China’s Unstoppable Billion
Image Credit: Boris van Hoytema

China’s Unstoppable Billion


This is the second in our special series of essays on the Asia-Pacific's future.

Lydia, my wife, and I have just landed in Singapore, having endured a flight from Hong Kong. In the seats near us there is a tour group from Shenzhen, very noisy and rowdy. Sitting in the row next to us is a boy of about 10. Apparently, it’s his first time on a plane. His mom and a sister are next to him, the dad a couple rows up.

As we disembark, Lydia asks the boy how long he’s staying in Singapore. He says a week. Lydia then mentions how lucky he is to spend so much time there and that he will get to see a lot. “Yeah, but I have to follow the tour group,” the youngster replies. “I have no freedom.”

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Lydia turns to the mother and remarks, “He’s so young, and he is already talking about freedom.” The mother replies, “They all do.”

China’s young certainly want freedom. “These kids don’t care what the government says, and you don’t need listen to what the teacher says,” China’s leading pollster, Victor Yuan, once told the Washington Post. “There’s an aggressive search for individualism and personal liberation occurring among China’s young.”

Despite how the nation’s young feel, most foreign analysts – and all of Beijing’s apologists – tell us the Chinese people don’t care about personal liberty, that they are content to reap economic gains while letting the Communist Party keep its monopoly on political power. Yet due to the repressive nature of the political system, we don’t know if China’s citizens are telling us what they really think. The best we can do is catch a glimpse of them as they make their dash into the future. Chinese society is changing faster than any other on earth at the moment, and the ongoing transformation is shaking the country, even the seemingly invincible one-party state.

Especially the one-party state. “China’s leaders may run what looks like a closed political system, and their decisions seem autocratic,” noted Clinton-era official Robert Suettinger in Beyond Tiananmen: The Politics of U.S.-China Relations. “But they are struggling to keep up with a society that is changing in a direction and at a speed they cannot fully control.”

Or not control at all. In the autumn and winter of 2002, for example, the central government covered up the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, until it was too late to stop its spread around the world. President Hu Jintao eventually reversed course in the spring of 2003, and foreigners lavished praise on him for doing so. But in fact he changed direction only after Chinese doctors and nurses left him no choice. These men and women, at considerable personal risk, began talking to the foreign media and the World Health Organization and so made the government’s attempted cover-up of the epidemic untenable.

At the same time, Beijing residents didn’t wait around for their government to act. The Health Ministry knew that a mass migration out of the capital would lead to a healthcare catastrophe. “The government held meetings for hours with no decision and meanwhile, everybody left town,” said Bi Shengli, a virologist who at the time worked for the health minister, according to the Washington Post.

About one million people – 10 percent of Beijing’s population – fled the capital while government bureaucrats talked among themselves, accomplishing almost nothing. “The previous model of social governance by an all-powerful government is already hard put to cover a society which is flowing at high speed,” wrote one Chinese newspaper during the SARS crisis.

The bravery of the country’s doctors and nurses, and the mass migration out of Beijing, both highlight the striking change in the mentality of the Chinese people since the first days of the People’s Republic.

A Startling Transformation

What accounts for the startling transformation of the Chinese people? Of course, economic liberalization has led to social change. In 1978, the beginning of the so-called “reform era,” virtually all Chinese citizens depended on the state for their livelihood. Today, with the creation of the private and foreign-funded sectors of the economy, that number is under 40 percent. As a result, the Chinese people gained choices over their lives and developed confidence.

Furthermore, the state’s control of its remaining employees is diminishing fast. Those holding positions in government offices or state enterprises can, if they are so inclined, find another job, something extremely complicated in the days of the Maoist command economy when citizens needed permission to do just about anything – even marry or divorce. Then, the danwei – the work unit – provided virtually everything, from housing to health care to education to recreation. Today, work units, for the most part, have shed these functions.

As they did so, the state dismantled the social controls Mao Zedong put in place. The Great Helmsman, as he was known, consolidated power by dividing up the Chinese people into small units and isolating the units from the others. Now, in a modernizing era, the Chinese people are putting themselves back together and creating an integrated society. As a result, the people are once again having national conversations, and this permits trends to sweep the nation. The Chinese are creating change by nothing more complicated than talking to one another. And this talk has implications because now, as social scientist Yu Jianrong says, “Everyone has a microphone.”

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