Individual efforts count in social progress

Updated: 2012-01-14 07:49

By Zhu Yuan (China Daily)

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Chinese scholar Xiong Peiyun's new book, You The Freedom (Ziyou Zai Gaochu), elaborates on how an individual can live a better life by adopting a positive attitude toward life. "Making the best use of the freedom you have is as important as the efforts to strive for the freedom you want," is what the author said in a recent interview.

Freelancer Han Han says something similar in his blog, posted at the end of last year, sparking an online debate on the subject of "revolution, democracy and freedom".

What touches me most is what Han Han says about grassroots people's apathy for terms such as "freedom and democracy". They hate corruption because it is not they who are the beneficiaries. They would never use the terms "freedom and democracy" unless the terms apply to their fights against infringement of their interests or rights.

Looking back at the violent revolutions in the more than 2,000 years of China's history, which we usually refer to as "peasant uprisings" in textbooks, none brought about democracy and freedom in modern sense of the terms for ordinary people.

On this issue, I agree with Xiong Peiyun and Han Han: revolution is the last thing this country and its people need now. Instead, we need reforms, which will change Chinese society for the better, slowly but certainly.

It is naive for some intellectuals to assume that they know what the majority of the people want and they tend to amplify the benefits institutional change bring about for individuals.

In the transition from planned to market economy and from an ideology-dominated to an increasingly pluralistic society, it is natural for China with one-fifth of the world's population to face problems such as abuse of power by government officials, widening gap between the haves and have-nots and unfair redistribution of social wealth.

They are compounded by the four interrelated problems of poverty, ignorance, selfishness and lack of ability for self-governance, which Y.C. James Yen had summed up as the principal cause of the country's underdevelopment. To a certain extent, they are still a major obstacle to China's healthy economic development and social progress.

Neither history nor the present times offer enough reasons to justify that a revolution would help solve all the problems. We know what has happened in Iraq, where the United States' intervention overthrew Saddam Hussein but left the country in a messy, with fears of a civil war among sectarian factions looming large. We know, too, what is happening in the countries shaken by the "Arab Spring".

Building democracy is like building a massive mansion. The better and more solid the mansion is, the longer and more complicated the process will be. That every brick, from those in the foundation to the ones on top, needs to be sound in quality is a prerequisite for such a structure. Or else, it will collapse in no time.

Individuals are the bricks. They, as individuals, need to know how to better use the freedom they are enjoying, how to protect their own interests in the right way and should have the awareness to perform their duties as citizens for public good. Among other things, there is much to be desired from the majority of individuals when it comes to these qualities.

This may be where Xiong's book and Han Han's articles are most relevant: every individual needs to learn how to make his/her life meaningful as a citizen.

Of course, this does not mean that the government has reason to shirk its responsibilities to be more transparent and provide efficient governance.

What has happened in Wukan village in Guangdong province, where a peaceful demonstration by local villagers against the local government compelled the higher authorities to probe into allegations of abuse of power and infringement upon villagers' interests by village heads, is an example of what well-intentioned citizens' endeavor will facilitate and how it will expedite the higher-ups to do what is right.

Behind almost all aspects of social progress China has seen in the past few decades can be found the endeavors of individuals. For example, cases of individuals dragging the Ministry of Railways to court have forced it to amend the unfair rules on tickets' sales and refunds on cancellations, which have helped improve the service.

A violent revolution cannot be expected to achieve all these. Instead, regression will be the result as seen in the aftermath of "peasant uprisings" in China and elsewhere.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily.

(China Daily 01/14/2012 page5)