Is China Becoming Less Authoritarian?

Thanks to capitalism, the sphere of personal autonomy in China is now vastly larger than it was in the dark days of Mao Zedong.


Beijing has some seriously bad air. How bad? On a scale of 1 to 500, the United States Environmental Protection Agency says anything over 100 is unhealthy and anything above 400 is an emergency. Recently, the pollution index for Beijing hit 755. For purposes of breathing, it's like being downwind of a forest fire while smoking a cigar.

China's communist rulers normally suppress news like that. In 2009, when the U.S. embassy in Beijing started putting air quality numbers on its Twitter feed, the government demanded in vain that it stop.

But when your air contains enough foreign matter to mold bricks, it's hard to claim the sky is blue. And lately, the authorities have decided censorship of the topic is futile.

"I've never seen such broad Chinese media coverage of air pollution," a Beijing consultant named Jeremy Goldkorn told The New York Times. "From People's Daily to China Central Television, the story is being covered thoroughly, without trying to put a positive spin on it." In November, the outgoing president actually acknowledged the need to combat environmental destruction.

Pollution is not the only detectable thing in the Chinese air lately. This month, after the government interfered with an editorial in a national newspaper based in Guangzhou, protesters mounted some of the boldest demonstrations since the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement—while for several days, police stood by and let them.

Chants were heard that ordinarily could have brought harsh punishment: "Down with the Communist Party!" Unlike Tiananmen, these didn't end in mass bloodshed. The newspaper whose staffers had threatened to strike was not closed down.

Almost unnoticed amid all this was a report by the official news agency that the government plans to dismantle its notorious system of "re-education through labor," where petty criminals, religious people, and dissidents have often been imprisoned without trial. "If it can be abolished this year, I think it's an extremely important step toward rule of law," Peking University law professor He Weifang told Reuters.

That may be expecting too much. At least since 1989, human rights advocates have hoped China would soon evolve into a freer, more democratic society, but so far they have always been disappointed.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics were supposed to push the government toward openness and tolerance. Instead, the artist who helped design the famous "Bird's Nest" stadium, Ai Weiwei, wound up in detention for making noise about official abuses. In 2011, the government mounted a particularly brutal offensive against malcontents.

But authoritarian governments don't last forever, and this one faces changes it can't control. Back in 1996, Asia scholar Henry Rowen of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University noted that when countries reach a per capita income level of $8,000 (unless the money comes mostly from oil), they invariably become freer. Given China's pace of economic development, he predicted that it would become a democracy "around 2015."

When I called him the other day to ask about that forecast, Rowen sounded optimistic. Ever-growing incomes and a growing middle class are not the only stimuli for positive change, he noted: "Rising education levels also predispose people to voice their views on things that affect their sense of justice or that directly affect their lives."

Because of the rise of capitalism in China, the country's people have gained a large measure of freedom—in such critical matters as where they work, where they live, and where they may travel. The sphere of personal autonomy is vastly larger than it was in the dark days of Mao Zedong.

Technology holds promise. "The blogosphere is a very lively place, and it's huge," he says. "The censors have an impossible job to shut off things they don't like." People unhappy with the government can now easily find others who agree and mobilize to spread the word.

Chinese have also taken to traveling abroad—particularly to Taiwan, which has fiercely contested elections, an aggressive press, and wide-open debate. It's living proof that democracy can develop in China without disastrous social upheaval or mass violence.

It's no surprise that the Communist Party thinks it can prevent such change on the mainland. Autocratic regimes rarely leap at the chance to empower the citizenry. But this one is not exempt from the powerful forces unleashed by China's transformative economic miracle.

The Communist Party insists the old dictatorial system works fine for a modern society. It's a familiar message, but somehow, the Chinese are choking on it.

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      Adrian Henri

      Tonight at noon
      Supermarkets will advertise 3p extra on everything
      Tonight at noon
      Children from happy families will be sent to live in a home
      Elephants will tell each other human jokes
      America will declare peace on Russia
      World War I generals will sell poppies on the street on November 11th
      The first daffodils of autumn will appear
      When the leaves fall upwards to the trees

      Tonight at noon
      Pigeons will hunt cats through city backyards
      Hitler will tell us to fight on the beaches and on the landing fields
      A tunnel full of water will be built under Liverpool
      Pigs will be sighted flying in formation over Woolton
      And Nelson will not only get his eye back but his arm as well
      White Americans will demonstrate for equal rights
      In front of the Black house
      And the monster has just created Dr. Frankenstein

      Girls in bikinis are moonbathing
      Folksongs are being sung by real folk
      Art galleries are closed to people over 21
      Poets get their poems in the Top 20
      There’s jobs for everybody and nobody wants them
      In back alleys everywhere teenage lovers are kissing in broad daylight
      In forgotten graveyards everywhere the dead will quietly bury the living
      You will tell me you love me
      Tonight at noon

    2. Way too simplistic. It’s very easy for China to grow economically from where it was in the late 70s.

      People enjoy more freedoms there, but it has a long, long way to go.

  1. “China, I am disappoint!”

    /Thomas Friedman

    1. That’s too succinct and clear to be Friedman

      1. When thinking about the ongoing ethnic strife, it’s important to remember three things: One, people don’t behave like billiard balls, so attempts to treat them as such are going to come across as foreign. Billiard balls never suddenly shift their course in order to fit with a predetermined set of beliefs. Two, China has spent decades as a dictatorship closed to the world, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, capitalism is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If authoritarianism is China’s curtain rod, then capitalism is certainly its flowerpot.

        1. If authoritarianism is China’s curtain rod, then capitalism is certainly its flowerpot.

          China is trying to stir-fry the two but will the Michelin Guide be impressed enough to give it two stars?

        2. Excellent.

        3. +1 hot, flat earth.

          1. +1 hot, flat earth.

            Gaia might not be the bustiest gal, but I don’t see why you have to draw attention to that fact.

  2. Same story since Nixon “opened” China and still the Communist Party is in charge and anyone who gets in its way is thrown in jail if they are lucky or turned into body parts to be sold if not.

    Why would it change since the Communist Party still controls the guns and the money and many of those ‘capitalists” in China are Communist Party officials or their family or friends. They have no interest in upsetting the system that gives them power.

    1. An interesting irony:

      It will be China?s leftists who stand to gain most in any political turmoil to arise in China in the next few years.

      This is based on the rule of thumb that states rising expectations favour the left, thwarted expectations favour the right.

  3. Reminds me of a book from several years ago where the author argued that maritime nations, such as Britain, Holland, and the US, were more democratic and innovative than land nations, such as France, because trading requires independence in thought and action; governments which tried to control that would be lousy traders. Navies by their nature breed independent thinkers, whereas armies breed hierarchy and compliance.

    Not sure how Japan fits into that, but it otherwise seemed like a pretty interesting idea.

    1. Mongolia is a maritime nation? Don?t think so. Yet it was under the Mongol empire that widespread trade between the east and the west became a reality. Macro Polo is not just a pool-side child?s game.

      1. You may be laboring under some misconceptions re the Mongols.
        See “Silk Road”, Valerie Hansen.

        1. Why did Cristobal Colon sail the ocean blue? To find a trade route with China, is why. Yes, but why sail? Why not go overland as had been the practice for centuries? Because those trade routes collapsed with the Mongol empire, is why.

          As for my labouring under some misconceptions, that goes without saying. In any case, I?ll keep Hansen?s work in mind and maybe even get around to reading it some day.

          In the meantime, I found the following in a customer review of the book at Amazon:

          ?So, what about the travels of Marco Polo? After the Mongol conquest in the 13th century their empire made it possible for the first time to travel from Europe to China across the grassy steppes from the Crimean peninsula to Mongolia. This was north of the earlier “Silk Road” and quickly became the preferred route because it avoided the steep mountains and extensive desserts.?

          1. I?ve spent some time in this neighbourhood. The mountains were certainly steep, but the desserts were meagre. I can recommend however the ice cream from Inner Mongolia. Beware of counterfeits, though.

  4. I’d describe China’s non-Communist economic parts as mercantilist rather than capitalist. The wealthiest citizens are Communist party members, not “rags-to-riches” capitalists.

    Remember to take good news about the Raging Dragon of the Eastern Stars with a HUGE grain of salt (perhaps mined by a political prisoner that doesn’t exist). The Chinese gov’t spends a significant amount of resources on influencing how Americans perceive China, especially in Beltway think tanks and in Hollywood productions.

    (Google “China’s propaganda and influence operations” from the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, April 30th, 2009. Can’t post the link here.)

    1. The very wealthiest are party members, but I see a bunch of people driving BMWs and Mercedes’ in southern China who were born into just that type of abject poverty that you hear about in the countryside there.

      There are millions of “rags-to-riches” stories there and they are beautiful.

      1. That’s good to hear. I’m glad to see that success can be found in China.

        That being said, I’d rather we look at objective facts rather than subjective hopes, and understand that the “common narrative” about China in the US has been influenced in large part by the Communist party.

  5. Let’s at least hope China becomes more democratic. Good for the Chinese, and good for the world.

    1. Way i see it, they keep the “monarchy”, but de-vest it’s powers into an elected parliament/senate

    2. They could pull a pinochet actually.

  6. I have been a visitor to China for 30 years and a resident for the last three. When I first came it was a police state with a socialist economic system. Over the years there was first a vast increase in economic freedom, and when people got rich, there was a corresponding increase in social freedom. During the last three years I have lived in rural China far from the expat crowd, and I have come to find the Chinese are very libertarian. They have contended with autocratic governments for thousands of years, so they sort of follow along when absolutely required, but ignore the government whenever they can get away with it. They follow the old saying, “Shan gao, huangdi yuan.” The mountains are high and the emperor far away.
    Now, we have more economic freedom here than in the US, and thanks to Bush and Obama, we are on the way to passing the US in social freedom, not because China is more free, but because the US is on a fast track to socialism or fascism.

    1. I first visited China in 1984, and have travelled for both business and pleasure there since then. My own reading of history and experience of the country largely agrees with your comments.

      In some respects the Chinese are more free than Americans. For example, is the average Chinese resident required to submit an annual sworn statement to account for his financial dealings like the US requires? OTOH, many Americans can buy a 9mm Glock without much trouble at all.

      The two big areas where the US is more free than China:

      1) Political activism that opposes the status quo.
      2) Individual family planning. The One-Child policy is a major intrusion on individual rights.

      I just returned from a month in China, and I certainly don’t feel one iota more free than I did a week ago. But I have no interest in political activism or having any more children.

    2. That’s very interesting! I’d never seen that phrase before… It’s cool to see a perspective of the country from people who’ve interacted with the population rather than people like me, who mainly only know about the Chinese government’s policies.

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