China isn’t evil
You could imagine the same scene with the American flag and the Chicago skyline instead. China is not a land of rice farmers in comical conical straw hats. It is not a land of Leninist communists bent on destroying the free world. Most Westerners do not realize that Shanghai or Beijing are not smog-filled wastelands any more than Paris or London were during their Industrial Revolution. The Chinese Communist Party does maintain tight control over the behavior of their citizens as well as their exposure to free speech and media, but the Chinese people want freedom and opportunity just as much as anyone. They remain loyal to a large extent, yes, based on fear, but mostly based on the fact that the CCP has been incredibly successful in spearheading development. After all, 680 million Chinese people were pulled out of extreme poverty from 1981 to 2010, an earthshattering success. But liberalization is coming, slowly but surely.
Hearts and minds
China is moving in two directions, and it can be confusing to try to predict which side will win out in the end. Like everything about the future, there is no way to know for sure. They maintain a heavily planned economy with high rates of government subsidies, but are also opening the floodgates to domestic and international investment and deregulation of industry at an unprecedented rate.
Mao’s legacy is dying. Since his death and Deng Xiaoping’s economic revolution in 1978, the destruction of liberalism and Western influence wrought during the Cultural Revolution has begun to be reversed. China, communist by name, is actually much more crony capitalist than the USA itself. To give you an idea of this fact, the 50 wealthiest American Congressmen are worth $1.6 billion; the 50 wealthiest Chinese delegates to the National People’s Congress are worth $94.7 billion. In China political power and money are much more intertwined, and from the top down nepotism is the name of the game. As such the CCP is engaged in a delicate dance to increase their wealth, stifling Western neoimperialism and cultural media, while at the same time encouraging integration with global markets and international institutions.
The CCP continues to purposefully hold China back by clinging to central authority. They have purposefully neglected to implement key economic reforms for the free flow of capital, currency convertibility, establishment of foreign financial institutions, competition in the banking sector, and ease of investment and doing business. This may seem regressive, but virtually every nation with a developmental success story began with isolation from foreign economies, which prevents more rapid development, in order to build their own industrial base. This allows them to open up economically when they are strong enough domestically to avoid being taken advantage of.
There is also the idea that the more China’s economy develops the more its rising middle class will demand political representation, spurring democratic transition. Therefore, they need to take it slow and play it safe. At this stage, no one can force democracy on China, as this would only cause nationalist backlash. But many of its citizens and people around the world are becoming more vocal about positive reform. The ongoing struggle of Chinese citizens to resolve corruption, human rights abuse, and social unrest within their own country will not cease; the fire was lit long ago and its momentum is too strong.
The Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 showed the world that the Chinese people have freedom in their hearts. Today, however, while everyone remembers that fateful day when Deng agreed to call in the tanks, they collectively choose to forget about it. This is partly out of fear of the government, but mostly because they just want to move on and focus on progress. At least this was the impression I got when I traveled and taught for 3 months in Beijing and villages outside of Shanghai and Chengdu. Some say that China is regressing back toward the days of Mao and massacre. Public news still comes from only one source: CCTV. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are all blocked. Instagram is now blocked too, so Hong Kong democracy protest images do not circulate. In the short term, free speech and dissent against the party are being shut down more and more, this is true, and a systematic crackdown on Xi Jinping’s political rivals is disguised as a corruption purge. But this tightening proves the point – it is a reactionary response to a liberalizing populace.
If China desires international legitimacy and leadership, which it does, their government will have no choice but to eventually become more representative. Ceding central authority away from the Party, however, will make the regime more vulnerable and prone to aggression. War becomes more likely for a democratizing state because the elites of the autocratic regime in power become more desperate. China is so huge, and the inevitable economic rise foretold by its sheer size gives rise to destabilizing forces of democratization. Therefore, the US will focus on choreographing this transition, incorporating China into the international system of norms instead of perpetuating a vicious cycle of war. In the long-term, freedom of communication and expression within and between nations will increase in order to reconcile differences between diametrically opposed power structures. Nobody wants a war between the most powerful and militarized countries in history, especially China because they know they would lose.
Hong Kong democracy
Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China with an independent sense of identity (people from Hong Kong don’t exactly get along with mainlanders), is at the forefront of Chinese liberalization. For now, its outcry for real democracy is not looking too hopeful. After I talked with a prominent international student leader who desired not to be named, it seemed that despite Hong Kong’s tradition of sticking up for human rights and self-determination, its movement is too disjointed at present to be effective.
It is important that democratic capitalist governments in the West stand up for these little guys. Unfortunately, the UK has not bothered to support the Umbrella Revolution of 2014 or hold China accountable to the Sino-British agreement of 1984, which stipulated that after the Handover, Hong Kong must maintain its previous capitalist, and not practice China’s “socialist”, system until 2047. Although the CCP in recent years has cemented their effective control over Hong Kong elections, they appear to be interested enough in maintaining international legitimacy that they have allowed the Hong Kong people to elect a significant portion of pro-democracy voices in government.
In the near future, the CCP will continue to amass more power. So far, its citizens and the international community remain relatively complacent. After all, in the last three decades the CCP can take credit for more poverty reduction than in thousands of years of relatively mono-cultural Chinese history. But people are sick of corruption, and are becoming more aware of the repression of their human rights. Over time, China will be forced to liberalize, if not by the international community, then by its own people.