Two years ago, when I last brought a group of students to China, I was struck by the self-confidence, even cockiness, that Chinese stakeholders expressed. China had leapfrogged past stages of development that took Western nations decades. Look at its high-speed rail system – the rapid expansion of its cities – even the extension of social benefits to internal migrants, halting but not obviously inferior to Europe or the US’s accommodation of its undocumented workers. Even NGOs who protested against the pollution and natural resource crises caused by modernization took a perverse pride in the scale of China’s problems. “We’re so much bigger than the US,” one activist told us, “Of course our droughts are worse!”
Returning to China this year, I felt a different spirit in our conversations. The pride is still there, underlined by an overt nationalism that appears in posters celebrating “the virtuous society” and “China’s Dream.” But so is a pervasive uncertainty. “Party officials are so afraid of being arrested for corruption that they’ve stopped approving anything,” one high-level administrator told me. “Two years ago we could welcome your students to our office; we could even meet with the U.S. Ambassador! Now it’s better if we don’t,” said a nonprofit service provider, one that runs programs under the auspices of local governments in several major cities. “We didn’t think we were challenging the government; we believed it was permitted to challenge the culture. Now we’re not sure what we’re allowed to do,” said an activist whose colleagues were recently arrested – and then freed.
Outsiders often have a difficult time categorizing China. Is it Communist or capitalist? Are its people repressed or free? At the heart of these contradictions is an opportunity paradox that has powered China’s success over the last four decades. Certain experiments, actions, and thoughts have always been forbidden in China. But so much more is permitted that the forbidden – most striking to Western eyes – has not stunted China’s growth or broken the spirit of its people.
The Internet is a prime example of this paradox. An American in China is likely to be driven insane by the inability to access Facebook, Twitter, Google, and a host of other blocked sites. A Chinese will counter with the vast array of options – WeChat, QQ, Weibo, Baidu, Alibaba – all with functionalities that in many cases outstrip their international counterparts’. Would a “free and open” Internet increase opportunities for China? Absolutely. But even with Internet censorship, Chinese do not have fewer Internet options than Americans – just different ones.
Chinese have been quick to jump on the opportunities presented to them because the rewards are great and the tolerance for failure has been high. This is as true in politics as it is in business: in a society where political leaders are godfathers for businesses, NGOs, and activists alike, it has been possible to “push the envelope” in areas where official policy has been silent. This tolerance, however, has also extended to widespread corruption, to official featherbedding, and — it now seems – a level of social cacophony that President Xi’s administration finds threatening. A crackdown on the corruption is clearly necessary. The question is what else may be stunted.
When a local government official, a party secretary in a state-owned enterprise, or a bureaucrat in a government ministry approves something in China, not just his competence is on the line. His signature can put more revenue in his office and his pocket. His signature certifies his zeal for the project of national reform, which also proves his Communist orthodoxy. But what if the punishment for the wrong decision is a corruption conviction? An accusation of Party disloyalty?
“Shui dou bu gan zuo shi,” people are beginning to say in China: “No one dares to accomplish anything.” The issue is not laziness. The issue is daring: waiting for approval, looking for permission, believing that saying no is safer than saying yes. The result will not just be stagnation. It will also be a loss, in the long run, of the Chinese government’s ability to steer a course between control and reform. The Chinese central government has been able to choose its national policies from among the most successful – and least destabilizing – that its cities and provinces have tried. But if local experimentation ceases, the burden will be on the central government to make all the right decisions: and no government has all of the answers.
China’s leaders have always been quick to say that Western democracy and Western freedom are not what China wants or needs. And China’s progress over the last decades suggests, at least, that opportunity and freedom are not equivalent. The opportunity paradox, however, can only generate progress for China if its people believe that there are more possibilities than roadblocks. If China is not going to be a free society, it needs at least to be a forgiving one.
-Ann Chih Lin