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China and the Meaning of Freedom

I have recently visited China. It was not, strictly speaking, my first trip to the Middle Kingdom, since I visited Shenzhen last year and have visited Hong Kong twice before. However, it was certainly the first time to visit the heartland of China- Ningbo in the Yangtze delta and Beijing. I had always felt somewhat reluctant to visit an officially still Communist state, since Soviet Socialism remains in my mind the moral equal of National Socialism. Both systems embody a contempt for the individual, whether that contempt is manifest as race hatred or class hatred is rather beside the point. Of course I was aware that Deng Xiaoping had ended the most egregious repression, and have written on this blog that the arrest of the Gang of Four was an act of liberation in its way as powerful as the fall of the Berlin wall. Nevertheless I had rather ambivalent feelings as I boarded the flight to Beijing.

The first thing to say about China is that it is now in many ways a highly advanced country. The images of thousands of bicycles and party cadres in Mao suits is as hopelessly out of date as Capitalists in stovepipe hats. Beijing now looks like Los Angeles, only cleaner, better planned and more modern. It is a city of cars, and of new highways. The statistics speak of hundreds of millions of people being lifted out of poverty, and the reality is, if anything, even more impressive. Modern China is as advanced as anywhere in the world. Of course the economic numbers still speak of uneven and incomplete progress, but in the vast and burgeoning cities at least, the impact of huge and well educated populations speaks of a genuinely emerging powerhouse. Of course such power carries with it growing pains: once the price advantage of cheaper Chinese labour carried all before it; now the more complicated geometry of competitive advantage is leading to some industries leaving China, while others are refocusing their investments. Yet far from speaking of Chinese decline, these changes speak of emerging opportunities as the economy matures and develops. Higher value added and new technology, together with an immense investment in physical and human infrastructure, through education, is permanently strengthening the economic and social structure of the country.

The rise of the Chinese educated elite is, perhaps the most impressive thing about the country today. Unlike the cynical anti-intellectualism that is the stock-in-trade of the UK, and to a degree the USA, China genuinely believes in the power of knowledge. Education is the imperative for success and in a way the social disruption of the bloodbath of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution has reset Chinese society- purging society of the bureaucratic obscurantism that was the cause of national weakness for centuries. Nevertheless, the process of political change is on a different time scale compared to the rapid economic and social change and it is clear that there are now significant friction points. 

China's leaders, however, still deeply fear the instability that tore apart the country after the fall of the Manchu dynasty. No matter what their vision for the future, the contending forces inside the Chinese Communist Party value order and stability above all. And of course there ARE contending forces in the Party. The late Zhao Ziyang, a former Prime Minister, deposed after the Tian-an-men protests of 1989, in his memoirs, smuggled out of the country after his death, was convinced that the future for his country should include Parliamentary democracy, while others speak for a neo-Maoist centralised state. In fact the high organs of the Party navigate a kind of centre ground, neither abandoning repression nor utterly crushing freedom of expression. The atmosphere, however, that I found was one where great changes are in the offing. The private frustration over corruption has a limited official sanction for discussions in the media, but this public forum is inadequate to the task. The fact is that, privately, much of the public conventional wisdom is openly derided. There is a real sense that the Party is now becoming a brake on Chinese progress, and not- as before- its agent. More pluralist ideas are the common place of individual discussion and the public discussion about corruption, environmental degradation, poisons in the food chain and so on telegraphs much greater questions about the legitimacy of the Party.

Yet the Party cadres clearly know this, and indeed many of them indeed support more democratic openness. In a sense the central bodies are reluctant to impose too great restrictions, partly because they fear a backlash, but also because many do them simply do not believe in repression. This was what I did not expect: the political establishment of China is itself already far more diverse and pluralist than its public face would make you believe. The discussion is not about whether political changes are coming, but rather how far reaching these changes should be.

One evening our delegation was taken to a karaoke bar, and in a private room, we relaxed and got to know our hosts for the evening. Drinking contests were had, and hopefully we did not lose too much face, even as we sang different songs. One of our hosts selected a song: George Michael's catchy "Freedom". We came to the chorus, but only the backing words were shown, nevertheless we sang the magic words "Freedom, Freedom, you've got to give for what you take". At the end our host looked me in the eye and in the old Soviet way that I remember so well, he knew I knew. We said nothing, but I gained a very large bear hug in return.

China is not free. Yet the power of Freedom is strong and I think there is a deep and powerful wish in the country to open up society and the political life of the country to match the unquestioned economic development. If Taiwan or (South) Korea can emerge from authoritarianism I think China can too. After all the great achievements since 1976 rest upon the end of the evils of Maoist totalitarianism and the emergence of a system that was merely authoritarian. 

What could China not achieve if it could make a peaceful leap from authoritarianism towards a democratic system?

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