (or in the case of China, even the prior step of having civil society) with outside interference. Usually this is coupled with nationalistic posturing so the state is portrayed as saving the country from the unwanted evil of Western-fomented "color revolution."
Western imperialism, colonialism, interventionism, hypocrisy and history of promoting regime change are real and must be held to account. But states that exploit the anti-imperialism narrative to silence their people are practicing their own form of oppression. Chinese people tend to say, "自己管自己家的事。Each family minds their own family's business." What happens, though, when the family's children are silenced, beaten, and not even treated as human, let alone valued members who carry the family's future?
What bothers me beyond the suppression of speech, assembly and protest is the effect on youth, who are at the height of potential but tell me they feel no power or worth on their own. My aged 阿伯 taxi driver spoke with more verve and optimism - despite and because of his rants about Taiwan's problems and how he feels able to protest them - than any of the millennials I've met over 7 months in Beijing. I am worried and sad to hear what my young Chinese friends tell me instead: "I'm nothing without my country. What can you do as an individual? You belong to the country. The country doesn't belong to you."