China checks out U.S.

Influence: With the global spread of information, more Chinese are learning about freedoms long denied to them by their leaders.

March 05, 2000|By Frank Langfitt

WUXI, CHINA -- As I waited amid the rice fields of Jiangsu Province last fall to do an interview, the driver accompanying me asked a common question here: Where are you from? I prepared for the worst. Only a few months had passed since NATO planes had bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Back then, people were so furious that they had spent days hurling chunks of concrete at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

When I confessed I was from the United States, the driver, a 40-year-old man named Zhang Peisong, stuck his thumb up and said something I hadn't heard in a while: "America's Good!"

"Why?" I asked.

"You have freedom," Zhang said from behind sunglasses. "You have rule of law and human rights. Here, whatever the policeman says is the law. The Chinese political system is no good, because there is no force that supervises the ruling party."

Zhang spent the next hour listing the flaws of China's political system and the benefits of one with checks and balances such as America's. His understanding of democratic principles was pretty sound, especially for someone who had never lived under them.

As we waited, I gazed across the road at a pond where an elderly man and woman tended carp. Bright green fields of rice stretched to the horizon. Living among these surroundings, where had Zhang learned so much about Western democracy?

"My niece is studying for her M.B.A. in California," he said matter-of-factly. She had told him all about the U.S. political system on visits home and given him a business management book from Harvard translated into Chinese. The more he learned about the U.S. system, the more disillusioned he became with China's.

That a working man from the provinces can nail China's authoritarian system in a few sentences shows just how much of a credibility problem the Communist Party faces. For three decades, China was so isolated that most of its people had little clue what was going on in the outside world. During the past 20 years, though, TV, movies, overseas education and increased personal contacts have helped close the information gap and raise expectations.

Most people in Jiangsu, a relatively wealthy province that lies along China's eastern coast, do not have nieces pursuing advanced degrees in California. But, each year more and more will. The United States attracts more Chinese students than any other country. From 1996 to 1998, the number of student visas to the United States rose nearly 25 percent, to 7,134.

The spread of information will accelerate dramatically through the Internet -- a Trojan Horse that China can't refuse. Last year, the official number of users here quadrupled to nearly 9 million, though the real number is far higher.

The party must embrace the Internet to modernize China's economy, but by doing so, it allows citizens access to a marketplace of ideas where its own have little value.

Surveys show that Western political concepts have many buyers here. A poll taken by Beijing's Horizon firm found that the vast majority of educated, urban Chinese want government reform, including the rule of law, a system of checks and balances, and the freedom to publicly criticize the regime. Nobody here says it, but these are the cornerstones of a democracy.

On a recent flight, I sat next to a central government official named Howard Guo who is studying public policy in the United States.

The government pays his tuition, but the results were probably not what it had in mind. Guo left China as a confirmed Communist. But after two years of course work and reading a free press, he became a democrat. He favors elections in the nation's largest cities as soon as possible. "I want to run for president some day," he said. "Why not?"

Frank Langfitt has served as The Sun's Beijing correspondent since 1997.

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