Today the People's Republic of China is celebrating the 65th anniversary of its founding on October 1, 1949, which is likely to produce even bigger crowds of protesters in Hong Kong demanding democracy. China's opposition to democracy in Hong Kong and in China itself is not just the recalcitrance of cranky old men. It's part of the Chinese Communist state's founding mission.
Take the speech of Mao Zedong on July 1, 1949, as his Communist armies neared victory. The speech was titled, “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship.” Instead of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it spoke of “the extinction of classes, state power and parties,” of “a socialist and communist society,” of the nationalization of private enterprise and the socialization of agriculture, of a “great and splendid socialist state” in Russia, and especially of “a powerful state apparatus” in the hands of a “people’s democratic dictatorship.”
Tragically, unbelievably, this vision appealed not only to many Chinese but even to Americans and Europeans, some of them prominent. But from the beginning it went terribly wrong, as really should have been predicted. Communism created desperate poverty in China. The “Great Leap Forward” led to mass starvation. The Cultural Revolution unleashed “an extended paroxysm of revolutionary madness” in which “tens of millions of innocent victims were persecuted, professionally ruined, mentally deranged, physically maimed and even killed.” Estimates of the number of unnatural deaths during Mao’s tenure range from 15 million to 80 million. This is so monstrous that we can’t really comprehend it. What inspired many American and European leftists was that Mao really seemed to believe in the communist vision. And the attempt to actually implement communism leads to disaster and death.
Fortunately, after Mao died in 1976, China changed rapidly. His old comrade Deng Xiaoping, a victim of the Cultural Revolution, had learned something from the 30 years of calamity. He began to implement policies he called “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which looked a lot like freer markets—decollectivization and the “responsibility system” in agriculture, privatization of enterprises, international trade, liberalization of residency requirements.
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. On its 65th birthday, the CCP still rules China with an iron fist. There is no open political opposition, and no independent judges or media. And yet the economic changes are undermining the party’s control, a challenge of which the party is well aware. Six years ago Howard W. French reported in the New York Times:
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.
The CCP remains in control. But it struggles to protect its people from acquiring information, routinely battling with Google, Star TV, and other media. Howard French noted that “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.” People get used to making their own decisions in many areas of life and wonder why they are restricted in other ways.
I hope that the protests in Hong Kong will not only succeed in their immediate aims, but will inspire the people of China to demand more political and speech rights than they have ever had. And that's exactly what the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party fear.