The country is not free, yet to visit the PRC is to visit a nation that feels free.
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.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?