The great wait of China: How long until freedom?

How long can China's communist regime hold in thrall people who have prospered in an economic system that has many of the hallmarks of free enterprise? Despite attempts to censor the Internet, China's huge, new urban population is aware of the outside world and changes in it.

AP Photo/Kin Cheung
Human rights protesters hold a banner that reads "Release Ai Weiwei, Liu Xiaobo, and other democracy activists" as they march to the China Liaison Office in Hong Kong April 5, 2011.

After “ping-pong diplomacy” opened up China in the 1970s, I was one of a group of American newspaper editors invited to spend some time there.

The country was undeveloped; the rice paddies and primitive factories operated by manual labor with little machinery in evidence. A huge peasant population toiled long and hard.

In a session we had with then-Premier Chou En-lai, I suggested that China could profit by mechanization and modernization. His answer was intriguing: “But what would we do then with the people?”

I doubt that even he could have envisaged the transformation that was later to change the face of China or how it would change the lives of his people.

When we editors asked peasants at that time what they wanted in life, they listed three things: a bicycle, a sewing machine, and a radio. If you asked that question of the average citizen in any Chinese city today, the answer might be: a large, flat-screen TV; a new car; and the latest in laptops or electronic tablets. 

Today, new data reveal that more than 51 percent of China’s 1.3 billion people are city dwellers. They work in factories and office buildings and live in soaring apartment complexes far from the rural life. 

The nation has a new infrastructure of roads and bridges and communications. It produces a wealth of goods for itself and for export to a world that once dismissed China as an inconsequential third-world country. 

A talented and industrious people has done this under a communist political system that has been harsh and dictatorial. New party leaders are due to be “elected” later this year. The question: How long can one of the last communist regimes in the world hold in thrall people who have prospered and blossomed in an economic system that has many of the hallmarks of free enterprise?

Despite government attempts to control the flow of information and censor the Internet, this huge, new urban population in modern China is aware of the outside world and changes in it. 

The Arab Spring, which saw uprisings throughout the Arab world last year, triggered a brief movement to launch a “Jasmine Revolution” in China. It was swiftly put down by government security forces. They arrested anyone believed to be involved in planning protests and demonstrations. 

The Beijing regime has regularly targeted human rights and democracy activists, imposing on some of them prison sentences of up to a decade. 

The most notable of these is Liu Xiaobo, a writer and intellectual who helped write a democracy manifesto for China. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while serving a lengthy prison sentence. 

The US ambassador to China, Gary Locke, in a recent American television interview, said the crackdown on dissent has become harsher in recent months as the Chinese government fears uprisings stimulated by those of the Arab Spring.

Even on China’s border, Myanmar (Burma) is moving away from the military authoritarianism of many years in yet another example of the trend toward democratic change.

Not only urban intellectuals are causing problems for the Chinese government. There have been a number of protests in outlying areas where officials have attempted to seize peasant lands. 

The security forces appear to have plenty of manpower and intelligence to penetrate and forestall any serious attempt to change the system of government. 

But as Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, points out, if the Internet has not produced a revolution in China’s political system, it has become itself a “virtual political system,” providing news of government corruption and coverups that go viral in a matter of minutes.

China has made extraordinary economic progress. If Chou En-lai were alive today, I would tell him what he could do with the people: Let them experience democracy.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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