Commentary Magazine


Topic: Xi Jinping

China’s New Era of Disobedience?

A quarter-century ago, thousands of Chinese students occupied the heart of Beijing, in Tiananmen Square, hoping to push the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) toward democracy. They were crushed, literally, by a government unwilling to surrender any of its political control. The twenty-five years since that 1989 massacre have seen China become perhaps the world’s second-most powerful nation, yet one that is just as politically and socially repressive, if not more so.

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A quarter-century ago, thousands of Chinese students occupied the heart of Beijing, in Tiananmen Square, hoping to push the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) toward democracy. They were crushed, literally, by a government unwilling to surrender any of its political control. The twenty-five years since that 1989 massacre have seen China become perhaps the world’s second-most powerful nation, yet one that is just as politically and socially repressive, if not more so.

While those young students in Tiananmen Square were attempting to create new freedoms for themselves, today’s protests in Hong Kong, by equally young students, are aimed at ensuring that the island does not lose any more of its freedoms. In that sense, they may well be more passionate and potentially explosive.

The immediate cause of the demonstrations being called the “umbrella revolution” was Beijing’s decision not to allow free elections in 2017 for Hong Kong’s chief executive, per the 1984 joint declaration agreement with Great Britain that set the guidelines for post-colonial Hong Kong. Instead, Beijing will allow only a handful of pre-approved candidates on the ballots. Hong Kongers rightly assume this is just the beginning of a broader move to restrict their freedoms, including an independent judiciary and press.

Yet Hong Kong should not be seen in isolation from China’s broader crackdown on any potential liberalization or separatism in areas it controls or hopes to control. As I wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal, Beijing is comfortable risking greater blowback to try and stamp out even moderate voices, such as Uighur academic Ilham Tohti, who was given a life sentence for criticizing the government. China’s military and police presence has been strengthened in both Xinjiang and Tibet in recent years, and there has been no reduction in the military threat to Taiwan. Even smaller issues, such as occupied Indian territory or territorial disputes in the South China Sea, have seen Beijing’s position harden and its military activities increase.

These are worrisome signs that President Xi Jinping, who is just 18 months into a decade-long rule, is comfortable flexing Chinese muscle, intimidating his neighbors, and cracking down on domestic unrest. Whether out of confidence or fear, Beijing is adopting a far more antagonistic attitude that makes it ever harder for it to back down.

That is why what happens now in Hong Kong is so important. If a tiny island of 7 million people can successfully oppose Beijing’s will, then the gates will be opened to the dissatisfied in Xinjiang and Tibet, on Taiwan, and possibly even on the mainland. This is something that Beijing cannot allow. Yet should the People’s Liberation Army move out of their Hong Kong barracks to support the territory’s police, or other pressure be put on the island’s government to suppress the demonstrators, then the fiction of Hong Kong independence and of China’s essentially benign nature will be exploded.

Sadly, such brutality did not prevent China from scaling even greater heights 25 years ago after Tiananmen, but today such an outcome it will mean either a China of far greater strength and influence, or an Asia of greater instability and possibly conflict, or possibly both.

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China’s Problem: Freedom Is Infectious

Pity the leaders of China’s sclerotic Communist government. They thought they had learned the lessons of the breakup of the Soviet Union and managed to allow a degree of economic freedom without giving up a smidge of political power. Many, though not all, Chinese are allowed now to make money in a booming economy that has helped finance a debt-ridden West. But as much as China has made extraordinary economic progress in the last generation, its society still labors under the burden of tyranny that limits its advancement. As is the case with all forms of tyranny, the all-powerful government acts with impunity, encouraging corruption and rendering the rule of law an empty promise. Personal incomes have gone up but the absence of freedom still lingers, as does the Chinese gulag where those who dissent are still sent.

The Communists know all this and by scaling back some of the most onerous restrictions on freedom they hope to not only keep the Chinese people quiescent but to retain their absolute hold on power for yet another generation. That’s why they are considering lifting the infamous “one child” policy in some instances. But, as the New York Times reports today, as popular as the abolition of this despicable law would be, doing so even if only for parents who are both only children is not going to be easy. The problem is that once you start allowing some freedom, the people are bound to want more.

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Pity the leaders of China’s sclerotic Communist government. They thought they had learned the lessons of the breakup of the Soviet Union and managed to allow a degree of economic freedom without giving up a smidge of political power. Many, though not all, Chinese are allowed now to make money in a booming economy that has helped finance a debt-ridden West. But as much as China has made extraordinary economic progress in the last generation, its society still labors under the burden of tyranny that limits its advancement. As is the case with all forms of tyranny, the all-powerful government acts with impunity, encouraging corruption and rendering the rule of law an empty promise. Personal incomes have gone up but the absence of freedom still lingers, as does the Chinese gulag where those who dissent are still sent.

The Communists know all this and by scaling back some of the most onerous restrictions on freedom they hope to not only keep the Chinese people quiescent but to retain their absolute hold on power for yet another generation. That’s why they are considering lifting the infamous “one child” policy in some instances. But, as the New York Times reports today, as popular as the abolition of this despicable law would be, doing so even if only for parents who are both only children is not going to be easy. The problem is that once you start allowing some freedom, the people are bound to want more.

Any discussion of the one child policy must begin with the fact that it has never been some antiseptic commonsense attempt to cope with over-population. The notion that this law is all that stood between China and some “Soylent Green” style Malthusian nightmare is a myth that Beijing apologists have often successfully foisted onto the American imagination. All too many Americans, especially those liberals who have always been willing to give China’s tyrants the benefit of the doubt, have been prepared to accept the notion that one child made sense in China. Even Vice President Joe Biden publicly endorsed it when, in the course of trying to draw a bogus comparison between liberal U.S. economic policies and Chinese dictates, he said:

You have no safety net.  Your policy has been one which I fully understand — I’m not second-guessing — of one child per family.  The result being that you’re in a position where one wage earner will be taking care of four retired people.  Not sustainable.

Aside from Biden’s characteristically fractured grammar, what he left out of that equation was the reality of mass forced abortions, forced sterilizations and a skewed sex balance that devalues women in a culture which prizes male offspring. One child is at the heart of the terror state that persists in China since it limits a basic human right that not even Stalinist Russia ever directly challenged. While a case could be made that China had to do something to deal with the imbalance between its resources and a growing population, the correct answer to this problem was not less freedom but more. Centralized planning is no match for the benefits of human creativity aimed at expanding wealth and resources. Even in an era in which it has allowed some limited freedoms in its economy, Beijing still seeks to impose the heavy hand of tyranny on the most personal of decisions.

The Communists’ problem is the same as that of every tyrant who seeks to loosen their strangleholds on the lives of their subjects: freedom is infectious. Let it loose in one area and there’s no telling where it will lead. They had thought allowing people to own property would compensate for their lack of say over anything else but sooner or later, human beings will not be satisfied with the crumbs of liberty their masters allow them. While Chinese President Xi Jinping would like to let some families have a second child, once the floodgates are open, it’s not clear that they could be closed.

Ever since President Nixon normalized relations with China, apologists for détente with Beijing have told us that the Chinese people don’t value or don’t want freedom and that discussion of human rights in the planet’s largest tyranny is pointless or unnecessary. But they have always been wrong. China’s freedom fighters have gone to nameless deaths in the laogai but the notion that Communism can suppress a people’s nature longing for freedom even in a culture that values community is a myth. Sooner or later, one child is doomed and the country’s leaders know it. But they also may understand that once the threat of forced abortions and sterilizations is removed, something beyond the population figure will increase in China. Once you give a person back that sort of personal autonomy, there’s no telling what they will ask for, and more will be swept away in the tide that will eventually follow than restrictions on family size.

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