Two years after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, another revolution was launched in China, this time in the opposite, capitalist direction. A person whom Mao Zedong dismissively called a “capitalist roader” spearheaded it. Thirty years later, China has turned into a powerful economic engine that the world views with awe. The reputation of the man who began reforms when he took the reins of power in 1978, Deng Xiaoping, is secure. That of Mao, uncertain.
How does one assess the Chinese experience since reforms began in 1978? In economic terms, the experience has been a success by any yardstick: China’s economy has grown at an average 10% every year. Its share in the world GDP has gone up from less than 2% to 6%. Its success in reducing poverty is perhaps unique in modern history. It is China’s yang.
It is in the political domain that dark clouds are visible. Here, it’s useful to make a comparative assessment of another country, Russia (as the successor to the Soviet Union). Russia since 1991 is an example of the pitfalls of quick political liberalization in a former totalitarian state. In Chinese eyes, it can mean only one thing: chaos and instability. But is that a communist fear or a Confucian one? That serves as a clue to why the Chinese leadership is doing what it does.
Clearly, communist dictatorship or, more accurately, the dictatorship of the communist party, is a modern event dating to 1949. But it would be wrong to date the lack of democracy to that year: The country has had no notion of democracy all the way back to its first rulers. In historical terms, it has been the most durable absolutism known to man.
Had China not witnessed the spectacular growth since 1978, an early demise of party rule could have been envisaged. But prosperity has brought fear in its wake: The party leadership is scared as to what would happen if political freedoms were given to the people. But this only makes matters worse: Instead of a peaceful transition, China’s path to political liberty is likely to be explosive and filled with danger. Hence, there’s no tomorrow for such reforms. Politics is China’s yin.
Will this state of affairs ever change? As the country pushes ahead with “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”, might it give rise to a civil society that will challenge the party’s monopoly on power? Episodes such as the Falun Gong movement and the “Charter 08” signed by hundreds of intellectuals this year are pointers. But don’t expect miracles, for the burden of Chinese history is ruthless.
Will China ever know political freedom? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org