Freedom in China

As the world media get ready to focus on China for two weeks, there’s lots of discussion of human rights. Will Beijing censor the media and the athletes? Should President Bush attend? Should he meet with Chinese dissidents? Should he raise human rights issues with Chinese leaders?

In all this discussion, we may forget how much progress China has made in the past generation. From 1949 to the death of Mao Tse-tung or the rise of Deng Xiao-ping, there was no discussion of “human rights in China.” China was a totalitarian state, Red China, or Communist China to the less polemical. Its citizens had no rights. And the Western media had very little access to the country, so they couldn’t report any stories about human rights abuses. Were 65 million people killed by Mao’s regime, or something more or less? Questions of “human rights” pale in such a system.

On the eve of the Olympics, it’s refreshing to read a very thorough article in the New York Times titled “Despite Flaws, Rights in China Have Expanded.” Howard W. French reports:

Political change, however gradual and inconsistent, has made China a significantly more open place for average people than it was a generation ago.

Much remains unfree here. The rights of public expression and assembly are sharply limited; minorities, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang Province, are repressed; and the party exercises a nearly complete monopoly on political decision making.

But Chinese people also increasingly live where they want to live. They travel abroad in ever larger numbers. Property rights have found broader support in the courts. Within well-defined limits, people also enjoy the fruits of the technological revolution, from cellphones to the Internet, and can communicate or find information with an ease that has few parallels in authoritarian countries of the past.

It’s still difficult to challenge the party-state directly. Organizing even a study group, much less a tiny political party, can land you in jail.

On the other hand, the definition of what constitutes a political challenge has changed. Individuals are far less likely to run afoul of a system that no longer demands conformity in political views or personal lifestyles.

I’ve made the point in recent writings that wealth gives people a kind of freedom–more options for how to live their lives. French sees that dynamic at work in China:

The speeches of China’s leaders, with their gray imagery and paternalistic phrasings, have changed relatively little, emphasizing unity, harmony and economic growth under party rule. The reality on the ground, though, has been transformed, partly because a more dynamic economy necessitates a more dynamic society, partly because money gives people options they did not have when they were poor.

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.”

I don’t know if China has striptease yet. But it has definitely discovered that Western habits accompany Western technology. After protests of a mysterious death in a rural county, the authorities tried to suppress news of the controversy. “But people wielding video cameras uploaded material to YouTube, and some Chinese journalists disputed official accounts that the riots had been put down peacefully.”

Traditionally, authoritarian regimes have been happy to distribute televisions widely, so that the state can disseminate its propaganda to every household. But with the loosening of controls in China and the increasing wealth, many citizens are buying satellite TVs, and that creates an entirely different dynamic:

For others, the impact of information about other countries has been just as great. He Weifang, a professor of law at Peking University, said that before the economic reform era began in 1979, the country was much like North Korea, where people were indoctrinated to believe that Chinese were the better off than people anywhere else.

“Today, even the farmers in remote areas have satellite TVs,” Mr. He said. “So whenever they see an election, such as the one held in Pakistan recently, they may wonder why, even though we have approximately the same economic conditions, they can elect their top leaders, and we can’t even vote for the leader of a small county. I think a consciousness of political rights has increased more than anything.”

And finally, French notes, even the legal system is groping toward the rule of law, including the enforcement of property and contract:

Even China’s party-run legal system is a fulcrum for experimentation, though in an ambiguous way that highlights the uncertainties in the country’s transition.

Judges do not have the power to rule independently in China. Yet the country now has 165,000 registered lawyers, a five-fold increase since 1990, and average people have hired them to press for enforcement of rights inscribed in the Chinese Constitution. The courts today sometimes defend property rights and business contracts even when powerful state interests are on the other side.

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.

When I read a much less insightful view of China’s development in the Washington Post Sports section–“The largest nation on earth has unexpectedly evolved to the point where it is capitalist in every practical sense, including an entrenched elite every bit as ruthless as America’s robber barons.”–I deeply regret that Howard W. French has just left the New York Times to take up a position teaching journalism. But you can still find his writings on his website, such as this recognition that, as libertarians often say, “capitalism is what happens when you let people alone”: “China’s example shows what kinds of remarkable results can follow when governments stop committing colossal blunders and grossly shackling or preying upon their own people… . This government has stopped making the massive, brutal blunders it committed in the 20th century, which killed or stunted the lives of huge numbers of its citizens. What it needs most now is to get out of the way of ideas and enterprise, and to learn, bit by bit, the virtues of trust.”

For another thoughtful view of China’s evolution, see this week’s Economist.