Tuesday, December 22, 2009

China Is A Free Nation (Well, Sort Of)

Doug Bandow at The American Spectator had an interesting take on China last week. Lest anyone think he's a China-propagandist, he starts his article with "Repeat after me: the People's Republic of China is an authoritarian country. Political leaders are not elected. Religious persecution is real. China is not free." But there's a point where China at least appears to be much more open than America. And that's in travel restrictions.

He goes on: "Yet to visit the PRC is to visit a nation that feels free. It's remarkably easy to get a visa. The consular office in Washington, D.C. is always crowded: pay an extra $30 and get same-day service. It's a lotharder for Chinese to get a visa from the U.S. government. Blacklisting presumably occurs, but most bettingmust be perfunctory. Given the time difference, the Washington consulate is handing out visas while the Beijing Foreign Ministry is sleeping. The PRC appears to have decided to err on the side of collecting U.S. dollars."

He goes on to describe his own experience in traveling to China. He cites the lack of an overtly forbidding security presence at Beijing airport. He allows that most Chinese and foreigners are quickly moved through the "nothing to declare" customs line. He actually carried copies of two foreign policy policy books which were somewhat critical of China, and yet was passed right through, and says that it at least appears that nobody is checked for much of anything that wouldn't be openly "subversive."

Once inside the country, travel is rarely restricted. Having arrived with his visa intact, Bandow was allowed to travel to tourist spots which are remarkably free of old communist ways. Western franchise chains such as McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken are ubiquitous. The stores are filled with merchandise of all kinds, at reasonable prices, and in capitalist-like abundance. Bandow goes on to say: "This is no longer an impoverished regimented society in which everything is limited. In Shenyang I went to dinner with other conferees at a traditional Chinese restaurant where all the waiters and waitresses were wearing Santa caps and (secular) Christmas decorations covered the walls. It could have been any of dozens of U.S. establishments."

Everyone appears to be going on their way unimpeded. Cell phones appear to be attached to nearly every Chinese ear. Automobiles are catching up with bicycles as a major method of getting around. He was able, without difficulty getting onto the internet and English-language sites (although he says that every time he tried a Google search, it came up in German, so he switched to the AOL search engine instead). We all know that the Chinese restrictions on information are some of the tightest in the world, but most information was readily available. Unlike his experience in North Korea, where he felt he was being watched at all times, even in his sleep, Bandow felt free to do or say pretty much anything he wanted, and to find willing Chinese participants in his conversations.

The communists are still very much around, but seem helpless to stop this growth of the free exchange of ideas propelled by the Chinese love of acquiring goodies on the market. That will probably continue to be true, unless China/American relations deteriorate suddenly or the government senses that America has changed its tune and elected a leader of equal importance to their own.

I have never traveled to China (my entire experience with the far east was a couple of trips to Seoul to negotiate the official bribes necessary for a client of mine to open a Malibu Grand Prix racing park franchise). But I do know that Bandow is no blind liberal, and several of my friends have traveled to China and come back with similar stories. The average Chinese citizen (as opposed to the high-echelon autocrats) seems to want very much to compete with America rather than crush an enemy. In the cities and outside of the military, the Chinese both admire and mimic American ways.

Bandow concludes by saying "But some day, whether it comes in two, three, or four decades, the two countries are likely to meet as global equals. That will force the U.S. to operate very differently, especially in Asia. It behooves Washington to prepare for what is coming, and to begin thinking about how it should respond to that day." I see that as a very reasonable way of viewing things.

As the old guard dies out (and I mean old--they all seem to last into their eighties), and newer blood comes in which has grown up with the ever-increasing freedom of choices, America will probably end up treating China the same way it now treats former enemies such as Japan and Germany. And unless something terrible and unforeseen happens, this will have been accomplished without any further shooting wars between the two nations or their surrogates. I won't see it, but maybe my children and their children will.

Now, about Russia . . . .


StanH said...

Let freedom ring! Government gets out of the way and a people will flourish - - to much government you get Detroit.

AndrewPrice said...

This guy is being Pollyannaish.

China also has cities that you cannot enter and where the media is not allowed. They imprison people for having AIDS. They keep political prisoners in what are basically slave labor camps. Last year, they arrested a man for "conspicuous consumption." They censor the internet and the news. Depending on who you ask, they either have provinces under marshal law or they are occupying foreign countries.

China may appear calm, but it's the same calm you would have found in Nazi Germany or Russia's Potemkin village. In fact, this guy's report is very similar to the reports that used to come back from liberals who went to the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s and came back to declare that they were more free than we are.

Tennessee Jed said...

no worries - if every Chinese ear is attached to a cell phone, they will all get cancr and die.

seriously, I don't trust the Chinese. they take the long view, we, generally, do not.

Unknown said...

StanH: It's only a beginning--they have a very long way to go.

Unknown said...

Andrew: I think I indicated that that the article was too optimistic. And I think "Potemkin villages" is probably very apt. Don't forget my earlier article on religious "freedom" in China. And unlike Duranty (the 30s), the author opens with a cautionary "China is not free--make no mistake."

The article was designed to point out that China is at least moving in a direction that would have surprised us all in the 60s.

There are many similarities to the Soviet Union in the 50's and 60s, but there are many dissimilarities as well. And keeping the lid on growing freedom movements is not as easy in the internet age as it was back then. So relax--I'm not ready to hoist the red flag quite yet.

patti said...

his story left me skeptical. reports of persecution were obviously missing. can't have the one view of china without the reality as well. it would be like a chinese citizen visiting here and reporting back that the dems biggest concerns are for "real reform" and the american people. those of us who live here know the truth behind the curtain.

Unknown said...

Tennessee: Yes--the cell phone is our secret plan for conquest. LOL

The long view is what sustains the entrenched autocrats in power, and that's the danger in being too Pollyannaish, as Andrew said. If that long view remains in place, and means world domination, then there's little hope when it's met with weak American short-term reactions. On the other hand, the drift seems to be away from pure communism and absolute repression. That's a small step, but a step nonetheless.

I wrote the column solely to point out what one conservative author observed. My purpose was to see what our readers (and contributors) think, and what they have observed if they have traveled in China recently (same? different?).

Unknown said...

Patti: Excellent observation. And though I tend to agree with you, my experience is second-hand, yet can't be entirely dismissed. As a San Franciscan, I am in regular contact with people who are first, second and third generation Chinese who fled the Maoist terror.

Many have returned to their native land (or their parents' or grandparents' native land) for extended visits, and though not ready to extol the virtues of living under a dictatorship, have yet said they were shocked at the changes they've seen. None are ready to leave America at its worst for China at its best. Yet they see rays of hope everywhere, including many of the outlying villages.

China simply has no history of the people governing themselves, and that is where the future for liberty and freedom is most likely to fail. But it's not impossible.

BevfromNYC said...

My brother went to Beijing 30 years ago on an externship while completing medical school and had a much different experience. He was watched the entire time and never allowed to be alone with anyone. Regular citizens were very guarded and wary until they were out in the countryside away from the watchful eyes where they opened up - very Orwellian.

I think there are rays of hope in China. That's why the Olympics were so important in recognition for that slow moving freedoms. They have a very long way to go, and like any absolute dictorship, they put on a great show for Westerners.

Unknown said...

Bev: I think that's what the author was getting at. Taken by itself, the current situation in China would offend anyone who has ever lived in a free society. Compared to the oppression of Mao, not so much. He also travels in North Korea, and is not exactly throwing out glowing reports about Pyongyang. It's a start, and nothing more. It could go either way, and only time will tell. The willingness of the Chinese to live under authoritarian governments is eroding. If that continues, change will come. Whether that will result in a Prague Spring down the road or another massive governmental crackdown remains to be seen.

Writer X said...

Interesting post, LawHawk. I've never been to China but, oddly, it's on my list of places to visit. Some day.

Unknown said...

WriterX: And I expect a ful report back from you when you return, soldier. LOL It is what I was really hoping to get from some of our readers who may already have made that trip (particularly many years ago versus the present time), but if not now, maybe in the future.

Individualist said...


I think their is a diffenrence between Hong Kong and Beijing still even after the unification.

In history the Normans (under William the Conqueror) were petty despots where the Lord has direct control. The Anglo Saxons had systems of shire and moot courts and a greater expectation of legal rights than would the peasants in France. The Normas left this in place becasue the bureaucratic structure also made collecting taxes for the crown much more efficient. England then slowly moved to the elected government they have today.

IF there is going to be freedom in China under this Chinese regime this is the only possible hope. I feel it is a slim one at best but then again who knows what can an will happen in a 600 year time frame.

Unknown said...

Individualist: I had never given much thought to a comparison with England at the time of, and following, the Norman conquest with Hong Kong and the mainland. It's a very interesting analogy, and something to ponder. I only hope it takes less than 600 years.

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