It seems like we’ve been hearing a lot about China recently, and not just in YouTube videos of Donald Trump repeating the word “China” ’til kingdom come. We’ve heard that China is stealing our jobs, is the next global superpower, and that we should all learn Mandarin before the English-speaking world spontaneously combusts.
But how much is truly understood about the internal workings of this vast country? An idea I’ve heard touted recently by some Western academics and journalists proposes that the Chinese people now endure political oppression voluntarily in exchange for economic well-being. In other words, the ruling communist party has successfully preserved its power by adopting free-market economic policies that, by opening up and growing the economy, have improved the lot of all Chinese citizens. According to Chinese scholar and journalist Rowan Callick, “the party ensures steadily improving living standards for all, and, in return, the Chinese people let the CPC rule as an authoritarian regime.”
Sure, they may be lacking basic liberties like freedom of expression, but now they’ve got McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and money in the bank to spend. Essentially, this concept states that freedom can be “traded” in return for economic prosperity. But this assertion that the Chinese are actively letting themselves be oppressed doesn’t sound right to me.
I’d dare to challenge this argument and posit that China is not in fact an accurate example of this trade-off, if such a trade-off exists. I am neither denying that China’s economy has grown impressively over the past decades, nor that the poverty rate has been reduced through the adoption of more liberal economic policies. I am challenging this argument, not to be a contrarian, but because I believe the implications of this line of thought, if correct, are significant for humanity as a whole.
The idea that a people will willingly forgo basic freedoms in return for greater economic prosperity, though certainly plausible, is a dangerous one, and sets a questionable precedent for the political development of both free and unfree nations. So, are the Chinese willingly pawning political freedoms for greater purchasing power? Maybe, but most likely not. The real reason why China hasn’t liberalized politically is not, as some would hold, that the majority of Chinese people are now sufficiently satisfied with a growing economy. Rather, China’s political climate hasn’t changed because its ruling party has just as much influence and power to oppress today as it has always had.
Optimism that Chinese economic liberalization would eventually lead to democracy has fallen over the years, and more intellectuals have turned to the conclusion that an open economy does not always lead to an open political system. Current President Xi Jinping has used the communist party’s all-encompassing influence to drastically constrain civil society and freedom of speech. Just last week, China’s Chief Justice Zhou Qiang rejected the concept of an independent judiciary, fervently denouncing “Western ideologies” such as constitutional democracy and the separation of powers.
Seen from the outside, these disheartening proclamations and policies have led many Westerners to conclude that China’s economic prosperity has actually increased the possibility for political oppression.This conception, though plausible, suggests that popular satisfaction with Chinese economic growth has allowed for continued political oppression. This seems false for a few reasons.
Evidence suggests that China’s economic liberalization has benefitted mostly a small segment of Chinese society: the party elites. To say that the majority of Chinese are better off now than they were during Mao’s time, though true, isn’t really saying all that much. Sure, they’re no longer living under a ruler that, through mass starvation and political violence, caused the deaths of over 45 million of his own people, but again, that’s not the best starting point for measuring living standards. Today, China has one of the world’s highest levels of income inequality, with the richest 1 percent of the population controlling over a third of the country’s wealth, while the poorest 25 percent control a measly 1 percent of China’s GDP.
Further evidence indicates that the income gap is actually growıng, though widespread corruption makes it dıffıcult to make precise estimates. While urban income appears to have risen rapidly, rural income is lagging far behind. More than 80 million people in China still live below the poverty line of $1 a day. While China ranks first in terms of national GDP (PPP), its GDP (PPP) per capita is much lower and ranks around 90th in the world.
The Chinese economy, though in certaın aspects open, is still ultimately controlled and desıgned to benefit the communist elite. China’s economic liberalization is more easily understood as a form of crony capitalism, rather than a truly liberal economy wıth far reaching benefıts. People aren’t trading their freedom for economic prosperity, because many are still far from prosperous.
Other authoritarian governments currently seeking to replicate this so-called “China Model” are not doing so to enrich their people and soothe popular discontent, but rather to benefit themselves. In fact, if China was somehow able to liberalize politically, it is extremely likely that innovation and growth would accelerate. Though the ruling party would lose its tight grip over the country, a free China would almost certainly gain a more prominent economic and political role on the world stage.
The emergence of a politically liberal, democratic China in the future appears unlikely to me. But not because the Chinese have accepted political repression in exchange for economic prosperity. They “accept” political repression and corruption because they are forced to accept it, just as they have been for most of their history.
Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Staff