At the recent 16th Party Congress, the Chinese Communist Party's leadership began its passage of position and power. While this peaceful and orderly transition has been praised, experts question the possibilities for true political reform. Observers must be prepared to accept that real democratic reform will remain, for the foreseeable future, a focus of discussion rather than policy.
Throughout China, civic organizations have grown in number and size. Sports, business, academic and issue-focused associations are increasingly common. However, observers should not mistake grassroots developments for real political change. New communal ties are strengthening the social fabric that binds Chinese society; but they do not indicate a certain path to democracy. Instead, they represent something Chinese people value more: freedom.
In China, new personal freedoms are undeniable. People now purchase all they wish and say what they wish on numerous issues. But these changes exist because they are fundamental to the development of China's market economy. Markets cannot exist without unfettered demand and product innovation cannot occur if ideas must be explained with ideology.
Unfortunately, true academic freedom is conspicuously absent in history, politics and religion, fields essential for political reform. Press freedom, vital for true governmental accountability, also seems far off. The Party's news agency, Xinhua, controls all legal news and while the Internet could provide other perspectives, in China the Internet is subject to Party censorship.
Urban Chinese love newspapers and despise corruption. Despite popular support for anti-corruption measures, the government insists on tackling the problem rather than enlisting the media as a political watchdog. The Party rationalizes that dissidents and irresponsible or sensational journalists would hijack a free press, causing confusion and chaos. Chinese people, raised on propaganda and conscious of their violent modern history, share the Party's desire for stability. By playing upon these feelings, the Chinese government has convinced citizens to fear their own freedom.
A Chinese graduate student explains, "My parents were students when the Cultural Revolution started. They saw humiliation and discrimination heaped on those who contested the mass line. They often say to restrict my words to those acceptable to the Chinese Communist Party. If I encounter political trouble I risk my own career, but also risk my parents' livelihood and our relationship."
China's leaders underestimate frustration with government inefficiency and corruption. A Chinese proverb says if the foundation is crooked, the house will be too. Local officials, the Party's foundation, are corrupt to the core. Nearly 160,000 people every year travel to Beijing seeking redress against local leaders. Pilgrims fear intimidation by provincial officials seeking to intercept them before they are heard.
Corrupt officials do not gradually stop; public sentiment must flood over them bringing the accountability the West prides itself upon. Community publications could provide people a voice catalyzing local solutions; this process would grow effective as journalistic standards develop.
Recently, China has experienced a swell of nationalist zeal. International achievements, including China's successful bid to host the 2008 Olympics and World Cup appearance, have been used with political events like the EP3 collision to successfully intertwine Party legitimacy and nationalism. Thus, the political realm remains a CCP monopoly.
One problem is how to overcome years of propaganda proclaiming the Taiwan issue purely domestic. For Chinese to appreciate their government's complex position, they must reexamine the numerous interests involved. More open public discourse would result in increased tolerance of the delicate diplomacy and patience needed to resolve the Taiwan question.
Taiwan should be demystified, and Chinese citizens should see Taiwan for what it is. The so-called "rogue province" holds its people's freedom and economic interests as its highest priority. The Chinese frustration with and antagonistic behavior toward Taiwan must be tempered with an understanding of the difficult position the island faces.
Mr. Ling, a middle-aged computer programmer, explains that the connection between Taiwan and media control is rooted in history. "During the early 20th century China's physical and intellectual disunity combined to destroy millions of lives. This explains the Party's focus on China's territorial integrity. Conflicting reports in the news could result in confusion among less educated people."
China has an opportunity to eliminate fears and remove barriers that hamper citizens' freedom of information. The Party ought support both increased discourse in history, politics and religion, and the establishment of a free and private Chinese media. Leaders could begin this process by loosening restrictions on the Internet, smaller-circulation publications, and book publishers. These policies foster dialogue among China's youth, peasants, and academics crucial to attack official corruption and revive a languishing Taiwan strategy. Most importantly, they provide the forum necessary for young Chinese to deliberate the potential and possibilities for political reform.
Joshua Eisenman is the Assistant Director of China Studies at The Nixon Center.