Growth and Freedom in Asia
Image Credit: Edwin Lee

Growth and Freedom in Asia


China’s growing economic prowess has been long and widely reported. Already the world’s third-largest economy, many expect it to overtake Japan for second place by the end of this year. Meanwhile, it’s already become the world’s largest exporter, after surpassing Germany at the end of last year; its exports in the first half of 2010 soared 35.2 percent to $705.09 billion.

Fellow communist nation Vietnam is no slouch either, with its economy growing by 5.32 percent last year—the fastest in South-east Asia. And Vietnam is also, like China, working to attract further foreign investment. In May 2010, for example, Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet returned from Helsinki with a promise that Finland would invest $1 billion over the next few years, with Finnish companies set to invest in core industries including information technology, ship building, wood and paper.

The question that such figures have left people wondering, of course, is whether this rapid economic growth—and the potential commensurate greater standing on the world stage—will inevitably lead to greater democratic, social and political freedoms at home?

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At first glance China would, so far, appear to suggest not. While it has opened up its doors to foreign companies, the Communist Party maintains a firm grip over the levers of power and, to a large extent, its citizens.

But one Chinese diplomat, who asked not to be named, argues the picture is more complex. ‘It’s important for people to understand that without proper political reforms, the economic miracle can’t be achieved,’ he says noting that those reforms there have been are often overlooked by the West. ‘China is very different from Western countries, so they should consider its cultural background, its history and its stage of development…(and) refrain from drawing simple conclusions that present day China is just a black-and-white story.’

He also disputes the notion that there’s undue restriction on freedom of expression, noting for example that the official Xinhua News Agency and the People’s Day have opened up a column for members of the public to comment on key issues.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, the National People’s Congress amended the country’s Electoral Law to equalise the voting rights for selecting deputies for rural residents with those of their urban counterparts. In addition, for more than a decade there have been competitive popular elections in villages that allow an estimated 700 million farmers to elect village chiefs. Such processes are part of what the diplomat describes as an ongoing effort to listen more closely to the people, something he believes is essential for continued development.

Still, the country is far from what could be deemed a functioning multiparty democracy, with the Communist Party instead creating a sense of legitimacy for its existence by delivering strong economic growth, argues Hans Vriens, a managing partner at Singapore-based advisory firm Vriens and Partners. He also notes the growing number of unions, and a number of high-profile cases recently which suggest worker organisation is enabling Chinese workers to secure higher wages.

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