Saturday, November 27, 2010

Chinese Politics: Power, Ideology, and the Limits of Pragmatism

The following is another article I wrote for the Acton Institute last summer:

Chinese Communism is no longer about ideology.  Now it is about power.

I reached this conclusion on the basis of six months spent in China and extensive conversations with my Chinese friend and fellow Acton intern Liping, whose analysis has helped me greatly in writing this post.
China began moving away from Communist ideology under Deng Xiaoping, whose economic reforms disassembled communes and created space for private businesses.  He justified these reforms to his Communist colleagues with the saying, “It doesn’t matter if the cat is white or black as long as it catches the mice,” implying that even “capitalist” policies were justified if they succeeded in bringing economic growth.  And they certainly did.  Since that time, China’s economic development has been tremendous, so now Chinese people overwhelmingly approve of the reforms.

Despite the success of the opening of China’s markets, the country has not completely embraced free enterprise.  The PRC’s 60th anniversary celebration last fall featured signs boldly proclaiming, “Socialism is good.”  The government still controls key industries such as oil and runs enterprises in many other industries.
Further, all land in China is owned by the government.  Home buyers are technically only leasing land for 70-year periods, a policy established assuming that by that time, the houses will need to be rebuilt anyway.  The government sometimes sells land inside cities to developers for vastly inflated sums of money, evicting the people who already live there.  The remuneration that these people receive is frequently less than the value of the house, forcing them to find inferior housing elsewhere.  These policies have made housing within cities prohibitively expensive for most Chinese people, forcing them to commute from the suburbs.

Despite these continued regulations, economic freedom in China has made significant advances compared to its previous completely collectivized state.  Enterprise is permitted and even encouraged, as is trade with the outside world.  As people come to recognize the benefits of free markets, more and more are becoming eager to participate, which will make it much more difficult for the government to restrict these freedoms again in the future.

However, this economic freedom does not imply political freedom.  Deng Xiaoping, the same leader who had spearheaded the economic reforms, was responsible for the Tiananmen Square crackdown on protesters for political reform.  That incident twenty years ago is only one of the better-known examples of the political suppression that still occurs today.

The government holds a monopoly on the media, dominates the flow of information, and censors any ideas it finds potentially threatening.  It blocks access to web sites that range from information on tense political issues to social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube.  When I was studying there, during a one-on-one session a teacher asked me what I knew about the Tiananmen Square massacre, admitting that due to censorship I probably knew more about it than she did.  When we had finished the discussion, she erased all relevant vocabulary from the board, saying that she didn’t want anyone to know what we had talked about.  Through the high school level and frequently afterward, students are indoctrinated with Marxist philosophy, and studies of literature are focused exclusively on nationalistic or patriotic themes.  Political dissent is strictly censored, and dissenters are often denied work or restricted from moving or publishing their work.

According to Liping, most new members of the Communist party do not actually believe in Marxism; they just see membership as a way to improve their chances of finding a good job.  Similarly, officials suppress opposing ideas, not because they are persuaded of the truth of Marxism but because they want to prevent dissent and opposition to their own party. Promoting Marxist ideas serves as a way to silence political rivals and to enforce popular support for their own rule.  The first Chinese communists sought power to serve their ideology, but today’s Chinese communists use ideology to preserve their power.

The expansion of economic freedom coupled with the continued political repression may seem like a contradiction, and indeed areas with more trade connections like Shanghai also have more political freedom than government centers like Beijing.  Yet fundamentally, this paradox exists because of the shaky foundation for what freedom they do have.

Deng Xiaoping’s justification for moving away from Communist economic ideology was based solely on pragmatic reasoning.  He figured that since the Communist system was failing miserably, changing economic systems might bring prosperity, a prediction that has been proven true.  Yet abandoning the one-party state did not have any such obvious benefits.  In fact, retaining a monopoly on political power was in the leaders’ personal interest.  They could even argue that it was good for the nation, creating what current president Hu Jintao euphemistically calls a “Harmonious Society” unified by common political beliefs.

In the West, arguments for freedom are closely tied to belief in individual rights which the government cannot legitimately violate.  These beliefs originated in the Christian view that people have special dignity because they are made in the image of God.  This foundation means that even if it would be expedient for the government to restrict freedom, it has no right to do so.  Officials may not always act to preserve the people’s freedom, but in violating freedom, they behave inconsistently with their own ideals.

In contrast, the Chinese Communist Party is consistent in pragmatically following policies that they think will be beneficial, whether they increased freedom or not.  Freedom can bring tremendous practical benefits, which is what one would expect of a concept based on a true vision of human nature.  Yet these practical benefits alone do not constitute freedom’s foundation.  The freedom the government gives pragmatically, it can take away when freedom is no longer practical, or when the benefits it provides are less obvious.

Thus, what China lacks is not merely policies that allow people to act freely but an understanding of the essence and importance of freedom.  Freedom cannot be guaranteed by government pragmatism, but only by a genuine understanding of the rights of the people within the country, coupled with leaders who are willing to restrain their desire for power in order to respect these rights.
This is another article I wrote last summer for the Acton Institute.

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