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Undercurrents of Liberty in China

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BEIJING, CHINA—Everything in China is big.  Including the battle over its future.
I recently returned from the People’s Republic of China.  It’s always a fascinating place with a future as yet unresolved.
The country is growing economically, but no one really believes the government’s statistics. The “one child” policy has created a birth dearth that may leave the PRC old before it grows rich.
Almost certainly Beijing will end up an influential global player.  But when—and whether—it will battle America for world domination is far less clear.
The PRC’s future is not yet determined.  Politics remains authoritarian, and it isn’t obvious that democracy would yield a meek Beijing.
Nationalism could become an even more dangerous force without the current government’s power to close off discussion.  Nor do wealthier and better educated urban residents necessarily want to share power with the mass of farmers and rural dwellers who dominate the PRC’s interior.
Nevertheless, the young are restless.  Those I met had little patience with the Chinese Communist Party.
Many hoped to go to America for school, for both its educational opportunities and personal freedoms.  Moreover, they weren’t afraid to speak out in front of others.
I was talking with some students about economic policy and how politics works (and fails!) in America. One young man blurted out:  “I prefer elections, like in America for Congress.”
I avoided an Oprah-like “how does political repression make you feel?”, since I had been asked to steer clear of controversy.  However, it was obvious what he thought.
No one spoke up for government control over what people could read or study.  I travel the world and normally have no trouble visiting any website, no matter how controversial, wherever I am.
So I wasn’t thinking about the Great Firewall of China when I initially logged on after arriving. But I couldn’t get onto Twitter—so much for tweeting about my experiences in the PRC.  The same thing happened with Google.  Then I remembered the last time I was here I couldn’t get onto Bloomberg.
I mentioned my experience to a student heading off to the U.S. to attend university.  He snorted in disbelief:  “didn’t you know the PRC censored the internet?”  I said yes, but had forgotten.  After all, I’d been to Turkey, Egypt, Nigeria, and Kyrgyzstan, among other nations this year, and had enjoyed unimpeded access everywhere else.
Another student offered me a program that disguised one’s browsing and allowed full access, even to nominally forbidden sites.  No passive acceptance of authority there!
I was talking with a group of Chinese university students and one of the women lamented government information controls and asked me what I thought.  While I said it wasn’t my place to tell the Chinese authorities what to do—I presumed the walls had ears and didn’t want to cause problems for those who got us together—I opined that most Americans believed openness to information and debate was the best strategy for economic, political, and social development.  I suggested that she should make her views known to her government.
One young man asked where he could find my articles.  I gave him a couple of websites.  He then asked if he could actually view them in China and was relieved when I said yes.
Perhaps the most dramatic moment was when a student asked me—in front of others during an economic discussion—about “the events of 1989.”  Why had the protesters gathered, he asked?  I kept my answer short and explained that they wanted political liberalization.  “Wow,” he exclaimed, and then seemed lost in thought.
These sparks of liberty appear fewer among older Chinese.  Some may have grown cynical and feel defeated.  Others may have become more cautious in what they say to strangers.
Most may see fewer opportunities to pursue change.  Still, in private many express varying doubts about the honesty of public officials, wisdom of censorship, legitimacy of the CCP’s power monopoly, and more.  
China is a complicated civilization with a venerable heritage in rapid transition to somewhere, but no one is quite sure where.  The PRC has shown how market liberalization creates growth and empowers the poor.
Alas, it is evident that market liberalization is not enough to create a free society.  But the CCP seems to be losing the younger generation. Those who make up the future of China want to decide their own futures.
What this means for the PRC, its neighbors, and the rest of us remains to be seen.  “May you live in interesting times,” runs the famous Chinese curse.  We all are living in those times today.

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