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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Authoritarianism the Chinese Way

December 31, 2009

By Doug Bandow, American Spectator

on 12.18.09 @ 6:08AM

Repeat after me: the People's Republic of China is an authoritarian
country. Political leaders are not elected. Human rights activists go to
jail. Religious persecution is real.

China is not free.

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 lot
harder for Chinese to get a visa from the U.S. government.

Blacklisting presumably occurs, but most vetting must 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.

Beijing's spacious new airport has no forbidding security presence.
Exiting health check, immigration, and customs is no more onerous than
returning home to the U.S.

Most Chinese and foreigners saunter through the green "nothing to
declare" customs channel. No one appears to be checked for anything. I
could have carried in political or religious literature without
incident. (Heck, some people might view the copies of two of my foreign
policy books which I brought on my most recent trip as subversive.)

Presumably some people are discovered smuggling, but this isn't North
Korea, where my luggage was carefully searched and I was questioned for
bringing in a few copies of a benign volume on the two Koreas. The
Beijing regime apparently has decided that it is worth accepting the
risk of minor subversion in order to encourage large-scale business and
tourist travel.

Once through you can fly anywhere in China. Temporary restrictions are
imposed in crises, as during unrest in Tibet. But most of the country is
open: the domestic terminal is full of Western passengers with no one in
authority paying the slightest attention.

I went to Shenyang, a large city in China's northeast, for an academic
conference. The process was the same when I visited other cities as part
of official delegations and to play tourist. Show up at the airport and
you're on your way. No security forces demanding your papers or
restricting your movements. No need to get permission or sign in.

The economy is remarkably free and, in larger urban areas, developed.
Western franchises (think KFC and McDonald's) sit on the major
thoroughfares. Luxury brands, such as Prada, populate fashionable
shopping districts. Big name hotels look and feel like big name hotels
everywhere.

Perhaps the most important test: supermarkets are full of stuff. The
campus store at the college where I was staying had diet Coke and diet
Pepsi -- my traditional test for any economy -- as well as a wide range
of chocolate bars. (Little else is necessary for the good life!) Plus
most other food items you might want. Even rural China has choices only
dreamed of a few years ago. This is no longer an impoverished regimented
society in which everything is limited.

Western influences are hard to miss. In Shenyang I went to dinner with
the 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.

The streets have the feel of freedom. Busy people going about their
affairs without much worry of government interference -- personally and
commercially, anyway. Everyone seems to own a cell phone. People have
gone from bicycles to automobiles. It is a population that isn't easily
monitored or controlled.

The government reportedly continues to strengthen the Great Firewall of
China. Restrictions on Chinese websites undoubtedly are the broadest,
and were impossible for me to assess. But I found few problems getting
on English-language sites, other than all of my attempts to reach Google
landing me on the German language version. Still, I was able to use the
Google-inspired AOL search engine, which was no different in practice.

Western news sources from the Washington Times to the New York Times
came up. So did blogs, unlike at times in the past. Even The American
Spectator online was available! I've had far more trouble online on
previous visits, when several political sites and blogs were blocked.

Discussions at academic forums appear to be relatively free, even though
the official media might not cover such topics. Without incident I noted
in my paper the problems of inadequate legal and political development
as well as corruption in dealing with American investment. One Chinese
participant discussed the rise of civil society in the democratization
of South Korea, which after decades of authoritarian rule has evolved
into a vibrant democracy -- obviously not what the Beijing leadership
wants to encourage among its people. At previous forums participants
talked about encouraging the rule of law. People may self-censor, but do
not appear to fear that every word is being monitored and passed along
to political or security officials.

Conversation at dinner was about normal life: academic pursuits, family
matters, business opportunities, personal foibles. Politics no longer
consumes Chinese society. The university Communist Party secretary
appeared at the conference opening ceremony, but party imagery is
largely absent from both the campus and the city. There are no
disquisitions about revolution, no suggestions that the PRC and America
represent antagonistic systems.

All of this obviously is to the good.

OF COURSE, NOTHING DIMINISHES the magnitude and brutality of present
political restrictions, manifested in many different ways. Or suggests
that democracy is certain or soon to bloom. But China also is not
totalitarian Communist, at least in the sense that we once understood
totalitarian Communist to be. Rather, the so-called "People's Republic
of China" is complex and ever evolving. What the PRC will look like in
one or two decades is hard to predict.

Perhaps the Communist Party will be able to maintain political control.
Perhaps the country will evolve into some sort of authoritarian
nationalistic system. In either case China is likely to be an important
economic and political rival of America. But then, even a democratic
China is unlikely to accept perpetual U.S. domination.

The Chinese I have met are patriots acutely aware of China's history and
its recent humiliations. They strongly desire to acquire a good
education and learn English for themselves and their nation.

They want to both cooperate and compete with America. The Chinese people
recognize that their country remains relatively poor and faces
substantial economic and social challenges. The financial crisis and
quick Chinese recovery have increased Chinese confidence, but no one
calls the U.S. a paper tiger. They see greatness ahead for their nation.
But that doesn't mean they expect conflict with the U.S.

Others may think differently, of course. There is an ideological left in
China, which opposes much of China's market shift. Suspicion of America
is particularly strong in the military. It is difficult to predict
Beijing's future geopolitical ambitions. The perception that Washington
is trying to contain the PRC could spark antagonism. Much could go wrong
with the China-U.S. relationship.

We need to work to make sure it doesn't.

Four decades ago the PRC was convulsed by the Cultural Revolution -- a
bloody, xenophobic intra-party power struggle. The U.S. and China had
recently fought in Korea and had no diplomatic relations. China was
poor, totalitarian, and aggressively subversive, and involved in an
ongoing military confrontation with U.S.-supported Taiwan. Few Americans
visited the PRC and even fewer Chinese visited America. Conflict was
easily imaginable.

Today the relationship continues to grow more interdependent, relaxed,
and familiar at both the personal and national levels. After four visits
Shenyang feels, if not exactly like home, then homey. I recognize the
airport, hotels, restaurants, university, conference center, and
especially people.

The American and Chinese peoples are buying more things from each other
and seeing more of each other. The old days of easily demonizing each
other are over. Both nations have much at stake in a prosperous and
peaceful order. Though political differences there will be many, there
is no obvious reason the present superpower and emerging superpower
cannot get along peacefully in coming years. But they need to work to
make that so.

The U.S. will be the most influential nation for years, even decades, to
come. It is, however, going to have to share the world stage with a
steadily more influential and assertive PRC. China is nowhere close to
pushing America aside -- China's limitations and America's strengths
both are too great. Indeed, it is possible that the PRC will crash and
burn before attaining international superstardom.

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.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special
Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Beyond Good
Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics (Crossway).
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