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John Hughes

China’s velvet glove conceals an iron fist

But Beijing's growing global charm and wealth can’t hide a continuing lack of freedom.

By John Hughes / November 3, 2010



Beijing’s communist mandarins are facing an acute dilemma as they strive to position China as a global power.

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Their nation’s phenomenal growth has made it the second-largest economy in the world. But such status is clouded by an abysmal human rights record. Can China continue to prosper without political freedom for its people?

The image problem is compounded by a swashbuckling foreign policy in Asia that has neighboring states like India, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan cringing.

How much appetite for reform?

Recently there were unusual murmurings in high places as 23 distinguished Chinese personages signed an open letter calling for free speech in their country. This followed Fareed Zakaria’s interview on CNN with China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in which the premier himself supported the concept of free speech. The premier’s remarks were censored in China, however, by his own government. Beijing’s furious response last month to the Nobel Peace Prize award to imprisoned Chinese democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo also suggests there is little appetite for reform in the current political hierarchy.

Indeed, policy moderation is unlikely during this period of transition within China’s Communist Party. Vice President Xi Jinping emerged from a recent party conclave as on track to succeed President Hu Jintao in 2012 as Communist Party head and as president in 2013. Mr. Xi is a party stalwart with little to distinguish him except that his wife is a popular Chinese folk singer. Meanwhile Mr. Liu is serving an 11-year prison sentence, his wife has been harassed by security forces, and sympathizers have been roughed up.

Charm diplomacy

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