Journey Through 'Red' China

BEN WATTENBERG

April 14, 1993|By BEN WATTENBERG

Hong Kong. -- Trip notes from China. Scene One, Haikou:

At school, teen-agers listen to their English instructor. On thwall are five portraits: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao and Sun Yat Sen.

(When I was in China last, in 1976, Sun was not in the pantheon, Stalin was.)

Scene Two, same city, a fashion show and pop music concert ushering in Haikou's Coconut Festival:

Willowy Chinese models swivel across the stage, their Chinese-designed clothes world-class elegant, the models out of this world, moving to the beat (I'm told) of ''Pump Up The Volume.'' The vocalists sing of love, including ''Forever Young,'' the refrain belted out in English.

(The 1976 show was by the People's Liberation Army: Boy meets girl, girl meets tractor, boy denounces capitalist-roader.)

Scene Three, in Guangzhou (formerly Canton), with a group from the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, beginning a tour down the Pearl River delta, China's fastest-growing economic region:

The outside food market is alive with raw capitalism. The stalls are laden with fresh vegetable and animal edibles, including dog, snake, turtle, frog, rabbit and eel. The city itself is unplanned, booming, commercial and traffic-jammed. Building cranes are everywhere.

South to Shunde. Hundreds of workers are bent to their assembly-line tasks, installing a washer, bolting a screw. Water heaters take form, bound for sale in China, Thailand and Malaysia. Labor intensive.

But in Zhongsan, only a few workers are visible at the polyester plant. Automated machines spin petrochemicals into thread. Destination: Chinese clothing manufacturers, who sell to China and to America. Capital intensive.

In Cuiheng we pause at the museum-birthplace of Sun Yat Sen, whose ''Three People's Principles'' were ''Nationalism,'' ''Democracy,'' and ''People's Livelihood.'' Only later, under pressure, did he cut a deal with Communists. Right the first time.

In the new port of Zhu Hai, the mayor tells us that his planned city has big ideas: an airport, wharves, highways, even a 30-mile bridge to Hong Kong. The plant we visit has 176 researchers, average age 26, working on computer simulations. Knowledge intensive.

Where's Waldo? What's wrong with this picture?

Not much, say many in the business and diplomatic community. There is big money to be made as the world's largest market opens up, turning medieval peasants into modern consumers.

Cool it, they say, about political prisoners, lack of a free press, growing military power and the police state. Does it matter to us? To the Chinese, growing richer?

Well, we've learned, we think, that a nation doesn't make it big time unless it has (A) a market economy, (B) exposure to Western ideas and (C) political liberty. There is much variation, but that's the way it works from Europe to America to Japan.

The Chinese Communists say no. They now salute markets. Western culture is in the air: Hong Kong television is picked up in Guangdong Province (80 million people); dish satellites are sprouting.

But the Communists (who would lose power in real elections) don't want to go to political liberty; it could ''destabilize'' China. So they preach stingy gradualism with no time clock.

They are wrong. Democracy does not destabilize. Lack of democracy destabilizes.

China is growing rapidly. Will it continue? Forever? The best of economies hit the wall -- America, Japan, Europe. But when big bumps come -- inflation, over-heating, corruption -- democracy offers safety valves: Blame the politicians, throw 'em out.

Without safety valves the remedy is in the streets, or Tiananmen Square, or more repression and more Tiananmens.

Across the bay in opulent Hong Kong, destined for Chinese takeover in 1997, United Democrat leader Martin Lee is more optimistic than the cowed businessmen. Deng Xiaoping, he tells me, is China's Gorbachev. Deng let half the genie out of the bottle; the other half can't be kept in. That can extend liberty in Hong Kong.

What about us? When the Chinese go to democracy, they will get there peacefully, or violently. We ought to push for faster, peaceful evolution in the world's most populous country with the largest army.

The alternative is destabilization for businessmen, China, America and the world.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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