Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The End of HIstory: Coming to China?

To my astonishment, I found tears streaming down my face this morning as I read the NYT account of Chinese parents whose children were crushed under collapsed school buildings in the earthquake last week unleashing their rage at local government officials. The tears were mainly -- but not, I think, solely -- a matter of empathy for bereft parents. Something else is afoot -- a sense that the rage of those parents, allowed only one child by a state they believe to have countenanced shoddy school construction, may be the first tremor of a political earthquake.

On Tuesday, an informal gathering of parents at Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan to commemorate their children gave way to unbridled fury. One of the fathers in attendance, a quarry worker named Liu Lifu, grabbed the microphone and began calling for justice. His 15-year-old daughter, Liu Li, was killed along with her entire class during a biology lesson.

“We demand that the government severely punish the killers who caused the collapse of the school building,” he shouted. “Please, everyone sign the petition so we can find out the truth.” [snip]

Gauging from the outbursts of recent days, any delay will only embolden infuriated parents. In their confrontation with Communist Party officials on Saturday, the parents encircled the vice secretary of the Mianzhu city government and called her a liar for her report on the destruction of the Fuxin school that failed to mention that 127 students had been killed.

“Why can’t you do the right things for us?” they shouted. “Why do you cheat us?” For the next 20 minutes they screamed at her until she passed out and had to be carried away by an aide.

The next day, the parents directed their ire at Mr. Jiang. When his answers proved unsatisfying, they began their march to Chengdu. Mr. Jiang dropped to the ground several times and begged them to stop. “Please believe the Mianzhu Party committee can resolve the issue,” he said. They kept walking.

Three hours later, the police tried to intervene. During the ensuing struggle, the broken glass from the framed pictures of dead children left several parents bleeding. After a tense standoff, the marchers agreed to board government buses to Deyang, the county seat. There, they met with the vice mayor, who promised he would start an investigation the following day.

While it's impossible to read this account without feeling the parents' unspeakable grief, it's also astonishing to witness (from a great distance) an accelerated political coming of age. These people would seem to be beyond fear of consequences, beyond inbred deference to authority. They also seem to have tasted enough prosperity, and enough hope, and enough progress in the society around them, to make a short leap, under agonizing stimulus, to holding their government accountable.

In the past few years, as authoritarianism has made something of a worldwide comeback fueled in large part by petrodollars, it's become fashionable to scoff at Francis Fukuyama's argument, developed in detail in The End of History and the Last Man (1992), that after the collapse of communism human society is moving inexorably toward liberal democracy. Fukuyama sees sheer competitive pressure driving underdeveloped societies, first toward capitalism, and then, as economic growth creates a middle class, toward democracy As wealth accumulates in an authoritarian free market country, Fukuyama suggests, a critical mass of people acquire both the means and the motivation to ensure that they can't be robbed or stymied by an unaccountable government.

Citing rapid economic growth in China, Russia and parts of the Middle East, many have questioned recently whether societies with no prior democratic tradition can't continue to rapidly accumulate wealth without ceding political power to the people. Not forever. Those parents cut by the glass enclosing their dead children's portraits, negotiating a meeting with the vice mayor and obtaining his promise to start an investigation the next day, know something about government accountability.

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