The winds of reform are blowing in Asia at the moment. Or so it seems when one reads the headlines. Are the loosening of the authoritarian regime in Burma (sometimes called Myanmar) and the recent protests by Chinese journalists really manifestations of openness in these countries?
To first check out the longer term trends, your occasional correspondent turned to the internationally recognized indices relevant for political governance. It turned out to be depressing reading. In terms of press freedom, both Burma and China score in the bottom five percent of the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index over the past decade. The Freedom House Index, measuring political rights and civil liberties, shows similar results. In terms of corruption, represented by Transparency International’s corruption perception index, China’s result is near the middle among the world’s countries, whereas Burma is consistently cited as one of the three most corrupt countries in the index since 2004.
Despite this less than impressive showing, there are some causes for optimism on the reform front in Burma. First, although Burma’s press freedom still leaves a lot to be desired, there is improvement in the latest ranking where it now scores higher than China for the first time. Secondly, Burma’s score on civil liberties improved after the 2010 elections even though they were largely considered fraudulent by the international community. Major reforms have since taken place under new (nominally civilian) president Thein Sein, including the release from house arrest of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi who has been allowed to be elected to a seat in parliament.
What of China? The numbers do not indicate any real changes, so let’s turn to more recent events. There are small signs that the Chinese political sphere is becoming more personal and transparent, manifested for instance by allowing a statue of Hu Yaobang – the reformist whose death in 1989 sparked the Tiananmen demonstrations – to be erected last year, and the release of private family pictures of new party head Xi Jinping and other top officials. Yet, when we turn to freedom of expression, things gets confusing. Reports in December 2012 initially indicated relaxed censorship of the microblog Weibo, allowing critical comments to be posted about the incoming leadership, (although any mention of the Tiananmen massacre, Falungong and the Dalai Lama were still blocked), but this was quickly followed by a new law allowing for deletion of posts containing information deemed illegal by the authorities.
Earlier this month, the new leadership endured its first major test on (the constitutionally guaranteed!) press freedom. Reporters at the liberal newspaper Southern Weekly refused to publish an official editorial and went on strike, causing a large crowd of supporters to gather outside its headquarters in a rare demonstration against government censorship. Several popular celebrities supported the strikers on Weibo. The daily Beijing News also put up a fight by initially refusing to publish the official editorial, although editors eventually accepted a severely shortened version and did not put it in the editorial pages. The bottom line, however, is that the past few weeks have seen the most protest by Chinese journalists since 1989.
Some observers seem to think that the way in which China’s president-in-waiting Xi Jinping has handled the recent public disturbances shows that he is a reformist. Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has even compared Xi to Nelson Mandela (!), arguably the most admired politician in modern history. Although Xi has publically criticized the propaganda official responsible for trying to force the editorial on Southern Weekly, it does not necessarily mean that he is pro-reform. It may rather mean that he is pro-national stability and worried about the upheavals in the remote southern provinces, continuing the Chinese tradition of going to every length to ensure political stability, which includes repressing open dissent and criticism of the communist party.
The Southern Weekly debacle and recent public dissent by high-level, respected individuals close to the Party will test the new leadership’s intentions – and adherence to past practice. So too may the pollution levels in the capital, which reached an all-time-high earlier this month, with some areas recording scores of 900 on a scale that used to be 0 – 500 when I moved away from Beijing in 2005 – partly due to the increasing air pollution. The state-controlled media made no attempt to cover up the obvious, but instead joined the micro-bloggers in reporting on and critically evaluating the situation and how it might be improved: A transparency of sorts.
Environmental disasters have also played a political role in Burma. Cyclone Nargis that killed nearly 80,000 people in the Irrawaddy delta in 2008 has been credited with moving the reform process along. This was denied by President Thein Sein, however, in an interview with the NYT, stating that the main reason for reform was the wishes of the people. A step in this direction just this January saw the repeal of a law that has been used to ensure long prison sentences for dissidents since it was enacted in 1996. Nonetheless, many repressive laws still remain in place in Burma.
So where does this leave China and Burma in terms of their reform agendas? It is important to recognize that each country has a very different point of departure for its political development. There are growing concerns in Burma that the continued fighting between the ethnic separatist Kachin Independence Army and government troops in the north of the country will impede political stability and development, whereas Chinese separatism is mostly effectively contained. Another major difference between the countries is the basis for government legitimacy: the Chinese communist party can take credit for the remarkable economic growth over the past decades, whereas the Burmese government has to seek other ways to justify their rule. So even though Burma is currently moving faster than China on the road to reform, and with the top leadership seemingly in reform-mode, the fact remains that poverty, corruption and civil war will not help the process along.
Sometimes reform requires the right person at the right place at the right time. The reform-minded former premier Zhao Ziyang was on a state visit to North Korea during the climax of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989. When he came back the conflict between students and the government had escalated to the point of no return. (After Zhao tried to calm things down and talked directly to the students, he was ousted and spent the remainder of his life under house arrest.) Nevertheless, the demonstrations in 1989 were a trigger event that could possibly have achieved political change in China, much like the Burmese anti-government demonstrations in 2007 (sometimes called the Saffron Revolution because of the color of the protesting monks’ robes). The short term response was a total crackdown by the military in both cases, although in Burma, real change has come about within a few years of these protests.
Popular uprising will not automatically lead to political reform – history tells us that it is a necessary but insufficient factor in the change process. A weakened government helps. But the fact remains, that the gates of the Berlin wall were not opened by an administrative decision, but by the magnitude of the force banging on them – a determined and united people. How reforms continue in both Burma and China will need to recognize this potent power.
Links to governance related indexes:
Reporters Without Borders
Links to relevant articles:
Defining Boundaries (The Economist)
Chinese celebrities back Southern Weekly censorship protests (South China Morning Post)
Xi questions propaganda chief’s handling of censorship row (The Asahi Shimbun)
Suu Kyi’s party plans first Myanmar conference in Feb (Channel News Asia)
Interview with Thein Sein (New York Times)
The Ripple Effects of Mounting Violence in Kachin (cogitASIA)