The question still haunts me: “Describe democracy, describe freedom?”
The previous questions leading up to this one were less soul piercing: “How old are you?” “How can you be the Provincial Minister of Health (I was then Michigan’s State Mental Health Director), some things get lost in translation) and be so young?”
“Do you have an apartment?” The questions pressed on. Yes, I owned a home, I responded. “How many families live there, they probed? One, I explained to their amazement. By this time, I was in the center of an eight person-deep football-like huddle, having questions fired at me in rapid succession in Chinese and slowly and haltingly translated into English.
But one question burned through all the background noise while I stood in the middle of Tiananmen Square, amid a million students gathering for democracy and an end to corruption in China. It was mid-May, 1989: “Describe democracy – describe freedom?”
Have you ever tried to describe how you begin breathing upon awakening? This was the sensation I had as I rambled on, surrounded by Chinese students, describing the benefits of living an open and free democratic life in America.
I can live in the countryside or any city of my choosing. I can decide to have no children or as many children as I can support. I can believe in a God and worship as I wish. I can choose my own profession and course of university study. We are a land of not only second chances, but of multiple chances to reinvent yourself. Democracy is the ability to choose for oneself.
As the huddle broke and I wandered through the Hutong alleyway streets in search of my Beijing hotel, I felt inadequate. Had I answered their questions about “democracy and freedom” with the depth that these students deserved? Were they inspired or depressed by my answers? In less than 24 hours, wheels were up and I was on my way back to freedom and democracy in America. It was May 19, 1989.
On June 4th, China’s soldiers, the People’s Liberation Army, turned on its own people.
What has transpired in China over its 5,000 year history is nothing short of amazing. The last thirty five years alone have been remarkable and universally acknowledged as a stunning reversal of fortune. Deng Xiaoping exhorted, “We must catch up with the times, and this is the objective of our reforms.”
Today, thirty-five years after China’s pre-eminent and ruthless leader Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world, the nation has evolved into one of the world’s largest trading partners and economies. In essence, China compressed hundreds of years of the Industrial Revolution, which they seemingly missed, into a few decades. At the same time they also fast-forwarded all the problems: pollution, social injustice, and inequality – bringing along seismic economic and political shifts to its people and culture.
By changing China’s course, Deng Xiaoping also changed the course of the world. Deng believed the criteria for success was determined by common sense and flexibility rather than by following former leader Mao Zedong’s rigid political ideology. Deng and the Communist Party knew the old ways were failing the people and, without the support of the people, the Party could topple. Prosperity was the ticket to staying in power. In explaining this shift in thought Deng said, “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mice.”
By moving away from Mao’s ideological straitjacket and into the world of industrial growth and international trade, Deng put in motion the process that has lifted more people out of poverty than any other nation in the world. At the same time, he is also the one who ordered the People’s Liberation Army to crush people and students in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Deng Xiaoping and a majority of the Chinese leadership made clear that day that certain freedoms to “grow rich” would be encouraged, but political freedom – the freedom from total party control – would not be tolerated and would be forcibly suppressed. Perhaps it is to be expected that a country struggling to overcome the horrors of Mao’s reign, including the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, would be convulsive as it transformed itself. But it should not repulse and repress.
Fast Forward- Over the Bumpy Road
Today, the Chinese Communist Party is still grappling with these issues. Xi Jinping, China’s President is going after corruption and cracking down hard on dissidents.
The CCP is relatively young, only founded in 1921. The People’s Republic of China was born on October 1, 1949. The road taken by the CCP has never been easy.
Zheng Bikian, former Executive Vice-President, Central Party School and Member of the Berggruen Institute 21st Century Councils, now openly calls for the CCP to evolve and change saying: “It is essential that as the ruling party the CPC improve democracy within the Party, govern the country according to law and tighten Party discipline strictly and according to law (including state laws and the more stringent Party regulations).” He continues, “In the final analysis, at its essence, ’catching up with the times’ means that the CCP goes its own way and stays in the forefront of the times through continuous reform, innovation while learning from others through the “latecomer advantage.”
China’s Economy Is Evolving or Imploding
Michael Pettis, Peking University professor and expert on the Chinese economy points out: “Exports, manufacturing, and investment in China are slowing down. So everyone who still believes the Chinese growth story must believe in the regime’s rebalancing story: Move from an investment and export model to a consumption driven economy. This means China will manufacture and export less.” Yet Pettis also thinks this process will take “too long— too long to complete before the Chinese debt bubble blows up.”
As the economy stumbles, the Communist Party’s one-party rule comes under pressure. Over the last three and a half decades, ordinary Chinese citizens’ lives have grown remarkably better as the standard of living has risen. Today, more than 700 million Chinese citizens have risen out of abject poverty into China’s middle class.
Yet the seeds of discontent simmer just beneath the surface and might erupt if the social contract for a better life stalls, the gulf widens between the haves and the have-nots widens, environmental problems are not addressed and/or minority people continue to feel oppressed.
The unspoken trade-off between the rulers and the ruled seems to be: If our (Chinese) lives improve, then you (the Communist Party) can remain in power. So far, the Chinese Communist Party has been adept at reading the tea leaves and adapting to the times.
The first Chief Executive of Hong Kong SAR, C.H. Tung argues, “That the success of modern day China is not accidental. While globalization contributes to China’s success, the country’s ability to ensure a smooth leadership transition and sound policy-making, the diligence of its people, as well as the expansion of freedom liberating the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of its citizens are key internal reasons for ‘China’s miracle.”
Mr. Tung rightfully notes, “Never before in the history of mankind, has so much been achieved for so many people in such a short period of time.”
Time will tell if all the adaptations and changes that resulted in today’s China will positively impact the lives of the students I met in 1989 (now in middle-age). Will they and their children experience the joys, struggles and benefits of freedom and democracy, albeit with Chinese characteristics? The very things they asked me about so very long ago while they stood for democracy in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The times – they are changing. Going forward, how China’s leaders manage and lead change will impact not only the Chinese people-but all humanity.