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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Jackie Chan wears a political jester's hat, too


LOS ANGELES — You might have already known that kung fu comic and actor Jackie Chan was crazy, but is he certifiably insane? Just the other day this legendary does-his- own-stunts man asserted that the Chinese people do not need Western-style freedom and democracy.

"I'm not sure if it's good to have freedom or not," Chan said. "I'm gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we're not being controlled, we'll just do what we want." Huh?

We think we know what happened. Like all good performers, the cagey and clever Chan was customizing his presentation to his audience: This was a hard-core business forum on the southern mainland. These were no unwashed democracy demonstrators. Business types, it is well known, care for bottom lines, long customer lines, new product lines — and little for protest lines.

Chan had also said he was not impressed with the systems of Hong Kong and Taiwan. Freedom had made those societies "chaotic." I guess he meant to raise doubts about democracy in Taiwan, which now sees its former elected president in a jail cell for alleged corruption, and in Hong Kong, which has done well for itself ever since escaping the smothering colonial embrace of Mother England (a parliamentary democracy).

Nevertheless, Hong Kong prodemocracy legislator Leung Kwok-hung was not amused: "He has insulted the Chinese people. Chinese people aren't pets. Chinese society needs a democratic system to protect human rights, and the rule of law."

Albert Ho, another Hong Kong lawmaker, thundered, "People around the world are running their own countries. Why can't Chinese do the same?" Ho labeled Chan's comments "racist."

The truth is that a lot of Chinese might quietly concur with Chan. The mainland is a nation of 1.3 billion or so (almost four times the population of the United States) that arguably might require certain societal constraints not needed in, say, Sweden (population 9 million). China's tumultuous history makes people leery of anything that might trigger widespread luan (chaos, as in the Cultural Revolution). Everyone knows that the key to democracy of the Western kind is a very large middle class. China, still a developing country despite gargantuan economic gains in some regions, has many more poor than middle class people, whereas it's the reverse in the U.S. — and even more so in Sweden.

Nor do low literacy rates advance the cause of an educated citizenry capable of making wise electoral decisions. Many Chinese know that their culture's Confucian tradition puts great value on a general respect for family ("father knows best"), governmental and/or corporate authority, group loyalty (community, local church, company) and individual discipline (a social force fading among Asia's young people but still a factor).

But aren't Western values of democracy, elections and individual freedom necessarily superior? Democracy — many in Asia note — doesn't save you from a lot of problems and too much freedom can be problematic. In China, to be sure, elections have only sparingly been tried. The historical fact is, as Singapore's sage Lee Kuan Yew put it years ago: "The Chinese people have never experienced a government based on counting heads, instead of chopping off heads."

Chan may be a jiving jokester, but he's no insensitive political cad. In 1989 he was publicly critical of Beijing's Gestapo-style stomping of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. But he and many other Asians recognize that quite often the West's reverence for democratic elections seems more pragmatic than principled. A few years ago in the Middle East, for instance, open elections in Gaza gave Hamas control of the legislature, but the West dismissed the result as lacking legitimacy and refused to recognize the new government.

In 1992 in Algeria, the Islamic Party won an open election, but when the army engineered a successful coup to reverse the outcome, the West, including the U.S., barely managed an official tut-tut or two.

Asians take notice of convenient hypocrisies such as these. The West prefers to endorse elections that produce the winners it wants.

Without beating around the Bush, my many Chinese friends point to Western political systems' sometimes electing someone to the top job who didn't even get the most votes.

What I do know is that Jackie Chan is some kind of crazy kidder.

Tom Plate, a former university professor and author of "Confessions of an American Media Man," was editor of the editorial pages for The Los Angeles Times (1989-95). He also worked at the Washington Post and Newsday, as well as Time and New York Magazines. © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center


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