Tuesday, August 4, 2009

American democracy in China

An article written in Chinese by a Chinese-American describing her experience running for the state legislator in Virginia: State Department publicity promoting American diversity? Little-read blog quietly advocating for political change in China? Nope: Nanfeng Chuang, a Chinese magazine that can be found on every newsstand here in Shanghai and in other big Chinese cities.

In what is, in my view, yet another indication of the increasing range and openness of magazine reporting in China, the article lays out, in impressive detail, the steps necessary to run for statewide political office in the US. It's not written by a political scientist or a reporter but by a Chinese-American woman named Sasha Gong (Gong Xiaoxia 龚小夏), who gained the Republican nomination for state legislature in Virginia's 46th district (her campaign site is here). She lays out her purpose in writing the article:

"Though there are many news reports [about American politics], Chinese people are still often confused when they view the American political process. Where do American candidates come from? How are political activities organized? What function does money play in American politics? How much of a voice do ordinary people have in the political process? How do political parties and social groups work together? In the following piece I hope to use my own experiences while running for office to give readers a new insight [into American politics]. (虽然有各种各样的报道,中国人看美国政治经常会有一种雾里看花的感觉。美国的政治候选人是如何产生的?竞选活动如何组织?金钱在美国政治中起什么样的作 用?普通人在政治中到底有多少发言权?政党和社会团体如何运作?在以下有限的篇幅里,我希望能够通过自己竞选的一点亲身感受来给读者提供一些新的信息。)

The article isn't analytical or editorializing in tone―it's a straightforward explanation of the process by which someone goes from thinking about running for office to actually doing it. Gong doesn't try to idealize American politics, at least not here. She gets at the nitty-gritty of how it works―getting support from the local party leadership and a myriad of groups, raising money, going from door to door getting signatures, the necessity of proving you're not a carpetbagger, the necessity of keeping an eye on your opponents to make sure they're doing everything right (so you can disqualify them from running if they're not), the importance for a party to control the state legislature for purposes such as redrawing district lines, etc., etc. This is not the stuff of a starry-eyed democratic idealist nor of a cynic fed up with it all; it's a direct explanation of the messiness of democracy in a country where the process has, paradoxically, become somewhat calcified yet still offers the possibility for sweeping change.

Gong, who became an American citizen in 2001, originally came to the country in 1987. She's the kind of immigrant who makes Americans feel warm and fuzzy inside: she wrote a book called Born American: A Chinese Woman's Dream of Liberty ("Here in the United States, she says, she can be both American and Chinese"). In her Chinese article she writes, "The United States is a country of immigrants. Immigrants have shown outstanding success in every part of America, with the exception of electoral politics, which have been more difficult." (美国是个移民国家,外国移民在各行各业都有非常出色的表现,唯独竞选政治是最困难的一项。) She also has somewhat of an activist background, putting up big character posters in the 1970s and later getting detained. In one interview with an American newspaper she said, "The communists never succeeded to shut me up and shut me off." Definitely prime election material.

None of that kind of stuff, of course, makes it into the Chinese article, but the fact that such a person is publishing in a widely read Chinese magazine is impressive enough.

Incidentally, thinking about her candidacy from the American perspective, it strikes me that people like Gong might be the future of the Republican party. In the article she writes, "I clearly indicated to the [Republican] Speaker of the House that when it came to social issues like gay rights, abortion rights, and gun restriction, I lean more towards the Democratic party. But I support the Republican party's stance on conservative fiscal policy, resisting limitless government power, and the guiding principle of 'big society, small government.'" (我对议长表示了参选的愿望,并明确指出我在社会政策――同性恋平权、妇女堕胎权、枪支管制――这类问题上更倾向于民主党的立场,但是我支持共和党保守的财政政策,反对政府权力和规模不断扩大,坚持"大社会、小政府"的方针。) Similarly, in the American interview mentioned above, she says, "I came from the worst kind of big government. I'm naturally very suspicious of any government that grows too big. And I think our federal government is growing too big. I also want people with faces like mine―minorities―to have more voices." Many immigrants, after all, are conservative in many ways; if the Republican party can break away from its image as a white party and focus less its social messages, I bet it could attract more and more people like Sasha Gong.

But enough political analyzing. I'll end with translations of a few Chinese comments about Gong's article from this blog. I tried in vain to find a comment critical of the article, though this is just a small sample.

"Not bad, it gives Chinese people an idea of how American democracy really works, and makes it clear to Chinese what it means when power genuinely comes from the people." (不错,让中国人真正地体会美国的民主是如何形成的,让中国人明白什么是真正的权力来自于人民的含义。)

"This is what a real democratic election looks like! It's not at all like our muddleheaded electorate! American party discipline is loose [i.e. decentralized], probably because the state treasury doesn't squander all the public money? Ha ha ha…" (这才是真正的民主选举!不像咱们稀里糊涂当选民!美国的党纪律松散,大约是由于没有国库银子供挥霍的缘故吧?哈哈哈……)

"Very focused and thorough" (很有针对性呀.很透彻)

"Very interesting. Your experience should be required reading for the whole country." (有意思。你的经历会成为全国人民学习的教材。)

"A country's strength does not reside in how big its financial resources are! It resides in how well off the people are and how lofty their spirit is! A democratic system is the most desirable one! I hope more people can be introduced to American political life. Thanks for your article!" (一个国家 的强大不是体现在国家有多少财力!而是体现在人民生活的富裕和精神世界的高尚!而民主制度又显现最要的作用!希望楼主以后多介绍在美国的政治生活。谢谢你的文章!)

"[Quote from the article:] 'Local political organization and activities are very independent. There may be some interaction [with the national party] at the surface, but this does not involve receiving orders from above.' This is very important!!!! In China the higher-level authorities give orders to the lower level, and the result is that the lower level is the slave of the higher level! The activities of officials are all for the benefit of the higher authorities. Not even a little bit is for the common people!" ("地方组织的活动都是独立的,上面一级的机构可以作点建议,但是却不能下命令" 这点非常重要啊!!!!
中国就是上级命令下级,所以导致下级都成了上级奴隶! 中国官员做事都是为了上级的脸色,没有几个是为老百姓办事的!)

"In fact, everyone knows that in this world there is no perfect system and there is no complete justice. What we need is to guarantee the [integrity and rules of the] system and be relatively fair. But at the moment these two necessities do not exist in China." (事实上人人都知道这世上没有完美的制度和绝对的公平,我们需要的是有保障的制度和相对的公平,但目前的中国这两样都没有)

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