Chinese Repression Threatens Economic Dynamism and Political Stability

BEIJING—China’s capital looks like an American big city. Tall office buildings. Large shopping malls. Squat government offices. Horrid traffic jams.

The casual summer uniform is the same: shorts, athletic shoes, skirts, t-shirts, sandals, blouses. Even an occasional baseball cap.

It is a country which the Communist revolutionaries who ruled only four decades ago would not recognize. True believers still exist. One spoke to me reverently of Mao’s rise to power and service to the Chinese people. However, she is the exception, at least among China’s younger professionals.

Indeed, younger educated Chinese could not be further from Communist cadres once determined to create a revolution. The former are socially active, desire the newest technologies, and worry about going to good schools and getting good jobs. Cynicism about corrupt and unelected leaders is pervasive.

If there is one common belief, it is hostility toward government Internet controls. Students have complained to me in class about their inability to get to many websites and readily shared virtual private networks to circumvent state barriers.

But such opinions are not held only by the young. A high school student told me that his father urged him to study in America because of Beijing’s restrictions on freedom.

While Chinese from all walks of life are comfortable telling foreigners what they think, sharing those beliefs with other Chinese is problematic. The media, of course, is closely controlled. Internet sites are blocked, deleted, and revamped. Unofficial intimidation, legal restrictions, and even prison time await those who criticize Communist officialdom on social media and blogs.

But increasingly globalized Chinese are aware of their online disadvantage compared to their peers in the West. Google, YouTube, and Twitter are verboten. Today Bloomberg and the New York Times are beyond reach.

Last week as BBC television began to detail official abuses my TV went black. A couple minutes later BBC was back, after the China report had finished.

While internet and media restrictions have not prevented rapid economic growth, barring the PRC’s best and brightest to a world of information is likely to dampen innovation and entrepreneurship. Moreover, those denied their full freedoms are more likely to leave home. Many of China’s wealthiest citizens have been departing an authoritarian system unbounded by the rule of law.

Repression also stultifies China’s political evolution to a more mature and stable political order. Democracy provides an important safety valve for popular dissent.

The Chinese Communist Party’s control may not be as firm as often presumed. The oppressive establishment which most Chinese have faced for most of their lives is Communist.

Indeed, for many if not most party members, Communism is a means of personal advancement, even enrichment. President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is popular, but is widely seen as politically motivated.

Moreover, Xi has abrogated the well-understood “deal” of the last four decades, that rulers can retire and be immune from future prosecution. Will incumbents so readily yield power in the future?

Perhaps even more threatening for the CCP is the potential for an economic slowdown and consequent political unrest. Already protests are common against local governments, which tend to be ostentatiously rapacious. What if that antagonism shifts against the center?

A poorer PRC means a poorer world: China is a major supplier and increasingly important source of global demand. A politically unstable Beijing would have unpredictable effects on its neighbors.

As I wrote for Forbes online: “Since Mao’s death in 1976, the PRC has changed dramatically—and dramatically for the better. But this second revolution has stalled. Economic liberalization remains incomplete. Political reform never started. Individual liberty has regressed.”

The Chinese people deserve to be free. The Chinese nation would benefit from their freedom. The rest of the world would gain from a freer Chinese nation. Everyone desiring a peaceful and prosperous 21st century should hope for the successful conclusion of China’s second revolution.