Do the Chinese need authoritarianism?

politics and culture — By on April 27, 2009 at 6:02 pm

That was the sentiment of some recent comments by movie star Jackie Chan, who suggested that the Chinese people weren’t ready to deal with too much freedom or liberty. His statement, predictably, ignited a firestorm of protest. 

“I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled,” Mr. Chan said during the Boao Forum,the annual economic conference held on Hainan Island with a keynote speech by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. “If we are not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.”

The response was strongest in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which Mr. Chan, one of Asia’s wealthiest and best-known entertainers, held out as particularly “chaotic.” But even some intellectuals in mainland China spoke out against stereotyping Chinese as people who crave authoritarian leadership.

Apple Daily,one of Hong Kong’s biggest newspapers, used its front page to anoint him “a knave.” Politicians in Taiwan, the self-governing democratic island that China claims as sovereign territory, described him as “idiotic” and “ignorant.” Albert Ho, a Hong Kong legislator, called Mr. Chan a “racist,” adding: “People around the world are running their own countries. Why can’t Chinese do the same?”

Chan’s comments are a bit absurd, on one hand. After all, who would suggest that any people weren’t equipped to deal with freedom? But it does bring up an interesting cultural conversation, as there are some cultural specialists, and even many Chinese, who will tell you that some group-oriented cultures just aren’t as comfortable with a freewheeling, anything goes type of society. In that sense, his comments do have a kernel of truth to them, eve if they miss the bigger picture of where the world stands on such topics. As the rest of the story notes:

On the other hand, few have publicly acknowledged that Mr. Chan’s sentiments, even if “taken out of context,” as his spokesman insisted, are quietly accepted or embraced by many Chinese. The Communist Party has long argued that the people of China are ill suited for Western-style democracy…Give the people too long a leash, the thinking goes, and everyone will end up strangled.

Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based analyst of Chinese politics, said that there was a prevailing sentiment in the Chinese-speaking world that too much freedom could only fuel disharmony and instability, viewed as archenemies of China’s drive to put economic development first.

“Jackie Chan said those things because he thinks they are true, and there are major sections of society who couldn’t agree with him more,” Mr. Moses said. “But such thinking is increasingly out of touch with this simmering debate about what the extent of state authority should be.”

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