Why Jackie Chan, and many of us, yearn for 'strongmen'

Some years ago, when action hero Jackie Chan was walking the red carpet at an international film festival, he received the comical attention of one of his many fans. In the belief that imitation was the best form of flattery, the fan, having first drawn Chan's attention, whirled his arms about in kung-fu style and emitted a string of whoops - of the kind that the star himself famously used to do in his slapstick action sequences.

But far from being flattered, Jackie Chan was grievously offended. For several months thereafter, in media interviews and in public speeches, he moaned and groaned that he was being typecast as a kung-fu comedian, and not as he presumably saw himself: as a serious-minded actor whom fans ought to greet with dignity and decorum.

Jackie Chan thinks too much freedom leads to chaos. Reuters

"Would Robert De Nero's fans ever greet him in that crazy way?" he wondered. The irony of his situation - the fact that he had himself cultivated (and milked for commercial gain) the image of himself as a kung-fun clown for years, and had no one but himself to blame for his 'image trap' - was evidently lost on him.

But ever since then, Jackie Chan's public utterances have validated the suspicion that he may be a clown not just in his movies but in real-life situations as well - and not just when he does his comic kung-fu routine, but every time he opens his mouth and plants his foot in it.

On Tuesday, Chan noted in an interview to a Chinese-language newspaper in Guangzhou in southern China, that Hong Kong, the city that is his home (and which he represents as a Brand Ambassador), had become a "city of protest" and that the people of Hong Kong had increasingly taken to protesting "against everything" and "scolding China's leaders".

In his estimation, he said, Hong Kong's authorities needed to stipulate what kind of issues people can protest against - and which ones they should be barred from protesting.

It was an echo of the sentiments he had expressed some three years ago, when, addressing a business forum in China, Chan dismissed the notion of "freedom" as perhaps overrated. He wasn't sure, he had said then, if it was good to have freedom, and in fact "too much freedom" might give way to chaos. As an example of "chaotic" societies, he cited Hong Kong, which enjoys far greater political openness than mainland China, even if it isn't a full democracy.

More grievously, Chan had then said that he had come around to the view that "the Chinese people" needed to be controlled, in the absence of which "people would do just what they want." For his repeated motormouth indiscretions, the kung-fu clown has been getting a lot of flak, not only in Hong Kong, but even in mainland China where civil society activists have been pushing against the one-party Communist dictatorship and resent Chan's defence of that dictatorship.

Although Chan's comments were directed at the situation in Hong Kong and in mainland China, they feed into the classic development-versus-democracy debate, which frames virtually every discussion within India, and between India and China.

Chan was only taking forward the argument that a benign form of dictatorship is best suited for a developing society such as China, but that's an argument that frequently finds resonance in India whenever the elite tire of the "excesses" of democracy that inhibit developmental projects and, by extension, keep India from realising its developmental potential.

Indicatively, earlier this year, when Indian Express published a specious report about "unusual" Army troop movements in Delhi in January - and suggested (without saying explicitly) that it was an attempt at coup by the then Army chief, Gen VK Singh, the most disquieting response among a section of the chatterati on public platforms was the misplaced yearning for a "coup". There were many expressions of disappointment that that the "coup" attempt - such as it was - had failed.

It's easy to see where the fount of that yearning is: most of our democratic institutions today are seen to have been tarnished beyond repair. Faith in the government and in our parliamentarians is perhaps at its lowest. Venal corruption-cutting across party lines-has tainted our politics, with each scam turning out to be bigger than the other. The judiciary has intervened in some high-profile cases of corruption and has been celebrated for that reason, but then the process is so laborious and time-consuming; and in any case not a single high-profile case of political corruption has ended in conviction. So, there's plenty of angst to go around.

In such a societal framework, the Army was seen as one of the last surviving institutions that commands respect, and as perhaps being best placed to carry out the surgery that many believe is required to fix the moral decay in society.

Even if one discounts that misplaced yearning for a 'coup', the fact is that even our democratic polity has an infinite capacity to venerate 'strong' leaders - from Jayalalithaa to Mamata Banerjee to Narendra Modi. None of these leaders is particularly known to practice any form of inner-party democracy or tolerate dissent. But then, the tolerance level among the people for consensual decision-making is not particularly high, given the bad name that has been given it by the dysfunctional UPA coalition and the political pushover who masquerades as the Prime Minister today.

But whereas in India, dreams of a 'benevolent dictatorship' merely reflect the longing for an unrealisable political arrangement, China already has a working model of that oligarchic Animal Farm utopia.

In advancing the case for limits of freedom, Jackie Chan was perhaps merely taking forward the spirit of the 'social contract' that China's leaders have worked out with its citizens. Under this, China's leaders have pledged themselves to deliver economic growth, in return for which its citizens accepted limits on their political freedoms. But that contract, which may have worked well in the decades of high growth, is coming under strain because of the recent economic slowdown and growing unemployment.

Viewed from India, the Chinese model of economic growth - riding roughshod over individual freedoms - may dazzle and trigger envy. But it is a model whose time is well and truly up: the poor and the dispossessed are no longer putting up with forced displacements; on occasion, they are giving expression to their frustration in comical ways - like this group of Chinse villagers protesting against their eviction to a 'Gangnam Style' rap)."Nimby" protests against pollution are growing in intensity across China, compelling authorities to roll back projects (which belies Chan's statement about the folly of protests in Hong Kong).

And it's not just about the poor. Even super-rich Chinese are voting with their feet and moving overseas (more here), which invalidates the notion that people will put up with restrictions of freedom so long as they get a shot at getting rich.

It is a message that Jackie Chan - and those in India who dream of a benevolent dictatorship - would do well to heed: with all its faults, and with all its frustrations, a society that accommodates its differences - and opens up the space for protests - will inarguably offer the more sustainable path to development. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, those who would give up essential liberty to secure a fortune deserve neither liberty nor a fortune.