China: Beyond Communist rule and capitalist change, what's the real story?

China is often depicted in extremes. But in figuring out how much China has changed or how much it has stayed the same, the trick may be simply to refuse to choose between those two options.

Is the most surprising thing about China how much it’s changed in recent decades – or how little?

Those with only a casual interest in the country can easily feel that they have to pick between these two options – and that doing so isn’t simple. Not when the sound bites about and punditry on China is shaped by a sort of bipolar disorder, toggling continually (and sometimes swiftly) between accounts stressing the dizzying pace of change (cue photo of Shanghai skyscrapers) and reports highlighting the stubborn hold of old ways (cue shot of the giant portrait of Chairman Mao by Tiananmen Square).

When the Chinese economy makes headlines, the emphasis is likely to be on breaks with the past. No surprise there. While Mao was alive, who thought capitalists would be welcomed into the Communist Party and Big Macs sold in Beijing?

If political issues rather than economic ones are the focus of the China story du jour, though, the emphasis is likely to be on how deeply China remains stuck in old ruts. Here, again, the logic is obvious, and not just because Party Congresses and National Day parades can give someone who has been following Chinese events for years a sense of déjà vu.

Consider the case of dissent, as exemplified by the treatment of Liu Xiaobo, a scholar and human rights activist who was sentenced to 11 years in prison on trumped-up charges of “subversion” last Christmas. He had already been imprisoned for participating in the Tiananmen protests of 1989. So his latest incarceration immediately brings to mind the fact that the government still clings to the “Big Lie” narrative that treats the Tiananmen struggle as a “counterrevolutionary riot” that was handled with restraint, rather than what it was: a popular upheaval crushed by a massacre.

In addition, Mr. Liu’s latest incarceration has disturbing echoes that go back to the Democracy Wall Movement of the late 1970s. He drew the ire of the state most recently through helping to draft and circulate “Charter 08,” a bold online call for increased civil liberties. While inspired by the Czech Charter 77 movement associated with Vaclav Havel, Charter 08 also fits into the same indigenous tradition of calls for change as a poster demanding greater political freedoms that earned Wei Jingsheng, a Democracy Wall leader, a 15-year prison term 30 years ago.

Some Chinese bloggers, noting the parallels between the treatment of Mr. Wei and Liu have asked rhetorically: Does China’s “progress” from 1979 to 2009 mean simply spending four less years in jail for speaking your mind?

Tempting as these approaches are, there are serious problems with the “everything’s different, just look at the economy” and “nothing’s changed, just look at politics” views.

For example, while entrepreneurial activity of a sort that was fairly insignificant in Mao’s day has contributed to China’s rapid growth, state-run enterprises haven’t disappeared. Quite to the contrary, they continue to be major players in the economy, particularly in parts of China located well to the west of bustling eastern seaboard cities like Shanghai.

Similarly, Liu himself may have many of the traits we associate with both Chinese and Czech dissidents of the late 1970s, but many of the other inspiring figures working for change in China are quite different.

They are individuals, such as crusading lawyers, who spend much of their time trying to work within the system. Often, they start out with limited grievances and become involved in struggles with limited aims.

They are angered by specific abuses of power or passionate about particular issues, from discrimination against those with AIDS to environmental degradation to shoddy building practices by corrupt developers with close ties to officials. They are uninterested, at least initially, in questioning fundamental features of Communist Party rule, though when they end up being harassed by the state anyway, this can radicalize them.

Another political contrast with the past has to do with modernization. Wei insisted that China needed democracy in order to overcome obstacles to economic growth. Many protesters now, by contrast, worry about the way their quality of life is being threatened by China’s pulling-out-all-the-stops development program. Hence the rise of NIMBY (not in my backyard) protests by homeowners who want to stop noxious chemical plants from being built nearby or noisy high-speed trains from running beside their neighborhoods.

What all this suggests is that, in figuring out whether to focus on how much China has changed or how much it has stayed the same, the trick may be simply to refuse to choose. And to pay attention to the continuities in areas that seem most transformed – and the ruptures in areas that seem most resistant to transformation.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, is the author of “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know,” which is being published next week.

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