Commentary

China’s Laissez-Faire Authoritarians

In America a city of more than six million would be famous. In China such a metropolis is humdrum. So it is with Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province, which lies some 110 miles southwest of Shanghai.

The highly developed city—China’s second most populous provincial capital—hosts Zhejiang University, which invited me for an academic conference and student seminar. Here, as elsewhere, China is on the move. People are everywhere, traffic is awful, shops seem endless, and construction is plentiful.

Money obviously flows, though its possession is far from equal. Stores ranged from basic to designer. Cars dominated the streets, but there were many bicycles and scooters. Midsize sedans were common and seemed the auto of choice for professors and professionals. But outside one popular restaurant where I ate dinner sat a Bentley, Mercedes, Audi and BMW. Mao Zedong would not be pleased.

I arrived as the latest Communist Party National Congress was ending, with the selection of Xi Jinping as the next party General Secretary. The country of the irrational and murderous Mao has evolved into a collective dictatorship with term limits. These days the man serving as party secretary and president gets only ten years. The only question was whether outgoing President Hu Jintao also would turn over his chairmanship of the Central Military Commission. He did—unlike his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who hung onto the latter for another two years. And Jiang remains influential: five of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee are thought to be his allies, compared to only two associated with Hu.

There was no public criticism of Xi or the process which selected him. But I found both scholars and students relatively uninhibited about stating their opinions in private conversation. After all, Chinese politics, always interesting, has been enlivened this year with the saga of Bo Xilai, the ousted Politburo member whose wife has been convicted of murder. There was skepticism of the impartiality of Chinese “justice” and recognition that Bo retained significant if largely silent support.

While the conference understandably issued no clarion call for Western-style democracy, participants discussed the role of American non-governmental organizations, including think tanks. The United States is the fount of private political activism because it is a democracy, a point I made in my paper. Authoritarian systems might tolerate NGOs, which largely do the government’s bidding—as is the case today in the People’s Republic of China. But without the dedication and commitment of truly independent actors, NGOs are unlikely to ever play a significant role in countries like the PRC.

No one disputed this point. In fact, papers by Chinese participants acknowledged the impact of private organizations on U.S. government policy. The only discordant note for a Westerner was two papers on Tibet. In this area, two different scholars appeared to genuinely and enthusiastically share the government line. Tibet was part of China and private U.S. groups were stirring up trouble, perhaps directly serving Washington’s desire to separate Tibet from the PRC. I suggested that that objective likely was not at the top of the Obama administration’s rather crowded agenda, but I was struck by the fervor behind the assertion. Nationalism obviously is not a province limited to government.

That was especially evident in my presentation to international-relations students at the university. I discussed ideas for the peaceful resolution of contending claims in the South China Sea. I didn’t attempt to judge who owned what, but suggested that the mix of treaties, international law, territorial control, common practice and history yielded no certain answer. Moreover, military action would prove disastrous for all parties, especially if American security guarantees were triggered.

My favorite response was from the student who calmly asserted that there should be no dispute, since all Chinese believed that the areas at issue—Senkakus, Paracels, Spratleys, Scarborough Reef—belonged to China. Other listeners, who remained unfailingly polite to me, were equally insistent.

Students also were concerned about President Obama’s ongoing visit to Burma. (So were professors at the NGO conference, who brought up the topic in private conversation.) I was reminded that the PRC had a close relationship with its neighbor. Why was the United States attempting to disrupt relations between the two states?

No one seemed to care much about Burma’s internal political workings. Nor about the truly odious nature of the regime which their government had been underwriting. The issue likely wasn’t lack of knowledge—in private conversation one mentioned the role of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. If others were unaware, it almost certainly reflected lack of interest in learning more.

Beijing’s internet censorship is famous, but limited. I had trouble with Google while I was there; however, that apparently was related to the just concluded party meeting. The regime is sensitive about coverage of China’s leaders, not those of its neighbors.

The students, like their government, simply seemed to approach international issues from a very different perspective than Americans: internal questions weren’t anyone else’s concern. Thus, they couldn’t imagine Washington’s principal motivation was to promote liberalization. I tried to reassure them that while the United States hoped to gain influence in Burma, China was too close geographically and too involved economically to be ignored by Burma. They didn’t seem convinced.

My experience here was much like in Shenyang, another large (by American standards, anyway) provincial capital that I have visited. The city is busy, the students are inquisitive, the sights are fascinating. There often are reminders that this is no Western democracy—for instance, party representatives attend opening ceremonies at conferences and are showered in praise. Yet private opinions indicate no similar deference and I could wander around without evident constraint.

Indeed, I can’t help marvel at the laissez-faire nature of Chinese authoritarianism. Political and religious activists pay a high price, but personal autonomy has expanded enormously. People go about their lives without the kind of overt oppressive oversight once associated with communism—and still present in Cuba and North Korea, for instance.

Foreigners excite no attention. No doubt, if I had incited the overthrow of the central government I would have been noticed. However, foreigners were common on campus, along city streets, and at tourist sites. I received stares only because I was wearing Vibram “toe shoes.” I get some of the same looks in America.

Clearing passport control and customs is as easy as in the United States. In Beijing, the domestic terminal is just an underground train ride away from international arrivals. I’ve never been stopped and asked where I’m going or why. If you’re perceived as a potential troublemaker, you won’t get a visa, but once it is issued you aren’t likely to receive much attention.

Every time I visit China I’m left with a feeling of restrained optimism. The country is bustling and bubbling, in rapid and chaotic transition from traditional rural to modern urban. People are asserting their freedom in personal, social and economic life. It’s only natural for them to desire more political control as well.

The usual colorless apparatchiks, now led by Xi Jinping, are working mightily to hold down the lid as the pot boils. However, they lack the unique mix of vision, commitment, genius, evil and madness which characterized the revolutionaries who created the PRC’s modern state. It seems unlikely that Mao’s successors can forever thwart the aspirations of more than a billion Chinese. They may not want U.S.-style democracy. But they surely want something very different than permanent rule by self-replicating mediocrities. If the Chinese people ever do take control, the West may learn the real meaning of the famous Chinese curse about living in “interesting” times.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to former US president Ronald Reagan.