“Yep” was my answer. As I traveled across China this summer, my visits at four universities were repeats and my hosts knew me well. So I asked, “Why do you ask?”
“Kansas is on all the news. There is lots of argument in your state government,” was the reply.
So at the next opportunity, I brought up the Yahoo or MSN or CNN news feeds. Chinese watch a lot of foreign news, especially to improve their English.
And there was Kansas. When I left Kansas at the end of the spring semester, the Legislature was into overtime trying to address the State Constitution-mandated balanced budget. Kansas was $450 million in the red. Here I was in China weeks later, and this debate was still dragging on.
Finally came the news report that the Kansas Governor went to the Legislature and begged for an increase in sales tax and finally got it, but not quite enough to cover the shortfall. Then in another action, the Legislature passes a bill that would de-fund the courts if the court rules against them.
Students and teachers in China know a lot more about our form of government than the average American knows about theirs. So I knew that at the next dinner, I would be faced with more questions. And I was.
“Aren’t your branches of government supposed to do different jobs?”
So I explained how our executive branch ran day-to-day affairs. The judicial branch judged cases based on the Constitution, laws and rights. And the legislative met for a short time to pass new laws. They already knew this.
“But if your Legislature controls the money, they can control the other two branches too, can’t they?”
“That happened at the national level, too,” injected another professor, adding “That’s why they shut down the national government two times.”
I try to explain: “It’s not supposed to work that way. But some legislators think we spend too much money and they do these things.” But I could tell that explanation didn’t make sense to my fellow professors.
Now, my dilemma is how to make the Chinese perspective understood to American readers.
Many European countries as well as Israel have more than two parties. Their elections rarely see any one party gain a majority. So the leading parties have to confer to put together a ruling coalition. At any time the coalition no longer agrees, they break up and this requires a new election be held. Americans tend to ridicule such a system as confusing and short term—our two-party system is obviously much better (or so we think).
My China colleagues view our two-party system with its gridlock and power-plays with the same disdain that Americans view the European multi-party systems. And they certainly have these cases of dysfunction to prove their point.
That does not mean that their system is necessarily monolithic. Most Americans would be surprised to know that there are over a dozen other political parties in China besides the Communist Party. However, their membership is very low. They mainly win positions in local and regional elections. And debate does occur, not only in their National People’s Congress, but also in the bimonthly meetings of their subcommittee that writes laws for consideration at the next congress.
I have long since given up trying to explain the O.J. Simpson trial verdict in China. And this summer I gave up trying to explain Kansas politics to my China colleagues.
In an odd twist, the State of Washington has likewise had a spat between its Legislature and State Supreme Court. Their court ruled that Washington was not adequately funding schools. Sound familiar? Three weeks ago, the Washington State Supreme Court ordered their Legislature to pay a $100,000-a-day fine until they met their Constitutional obligation to adequately fund K–12 education before 2018.
Education is so valued in China that I know not to try to explain that situation either.