A Political Scientist in China

How China Is Like a Bicycle
Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 3 2007 3:11 PM

A Political Scientist in China

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Construction cranes in Beijing. Click image to expand.
Cranes dominate parts of the Beijing skyline

BEIJING—There's plenty to read on China in the Western media. But my most recent visit convinces me that the place is changing way too quickly for any single snapshot to do it justice. China's transformation is everywhere—in skylines, in shop windows, and in conversations with Chinese citizens and officials of every description.

A visit to Beijing generates two immediate impressions: growth continues at top speed; and, surprisingly, there's little sign of any real instability anywhere. We've seen the stats. The Chinese government has publicly acknowledged that the number of "mass group incidents," an official euphemism for public protests involving at least 50 people, grew from 8,700 in 1993 to nearly 87,000 in 2005. Even for a population of 1.3 billion, that's a lot of angry people.

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But the wide variety of anecdotal evidence I gathered here tells me that a broad majority of Chinese generally support their central government. That support is not unconditional; it certainly seems to lack the intensity the Chinese government claims. Just about everyone gripes and grumbles about something. But if you ask people how the leadership is doing, almost no one gives it low marks. (People  spoke freely on many government-related subjects.) The government is given plenty of credit for China's rising prosperity, and Beijing's citizens take considerable pride in the emerging strength of China's economy.

In fact, the Chinese officials I met with assured me more than once that U.S. jitters over subprime lending woes are having no effect inside China—or on its ability to "save" the global economy. Sure, consider the source. But their confidence is not just for show. A new sentiment is beginning—just beginning—to develop here that the mutual interdependence of the U.S. and Chinese economies is more one-sided than Washington thinks.

Another point that's rarely discussed in the Western press: Though openness in Chinese society continues to lag behind economic development, there's been a slow but significant opening up of free expression that is apparent across a broad spectrum of Chinese media. Anyone who hasn't been here in 10 years will be startled by the evidence. I was here just 18 months ago and still found it surprising.

Let's be clear: There is no vibrant debate on politically charged issues like religion or pluralist politics. There's zero tolerance for political speech that challenges the Chinese Communist Party's monopoly on political power or anything else that might pose a substantial direct challenge to its right to rule. But new freedoms of personal choice are striking. The broadening of consumer choice isn't so new, but on issues ranging from sex to marriage to divorce to movement around the country, the coast is clearing. There's even a noticeable opening up of the media. The China Times, hardly a paragon of journalistic pride, carries much more economic debate than it used to.

Small changes are taking place within the government itself. Though dozens of senior-level posts remain occupied by party officials, there are now two government ministers (for science and health) who aren't members of the Communist Party. Both are lavishly praised in the official press as expert technocrats. Even the handlers assigned to me for government meetings by the Foreign Affairs Ministry were noticeably more open to genuinely interesting conversation about what's really going on in the country than the polite but cautious minders I tried to engage during my visit in 2006.

Still, behind all the official sunshine are some real problems that China's central government knows it will have to address. For example, the streets of Beijing offer plenty of evidence that the huge migration of (would-be) workers from the countryside to the capital is generating a large, visible, and increasingly unhappy urban underclass. That problem is growing fast.

There are four big questions hovering over Beijing like smog. Can the central government engineer jobs for all these new city-dwellers? Can it continue to handle the social unrest stoked in cities and the countryside by large-scale seizure of land for development? Can China sustain its growth rates without inflicting further irreversible damage on the country's already toxic air and water? Can Beijing rein in corruption both in provincial governments and the big cities? There are plenty of other headaches on the official agenda, but these are the big four. Despite concerted official efforts to tackle all four, each of them is getting worse.

The rural and newly urban underclasses—symbols of different aspects of the widening gap between rich and poor within a society that prides itself on "harmonious development"—are largely responsible for the widely discussed 200-plus protests per day around the country. The numbers may have declined over the last year; the unreliability of official Chinese data makes it impossible to say for sure. But the big four challenges are not going away. Neither is the public anger.

But there are two critical factors that help Beijing avoid much of the risk that civil unrest might provoke. First, very little of this fury has so far focused on the central government. Public blame for corruption, chemical spills, land seizures, and unemployment has so far fallen almost entirely on provincial and local officials. When it comes to controversies involving other countries, especially Japan and South Korea, Chinese nationalism is alive and well. In fact, the only coordinated nationwide demonstrations in China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were the anti-Japanese demonstrations that swept the nation two years ago, and those were national precisely because the Chinese government coordinated them. In fact, Beijing's ability to mobilize huge numbers of people is beyond compare.

As rural citizens leave their families behind and stream into China's major cities, the massive urban wealth gap they're helping to widen creates new opportunities for local NGOs and law firms to promote the interests of citizens with grievances, however stifled these organizations continue to be by the central government. But it will be some time before they have the resources to compete with a leadership that continues to make social stability national priority No. 1.

Concerted state efforts to stifle dissent and the growth of an enormous Chinese middle class with bright economic prospects have added to the public's growing social conservatism. National pride, resistance to the encroachments of Western popular culture, and a deepening mistrust of Western definitions of liberty and freedom are everywhere apparent. This is particularly true of many of the urban young people I encountered. Those under the age of 20 have lived their entire lives in an era of extraordinary growth. They're determined to see that growth continue far into the future. Many of them argue that any outside force that might sow social and political discord will pose direct challenges to a system from which they intend to prosper.

Hence the welcome for a new Chinese law announced in September that forbids journalists from covering stories that might undermine Chinese stability and/or the ability of the central government to respond with emergency measures. The law effectively hands the leadership a blank check to control the media. I heard virtually no qualms about the idea from any of the Chinese I spoke with. On the contrary, most Chinese told me that these kinds of controls are necessary, a far cry from the anxious, weary acceptance—"We'll tolerate it because we're making money, but we don't like it"—that I've encountered in Hong Kong.

The downside to all this is that if things go badly and the leadership pushes things too far, Beijing may begin to take more of the blame for a range of problems it might not be able to manage. One wag I spoke with referred to China as a bicycle: The leadership has to keep pedaling, or China will tip over.

My own impression: Beijing's bigger problem is that it refuses to take off the training wheels. The Chinese government, mindful of the country's tumultuous history, is profoundly risk-averse—some might say paranoid—over the potential for complete chaos and state collapse. Forget democracy. The party leadership is unwilling to take the steps necessary to build a robust bureaucracy and an efficient state political system. At a certain point in a country's development, civil-rights protections, rule of law, and legal transparency become assets. The leadership would very much like to prove that China is an exception that rule.

Across the country, information on several politically sensitive topics remains tough to come by. Many inside and outside China hoped that Beijing's dangerously slow response to the SARS crisis in 2003 would alert officials to the need for reliable information and public discussion. But my attempts to learn more about AIDS and avian flu here suggest otherwise. A number of Chinese AIDS activists are languishing in prison.

The lack of information can also feed a brain drain. I've met several political analysts in Beijing, both Chinese nationals and foreigners, who say they're determined to leave the country so they can find better information on it. In Hong Kong, I've met some local hedge-fund managers who say they know better than to relocate research staff to the mainland, where they will lose access to much of the relevant information they now have. In the countryside, central government officials have proved more likely to side with corrupt provincial bureaucrats when angry locals with clear and compelling grievances file protest petitions.

Plainly, the Chinese government's low risk tolerance is preventing it from creating the badly needed safety valves that help guard against the longer-term emergence of the very threats to social harmony it hopes to avoid. When a citizen's petition is consistently ignored, he's forced to air his complaints using methods outside the accepted channels. I find myself reminded of my last trip to Saudi Arabia.

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