Contradictions of `market Stalinism'

China: Signs of more openness don't mean that the party is loosening its brutal grip.

March 20, 2002

THESE DAYS in China, signs of greater openness abound. But make no mistake, in the name of the government's paramount goal of "social stability" -- meaning total political control by the Chinese Communist Party -- the Chinese people remain under a brutally authoritarian regime.

The contradictions set in motion in the last decade by moves to a more market-oriented economy -- while maintaining a horrible record of human-rights abuses -- are challenging the party, but not yet enough to threaten its ultimate control. Take the recently concluded annual meeting of China's hollow legislative body, the National People's Congress, which has struck a bit more independent stance in the past few years.

Legislators talked of drafting the nation's first civil code, a big step in a land with little tradition of the rule of law. There have also been moves toward protecting for private property, allowing citizens to sue the government, and, not the least, providing for some grass-roots democracy in rural areas.

But the most telling image from the 11-day NPC meeting was that of the soldiers dispatched to seal off Tiananmen Square -- the spiritual heart of China and the doorstep of the legislature's Great Hall of the People -- from petitioners and protesters. This is a regime that fears its own people, and can be counted on to act accordingly.

It locks up Catholic bishops and arrests Falun Gong believers. It detains at least several thousand political prisoners in jail and an estimated 200,000 persons in re-education-through-labor camps. It still keeps dossiers on many average citizens.

"Citizens who sought to express openly dissenting political and religious views continued to live in an environment filled with repression," says the U.S. State Department's most recent human-rights report on China.

Sure, hardly a week goes by without word from China of peaceful protests apparently tolerated -- by thousands of oil workers angry over losing their jobs, urban homeowners opposing development changes, stock investors who have lost their savings. But rather than being signs of greater openness, these are more representative of the mounting stresses from the party's attempt to evolve into what China watchers have properly dubbed "market Stalinism."

With China's entry into the World Trade Organization -- requiring that it open its domestic markets to foreigners -- these tensions will only get more pitched. Americans, long prone to overly romantic notions about the potential for an outbreak of democracy in China, should root for that -- rather than counting on the party to fundamentally loosen its grip.

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