China – compassion, its final frontier

By Andrew L. Urban

The Chinese Communist Party celebrates its 90th year this month – July 2011. It can celebrate another milestone as it overtakes Japan as the world’s second largest economy. But the candles are blown out by the millions hurt, ruined, and killed by its policies of political suppression and personal oppression.

Of all the communist regimes in the world, China stands out as the only one that has delivered economic betterment for its people. China’s communist promise has borne some fruit. The millions who have been slaughtered and tortured by the regime over the years is perhaps another record of sorts, but while Stalin’s purges of 20 million dead produced nothing of value, China at least has presented itself in the 21st century as a global economic power. It delivers a higher standard of living than its predecessors, plenty of consumer goods for many of its citizens (as well as the rest of the world) and is home to countless millionaires, many of whom are contributing to global wealth and well being.

The most profound, vocal and most frequent criticism of China refers to its undemocratic political structure which feeds into abuses of human rights. This one aspect blackens China’s name – its brand, if you like – in international political circles and on the street. Even those who are unaware that China treats its citizens as objects, executes criminals with ruthless efficiency and relocates people in the way of its development plans like so many toy figurines, even they know that China has trodden on Tibet and has no tolerance for political dissent.

This is an oddity of a regime. It has generated a wall of nationalist pride which protects it from world opinion where its abuses of human rights are questioned. At the same time, it uses the primitive forces of brutality and fear to crack down on dissidents, fuelling the very forces of protest it is trying to quell. And yet it doesn’t need to.

Within its grasp is a unique opportunity in history: to showcase communism as a functioning, humanistic political power which can not only deliver economic equality but social equality. It doesn’t have to be Animal Farm with guns. The glue of its nationals pride has served China well in its international relations, giving its people a sense of unity. The cost of that policy has been the projection of ‘foreigners’ as evil meddlers.

Yet the country’s rulers live in as much fear as do the citizens; the latter fear the brutality and merciless power of the former, while the Chinese Government fears the people’s latent power. The Government quashes all dissent for fear of being overrun by revolution; unrest is bottled up. 

Chris Buckley of Reuters writes: “Days of interrogation in a cold, secluded room taught Liu Anjun that China’s security forces see dissidents and protesters like him as players in a plot to topple the Communist Party, a fear that is magnifying Beijing’s hard crackdown on dissent.

Shortly before China’s clampdown ramped up in February (2011), a senior domestic security official, Chen Jiping, warned that “hostile Western forces” — alarmed by the country’s rise — were marshalling human rights issues to attack Party control.

… what outsiders may see as a loose, disparate group of dissidents, bloggers, lawyers, and grassroots agitators, China’s security police treat as a subversive, Western-backed coalition with the potential to erupt into outright opposition.

The Party’s alarm about domestic threats inspired by the anti-authoritarian uprisings across the Middle East and north Africa grew after an overseas Chinese website,, publicized calls for peaceful protests across China emulating the “Jasmine Revolution.”” [1]

While mostly it seems to be agreed that Churchill was right to say that democracy is a very bad form of government… but all the others are so much worse, I don’t recall any significant politician suggesting that benign dictatorship is perhaps really the best form of government, but it probably is. Charles de Gaulle was a kind of benign dictator after World War II and led his country into prosperity and pride – both difficult goals at the time. A benign communist state is within China’s reach; it is an inventive and resourceful people whose time in world history has come.

The party’s fear of the people is justified, of course; not because they have access to guns with which to shoot the army, but because they harbour ideas of personal freedom which can’t be confiscated. The dissidents languishing in Chinese jails are not gun toting revolutionaries but writers and artists. To neutralise this threat, China must accept the notion of a libertarian communism in which a single party state allows dissent and even protest, a free media and the active eradication (or at least reduction) of corruption.

The Communist Party of China has a remarkable, historically unique opportunity at the beginning of the 21st century to be the leopard that changes its spots. In practice, communism has never worked anywhere as a socially just, economically fair and politically justifiable ideology. At the cost of great suffering and no upside, the Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea, East Germany and the Eastern European countries under Soviet command in the second half of the 20th century all failed to demonstrate that communism is a better system than any other. Indeed, quite the opposite.

China is now so strong in global economic terms, so clearly improving the living standards of its own people (in cities and towns at least) and so secure in its nationalist currency of pride that it is at last in a position to let the fresh air of personal freedoms blow through its systems. It is the final frontier for this giant, a frontier which it must cross to survive. The bamboo sways and flexes in the wildest storm, otherwise it would break. Chinese leadership has to embrace such flexibility or face the prospect of being broken by the winds of change. As the old Chinese saying has it, ‘A great man can bend and stretch.’

Having lived through the Hungarian revolution in 1956, I am especially aware of the importance of controlling the distribution and content of information when governments are challenged. It is the first target of the revolution and the most protected by authority. Today, it is not enough to control the TV and radio stations and the newspapers. The internet makes every citizen an information disseminator, which not just scrambles the centrally controlled and shaped message but replaces it.

The Chinese control of the internet recognises this – and the Government knows it is impossible to keep the control 100% watertight. This pressure on the exchange of ideas in a communist state is mounting daily for China, whose citizens are nimble, able and many.

While China’s human rights record remains abysmal, it will never attain the legitimacy and respect its leaders crave and its people deserve, either politically at the global level, or at the personal level in the streets of the free world. This may not matter to tyrants like Libya’s Gadaffi but it matters to the Chinese, who have serious principles and a big ‘face’ to the world.

Imagine a China which relaxed its stranglehold on information and lifted its brutal hand from the throats of its people. It is the greatest irony that its suppression of dissent is largely the cause of dissent, like a vicious circle rounding on itself and devouring itself. If the citizens were treated with respect and were not terrorised by the forces of the state, they would not react against it. Their national pride and their energies would flow into productivity.

In the world’s most populous state, maybe a benign, compassionate form of dictatorship would indeed be the better form of government.


[1] Reuters April 12, 2011

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