Revisiting Righteous Indignation

Originally published by Dissident Voice on 20 January 2014.

Revisiting Righteous Indignation: the Radical Tradition of Martin Luther King Jr.

There’s a scene in Lee Daniel’s The Butler when the son of Forest Whitaker’s character is sitting in the Lorraine Motel with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., shortly before his assassination. Dr. King asks those assembled, “How many of your parents support the war?” All the young men gathered in the room raise their hands, and in one sentence King summarizes that his opposition to the war is because the Vietnamese do not prejudice blacks. There is something insidious in this scene, unintentional by the director, no doubt. It is the reproduction of the simplification myth of Dr. King the crusader of a narrowly conceptualized struggle, rather than the fiery radical that he was. His opposition to the Vietnam War was far more complex than the one liner afforded his character in the film, but the portrayal is sadly in line with the hijacking of his comprehensive philosophy. For King’s was a radicalism of total justice, for black, white, rich, poor, gay, lesbian, Christian, Jew, or Muslim, that bears remembering as we honor him with a federal holiday this week.

One year to the day before his assassination, on April 4th, 1967, Dr. King delivered his most critical and divisive speech, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. It was an impassioned excoriation of imperialism and militarism, against the American government that King referred to as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” There was no ambivalence in his conviction. He had refused a first draft prepared by his close friend and legal counsel, Clarence Jones, which attempted to present multiple sides, favoring the total condemnation of war provided in Vincent Harding’s first version. The two men agreed; their conscience left them no other choice but to speak out. King says:

It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Four years earlier, in a Letter from a Birmingham Jail Dr. King acknowledged that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He was certainly focused on combating the institutionalized terror of segregation and racism, which was the target of the direct action that found him in that Birmingham Jail on April 16th, 1963. But, his concern for justice everywhere extended beyond contemporary popular depictions that his campaigning was confined to concerns of race alone. King makes it very clear,

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

Of course, that same purveyor of violence abroad targeted in Beyond Vietnam, the United States, perpetrated and sponsored a great deal of violence against its own people and the struggle for human rights in the United States is a savage one still raging 28 years after the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as myriad incidents such as the killing and trial surrounding Trayvon Martin or Jena 6 illustrate. It is not my intention to downplay the brutality of racial injustice targeted by King and others. My intention is to point out that King acknowledged that the causes of these and other injustices were inherently linked to a certain structure of oppression. King and others targeted the totality of this violent power structure through sustained nonviolent action. It is that narrative of comprehensive resistance that has been sterilized. In sickening episodes of appropriation, King has become a plaything in the hands of those who seek to justify their profiting from that same structure of abuse that he fought against with the bastardization of his legacy.

King’s most famous oration is his I Have a Dream speech and rightly should it be hailed for its outstanding rhetoric and the power of change it inspired. But so is “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” far less threatening to the established structure of power than denouncing it as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. Latching onto King as the desegregater and not King the fiery radical is more comfortable for the creation of King the symbol.

Vincent Harding explained in a 2013 interview that conservatives love to take hold of the I have a Dream speech when King talks about not being judged by the color of ones skin as a way to avoid discussing race at all. In the same interview Harding challenges us to find ways to discover the content of one’s character. It is through critical dialogue, through nonviolent engagement, he says. Meanwhile, as evidence of Harding’s concern, former Republican Florida representative, Allen West, wrote in an article for USA News on the 50th anniversary of that speech, that King’s dream had been derailed by liberal politics. While Dr. King advocated evaluation on the content of one’s character, he opined, Americans had instead voted for Obama strictly based upon the color of his skin.

The famous speech was uttered to an assembled crowd of more than 250,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. With reason it is remembered as a decisive moment in the American Civil Rights Movement. What is often altered through the lens of history, however, is the action at which the speech was delivered. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was as much about race as it was about economic inequality. Its chief architects remind us of the diversity of participation and the complexity of grievances within the Civil Rights Movement. The 1963 campaign drew its inspiration from the 1940’s desegregationist and labor rights March on Washington Movement organized by Philip Randolph, who began as a labor organizer and activist in New York in 1917, and Bayard Rustin, an openly gay former Quaker conscientious objector during World War II. It is this confluence of interests that better encapsulates the character of King’s resistance, so callously warped by Allen West 50 years later.

There is no greater bastardization of King’s legacy than Glenn Beck’s 2010 so-called ‘Restoring Honor Rally.’ In his characteristic histrionics Beck credited divine inspiration in the timing of his political theatre set to coincide with the 47th anniversary of King’s I have a Dream speech. He claimed to be picking up Martin Luther King’s dream in order to restore and finish it. But Beck’s narrative is one of resounding contradiction to everything epitomized by Martin Luther King.

A month preceding the farce Glenn Beck spoke with King’s niece, Dr. Alveda King, who later also participated in his rally, alongside Sarah Palin and others. Shockingly the niece embraced Beck’s subterfuge on his television program. The two, joined by then Republican congressional hopeful Stephen Broden, went so far as to cite the Biblical idea of an individual relationship with God as the justification for neo-liberal individualism, and the implicit demonization of social welfare. The outrage is not in their personal interpretation of Biblical text but the way their discussion forced that argument into their constructed narrative of Martin Luther King. The obscenity continued when Alveda King claimed that her uncle would have approved of Beck’s message.

Not only did Beck use the platform of his rally to further his rhetoric of violence against the poor but the event was also billed to celebrate and promote the American military. Glenn Beck is a wild supporter of American militarism and most recently attacked a LA Weekly film critic because she gave a recent war movie a bad review. Glenn Beck is as good an antithesis to Martin Luther King as is available and because of the pomposity of his pulpit he represents an ideal lens through which to appreciate the various trends of abandoning King’s message and profaning his name to justify the very things he so fervently fought against. And yet, popular outrage at Beck’s appropriation of King’s legacy was equally culpable in neglecting King’s fervent posture against materialism and militarism, or so the majority of mainstream criticism seemed to be.

In response to this kind of theft of the King narrative, Union Theological Seminary philosopher and preacher, Dr. Cornel West explains,

The absence of a King-worthy narrative to reinvigorate poor and working people has enabled right-wing populists to seize the moment with credible claims about government corruption and ridiculous claims about tax cuts’ stimulating growth. This right-wing threat is a catastrophic response to King’s four catastrophes; its agenda would lead to hellish conditions for most Americans.

Despite the issues addressed by Dr. West, it is far from merely conservatives and right-wing populists who have distorted King’s inherent radical commitment, and subdued the awesome force of his righteous indignation. History has been contorted to shape a more consumer friendly image of Martin Luther King Jr. He is not hailed by popular commentary or honored by Obama on the federal holiday as the radical who would today be decrying the prison and military industrial complex, demanding the trial and incarceration of Wall Street executives, and sternly speaking against Obama’s continuation of Bush era disregard for human rights in the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on drugs,’ or the appallingly disproportionate numbers of convictions for people of color in the latter. Where would King stand on the Tea Party’s fetishism of state’s rights? One might recall the number of incidents necessitating federal troop intervention in Alabama, Arkansas, and elsewhere or the same rhetoric now employed by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Rand Paul that echoes similar positions by “Bull” Connor or George Wallace. How might King relate to Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers, or, as public intellectual Tavis Smiley has posed, comment on the more than a billion dollars raised between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the 2012 election versus the money spent on poverty reduction?

Martin Luther King gave his final speech on April 3rd, 1968 at the Mason Temple in Memphis Tennessee. What is often remembered of that last prophetic I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech is King’s, “And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” The speech is haunting in retrospect because it almost seemed as if King were prophesizing, much like Christ at the last supper, his impending assassination. But what drew King to Memphis that day is less repeated in popular retelling.

Dr. James Lawson, who like King had been baptized in the late 1950s by the nonviolent tradition of Ghandi and was a powerful figure in the movement, had encouraged Dr. King to join him in Memphis to show support at the Memphis sanitation worker strike that had begun two months earlier. The catalyzing incident for the strike was the gruesome death of two black sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, crushed to death because of city rules that stated black sanitation workers were only allowed to shelter from the elements in the back of their garbage trucks. The incident served to highlight years of gross labor violations and sparked the strike, along with boycotts, sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience in support of the workers attempt to engage in collective bargaining for better working conditions. This episode in Memphis was about racial discrimination but it was also about abhorrent labor rights and the exploitation of the poor.

King often reiterated the call to struggle against all forms of atrocity, violence against people of color and violence against the poor, as they are inextricably linked, and so too is war, the enemy of the poor, as Cornel West and Tavis Smiley are wont to repeat. Or in his own words from the August 16th, 1967 Where do We go From Here, “when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”

The day after standing in solidarity with the Memphis strikers, King was gunned down by James Earl Ray, an outspoken racist and active campaign volunteer for George Wallace’s pro-segregationist presidential campaign. Despite the prima facie connection between Ray’s racism and the assassination, Vincent Harding is convinced that the most contributing factor to King’s murder was his vociferous condemnation of the war in Vietnam and his outspoken denouncement of American imperialism and militarism. We do at least know that the last poll taken on King’s popularity revealed that indeed fifty-five percent of black community and seventy-two percent of Americans at large had turned against King because of his opposition to the war.

By the late 1960s the US government, under the Johnson administration, had slowly become prepared to tolerate some of the notions of increasing racial equality and access to public space but the apex of intellectual and symbolic power, the capitalist war machine, was aghast that King would enter their world. The structure of power was warming to the idea of tolerating King the civil rights leader and desegregationist but it was unwilling to desegregate the symbolic power to be analyzed and critiqued. It is a segregation of thought and a demonization of those who would criticize America that still haunts whistleblowers and activists in Obama’s America today. It was King’s sophisticated and emboldening challenge to capitalist morality and militaristic or imperialistic motives that needed to be sterilized before he could become a politically viable symbol.

In a recent piece for Salon, historian David L. Chappell outlines the history of congressional objections to the creation of an MLK federal holiday. His article serves to refute the odd conservative claims to the legacy of civil rights going back to Lincoln, because of textual similarity in the name of their party. A few days after the assassination, Michigan Democratic congressman, John Conyers, first proposed honoring Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday. Illinois was the first state to adopt MLK Day as a state holiday in 1973. Ten years later, North Carolina senator Jesse Helms loudly objected to honoring King with a federal holiday, specifically citing King’s stance on Vietnam and his war on poverty, calling him a Marxist and Communist. As reported at the time, Helms’ fanatical objections were crushed by a ‘scathing denunciation’ by senator Edward Kennedy and similar criticism from Republican presidential hopeful Bob Dole. But two recent Republican presidential candidates, Ron Paul and John McCain were among those who agreed with Helms in objecting a federal holiday for MLK. After nearly two decades of discussion and puerile character assassination, Congress eventually passed Conyers’ proposal to remember King with a federal holiday. Reagan signed the bill in 1983 and it took effect in 1986. Shockingly not until 2000 did all 50 states recognize it as a state holiday. South Carolina was the last.

In observation of the 28th MLK day it is a moral duty to ensure that the legacy observed is honest to the content of his character. We should repeat his rhetorical question of August 16th, 1967. In his own words, “When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalist economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.”

King broadened the target of his resistance to encapsulate the totality of an oppressive power structure, moving beyond purely race-based grievances. The abhorrent racism prevalent in King’s America and its mutated contemporary manifestations are a byproduct of this power but King’s speeches reveal a more diverse synthesis for resistance. It was this unwavering challenge of the very foundations of that structure of power that needed to be sterilized, lest his posthumous words serve their intentions to mobilize. By stripping him of his radicalism, and simplifying his challenges against power to a selection of sound-bite grievances, the institutions of oppression maintained their monopoly on symbolic power and rebranded Martin Luther King into more comfortable and narrowly confined terms.

This is the alchemical disregard for truth that has attempted to warp the spirit of King’s radicalism for political expediency. It has become a convenient platform for some to spin King’s radicalism into a defanged demand for racial harmony and a colorless society, where claims of reverse racism are mingled with blanket denouncements of racial violence because we live in a post-racial America. It is a twisted appropriation of King’s words to blame the victim of abuse for continued victimization, and we see this in the surprisingly bipartisan attacks on the poor and people of color. For some, King’s Reverend status has become an argument for injecting fundamentalist evangelicalism into politics, as we noticed of Beck above.

These are the most flagrant bastardizations but what is more frustrating is the popular amnesia, the collective will to accept the sterilized form and neglect the righteous indignation that demands coordinated action in the face of all injustice. This is not to neglect active resistance such as the Occupy movement and myriad other campaigns. However, in certain contemporary radical movements we find the negative effects of the simplification of King’s sophisticated analysis of the diversity of oppression and the need for coordinated, strategic resistance. We can see this in the balkanization of resistance on the left, where interests vie for prominence rather than seeking consensus. A continuing frustration for those who have carried on with King, Lawson, and others’ efforts is the abandonment of strategic nonviolence, or treating King as nothing more than a symbolic tactic, for the same kind of commoditized radicalism that has made radical democratic theory or Anarchism a fashion accessory.

It is King’s righteous indignation at injustice everywhere and profound challenge to all forms of abusive power that should be reenacted in his name,  not the political pageantry of Obama’s community service. With that radical reenactment we must respond to the question “where do we go from here?” Dr. Cornel West hazarded a response in 2011, noting that rather than a holiday King would have wanted a revolution.

“5 overlooked activist victories in 2013”

On 31 December Wagingnonviolence published their 5 Overlooked Activist Victories in 2013. I am proud to be a contributor to Wagingnonviolence and especially proud that my contribution on cyber resistance in China was number five on their list.

The editors write:

Activists experienced some big wins in 2013 — from the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act to the ruling against stop-and-frisk in New York City to the revelations uncovered by NSA whisteblower Edward Snowden to an averted U.S. war with Syria. It’s not hard to find mention of these big stories on most year-end news lists. So rather than re-hash them here, we present you with a list of overlooked activist victories from the past year.

The five victories are (1) People power continues to win in the Philippines; (2) A big win against Big Coal in the Pacific Northwest; (3) A sleeping giant wakes up in Brazil; (4) A victory for millions of indigenous people in Mexico; and (5) Online activists gain political clout in China.

I have been on hiatus the last few months, partially traipsing around Southern China and Laos. I look forward to updating content with some travel narratives and some other exciting analytical pieces in the next few weeks. Back by popular demand, happy 2014…

In China: Rightful Resistance and the UN Human Rights Council

This article was originally published under the headline Internationalizing rights-based resistance in China: the UN Human Rights Council and the citizen at on 15 November 2013. But in light of today, UN Human Rights Day, it seems appropriate to share again.

On the morning of 22 October, special envoy Wu Hailong led Beijing’s delegation in Geneva as China began its once every four year Universal Periodic Review (UPR) under the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). On 12 November the UN General Assembly voted to fill 14 vacancies on the Human Rights Council and China was elected to a third three-year term on the council. The country served two consecutive terms from 2006 to 2012 but was ineligible to run again until this year. After Jordan announced the withdrawal of its candidacy, the four vacant seats for the Asia Pacific region left Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, The Maldives, and China uncontested. But many analysts have remarked with frustration that even before Jordan’s surprising withdrawal, China’s bid had little chance of defeat due in large part to its permanent status on the Security Council – despite strong objections from rights groups. Considering the egregious record of these four countries, their entry to the rights body could mark an atavistic turn for the council.

Leading up to the Universal Periodic Review and China’s UN Human Rights Council election, one source of testimony has been conspicuously absent from China’s official reporting. Despite efforts by certain NGOs and international organizations, and shallow consultation by the Chinese government, input and participation by Chinese civil society in these important mechanisms for monitoring and upholding their country’s human rights obligations has been withheld. The Chinese government has acted to block civil society participation and engaged in reprisals against civil resistance geared to these international human rights mechanisms. It appears that when Wu Hailong’s delegation announced that, “The Chinese are in the best position to know the situation of human rights in China,” he wasn’t referring to the hundreds of notable Chinese citizens and groups who have been learning to frame their dissent in the language of international human rights as well as those who have been directly campaigning for broader civil participation in the drafting and international reporting on China’s human rights.

In the months leading up to the late July deadline for China to submit its official report to the HRC and the review itself on 22 October, Chinese activists organized a series of actions in multiple locations around the country culminating in a sit-in at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in Beijing beginning on 18 June. The organizers, who chose an area around the East Gate of the Ministry building because of its proximity to the Human Rights Division, had planned to maintain the demonstration until 22 October.

The organizers, among them Cao Shunli, claimed that the principal grievances behind the sit-in were the ongoing refusals by the ministry to respond to a series of open information disclosure requests, eventually leading the ministry to claim that the UPR process was a matter of state security. At the high point, the sit-in attracted around 200 participants, mostly women. Cao Shunli remarked to Chinese Human Rights Defenders that, “We just want to have all the participants in the sit-in to have a dialogue with officials, to know how the country’s human rights report is produced and who should be part of the process.”

On 1 July, the first of three police raids dispersed the demonstrators. Around 9 a.m., hundreds of officers descended on the gathering and rounded them up in two groups. Activists from Beijing were taken away in one vehicle, while those from outside of Beijing were removed to separate locations in four different police vehicles. After 12 hours of interrogation, with some reports of physical abuse, almost all of the activists were released. Many of them returned to the ministry to resume the sit-in. The police would clear the sit-in two more times, on 22 August and on 3 October, holding activists separately by region and subjecting them to exhausting questioning.

Similarly, seizing the spotlight of the UPR – a common tactic among Chinese activists, to capitalize on sensitive dates and anniversaries – many have campaigned against China’s inclusion in the Human Rights Council. In Hangzhou, dissident writer Chen Shuqing and fellow organizers Lu Gengsong and Gao Haibin circulated an open letter denouncing China’s entry to the human rights body. The petition received hundreds of signatures from activists in over ten provinces. The organizers of this campaign were later detained on suspicion of ‘inciting to subvert state power.’ Similar campaigns took place in other parts of the country and some overseas organizations claim to have gathered over 10,000 signatures from Chinese both inside and outside of the country. International Chinese activists also staged actions in Geneva on the opening day of the Review.

During the UPR, Human Rights in China announced, that the Chinese government had continued to detain and question individual activists who had persisted in civil resistance pegged to China’s international human rights obligations, which prompted several Special Rapporteurs to specifically criticize China’s crackdown on peaceful assembly related to the UPR. The day before, on 21 October, Guo Feixiong, an outspoken rights defender from Guangzhou, was formally placed under criminal detention in reprisal for organizing a petition in March calling for the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The ratification of this core instrument was a major issue during China’s first review in 2009. At the time of his arrest, Peng Lanlan, a Tujia minority and human rights defender from Hunan, had already been under criminal detention for a year under charges of ‘obstructing official business.’ Reportedly tortured in police custody, Peng Lanlan was the first activist to be arrested for pushing for civil society participation in the UPR and challenging the country’s entry to the Human Rights Council. She was targeted after several years of activism. In addition to relying on open petitions such as Guo Feixiong, mentioned above, Peng Lanlan utilized China’s 2008 Freedom of Information Act, also commonly relied upon by Cao Shunli and others.

On 14 September Cao Shunli was taken into police custody at the Beijing International Airport. Meanwhile, at about the same time, over two thousand kilometers to the South, fellow MFA sit-in organizer Chen Jianfeng was apprehended by airport security in Guangzhou. The two women had been on their way to Geneva to attend a training program on the UPR and other international human rights mechanisms. Although Chen Jianfeng was eventually released after intimidating questioning, Cao Shunli remained disappeared even after the UPR had begun. Activists involved in demonstrations related to the UPR told multiple sources that during interrogations police were forceful in questioning related to Cao Shunli, apparently working to contrive charges against her. Front Line Defenders has noted that state tactics of repression are increasingly relying on the manipulated prosecutions of activists.

Like Peng Lanlan, both Chen Jianfeng and Cao Shunli had been engaged in campaigning for transparency in UN reporting and civil society participation in China’s domestic and international human rights since before the first review in 2009. In addition to collective action and open information requests, the women had previously gone so far as to sue relevant ministries over transparency issues. Unlike the majority of her fellow demonstrators, Cao, who exhibited a sophisticated understanding of international human rights, had filed a report with the HRC under the name of the Rights Campaign, based out of Jiangsu Province. Her submission, which called attention to the persecution of civil society demands for participation in human rights plans, was included in the official UPR stakeholder analysis, a fact that has very likely contributed to maximizing her reprisals by the state, which understandably seemed less concerned with acts of collective action that generate limited attention than those generating more official condemnation.

Government reprisals against activists campaigning for broader civil society participation in China’s human rights implementation and reporting demonstrate that the Chinese government is at least somewhat concerned by the possible content of independent reviews of its internal human rights. That Chinese activists are gradually strengthening the framing of domestic grievances with the vocabulary of international human rights marks a departure from locality-specific episodes of contention. Although issue and locality-specific activism and rights defense remains the norm, activists such as Guo Feixiong and Cao Shunli are gradually turning to international norms and seeking training by international human rights experts, when unimpeded by the authorities, in addition to contained tactics like sit-ins and petitions.

Although a number of actors in civil resistance, such as at the MFA sit-in, still participate to draw attention to individual grievances or merely to express general disgust with the government, increasing exposure to concepts of international rights will have an impact on the development of their resistance in the future.

It exhibits an innovation in the framing and substance of civil resistance in China that challenges the often repeated claims of the Chinese government, when their human rights record is criticized, that universal values are incommensurate with Chinese values. On the contrary, it could be that the more Chinese activists become aware of universal rights the more they will include them in the framing of domestic civil resistance to counter attempts by the government to manipulate the discourse from within the Human Rights Council.

Foreign Journalist Reprisals in Beijing

Yesterday ChinaFile published a short collection of responses from journalists, academics, and politicians expressing their analysis and illustrating what they see as the correct path forward regarding the non-renewal of journalist’s visas in a piece called:

Will China Shut Out the Foreign Press

Here is my immediate reaction:

I think Bill Bishop‘s remarks are the most sensible, while the gut reaction of visa reprisals seems like a strong move it could inadvertently produce negative externalities, thus escalating the situation. However, if the government does follow through and other tactics from abroad do not succeed at either forestalling or, in the short term, reversing this decision, I feel that more punitive measures could be in order.

It is also largely about framing. Because of how the Chinese government has framed, or refused to frame, this chain of visa procrastination qua denials, it speaks clearly to its true intentions, as Paul Mooney notes. Equally, if other tactics fail and in several months there is no movement toward reinstating visas then a well framed punitive response from the Like Minded Countries could produce a better effect. After all, this should not be treated as solely an issue of reprisals of US media but as part of a much larger trend, as Andrew Nathan points out.

I do disagree with him a little on the idea that China is influencing this fear-enforced conformity to the West, just look at what the US and UK are doing to AP or the Guardian when issues of “terrorism” are raised. Rather than treat this as part of a broader China approach, or perhaps in addition to that, I think this really needs to be honestly examined within the context of what Jeremy Scahill and like minded have rightly pointed out as a war on journalist, a war on the freedom of expression, being waged the world over. While it is no doubt an authoritarian model, the Chinese are not solely responsible for exporting it abroad; just look at the case of Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye and President Obama’s intrusion to his early release and countless other examples. But I tend to be a universalist or cosmopolitan, in the way Anthany Appiah uses it.

I hope the zero hour works and everyone stays put but if it doesn’t, seriously, a firebomb campaign of China Daily newspaper boxes across the US. This is the gut reaction to repay force with force but at the end of the day it is an unsustainable solution. By following through with Bishop’s suggestion it should encourage the deeper integration of not only the freedom of expression but human rights in general into trade agreements other international negotiations. This would, ideally, have positive multiplier effects far beyond a tit for tat visa arms race.

Some more background:

China’s Crackdown on Foreign Media: How to Respond? From China Digital Times

The Meaning of China’s Crackdown on Foreign Press From The New Yorker

The Thorny Challenges of Covering China From the New York Times

China’s Treatment of Foreign Journalists From the Congressional Executive Commission on China Roundtable, 11 December.

Deleted Twitter posts suggest Bloomberg may be targeting wife of dismissed China reporter From Shanghaiist

Bloomberg News is Said to Curb Articles That Might Anger China From the New York Times

New York Times and Bloomberg facing expulsion from China From The Telegraph

China Pressures US Journalists, Prompting Warning From Biden From the New York Times

Another American Reporter Banned From Beijing From China Law and Policy, part I in a series on journalist’s difficulties

Self-Censorship or Survival? If so, Bloomberg is Not Alone From China Law and Policy, part II in a series on journalist’s difficulties

Late to the Party? The U.S. Government’s Response to China’s Censorship From China Law and Policy, part III in a series on journalist’s difficulties

Localizing Inclusive Institutions: Adaptive Governance in China

The common wisdom is that in the post-Mao years China has experienced unprecedented developments from the grassroots level to the  high echelons of power. Some observers cling to examples of minor achievements in political opening to bolster far flung claims that China is on a gradual path toward political liberalization. Such pundits, mired in now largely disproved neoliberal economic theory, cling hopelessly to the notion that economic liberalization inevitably brings political liberalization. Such arguments often point to village committee elections as the starting point of a bottom up initiative toward gentle democratization. The internationalization of the series of events collectively understood as the Wukan Incident is a good example of this fervor. However, a clear understanding of adaptive governance, outlined by Heilmann and Perry in their 2011 Book Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China, challenges the conventional understanding. It encourages us to see village elections not as part of a democratizing mission, and may never have been, but as a directed effort by the central government in the 1980s to shore up inefficiencies and integrate itself by institutionalizing CCP authority at the grassroots. Furthermore, the procedural definition of democracy behind such narrowly optimistic appraisals as that trumpeted Wukan might actually contribute to forestalling more structural civil and political developments. This treatment of adaptive governance is especially germane to understanding the recent announcements of the Third Plenum.

Village Committees, An institutionalized Hoax

In late 1980 and early 1981 two counties in Guangxi (Yishan and Luocheng) began experimenting with village committees (cunmin weiyuanhui), then referred to as ‘village management committees’ (cun guan hui). This was an attempt to address the perceived impending crisis produced by decollectivization; as Naughton explains (2006, p. 89), the household responsibility system was effectively turning the collective into little more than a landlord. These early experiments in locally elected administration were done without the guidance or explicit knowledge of party representatives. Eventually, reports of Guangxi’s Village Committees reached Beijing. Vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, Peng Zhen lauded the ingenuity of the newly formed VCs and subsequently instructed the NPC and the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) to send investigators to Guangxi in order to gain a deeper understanding of what was happening. He encouraged other provinces to experiment with village committees. In a short time experimentation with locally elected village committees was spreading throughout China.

The following year, 1982, villager’s committees were written into the Constitution as elected mass organizations of self-government. Article 111 of the 1982 Constitution reads:

“The residents’ committees and villagers’ committees established among urban and rural residents on the basis of their place of residence are mass organizations of self-management at the grass-roots level. The chairman, vice-chairmen and members of each residents’ or villagers’ committee are elected by the residents. The relationship between the residents’ and villagers’ committees and the grass-roots organs of state power is prescribed by law. The residents’ and villagers’ committees establish committees for people’s mediation, public security, public health and other matters in order to manage public affairs and social services in their areas, mediate civil disputes, help maintain public order and convey residents’ opinions and demands and make suggestions to the people’s government.”

In 1986, a Circular from the Central Committee and the State Council on the Creation of Rural Grassroots Self-Governing Institutions defined village democracy as, ‘self-education, self-management, self-building-up and self-service,’ and urged village committees to actively engage in village campaigns (Baogang, 2007, p. 24). Deng Xiaoping encouraged investigation into village committees as a means of “political reform to overcome the systemic obstacles to his economic reform (Pei, 2008, p. 50).” The Organic Law of Village Committees was first promulgated in 1988. This preliminary version had 21 articles. The 1998 version, with an additional 9 articles, nationally mandated village elections. The current version, with 41 articles, was promulgated in 2010. These legal developments support an understanding of changing political perceptions of local level ‘democratic’ participation as the result of evolving central policies. What was at the core of these changing policies?

The village committee and its leader have significant local economic power, says Landry et al (2010, p. 766), to oversee the redistribution or lease of collectively owned village land, which since the 1980s’ rapid private development has become exceedingly valuable. This has seen a parallel increase in land rights related corruption. The committee is also tasked with, inter alia, mediating local disputes and for serving as liaison between township party officials. However, while the village committee may be entrusted with economic rights by law—implementation is another matter—the effective autonomy of the village committee to make political decisions or engage in the legislative process does not appear to have evolved since initial experimentation in the early 1980s, outside of potentially more competitive elections with higher voter turnout. I argue, in line with Nathan (2003) and Yan (2011), that village committees should be treated as the localized institutionalization of CCP authority, a far more believable objective behind central government support of initial efforts at village level self-governance.

Nathan (2003) explains that, while authoritarian regimes are generally fragile due to the prevalence of legitimacy crises, destabilizing coercive methods of control, an overly centralized power structure, and the predominance of factionalism, the Chinese model of authoritarianism has remained resilient. It has outlived most of the 20th centuries other totalitarian states, and has far outpaced its neighbor the DPRK in international integration and economic development, while maintaining fundamental power for the party. Not least of all because of the perfection of ‘input institutions.’ These are institutions that allow for a modicum of autonomy for Chinese citizens to notify the regime of their grievances. However, as Nathan (2003, p. 14) implies ‘input institutions’ may only beguile individuals into believing that “they have some influence on policy decisions and personnel choices at the local level,” while generating support for the central legitimacy of the CCP.

Yan (2011) uses different terminology to expand on the same analysis. Inclusive regime institutions (IRI), he states, are attempts by the regime to expand its internal decision making boundaries, and to integrate rather than insulate itself with non-regime members of society. IRI incentivizes participation in the regime-dominated system, although strictly demarcating the methods of participation, while at the same time preemptively stalling demands for more long term or anti-systemic changes. Although directly speaking of People’s Political Consultative Congresses (renmin zhengxie), Yan (2011, p. 54) offers a further beneficial description of IRI that fits an examination of village committees, in that IRI represent “important platforms for co-opting potentially threatening social forces” and “a mechanism for offering material benefits to the regime’s most loyal and trustworthy collaborators.”

These institutions empower individuals with clearly delimited rights and responsibilities that are never capable of challenging or even engaging equally with the regime. One might inquire whether village committees as an institution began with the reformist objective of greater democratization or as part of Nathan and Yan’s framework.  Deeper understanding of adaptive policy making in China will address this concern and further develop an understanding of village committees as nothing more than regime supporting institutions.

Unlike other authoritarian states, “Mao’s China exhibited a trademark policy style that favored continual experimentation and transformation (or ‘permanent revolution’) over regime consolidation (Heilmann and Perry 2011, p.7),” a regime feature that has not been abandoned in post-Mao China. I would argue that the trajectory of village committees from 1980 to 2010 can be seen as part of what Heilmann and Perry term the ‘experimentation under hierarchy’ approach, where “trial implementation of controversial or risky reforms in limited domains regularly precedes the enactment of national laws: risky policies are tried out first, spread to larger areas secondly, and only written into national law as a last step (Heilmann, Perry, 16).” Both the legal evolution and institutionalization of village committees proceeded, as part of a carefully choreographed effort by central party authorities to address overcentralization, without foregoing the efficiency of technical central decision-making, incrementally through a series of trial implementations, investigations, central discussions, and cautious extensions.

As noted above, Deng advocated measured ‘democratization’ as an effort to bolster his economic reforms. He may have noted, in 1979, that, “we have not propagated and practiced democracy enough, and our systems and institutions leave much to be desired… (Baum, 1996, p. 81).” But in 1987, when presented with ‘The General Outline on the Reform of the Political System’ (Zhengzhi tizhi gaige zongti shexiang), a report conducted by a task force for studying and discussing reform headed by Zhao Ziyang, Deng stressed, “we cannot abandon our dictatorship. We must not accommodate the sentiments of democratization… Efficiency must be guaranteed (Pei, 2008, p. 55).” For Deng, democratic reform was about little more than maintaining efficiency, which can be understood as a constituent concern of decentralization within Nathan’s typology of regime weakness.

“we cannot abandon our dictatorship. We must not accommodate the sentiments of democratization… Efficiency must be guaranteed.”

The regime logic behind the implementation of village committees should be seen as at least threefold, and part of the adaptive governance model. The first goal was maintaining efficiency, as explicitly noted by Deng. The additional goals, in line with Nathan and Yan’s regime institutions, are to generate greater support and legitimacy for the regime and to control local malfeasance among party and non-party individuals or provide material or symbolic support for collaborators, a concern for Chinese leaders with legacies stretching as far back as Imperial China. In this light we can understand village committees as inclusive regime institutions that, rather than having been hijacked from more democratic origins, began as experiments in localized party domination. If we accept village committees as the localized extension of party domination, then an over reliance on village elections, tout court, as the barometer of democratization must be unpacked as well. It presents a shallow and partial view that also benefits and legitimizes the authoritarian regime that, by nature, must firstly permit the election to take place.

Tilly (2007, p. 8) explains that procedural definitions fixate on a narrow range of governmental practices to determine whether a regime is a democracy. Adherents of this approach tend to focus their attention on elections, likely for reasons of observability and simplicity. He argues that the problem with procedural definitions is, “despite their crisp convenience, they work with an extremely thin conception of the political processes involved (2007, p. 8).” Tilly also elucidates the more sophisticated process-oriented approach. This approach is based on measuring five criteria: (1) effective participation; (2) voting equality; (3) enlightened understanding; (4) control of the agenda; and (5) inclusion of adults (Tilly, 2007, p. 9).

Adding critique to the procedural definition, Landry et al point out, “Officials who run authoritarian elections have strong political incentives to maximize turnout, and variation in turnout reflects not individual-level decisions but instead the performance of local officials as election organizers (Landry et al, 2010, p. 768).” Clearly, that elections are taking place in China, a procedural definition is more appealing for optimistic analysis, willing to shrug off the blocking of independent candidates at township level elections as outliers, but once a process-oriented approach is applied the degree of democratization represented by village committees is significantly diminished.

Speaking tangentially to a process-oriented approach, Pei notes that “the lack of effective channels for political participation and interest representation, creating an environment in which groups unable to defend their interests are forced to take high-risk options for collective protest to voice their demands and hope for compensatory policies (Pei, 2008, p. 15).” Pei’s reference to increasing contention points perhaps to the fact that the institution of village committees not only does not represent efforts by the regime to democratize but are also failing in their attempts to be inclusive regime institutions to bolster party support and promote local stability. In other words, while village committees may be nothing more than an extension of some Faustian bargain from the center, villagers are engaging in increased contentious politics demanding a more process-oriented, truly inclusive, approach to democracy that deeper research may reveal to be far more instrumental in democratization than any amount of village elections. Put a third way, self-organized contention by civil society is a far more robust indicator of democratization within an authoritarian regime than the hijackable village election.


Encouraging electoral politics at the grassroots level to ostensibly transfer the onus of regulating abuses and maintaining efficiency, by mildly increasing autonomy, through elections, may well be a more appealing strategy than the Maoist mass line and mass criticism, but it falls far short of democratization. The evolution of the village committee should, rather, be treated as a cautiously and centrally approved institution by the CCP toward the goal of localizing its legitimacy and control. Approaching village committees through a procedural definition of democracy will inevitably produce a flawed understanding based on a narrow conception of democratization that perpetuates a myth, framed in central policy dictates, that village committees are a sign of political liberalization in China.

Works Cited

Baum, Richard. (1996). Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Age of Deng Xiaoping. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

He Baogang. (2007). Rural Democracy in China: The Role of Village Elections. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Heilmann, Sebastian and Perry, Elizabeth. (2011). Embracing Uncertainty: Guerilla Style Policy and Adaptive Governance in China. In Heilmann, Sebastian and Perry, Elizabeth (Ed). Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China (p. 1-29). Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Landry, Pierre; Davis, Debora; and Wang, Shiru. (2008). Rural Elections in China Competition with Parties. Comparative Political Studies. 43 (6). p. 763-790.

Nathan, Andrew J. (2003). Authoritarian Resilience. Journal of Democracy, 14, p. 6-17.

Naughton, Barry. (2007). The Chinese Economy: Transitions and Growth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

O’Brien, Kevin J. and Li Lianjiang. (2000). Accommodating “Democracy” in a One-

Party State: Introducing Village Elections in China. The China Quarterly No. 162, Special Issue: Elections and Democracy in Greater China. p. 465-489.

Pei, Minxin. (2008). China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Development Autocracy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Tilly, Charles (2007). Democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Yan Xiaojun. (2011). Regime Inclusion and the Resilience of Authoritarianism. The China Journal. 66. p. 53-75.

American Prisons versus the World Population

The United States of America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With 716 people in prison for every 100,000, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, that is a higher percentage of total population than any other country. Furthermore, based on a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), A Living Death: Sentence to Die Behind Bars for What?, there are more than 3,000 Americans serving life without parole for non-violent offenses. For some the offense that earned them life in prison was stealing tools from a shed or being the middleman in a $10 marijuana sale. The ACLU estimates that nationwide 65% are Black; while, in Louisiana, with its infamous Angola Prison, the number rises to 91%, a quantified testament to serious unresolved racism in the country. These numbers are appalling in their own terms but when they are compared to the prison populations of other countries, the ‘land of the free’ becomes an even more frustratingly antiquated trope for the United States.

Adam Liptak, Supreme Court correspondent for the New York Times, offers a simple explanation:

The United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

The United States incarcerates 716 people out of every 100,000 citizens. Liptak noted in 2008 that if only adults were factored into the count then the United States incarcerates 1 out of every 100 citizens. Following the United States in incarceration rates as a percentage of the national population is St. Kitts and Nevis with 649. Rwanda incarcerates 527 out of every 100,000 people, followed by Cuba with 510 and Russia with 490. Belarus holds 438 and Azerbaijan 407. Not a particularly glowing list of human rights respecting countries. While China incarcerates far less than the United States, 121 people for every 100,000, the country does boast the highest number of prisoner executions in the world, based on estimated figures in light of China’s refusal to make these numbers transparent.

How do these figures compare with other democratic, advanced nations? Mexico holds 210 citizens per 100,000, and they are in the middle of a protracted civil war induced by the US led War on Drugs. Turkey holds 179 and the Czech Republic 154, while Argentina, Spain, and Scotland are tied at 147 per 100,000. The Netherlands and Switzerland both 82. Sweden incarcerates 67, while India only puts 30 out of every 100,000 people in prison.

Sweden recently announced that it is closing four prisons and many remand centers in response to a drastic decline in the number of inmates, the result, many analysts are saying, of a robust emphasis on rehabilitation and lenient sentencing, a stark refutation of the deterrent argument lobbied by many in the United States in favor of the prison industrial complex. The estimated additional cost to US taxpayers, says the ACLU, for current life without parole incarceration levels is around 1.8 billion dollars, a sizable earning for the nation’s many privatized prisons.

General social and political ideology, economic development, and quality of life in many European countries no doubt have played a role in decreasing levels of crime and prison populations compared to the USA. The differences between most of Europe and the United States when it comes to crime and incarceration are drastic, particularly with respect to prosecuting and sentencing non-violent offenders. In many ways the increase in life sentencing is a product of stalled death penalty reform, but a mandatory life sentence for violent and especially for non-violent offenses merely approaches capital punishment from an oblique and superficial understanding of why it is wrong and not from the perspective of fundamental human rights. The ACLU report’s author Jennifer Turner notes:

…today, the US is “virtually alone in its willingness to sentence non-violent offenders to die behind bars.” Life without parole for non-violent sentences has been ruled a violation of human rights by the European Court of Human Rights. The UK is one of only two countries in Europe that still metes out the penalty at all, and even then only in 49 cases of murder.

The Huffington Post reported that the advance 2012 statistics by the Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that the prison population in the United States for the previous year was 1,571,013, which marks a decline for the third consecutive year. However, when local and city jails are included, the article continues, the population exceeds 2 million, 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The same ACLU report noted above puts the incarcerated population at around 2.3 million people. That number is difficult to fathom outside of abstractions that either gloss over or do not register the severity. This number does not reflect the millions others, family members and loved ones, whose lives are irrevocably changed or shattered by a belligerent and flawed criminal justice system. Recent studies such as the one by the ACLU should engender a serious national discussion on prison reform in the United States. But the narrative continues to be dominated by politicized interests and the manipulated discourses of fear and otherness.

In an effort to lend more gravity to the discussion, below is a list of countries with entire national populations less than the US prison population. The following list has been composed using country population figures available through wikicommons.

Prison population of the United States… around 2,300,000.

List of the 100 Countries with a national population less than the US prison population:

1. Namibia… 2,113,007. 2. Lesotho… 2,074,000. 3. Slovenia… 2,061,349. 4. Macedonia… 2,062,294. 5. Qatar… 2,035,106. 6. Botswana… 2,024,904. 7. Latvia… 2,014,000. 8. Gambia… 1,849,000. 9. Guinea-Bissau… 1,704,000. 10. Gabon… 1,672,000. 11. Equatorial Guinea… 1,622,000. 12. Trinidad and Tobago… 1,328,019. 13. Estonia… 1,286,540. 14. Mauritius… 1,257,900. 15. Swaziland… 1,250,000. 16. Bahrain… 1,234,571. 17. Timor-Leste… 1,066,409. 18. Djibouti… 864,618. 19. Cyprus… 862,000. 20. Fiji… 858,038. 21. Reunion (France)… 821,136. 22. Guyana… 784,894. 23. Bhutan… 740,740. 24. Comoros… 724,300. 25. Montenegro… 620,029. 26. Macau (China)… 582,000. 27. Western Sahara… 567,000. 28. Solomon Islands… 561,000. 29. Luxembourg… 537,000. 30. Suriname… 534,189. 31. Cape Verde… 491,875. 32. Malta… 416,055. 33. Guadeloupe (France)… 403,355. 34. Martinique (France)… 394,173. 35. Brunei… 393,162. 36. Bahamas… 351,461. 37. Iceland… 325,010. 38. Maldives… 317,280. 39. Belize… 312,971. 40. Barbados… 274,200. 41. French Polynesia (France)… 268,270. 42. Vanuatu… 264,652. 43. New Caledonia (France)… 258,958. 44. French Guiana (France)… 229,040. 45. Mayotte (France)… 212,600. 46. Samoa… 187,820. 47. Sao Tome and Principe… 187,356. 48. Saint Lucia… 166,526. 49. Guam (USA)… 159,358. 50. Curacao (Netherlands)… 150,563. 51. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines… 109,000. 52. Kiribati… 106,461. 53. United States Virgin Islands (USA)… 106,405. 54. Grenada… 103,328. 55. Tonga… 103,036. 56. Aruba (Netherlands)… 101,484. 57. Federated States of Micronesia… 101,351. 58. Jersey (UK)… 97,857. 59. Seychelles… 90,945. 60. Antigua and Barbuda… 86,295. 61. Isle of Man (UK)… 84,497. 62. Andorra… 76,246. 63. Dominica… 71,293. 64. Bermuda (UK)… 64,237. 65. Guernsey (UK)… 62,431. 66. Greenland (Denmark)… 56,370. 67. Marshall Islands… 56,086. 68. American Samoa (USA)… 55,519. 69. Cayman Islands (UK)… 55,456. 70. Saint Kitts and Nevis… 54,000. 71. Northern Mariana Islands (USA)… 53,883. 72. Faroe Islands (Denmark)… 48,509. 73. Sint Maarten (Netherlands)… 37,429. 74. Saint Martin (France)… 36,979. 75. Liechtenstein… 36,842, 76. Monaco… 36,136. 77. San Marino… 32,509. 78. Turks and Caicos Islands (UK)… 31,458. 79. Gibraltar (UK)… 29,752. 80. British Virgin Islands (UK)… 29,537. 81. Aland Islands (Finland)… 28,502. 82. Caribbean Netherlands (Netherlands)… 21,133. 83. Palau… 20,901. 84. Cook Islands (NZ)… 14,974. 85. Anguila (UK)… 13,452. 86. Wallis and Futuna (France)… 13,135. 87. Tuvalu… 11,323. 88. Nauru… 9,945. 89. Saint Barthelemy (France)… 8,938. 90. Saint Pierre and Miquelon (France)… 6,081. 91. Montserrat (UK)… 4,922. 92. Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha (UK)… 4,000. 93. Svaldbard and Jan Mayen (Norway)… 2,655. 94. Falkland Islands (UK)… 2,563. 95. Norfolk Island (Australia)… 2,302. 96. Christmas Island (Australia)… 2,072. 97. Niue (NZ)… 1,411. 98. Vatican City… 800. 99. Cocos (Keeling) Islands (Australia)… 550. 100. Pitcairn Islands (UK)… 56.

File:Prison cell block.jpg

The Buddhist King and Modern Politics

The following is an excerpt from In Quest of Democracy, an essay written by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The original essay was written before Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in July 1989 and had been planned as part of an anthology of essays on democracy and human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi, after years of tumultuous house arrest and suffering, was released on 13 November 2010. Since her release she has continued to campaign for deeper democratic transitions in Burma as the leader, and founder, of the National League for Democracy. Around the same time as her release, the decades long military dictatorship began to initiate political liberalizations that permitted independent parties an unprecedented degree of freedom. Despite easily agreed upon positive steps toward Democracy Burma faces many obstacles and complex challenges to its ongoing democratization, particularly in terms of reconciling complicated group and individual identity politics. While this essay was originally written over twenty years ago, it presents a vision of a moral leader, a vision inspired by Buddhist legends and parables, with considerable transferability to not only guiding Burma’s democratic transition but in pointing to desirable qualities in all democratically elected figures and offers insight into discussions on resisting authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. It begins…

Opponents of the movement for democracy in Burma have sought to undermine it by on the one hand casting aspersions on the competence of the people to judge what was best for the nation and on the other condemning the basic tenets of democracy as un-Burmese. There is nothing new in Third World governments seeking to justify and perpetuate authoritarian rule by denouncing liberal democratic principles as alien. By implication they claim for themselves the official and sole right to decide what does or does not conform to indigenous cultural norms.

This excerpt was taken from a version of the essay appearing in Freedom From Fear: And Other Writing (2010) p. 170-173.


“The Buddhist view of world history tells that when society fell from its original state of purity into moral and social chaos a king was elected to restore peace and justice. The ruler was known by three titles: Mahasammata, ‘because he is named ruler by the unanimous consent of the people’; Khattiya; ‘because he has dominion over agricultural land’; and Raja, ‘because he wins the people to affection through observance of the dhamma (virtue, justice, the law)’…

The Buddhist view of kingship does not invest the ruler with the divine right to govern the realm as he pleases. He is expected to observe the Ten Duties of Kings, the Seven Safeguards against Decline, the Four Assistances to the People, and to be guided by numerous other codes of conduct such as the Twelve Practices of Rulers, the Six Attributes of Leaders, the Eight Virtues of Kings and the Four Ways to Overcome Peril. There is logic to a tradition which includes the king among the five enemies or perils and which subscribes to many sets of moral instructions for the edification of those in positions of authority. The people of Burma have had much experience of despotic rule and possess a great awareness of the unhappy gap that can exist between the theory and practice of government.

The Ten Duties of Kings are widely known and generally accepted as a yardstick which could be applied just as well to modern government as to the first monarch of the world. The duties are: liberality, morality, self-sacrifice, integrity, kindness, austerity, non-anger, non-violence, forbearance and non-opposition (to the will of the people).

The first duty of liberality (dana) which demands that a ruler should contribute generously towards the welfare of the people makes the tacit assumption that a government should have the competence to provide adequately for its citizens. In the context of modern politics, one of the prime duties of a responsible administration would be to ensure the economic security of the state.

Morality (sila) in traditional Buddhist terms is based on the observance of the five precepts, which entails refraining from destruction of life, theft, adultery, falsehood and indulgence in intoxicants. The ruler must bear a high moral character to win the respect and trust of the people, to ensure their happiness and prosperity and to provide a proper example. When the king does not observe the dhamma, state functionaries become corrupt, and when state functionaries are corrupt the people are caused much suffering. It is further believed that an unrighteous king brings down calamity on the land. The root of a nation’s misfortunes has to be sought in the moral failings of the government.

The third duty, paricagga, is sometimes translated as generosity  and sometime as self-sacrifice. The former would constitute  a duplication of the first duty, dana, so self-sacrifice as the ultimate generosity which gives up all for the sake of the people would appear the more satisfactory interpretation. The concept of selfless public service is sometimes illustrated by the story of the hermit Sumedha who took the vow of Buddhahood. In so doing he who could have realized the supreme liberation of nirvana in a single lifetime committed himself to countless incarnations that he might help other beings free themselves from suffering. Equally popular is the story of the lord of monkeys who sacrificed his life to save his subjects, including one who had always wished him harm and who was the eventual cause of his death. The good ruler sublimates his needs as an individual to the service of the nation.

Integrity (ajjava) implies incorruptibility in the discharge of public duties as well as honesty and sincerity in personal relations. There is a Burmese saying: ‘With rulers, truth, with (ordinary) men, vows’. While a private individual may be bound only by the formal vows that he makes, those who govern should be wholly bound by the truth in thought, word and deed. Truth is the very essence of the teachings of the Buddha, who referred to himself as the Tathagata or ‘one who has come to the truth’. The Buddhist king must therefore live and rule by truth, which is the perfect uniformity between nomenclature and nature. To deceive or to mislead the people in any way would be an occupational failing as well as a moral offence. ‘As an arrow, intrinsically straight, without warp or distortion, when one word is spoken, it does not err into two.’

Kindness (maddava) in a ruler is in a sense the courage to feel concern for the people. It is undeniably easier to ignore the hardships of those who are too weak to demand their rights than to respond sensitively to their needs. To care is to accept responsibility, to dare to act in accordance with the dictum that the ruler is the strength of the helpless. In Wizaya, a well-known nineteenth-century drama based on the Mahavamsa story of Prince Vijaya, a king sends away into exile his own son, whose wild ways had caused the people much distress: ‘In the matter of love, to make no distinction between citizen and son, to give equally of loving kindness, that is the righteousness of kings.’

The duty of austerity (tapa) enjoins the king to adopt simple habits, to develop self-control and to practise spiritual discipline. The self-indulgent ruler who enjoys an extravagant lifestyle and ignores the spiritual need for austerity was no more acceptable at the time of the Mahasammata than he would be in Burma today.

The seventh, eighth and ninth duties — non-anger (akkodha), non-violence (avihamsa) and forbearance (khanti) — could be said to be related. Because the displeasure of the powerful could have unhappy and far-reaching consequences, kings must not allow personal feelings of enmity and ill will to erupt into destructive  anger and violence. It is incumbent on a ruler to develop the true forbearance which moves him to deal wisely and generously with the shortcomings and provocations of even those whom he could crush with impunity. Violence is totally contrary to the teachings of Buddhism. The good ruler vanquishes ill will with loving kindness, wickedness with virtue, parsimony with liberality, and falsehood with truth. The Emperor Ashoka who ruled his realm in accordance with the principles of non-violence and compassion is always held up as an ideal Buddhist king. A government should not attempt to enjoin submission through harshness and immoral force but should aim at dhamma-vijaya, a conquest by righteousness.

The tenth duty of kings, non-opposition to the will of the people (avirodha), tends to be singled out as a Buddhist endorsement of democracy, supported by well-known stories from the Jakatas. Pawridasa, a monarch who acquired an unfortunate taste for human flesh, was forced to leave his kingdom because he would not heed the people’s demand that he should abandon his cannibalistic habits. A very different kind of ruler was the Buddha’s penultimate incarnation on earth, the pious King Vessantara. But he too was sent into exile when in the course of his strivings for the perfection of liberality he gave away the white elephant of the state without the consent of the people. The royal duty of non-opposition is a reminder that the legitimacy of government is founded on the consent of the people, who may withdraw their mandate at any time if they lose confidence in the ability of the ruler to serve their best interests.

By invoking the Ten Duties of Kings the Burmese are not so much indulging in wishful thinking as drawing on time-honoured values to reinforce the validity of the political reforms they consider necessary. It is a strong argument for democracy that governments regulated by principles of accountability, respect for public opinion and the supremacy of just laws are more likely than an all-powerful ruler or ruling class, uninhibited by the need to honour the will of the people, to observe the traditional duties of Buddhist kingship. Traditional values serve both to justify and to decipher popular expectations of democratic government.”


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