Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Upward Trajectory

Whenever I get dejected about the political situation in China (it is, after all, an authoritarian country with rule BY law rather than rule OF law), I'm comforted by the continuous improvement virtually all aspects of life (with the exception of pollution) over the last 30 years.

Granted, coming out of the Cultural Revolution, China was not in a very good spot. Not only were people dirt poor after 20 years of failed economic policies, which in turn came after a gigantic world/civil war in which million were slaughtered, but there was a climate of fear that remained after what is perhaps the largest outbreak of totalitarian madness in history, and one most people still don't know much about.

Yes, the country is Authoritarian, but it used to be Totalitarian, and that's a big difference. Mess with the government, and you're going down, but these days if you don't rock the boat (and even if you stop once you've gotten the message they don't like it) you can pretty much live as you like. You can't move anywhere you want, and money is a severe limitation on much of the peasantry, but no one in China is enforcing rigid controls on thinking, private speech, or personal activities.

The story everyone is so interested in is the economic rise of China, and this goes hand in hand with the expansion of personal freedom here. China has awakened from its communist slumbers by allowing entrepreneurship, ownership, and choice in economic affairs. It's impossible to separate this from a basic shift in thinking, from a view in which the party and the greater good of society should dictate everything about your life, to one in which the government can manage a society in which people make their own choices.

There is still a long way to go here. Many people live on less than $2 a day, and people are still getting in trouble for advocating for the powerless, and agitating for greater freedom. But looking at the past 30 years, I can't help but be optimistic. The cultural and economic forces that have created the current prosperity cannot be easily bottled up, and will probably continue to create more opportunity and more freedom. There will be attempts to curtail this or that expansion of freedom, but in the long run, the government cannot turn back from this course (did I just say 'stay the course?) without the risk of losing everything they've gained, or even plunging the country into chaos - something that would be a disaster not only for the Communist party, but everyone in China, and indeed, everyone in the world.

Given these choices, I think the government will continue on its present path - slowly loosening its grip, carefully watching the expansion of the country. There's always a place for worry and preparing for disasters, but the recent past gives me great confidence that China will continue to become a better and better place to live, for Chinese and Lao Wai.

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