Americans don't really need another reason not to link the senseless actions of a deranged individual in Tucson to the tenor of American political discourse, but it is worth considering how accusations that the lunatic shooter in Tucson was influenced by our political rhetoric feed directly into the narrative about democracy—American and otherwise—promoted by authoritarian countries such as China, whose president Hu Jintao is visiting Washington next week.
The Wall Street Journal's China Real Time blog provided an interesting snapshot of both how this event is being covered in China and how Chinese citizens, or some netizens anyway, are reacting to it. As the Journal article notes, the Chinese media has given this tragedy wall-to-wall coverage, with Chinese state television even sending a correspondent to Tucson. It is a long-running tactic of the Chinese propaganda machine to highlight negative events in democratic countries as part of an overall effort to show the Chinese public how much better off they are under the Chinese Communist Party's dictatorship. (Evan Osnos, the New Yorker correspondent in Beijing, claims that, thanks to the Tea Party and the political battles over Obamacare, China's propaganda machine have lately had their pick of examples of the ills of democracy in the U.S., although one would be hard pressed to think of a time when their job was particularly difficult given the bumptious nature of our wide-open political system.) Chinese officials like to characterize "western style" democracy as chaotic and claim that the results of greater democracy (i.e., the end of one-party rule) for China would be anarchy. The Chinese media often cites incidents such as the recent tragedy in Tucson to bolster their case. That this particular tragedy involved a handgun (they are extremely rare in China due to tight government controls) and has been linked to America's unruly political system by some Americans is all the better for their purposes.
While some Chinese commentators did follow the narrative and blame the U.S. system for the shootings, there were others that illustrated how misguided, and ultimately counterproductive, Beijing's propaganda efforts are destined to be as long as the U.S. system does a better job of giving people a real voice in their government. One Chinese commentator slammed the state media's portrayal of this tragedy, saying: "We have the gall to mock others? One of [our] own citizens was run over by a bulldozer, with the law enforcement standing by, watching and smiling … should we not feel ashamed?" The commentator was referring to the suspicious death of Qian Yunhui, a villager from Zhejiang province whose gruesome post-mortem pictures flashed across the Chinese Internet (and were then quickly scrubbed from it) at the end of December. Qian had drawn the ire of local officials for his efforts to assist petitioners whose land had been illegally seized by a well-connected developer—a common story in China today. Another Chinese commentator linked the Tucson shooting to popular outrage over the infamous case of the son of a local official who ran over a college co-ed while driving drunk, then taunted citizens who surrounded his car to hold him for the police, shouting, "Sue me if you dare—my dad is Li Gang!" Others marveled that Congresswoman Giffords was meeting with her constituents in the parking lot of a supermarket, and without the phalanx of security that a Chinese official would have insisted on.
The sentiments expressed by these Chinese bloggers and activists, and the events they reference, are inextricably bound up in the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime and its pervasive controls on the flow information. The Chinese government's mania for information control and lack of transparency have serious implications not only for China's citizens, but also for the economy, security, public health, the environment and other issues that are high on America’s and the international community’s agenda with Beijing.
Freedom House's 2011 "Freedom in the World" survey, which was released this week, finds democracy in retreat across the globe for the fifth year in a row, and highlights the "increasing truculence of the world’s most powerful authoritarian regimes, which has coincided with a growing inability or unwillingness on the part of the world’s democracies to meet the authoritarian challenge." When one considers the costs and dangers posed by the lack of freedom of expression in China, it seems obvious we should resist any impulse to apologize for the intensity of American political debate and refute any effort to link it to the murders in Tucson. Instead, we should welcome the fact that our system and political culture insists that we have a vigorous public debate about the nature of the responsibilities we have to our communities as result of the rights we enjoy, and the real tensions between liberty and public order implicated in issues such as access to firearms or laws on the treatment of dangerous mentally ill individuals.
These are issues that should be of particular interest to President Hu, as well. Last year, China experienced a horrific series of attacks on kindergartens and young school children by kitchen knife or hammer-wielding young and middle-aged men with psychological or financial problems. At the peak of the kindergarten attacks, there were indications the ruling elite was concerned that popular unhappiness with the government's response could precipitate a real challenge to its authority. The government's public response was to order the construction of hundreds of new mental hospitals and increase security at schools, but there was no open national political debate about why these attacks happened or what should be done. For instance, there was no public discussion about why so many of China's existing psychiatric resources were tied up in the forced institutionalization of thousands of non-violent petitioners, Falun Gong practitioners, and political dissidents instead of caring for the seriously mentally ill. Mostly because average people in China don't know anything about how these individuals—who pose only a ‘danger’ to the Chinese Community Party—are imprisoned in mental wards by order of the state.
While the events in Tucson have launched a round of national soul-searching on various political issues, as President Obama eloquently noted, our system's imperatives to address complex political challenges through public consultation and debate will undoubtedly turn out to be the thing that brings us through this nightmare, rather than the source of our problems as some Chinese officials and American talking heads seem to believe. Our messy political system and chaotic-looking national culture ensures that while we will go through noisy and possibly wrenching public disquisitions, we ultimately will come up with more durable solutions and have a deeper kind of stability than Chinese authoritarianism can hope to secure.