Seeing China Whole

Don't underestimate its capacity for positive change

If you look closely at a spot in a meadow, you will see some things you may not enjoy looking at—weeds, bugs, funguses, bare spots of dirt, bits of trash, animal bones, and so on. If you view it from a distance, however, you may see a vista that is far more appealing.

With the opening of the Beijing Olympics, outsiders are putting modern China under a microscope and finding much that is ugly. That perception is accurate but not complete. A full appreciation requires taking in the panorama of Chinese life and history, which may be hard to do in the preoccupation with the host country's flaws.

There are plenty to choose from. The government is repressive, undemocratic, and often brutal. It censors news coverage, imprisons dissidents, restricts religion, and maintains a monopoly on political power.

So far, the Olympics have not served the goal of fostering liberalization. "The year-long prelude to the Beijing Games has seen a major crackdown on free speech and dissent; a massive sweep of 'undesirables' from the host city; and increasing abuses of ethnic minority Tibetans and Uighurs," says Minky Worden, an official of Human Rights Watch, in an e-mail. In the next two weeks, the Chinese leadership is going to get a lot of unflattering coverage, all richly deserved.

But it would be a shame to focus on its sins to the exclusion of everything else. Westerners can easily forget that this authoritarian country used to be a totalitarian country, with perhaps the most grotesque human rights record of the 20th century

During the three decades after the Communist Party took over in 1949, it was responsible for more than 70 million deaths. Some of them were due to political persecution and terror, and some to catastrophic economic mismanagement. The party deliberately fomented savage social upheavals that not only punished its alleged enemies but devastated China's cultural heritage. It also kept the country poor.

All that is in the past. Since Deng Xiaoping gained power in the late 1970s and liberalized the economy, China has been transformed almost beyond belief. Its economy has expanded tenfold. No country in history has ever lifted so many people out of poverty so rapidly.

What was once a vast prison camp has conceded a great deal of personal freedom to ordinary people. They can work and live where they choose. They can travel and study abroad. They have access to the Internet. There is a growing sense among the Chinese that they are entitled to certain basic human rights—a startling development in a country where, for centuries, individual rights have been an alien concept.

As repressive regimes go, this one could be worse. Robert Ross, a China scholar at Harvard and Boston College, says, "I would put China in the top 10 percent of all the authoritarian states in the world"—comparing it favorably with many East Asian countries (notably North Korea and Burma), most Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, and most African nations.

He thinks the recent pre-Olympics security crackdown won't last long. And there is good reason to expect that in the coming years and decades, China will continue to progress in human rights.

Hoover Institution fellow Henry Rowen, an East Asia specialist, notes that development and democracy almost universally move in tandem. A market economy can't function without substantial freedom from state control. As countries become richer and more educated, they unleash forces that are incompatible with authoritarian rule.

You can usually anticipate political advances by gauging the rise of gross domestic product per capita. "In 2005," writes Rowen, "every country in the world (oil states excepted) with GDPpc topping $8,000 was at least Partly Free [as categorized by the human rights group Freedom House]; indeed, all ranked as Free except the tiny island city-state of Singapore." Given China's growth trajectory, he predicts it will move from Not Free to Partly Free by 2015—and by 2025, it will be "classed as belonging to the Free nations of the earth."

Anyone contemplating the thuggish repression still prevalent under the Beijing government may find that hard to imagine. But if the last 30 years have taught us anything, it is not to underestimate China's capacity for positive change.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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  • SIV||

    But if the last 30 years have taught us anything, it is not to underestimate China's capacity for positive change.

    Chapman paints a best case scenario

    I wouldn't underestimate China's capacity for negative change either. They are ruled by the Communist Party and they aren't going to go away peacefully.

  • Episiarch||

    says Minky Worden

    Do they also have I. P. Knightly working for them?

    I'm a little disturbed by Chapman's "hey, they're not as totalitarian as they used to be" attitude.

    I think China is going to provide a good example of a country that finds a balance between authoritarianism and free markets that allows them to succeed. We're on that track too, just from the opposite direction.

  • Old Bull Lee||

    I worked on a job with a guy from China. The way he saw it, they're making a move toward full capitalism, but they're doing it gradually so they don't crumble in the process.

  • ||

    They can work and live where they choose. They can travel and study abroad. They have access to the Internet.

    That is flat out horseshit. I have seen several reports from China in the past few years documenting the governments limitations on movement and internet access. The fact that those reports got out of the country is in itself significant progress over past decades. But in spite of all it's vast new wealth, the government is still deliberately keeping much of it's population impoverished.

    Another half-assed article from Chapman. Honestly Reason. I'd rather read my cell phone and credit card contracts than another article by Steve Chapman.

  • ||

    "I'd rather read my cell phone and credit card contracts..."
    And yet you keep reading them, Warren. What's up with that?

  • ||

    Americans and other westerners value the freedom to speak freely, to religion, and to criticize government (obviously a big No-No in China). The Chinese people are different in that they value economic freedom over political freedom. Its more important to them to be allowed to purchase whatever product they want without government interference than to be able to speak without government interference. This may sound like a prima facia case of greed and selfishness, but its more rooted in the eastern cultural history of not criticizing your elders (i.e. leaders). They're freedom comes from having the opportunity to be as economically contributive as possible.

  • Elemenope||

    I worked on a job with a guy from China. The way he saw it, they're making a move toward full capitalism, but they're doing it gradually so they don't crumble in the process.

    Much like the rest of their three thousand year history. Nothing to see here, please move along.

    My mother used to have a really neat person-sized graph which showed the comparative power and stability of major regimes around the world throughout history. You could see visually the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, Genghis Khan's conquests, etc.. What was terrifying, from my point of view, was that on the right hand side of the graph was the polity of China (such as it was throughout history), and minor perturbations aside it was a *straight and consistent bar* from about 2500 yrs ago till 1992. Nothing else on the chart came close to looking like it.

  • Highway||

    I think Chapman's on the right track. China certainly seems to be on a much better track to liberalization and sustainable freedoms than, say, Russia.

  • ||

    I think China is looking at enormous internal stresses over the coming decades that could easily result in rollbacks of whatever advances they make. They have demographic stress unthinkable in the West, both embodied in and created by the one-child(son)policy, social stress created by the rapid advancement of some classes/regions while others are left behind, economic stress created by increasing energy costs, and (I suspect) systemic economic flaws created by state involvement/investment in economic enterprise.

    If any of those blow up, the response isn't going to be to loosen the screws, it will be to tighten them. And, practically speaking, there isn't a damn thing we can do about it. The thing that worries me is the extent to which foreign adventurism will be attractive as an apparent solution to the problems that are built into modern China.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Please. Steve Chapman can't predict what Steve Chapman is going to do, much less one billion Chinese. Fortune-telling is an ancient and lucrative art, but it's also a stunningly inaccurate one.

  • ||

    And yet you keep reading them, Warren. What's up with that?

    I pretty much read all the front page articles at Reason. Four out of five times I read a Chapman article, I think "Reason would be a much better champion of Free Minds and Free Markets without this".

  • SxCx||

    They are ruled by the Communist Party and they aren't going to go away peacefully.

    Didn't Poland's go away peacefully? East Germany?

    (Russia, arguably.)

  • ed||

    The Chinese people are different in that they value economic freedom over political freedom.

    You can't really have one without the other. Isn't economic "freedom" minus political freedom fascism? That's where Russia seems to be headed. China? Maybe not.

  • ||

    What was terrifying, from my point of view, was that on the right hand side of the graph was the polity of China (such as it was throughout history), and minor perturbations aside it was a *straight and consistent bar* from about 2500 yrs ago till 1992. Nothing else on the chart came close to looking like it.

    Then it was a really crappy bar. There were at least 400 years of unrest and upheaval, marked by a lack of central control in a single block in that period of time. To say nothing of the fact that until 2200 years ago, there was no centrally controlled "China" worthy of the status of central government. If that fact wasn't reflected in the graph, then it was a lousy one, and you probably shouldn't put any stock in it.

  • ||

    "They can work and live where they choose."

    To expand on Warren's point, even the most casual follower of China (like me) knows that the country still rigidly controls who can be documented to live in urban areas, and many of the rural workers moving to the city have no "right" to be there and are thus horribly exploited.

    I realize that reason is a generalist magazine, but it's really not a good idea to publish writers on topics that are so obviously out of their expertise.

  • ||

    Isn't economic "freedom" minus political freedom fascism?

    Hmm. I'd be interested to read a knowledgable analysis of how China's current authoritarian capitalism, compares with historical exemplars of fascism. I suspect they aren't too far apart, although China came at it from the other direction (total state control came first) than the usual suspects.

  • ||

    From Wikipedia:

    Fascists opposed what they believed to be laissez-faire or quasi-laissez-faire economic policies dominant in the era prior to the Great Depression.[85] People of many different political stripes blamed laissez-faire capitalism for the Great Depression, and fascists promoted their ideology as a "third way" between capitalism and Marxian socialism.[86] Their policies manifested as a radical extension of government control over the economy without wholesale expropriation of the means of production. Fascist governments nationalized some key industries, managed their currencies and made some massive state investments. They also introduced price controls, wage controls and other types of economic planning measures.[87] Fascist governments instituted state-regulated allocation of resources, especially in the financial and raw materials sectors.

  • Leo Augustus ||

    China is the most dangerous country on the planet to human freedom since the Soviet Union. Consider a war between China and the US.
    First since they are the country that loans the US the money to keep the government afloat, let's imagine that the US actually keeps its promise and defends Taiwan against an invasion. China would simply stop loaning the money to the US and could pretty shut down the US government, including the military, without firing a shot. It is unfortunate that in the cultural revolution Mao didn't destroy all extant copies of "the Art of War" Sun Tzu wrote "Thus, those skilled in war subdue the enemy's army without battle. They capture the enemy's cities without assaulting them and overthrow his state without protracted operations. Their aim is to take all under heaven intact by strategic considerations. Thus, their troops are not worn out and their gains will be complete. This is the art of offensive strategy."
    "For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence."

  • Leo Augustus ||

    BTW I'm glad he didn't destroy all of the copies of Sun Tzu. (for Chad this is called tuonge-in-cheek)

  • Leo Augustus ||

  • Tholan||

    Steve is correct. China is changing. We should not set aside our "Reason" and stop trying to change the People's Republic into something better, but we shouldn't rail against them as a lost cause either. The posturing of the Russian Federation is far more troubling than the posturing of China, and the oppression of Iranians and other Islamic peoples is comparable to that of the Chinese but with far less hope for real change. The Chinese people are a strong people, and their values are radically different then those of the West. They will come to value personal liberty in their own time. We must have faith in the power that shared economic prosperity brings as a catalyst for the individual thirst for freedom.

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    No country in history has ever lifted so many people out of poverty so rapidly.

    But you didn't mention how many are still living in poverty. And you also didn't mention the fact that China's "progress" is a direct result of it absorbing elements of Western civilization.

    Sorry but I hate to see the Chinese government getting way too much credit for what's going on.

    But if the last 30 years have taught us anything, it is not to underestimate China's capacity for positive change.

    And if the last 30 sentences have taught me anything, it's that you've still got your head up in some really dark place.

    The political and economic stresses in China are gigantic. The minute things start really coming unraveled, the Chinese government is going to clamp down for real.

    Because more than anything else, the people who rule China want to make sure they keep on ruling China. So you can say "but the people won't put up with it". And I'll say, "so what are they going to do, rebel?"

    Now that's really gonna push them ahead economically. Assuming they even willing to rebel.


    The smart money in this horse race is on not much change in Chinese freedom, overall. They'll make some economic progress, but in the long run they'll never come close to their full potential (China never has in all of its history).

    And btw, if you read Chinese history, they are quite capable of having a measure of economic freedom without having political freedom to go with it. The idea that "you can't do that", is just so Western.

    The Chinese mindset is a very, very different creature, when few in the West have studied enough to have much grasp of.

  • ||

    Didn't Poland's go away peacefully? East Germany?

    Not quite the same thing. They were Russian colonies, and once that empire collapsed there wasn't much homegrown enthusiasm for communism to keep it around.

    -jcr

  • ||

    China would simply stop loaning the money to the US and could pretty shut down the US government, including the military, without firing a shot.

    Well, not really. If China were to go to war with the USA, they'd find that their asses were hanging in the wind financially, since the USA could simply reneg on all the dollar-denominated securities that they're holding. (I mean, other than inflating it to worthlessness.)

    China doesn't keep their US dollars in bundles of $20s, they keep it in computer records which can be rendered worthless just by saying so.

    Of course, massively deflating the US dollar by making Chinese holdings vanish would make any other holders of dollars want to dump them for gold ASAP, so we'd be fucked, too.

    -jcr

  • ||

    the USA could simply reneg on all the dollar-denominated securities that they're holding.

    Come to think of it, Nixon already did that.

    -jcr

  • ||

    Well, not really. If China were to go to war with the USA, they'd find that their asses were hanging in the wind financially, since the USA could simply reneg on all the dollar-denominated securities that they're holding

    We wouldn't even need to do that. We stop buying their consumer goods, and suddenly 100 million people are out of a job with no means of support. 18 months and they'll be too busy bringing their internal matters under control to worry about us for at least a few years.

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