The China Delusion

On Thursday, August 7, President George W. Bush spoke in Bangkok, Thailand about his vision for China’s future. “Change in China will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and its own traditions,” the president predicted. He pronounced, “Yet change will arrive.”

That is certainly true . . . change always comes. But the president sees China’s change thus: “Young people who grow up with the freedom to trade goods will ultimately demand the freedom to trade ideas, especially on an unrestricted Internet.” And he sees that “those who aspire to speak their conscience and worship their God are no threat to the future of China. They’re the people who will make China a great nation in the 21st century.” And in this, he is certainly wrong.

By every objective standard, China’s freedoms of expression, press, assembly, religion, labor organization, were greater in April 1989 and have declined precipitously since. This is confirmed by the U.S. Department of State’s annual reports on human rights practices — in no year since 1989 has the State Department noted any improvement in China’s human rights, and in several years it has documented serious declines. The few current liberalizations that Chinese enjoy — new job mobility, burgeoning cultural expression, relaxed residence permits — would have taken root without the catalyst of the April/May 1989 burst of freedom.

It would be dishonest to deny the great changes from Mao Zedong’s days. But change, in fact, stalled in 1989. That first decade of Deng Xiaoping’s post-Mao reforms persuaded many of us that China would liberalize steadily, economically, socially, intellectually and, of course, politically. Those liberalizations were, we imagined, all interwoven. Some of us once saw the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Massacre and the crushed democracy movement as hiccups in a process of inexorable progress, and we persuaded ourselves that so long as the United States encouraged economic and trade liberalization, the rest would be pulled along perforce.

Twenty years later, alas, authoritarianism is much more deeply and insidiously entrenched in Chinese society than on the eve of Tiananmen. More alarming, the scope of Chinese Communist Party control over the media, religion, the judiciary and public dissent has broadened markedly since Hu Jintao took over as China’s supreme leader in September 2004.

The Party’s authority over all aspects of human behavior is greater now than in 1989. And because Deng Xiaoping’s "liberation of productive forces” as the “core of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics" has impelled the abandonment of central planning and employment of the competitive dynamic of market forces, there has indeed been prosperity and creativity — of an Orwellian sort.

Orwell’s 1984 totalitarianism was a social environment within which your survival in comfort depended upon your submission. And your advancement depended on the degree to which you enforced “Big Brother’s” rule.

Germany in the 1930s and well into the 1940s is an instructive example of totalitarianism co-opting its population with economic prosperity and international power. Those two factors persuaded 5 percent of the population to rationalize themselves into “True Believer” status; and 94 percent rationalized their acquiescence. Those that resisted, one percent, were shot, not counting the ethnic minorities and Jews who simply disappeared — the 94 percent either not caring or not daring to care what happened to them.

Sadly, Chinese who endured the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the Tiananmen Massacre (1989) understand that opposing the State is bad for one’s health and career prospects. Still, some try and are jailed, detained, harassed, their phones tapped, their internet chats monitored. As President Bush visited a state-controlled church on Sunday, August 10, a fellow worshiper was arrested on his way to the same church, presumably because the police feared they would try to approach the American leader. Who else gets arrested by the Chinese state? Religious believers who oppose state-controlled worship, AIDS activists, lawyers representing displaced farmers, advocates against forced abortions, labor organizers, protesters against pollution, ethnic minorities and grieving families outraged by corrupt Communist Party officials who cut safety corners when building schools that collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake.

The vast majority of Chinese citizens understandably try to stay out of trouble. Like Germans or Japanese in the 1930s, they have relatively comfortable lives. But surely, one cannot mistake this for freedom.

China is not just a major economic power. It is something more challenging: it is an emerging superpower where ultimate authority over economic decisions rests with the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Since the early 1980s, China has evolved from a command economy to a mixed economy with increasing use of the market. But the state presence remains very ample in many different sectors. So, while the last three decades of unprecedented prosperity and economic growth rest largely on what Deng Xiaoping called the "socialist market economy", China emphatically is not a market economy. And — quite the opposite of the world’s true market economies — China ‘s full economic power can be marshaled and directed at the will of the state.

Over the past decade, China’s economic and military strength has expanded with startling rapidity and presents a profound and unsettling change in the balance of global power and influence. Yet, despite China’s signal disinterest in human rights (either for its own people or anywhere else), its equanimity toward nuclear proliferation, its insouciance with environmental degradation, and its border harassment of neighbors from Japan to India, from the South China Sea to Bhutan, and (of course) Taiwan, our leaders appear more comfortable facilitating its leadership than challenging it. Perhaps, they calculate that China has simply become too big to do otherwise. That calculation is not worthy of our ideals and represents an error of epochal proportions.