At Large

The Young and the Restless in Beijing

Our China correspondent learns what students are thinking.

By 8.4.14

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Beijing
Everything in China appears is big. The population is big. The cities are big. The people’s aspirations are big. The state’s ambitions are big.

The battle over the future also is big.

I recently returned from several days in the People’s Republic of China. It’s always a fascinating place with a future as yet unresolved. The country is growing economically, but no one really believes the government’s statistics. The “one child” policy has created a birth dearth that may leave the PRC old before it grows rich. Rising domestic confidence has yielded growing regional assertiveness, sparking an ever stronger negative reaction from once complacent neighbors.

Almost certainly Beijing will end up an influential global player. But when—and whether—it will battle America for world domination is far less clear. The PRC’s international future is not yet determined.

Neither is China’s domestic destiny. Politics remains authoritarian, and it isn’t obvious that democracy would yield a meek and mild Beijing. Nationalism could become an even more dangerous force without the current government’s power to close off discussion. Nor do wealthier and better educated urban residents necessarily want to share power with the mass of farmers and rural dwellers who dominate the PRC’s interior.

Nevertheless, the young are restless. Those I met had little patience with the Communist Party’s monopoly of power and determination to censor. Many hoped to go to America for school, for both its educational opportunities and personal freedoms. Moreover, they weren’t afraid to speak out in front of others.

For instance, there is a legislature in Beijing, the National People’s Congress, which meets briefly every year to ratify important CCP decisions. The assembly uses a spacious building alongside Tiananmen Square; every province has a room to decorate in order to showcase local culture. The Great Hall of the People hosts tours when the NPC is not in session (and no one else is filling in), which is most of the time. The empty hall thus contributes more to Chinese well-being than does the NPC.

I was talking with some students about economic policy and how politics works (and fails!) in America. One young man blurted out: “I prefer elections, like in America for Congress.” He apparently was less enthused about the NPC. I avoided an Oprah-like “how does political repression make you feel?” since I had been asked to steer clear of controversy. However, it was obvious what he thought.

No one spoke up for government control over what people could read or study. I travel the world and normally have no trouble visiting any website, no matter how controversial, wherever I am. So I wasn’t thinking about the Great Firewall of China when I initially logged on after arriving. But I couldn’t get onto Twitter—so much for tweeting about my experiences in the PRC. The same thing happened with Google. Then I remembered the last time I was here I couldn’t get onto Bloomberg.

I mentioned my experience to a student heading off to the U.S. to attend university. He snorted in disbelief: “Didn’t you know the PRC censors the Internet?” I said yes, but had forgotten. After all, I’d been to Turkey, Egypt, Nigeria, and Kyrgyzstan, among other nations this year, and had enjoyed unimpeded access everywhere else. Another student offered me a program that disguised one’s browsing and allowed full access, even to nominally forbidden sites. No passive acceptance of authority there!

I was talking with a group of Chinese university students and one of the women lamented government information controls and asked me what I thought. While I said it wasn’t my place to tell the Chinese authorities what to do—I presumed the walls had ears and didn’t want to cause problems for those who got us together—I opined that most Americans believed openness to information and debate was the best strategy for economic, political, and social development. I suggested that she should make her views known to her government. Of course, if someone was listening then it would already know!

In another instance I got into a spirited discussion about territorial disputes in the South China Sea and Sea of Japan, and Tokyo’s new military policies. The students might be liberal in the futures they wanted for themselves, but that stance did not moderate their nationalist sentiments. In general, they believed that Beijing owns everything everywhere and Japan has no right to take any military steps anywhere. I responded that they should prefer an independent Japan to one dependent on America, in which case any military conflict could turn into a global catastrophe.

One young man asked where he could find my articles. I gave him a couple of websites, including, of course, The American Spectator. He then asked if he could actually view them in China and was relieved when I said yes. (For some reason the Beijing authorities are willing to tolerate the ever subversive TAS.) He obviously was quite aware that he was being denied access to a lot of information.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment was when a student asked me—in front of others during an economic discussion—about “the events of 1989.” Why had the protestors gathered, he asked? I kept my answer short and explained that they wanted political liberalization. “Wow,” he exclaimed, and then seemed to get lost in thought. Perhaps he was contemplating tens of thousands of Chinese demanding a freer society.

These sparks of liberty seem fewer among older Chinese. Some may have grown cynical and feel defeated. Others may have become more cautious over the years in what they say to strangers. Most may see fewer opportunities to pursue change. Still, in private many express varying doubts about the honesty of public officials, wisdom of censorship, legitimacy of the CCP’s power monopoly, and more. While less likely to initiate change, they may be no less willing to demand reform if the opportunity arose.

The PRC is a fascinating place, a complicated civilization with a venerable heritage in rapid transition to somewhere, and no one is quite sure where. China has shown how market liberalization creates growth and empowers the poor; hundreds of millions of people now are enjoying a much better life because the state does less, allowing them to do more.

However, it also is evident that market liberalization is not enough to create a free society. Personal autonomy has expanded dramatically, but the nominally communist elite retains a stranglehold over political power. Still, talking with younger Chinese suggests that the CCP is losing the next generation. Those who make up the future of China want to decide their own futures.

What this means for the PRC, its neighbors, and the rest of us remains to be seen. “May you live in interesting times,” runs the famous Chinese curse. We all are living in those times today.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).