In 2001, I had the privilege of traveling in China as a Roosevelt Fellow. The fellowship, a visionary project of the now-sadly-shuttered Center for Policy Alternatives, aimed to expose promising progressive legislators from across the nation to the successes and experiments in democracy in other parts of the world. The focus of this trip was China’s emerging focus on environmental protection.
There were many important lessons, but one observation comes to mind as we confront a global pandemic, the planet’s climate crisis, the rise of authoritarianism, and the many faces of the divide between haves and have-nots.
Immediately after meeting with some of the leaders of China’s emerging environmental NGO community, we were ushered into a meeting with a senior government official to discuss his work on China’s environmental challenges. He reported on his good working relationship with environmental activists and was very proud that the government had named a few of those activists to speak for the group. His list of names bore no relationship to the names of the people we had just met. In fact, his list was of government-approved and appointed people, the alleged NGOs. He had complete control of whom they met with and who could be engaged in the conversation about the environment.
This and several similar experiences led me to marvel at the moment we were witness to. China was struggling to blend its traditional respect, even reverence, for authority with more democratic tendencies coming across its borders. The emerging NGO community represented enormous change, and the government response was to embrace some of the language of community empowerment while clearly holding onto the power. And this was a dynamic process without a roadmap and with an uncertain outcome. Would China move in the direction of an open society or would there be more Tiananmen Square protests and massacres?
It brought to mind the conversations that animated the years before, during and immediately after the American Revolution. Our forebears had to reject the authority (if not the divinity) of the king, and then invent a new system of governance. This process, too, was iterative, uncharted, sometimes violent, and with an uncertain end. Victory over the King’s armies was unlikely, and conceiving and then creating an entirely new system of governing unprecedented.
I returned to the U.S. reflecting on the fate of our two experiments in governance. Both countries faced enormous existential challenges, China to blend tradition and modernity, the U.S. to confront what even then was perceptible as the end of its singular dominance (economically, militarily, politically) of the world and confront as well some of the fundamental divisions within our nation that our Constitution was designed to paper over. It wasn’t clear to me then that either nation would succeed in effecting a smooth transition. It’s not clear to me now.