Follow the guide and follow the state

Sanne van Oosten

When in China, do as the Chinese do: go on a group tour. Let a touring car take you to several touristy places after each other and follow the guide with the flag. Even when you think you are ordering a ticket from a public bus station to a tourist destination, it could very well end up being a tour just like this. The way we travel as tourists says quite a bit about the way we want our political systems to be as well. Let me explain.

Taking a group tour goes against everything we were taught in the global West. You should be critical, unique, make your own decisions and… you should not let yourself walk into any tourist traps. However, people in China love going on their group tours, as they save you time, difficult decisions and it makes perfect economic sense. While being annoyed at being stuck in a group tour we started seeing parallels with the political systems in East and West.

In the West we were always taught to be critical and to make our own decisions. Not only while traveling as a tourist, but also while traveling through life. Don’t just do whatever the guide(book) tells you to do, go figure out what is of interest to you and venture out to find it. Also, find that job that you are passionate about and don’t just settle for the same thing everyone else is doing. When traveling you shouldn’t just do what the tour guide tells you is amazing but find that secret little temple that nobody knows about and feel endlessly unique that you have done so. In that light, we hated being bossed around by the tour guide. Don’t you go telling us what to do and when to do it, we are individuals and we can make our own decisions!

The same principal applies for the democratic political system. As a nation consisting of individuals, you should make your own decisions. Deciding on which political party you will vote for is an existential question involving soul searching and self-reflection. After the vote has been cast and the political leaders are in office, you should be critical of them at all times. Don’t just let them tell you what to think, be critical of what they tell you and reevaluate them accordingly when elections come by again. This way the government reflects the sum of a nation of individuals and everyone’s interests are taken into account.

But people in China, as well as the global East more generally, don’t think that way. They would much rather opt for the easier road. Why go to all the trouble to find that one unique temple when you can also just let yourself be escorted to the ones that have withstood the test of time and have proven to be the most amazing? And in life the same philosophy applies: you should find out what gets you the farthest in life and pondering existentialist questions until you are well in your forties is not the most efficient way to do so. Go for the profession that is safe or that is sure to make you lots of money, lawyer, banker, entrepreneur. Just as with the group tour, this saves you time and a host of difficult decisions.

Once again, this philosophy applies to the Chinese political system as well. Why go to all the trouble of going to the ballot box once every few years? According to Confucius-thought ingrained in Chinese political thought the country’s political leaders are like the father of the family. These leaders are to be trusted completely. Why would we want to go to all the trouble of being critical of these decisions if you could also be focusing on other things? This way they have much more time to focus on their own family and making money.

Whereas Western tourists are always worried about not falling into the lamest of tourist traps, Eastern tourists know that group tours just make the most economic sense. The price for the group tour is much less than you would ever pay if you just bought each individual ticket at each highlight, and they even throw in the bus ride and a tour guide with flag as a bonus. When the tour company stops the bus at a single restaurant in the middle of nowhere for lunch, alarm bells are going off in the typical Westerners head. They expects us all to supply this one restaurant with business? Who says that this restaurant is worthy of our business? But when we decide to go with the flow anyway, we find out that the food is quite good for a very cheap price. Having let yourself be herded around by a tour guide made perfect economic sense.

But does letting yourself be herded around by an authoritarian regime make economic sense as well? For China it definitely does seem to be the case. Despite the authoritarian tendencies, the Chinese government has been very meticulous at their economic policies. China-expert Martin Jacques calls the Chinese government “shrewd and far-sighted, very successful”. By letting the Chinese currency remain non-tradable, the gradualist approach in the systemic lowering of tariffs and by applying a deeply pragmatic stance in the economic liberalization since 1978 they have proven to be very good at maximizing economic profit for the country, “resulting in stellar economic growth and a rise in per capita income.” They are making economic sense. It even seems to be that they are making much more economic sense than a European Union that is having trouble in making difficult decisions in order to pull debt-stricken Europe out of the economic crisis it is in today.

In this blog I have shown how cultural attitudes are often reflected in political systems. The Chinese collectivist culture is reflected in their Confucius-based political system and the Western individualist approach is reflected in our democratically-based political system. But even though culture has strong implications, it does not mean that it is unchangeable. Culture is often based on economic necessity and a combination of this culminates into the reigning political system. But what if the economy changes? How will this affect both culture and politics?

The Chinese government has committed themselves to striving towards economic growth rates of 8 per cent per year. Since the nineties they have been achieving such mind-blowing rates each and every year. But it has just been announced that the GDP growth rates for the second quarter of 2012 are falling behind to only 7,6 percent. What will happen when, inevitably, the rates will slow down even more? The political system will no longer make economic sense. Some people call China’s political system not just authoritarianism, but performance based authoritarianism, meaning that people accept a certain degree of authoritarianism as long as they are getting enough back from it, in the form of stellar economic growth rates. But what if these slow down even more?

What if taking a group tour is exceedingly more expensive than just venturing out on your own? Will such massive numbers of tourists still opt for the group tour? And what if the government is no longer able to ensure growth rates of 8 per cent? Will such massive amounts of Chinese people still accept an authoritarian-style government? Only time can tell.

5 responses to “Follow the guide and follow the state”

  1. Jeanne van Oosten says :

    Intetesting parallel with a lot of plausibility. In other words, Chinese individuals are just as pragmatic as their government. However, this holds for the eastern, coastal part of the country. I wonder if you will find it holds for the less prosperous western part as well. Given your theory, there should be more unrest there, and I believe there is. But that seems to have largely ethnic roots.

    • Sanne says :

      I don’t think degree of poverty is in a direct paralel with political unrest, especially when people are more busy with making ends meet than politics. I do. however, think that dwindling growth in the light of continuously rising expectations can lead to political unrest. It isn’t that Chinese people are actually getting poorer that could lead to unrest, but the fact that they are expecting more from their government and economy that will lead to unrest when these expectations are not filled. Nevertheless, I’m very interested in Western China and Kazakhstan as well.

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