Kill millions here, kill millions there, and pretty soon you are talking about a brutal system that does not work. That was pretty much the way of things in China under the collectivism-worshipping philosophy of leader Mao Zedong, himself worshipped to this day, though his philosophy has been partly tossed out.
But just partly.
The Communist Party is still running things and is still autocratic and cruel even as it has allowed relatively free markets enough wiggle room to make China a major economic power. So what’s next?
The question has produced all kinds of answers, from multiple predictions of great power and wealth to some of a great leap backwards. A new complication is the escape from house arrest of a blind dissident aided by many others at enormous risk. The story of Chen Guangcheng, now ensconced at the U.S. Embassy, highlights human rights abuses and the willingness of some to put their lives on the line to end them, and comes side by side with other revealing news.
There is, for instance, the arrest of Bo Xilai, a populist, high-living party chief about to move still further up the ladder until revelations disclosing, among other charges, that his wife may have played a role in the murder of a British visitor. The party is going to junk this career, but are members going to look hard at a system said to create princelings unanswerable to anyone except each other, and then just sometimes? We will see as the people react.
The Chinese hardly have a free press, but they do have the Internet, and as much as officials try to cripple parts of it, it is getting more and more gabby, including numerous discussions about Bo. Information of some kinds is death to tyranny. The Communists cannot be happy.
Other worries for the party:
For all the economic improvements, hundreds of millions still live in rural poverty, village governments are corrupt, there is no privately owned land and the country experiences literally thousands of uprisings, demonstrations and riots.
The policy of forced abortions, opposed by Chen Guangcheng as one of his main causes, earning him beatings and time in jail, has left the country with too few workers to meet coming challenges.
Technological innovation comes mostly by way of intellectual theft, and there are still moves to more state-owned enterprises, which is to say, the bad old days have powerful advocates.
Hunger for liberty
Just as some insist China cannot handle freedom, others say more will need to come soon if the nation is to keep up its economic growth. If the Communist Party stays in power without significant reforms, it is argued, prosperity may recede as expectations rise and more unrest develops, all of this producing chaos of a kind only the world’s most populated nation can experience.
Millions would be stuck in awful conditions of desperate want and the United States would be hurt, too. Though many deny it, trade with a bustling, hustling China means we are also better off.
I am among those who have not forgotten the televised events at Tiananmen Square, when some rolled out a Goddess of Liberty statue looking remarkably like our own Statue of Liberty. The tanks soon rolled in, killing hundreds, and that glorious moment in 1989 evaporated except in the sad but hopeful sense of some of us that there is a very real Chinese hunger for liberty.
Other reasons to want the Communists out of power or reformed? They are internationally irresponsible, as in refusing to help keep nuclear weaponry out of the hands of Iranians, and a possible military threat down the road. A China-U.S. war is not likely, but do not forget a massive military buildup accompanied at times by provocative statements.
No expert can tell you what is going to happen, and I certainly cannot, but the dissident episode is one more warning that change in China is sorely needed.