China’s Dilemma

In the Wall Street Journal, Ian Buruma puts Google’s conflict with China in its historical context: the long struggle by China’s leaders to have the benefits of knowledge and trade from around the world without loosening their own hold on the Chinese people:

One way of dealing with this problem was to separate “practical knowledge” from “essential” culture, or ti-yong in Chinese. Western technology was fine, as long as it didn’t interfere with Chinese morals and politics. In practice, however, this was not feasible. Political ideas came to China, along with science, economics, and Western religion. And they did help to undermine the old established order. One of these ideas was Marxism, but once Mao had unified China under his totalitarian regime, he managed for several decades to insulate the Chinese from notions that might undermine his power.

Once China opened up to the world for business again in the late 1970s, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the old problem of information control emerged once again. Deng and his technocrats wanted to have the benefit of modern economic and technological ideas, but, like the 19th century mandarins, they wished to ban thoughts which Deng called “spiritual pollution.” The kind of pollution he had in mind was partly cultural (sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll), but mainly political (human rights and democracy).

Way back in 1979, David Ramsay Steele of the Libertarian Alliance in Great Britain wrote about the changes beginning in China. He quoted authors in the official Beijing Review who were explaining that China would adopt the good aspects of the West – technology, innovation, entrepreneurship – without adopting its liberal values. “We should do better than the Japanese,” the authors wrote. “They have learnt from the United States not only computer science but also strip-tease. For us it is a matter of acquiring the best of the developed capitalist countries while rejecting their philosophy.” But, Steele replied, countries like China have a choice. “You play the game of catallaxy, or you do not play it. If you do not play it, you remain wretched. But if you play it, you must play it. You want computer science? Then you have to put up with striptease.”

As I wrote on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, China is launched on a long process of economic growth and openness to the world, which is inevitably leading to political unrest and challenges to established authority. I believe that the changes in China over the past generation are the greatest story in the world – more than a billion people brought from totalitarianism to a largely capitalist economic system that is eroding the continuing authoritarianism of the political system. In the long run, I think that the attractions of growth and openness will overwhelm the rulers’ attempt to maintain their hold on power. But that process is rarely entirely peaceful, and we can expect conflicts of all kinds as this struggle proceeds.