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China's Lack of Transparency: Could we be next?

On Tuesday, China started its National People’s Congress, the annual legislative session that pretends to put the "People" in People's Republic of China. In reality, the event is just a rubber stamp on the agenda of one man, President Xi Jinping.

China in recent years has sped back to the time of Mao Zedong, when the harebrained schemes of a psychopath led to unfathomable famine. Signs from the beginning of the congress point to a commonly invoked definition of insanity, with its leaders continuing the same economic policies (amid the same anemic global recovery) and issuing the same 5% growth forecast they missed last year.

China's government seems to have no interest in the kinds of stimulus policies that could help its ailing real estate and manufacturing sectors, though there is one sector that is receiving a healthy bump in spending: defense. The better to harass its neighbors around the South China Sea, especially Taiwan, a vital trading partner, for itself and any other country doing high-tech manufacturing.

One of the few positive reforms they have undertaken is a move to make aid more equitable for migrant workers. But the welfare of China's citizens appears to take a distant back seat to its sense of national pride in the eyes of its leader(s?).

At the same time, the Chinese government announced that, for the first time in 30 years, it would not hold an international press session with Premier Li Qiang, Xi's number two. Consequently the rest of the world won't get a chance to ask questions of the Chinese Communist Party, and this will remain true at least through the end of this legislative term in 2027.

It seems that, while violently swinging its arms around like a 5th grader yelling, "If you get hit it's your own fault!", China is also cupping its ears and shouting, "La la la la, I can't hear you!"

In the face of the headwinds plaguing his country, Premier Li said to the congress, “The Chinese people have the courage, wisdom, to overcome any difficulties or obstacles." This is no doubt true, but he followed it up with a much more doubtful statement: "China’s development will surely endure storms and plough through the waves, (and) the future is promising.”

The fact is that the government of Xi Jinping, by elevating him to unfettered power and insulating him against critique and diverse ideas, is squandering that courage and wisdom of its people. Just as Mao's foolhardy agricultural "innovations" of the Great Leap Forward—like plowing deeper and planting closer, leading to massive drops in crop yield—was the result of no one with wisdom having the courage to speak out, Xi's style of making it up as he goes is unchallenged due to fear.

A glimpse at China's birth and death rates shows that its population is facing decline for the first time since that horrific famine.

The recent drop in birth rates is no doubt connected to the country's falling sense of optimism about its future, but again its dysfunctional leadership plays a part, with simplistic policies like bribing families to have kids being undercut by a lack of thought for making raising those kids easier.

The U.S. certainly makes plenty of strategic blunders in pursuing our own national goals, largely due to partisan infighting and lack of political will for long-term thinking. But our government remains significantly more functional than that of China in many ways, which I believe we owe to our tradition of free speech that fosters continuous conversations about our direction.

Make no mistake, though, we are in danger of losing this advantage. Our discourse is getting progressively less productive, as we come to see the other side as an enemy to be vanquished rather than a group of fellow citizens to work with. We seem to have lost our sense of what a different perspective can add to our understanding of the world, focusing purely on the obstacle it presents to our own goals.

While the CCP has imposed its moratorium on information flows unilaterally, we have managed to come up with an idea on which the loudest voices in both parties fully agree: the other side isn't worth listening to.

This is true for both congressional colleagues and the general public, for those across the aisle and ostensibly on our "team." Like the CCP, many of our party leaders seem intent on covering their ears to block out, and even stifle, the voices of the majority of party members. Some Democrats have done it with the "Defund the Police" movement, just as many Republicans continue to do it with draconian abortion restrictions, both highly unpopular policies within their respective parties that have led to backlash at the polls.

But just like China, we have built for ourselves a system that makes it dangerous to speak out. While our system tends to avoid threats to one's life and liberty, it still holds consequences for the social and monetary capital of those who cry foul.

Both Democrats and Republicans have engaged in their own forms of cancel culture, wielded not only against their opponents but also "disloyal" members of their group. And not only do they react against those who currently hold disfavored views, but against anyone who has ever held such a view; they forget that it is inherent to the human condition to keep learning and growing, and that they themselves are such humans.

One more similarity to China: we have charted a path towards cloistered leaders. While we may lie at different places on that path, this trend has been proceeding since World War II. Starting with Harry S Truman, the number of solo press conferences given by each president has declined dramatically, with nearly every president since Ronald Reagan giving fewer than 10 solo pressers per year.

George H. W. Bush seems to have been a genuine believer in transparency, but if we zoom in on the yearly totals for the rest, it reveals a still-worsening trend. On average Donald Trump may seem to be more open than Barack Obama before him, but we can see that he kicked off his term with a record-setting year of exactly one solo presser, and the ensuing years don't reflect a major sea change—with one exception.

The year 2020 was filled with Covid press conferences wherein Trump took the reins to drown out his team of medical experts, spouting totally unhelpful "information" that surely served as a convenient distraction from questions around the rest of his administration's goings on, which largely remained unanswered.

And lest Democrats be prouder of their leaders' transparency, we must acknowledge that this trend has applied equally to both parties. As it currently stands, Joe Biden is the first president to hold less than five press briefings per year. And the signs are not pointing towards an increase, even as his administration and campaign staff are faced with pleas from their party to have the president show signs of vitality.

Each side now sees unscripted public appearances as a risk, with the likelihood that a gaffe will be weaponized against their candidate at roughly 100%. For the first time that I can remember, we now have two presidential candidates for whom the more they say, the less likely it is they'll be elected.

That wasn't even true of the 2020 election, when Trump's rally red meat for his supporters still served as slightly more of an asset than a liability, and when Biden was still reasonably sharp on his feet. Those things seem no longer to be the case, and their staffs know it. I can't even imagine a debate happening this year between Biden and Trump.

It is now a case of both sides taking their ball and going home. How can I give a platform to that unreasonable and dangerous maniac, especially when I know his supporters won't even listen to me anyway?

For the sake of our country's collective future, we must pull out of this doom loop. We need to foster a society of openness, both about our own ideas and towards those of others. And this has to start with each of us, and the groups to which we belong.

We can each insist on bringing this ethos to our families, our social circles, and the organizations where we work, play, volunteer, or otherwise work towards common goals.

We can remember the aphorism encapsulated by civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” We can insist that our leadership, especially from our own party, be accessible and accountable to the general public, and not just support our own views, when deciding who gets our vote. And finally, we can decide to truly listen to one another, with a goal of understanding rather than persuading or marginalizing.

There are many reasons not to want to return to our old ways of doing things, but unless we embrace open dialogue and transparency as national values to be preserved, we could face the end of our grand experiment in a way that benefits no one.


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