Wednesday, August 20, 2008

China: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

China has made considerable strides in moving toward a semi-free society. But lest we get too carried away congratulating them, they often remind us that they still have a ways to go on their long march to freedom.

It continues to suppress free speech, even before anyone starts speaking.
The women, Wu Dianyuan, 79, and Wang Xiuying, 77, had made five visits to the police this month in an effort to obtain permission to protest what they contended was inadequate compensation for the demolition of their homes in Beijing. During their final visit, on Monday, Public Security officials informed them that they had been given administrative sentences for "disturbing the public order," according to Li Xuehui, Wu's son.
Did you get that? The women weren't even protesting, just asking for permission to do so. Others have been dealt with even more harshly.
Gao Chuancai, a farmer from northeast China who was hoping to publicize government corruption, was forcibly escorted back to his hometown last week and remains in custody.

Relatives of Zhang Wei, a Beijing resident who was also seeking to protest the demolition of her home, were told she would be kept at a detention center for a month. Two rights advocates from southern China have not been heard from since they were seized at the Public Security Bureau's protest application office last week.
This shouldn't be too surprising. China is a country in transition and such pragmatic inconsistencies between clamping down and loosening up are characteristic of such societies.

Similar behavior was on display in the first few years after the Russian Revolution, as the USSR's dictators allowed some free trade, soon followed by tightening their grip on the way to complete totalitarian control. Later, as the Soviet Union crumbled, the Politburo relaxed the choke hold on citizens throats, followed by widespread pragmatist-driven corruption in government and semi-free trade. Now the country is on its way forward (or, more accurately, back) toward complete dictatorship.

The U.S., in not completely dissimilar fashion, is also in a transition phase, unable — taken as a statistical average — to decide whether to move back (or, more accurately, forward) to freedom or completely to embrace Swedish-style socialism. The pragmatist approach on both sides of the Congressional aisles to domestic energy policy is a perfect example. How that will turn out, it is too early to tell.

In China's case, their odds are good. That ancient land has a deep and historically long record of respect for science and mathematics, and learning in general. Its people are incredibly industrious and even sometimes highly creative. While the phrase was roundly mocked later after being uttered by Calvin Coolidge, it is true of that country, too, that the business of China is business.

It has wisely invested heavily in infrastructure, and embraced the "all of the above" approach to energy production, as evidenced by the Three Gorges Dam project, committing to building several nuclear power plants over the next 10 years, and putting up a new coal-fired electrical generating station every week. Unlike the U.S., the environmentalists have not succeeded in hobbling China, try as they might.

But they still have far to go in terms of understanding the value of individual freedom, a somewhat alien concept there as, sadly, it is becoming here.

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