Unintended Democratization

China is a paradox. Politically it is a communistic state, but economically it thrives because of its capitalist economy. A generation ago (1978) when Deng Xiaoping ended collective farming and encouraged foreign investment through joint ventures, China made the decisive and non-reversing turn toward free-market capitalism. While the old Communist Party bosses try to maintain some semblance of control, they are fighting a losing battle. There is a vast pro-democracy insurgency that penetrates the Chinese border every day to spread liberty and democracy, and the Chinese government permits this to happen.

Who are these pro-democracy insurgents? While there are many, I’ll concentrate on three.

Chinese College Students: Twenty years ago, there were few students from the People’s Republic of China who had the income to study in the United States. Today, largely due to higher incomes in China, there are thousands of Chinese studying in our universities. They study not only in the United States, but also in Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, and other democratic nations. Once they spend a few years witnessing freedom of assembly and observing people openly criticizing their governments without fear of reprisal or retribution, they are never happy with the political oppression they experience when they return to China.

Upon returning to China their friends are anxious to know what it has been like in the United States. The story is almost always the same; they are told about a country where the water is drinkable, smog doesn’t block out the sun, and how people are free to pursue their private objectives. They are told of a people who are not ashamed to follow their personal dreams, and marvel at a country where collective thought is considered the antithesis of personal freedom. These conversations spread like wildfire among Chinese young people and indelibly serve to undo the grip that China’s Communist party has on its people.

The Internet: If you ask a college student from China where they get their news when they are home, they will tell you that the Internet is their main source of information. The state controls the newspapers and television stations in China, but despite their efforts to censor the Internet there is just too much information out there to squash. Any Chinese student will tell you that the Internet is the place they find the truth, and both computers and Internet access in China are accessible to at least 400 million middle class people. Using the Internet, China’s people can ascertain the difference between the “Official Communist Party Line” and reality. To the extent that an information gap exists, people are aware and not fooled. Exposure by “Internet transparency” has often resulted in improved accountability by the Chinese government.

The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing: For the Chinese, the 2008 Olympics is a huge deal. In the minds of the Chinese, it catapults their country upon the world stage as a legitimate nation. I, for one, don’t think the rest of the world needs to be reminded that China is a legitimate nation, but for the Chinese people, after suffering a century-long inferiority complex, the 2008 Olympics is a source of immense national pride. As we run up to the start of the Games, China’s Communist leaders, fearing an Olympic boycott by Western nations, have been very tolerant of dissidents within China who have been emboldened in their criticisms of China’s human rights abuses. While the Chinese government might crack down on these dissidents after the games, there exists now a “window of free speech opportunity” in China, which may encourage even more dissident behavior after the Olympics have concluded in Beijing.

Ironically, the Chinese Communist Party, like the Olympic torch, will eventually be extinguished in Beijing. It will take a few more years, but I believe that within my lifetime we’ll see a thriving democracy in China. This will be a good thing for over 1.3 billion Chinese as well as the other 5 billion inhabitants of planet earth

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