Will the “free market” in China encourage the growth of democracy?

That China continues to be a communist state with no meaningful democratic practices in place is a cause of concern for the international community.  The Communist Party follows a traditional process of selecting members for its leadership positions.  Such being the case, it is impossible for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds to make it to influential positions in body politic.  Ever since the opening up of the Chinese economy in the 1980s, the economic growth of the country has been stupendous.  From being a marginal and isolated player in world affairs, China has risen to be a contender for global superpower status.  While it is premature to call it a superpower yet, a continuation of its growth trajectory of last thirty years would catapult it into the top league of geo-politics.  In this scenario, many outside commentators and a few Chinese intellectuals themselves have raised questions about China’s internal situation, which can appear to be oppressive and stifling.  Indeed, the human rights record of Chinese government has been a constant topic of debate in international meetings such as those organized by the United Nations.  This essay will look into how the adoption of “free market’ economic policies have affected democracy within the country and what does the future hold.

China has some of the stringent laws to control individual citizen dissent; and the introduction of neo-liberal economic policies have done little to change the situation.  In China, the private communication between citizens is strictly monitored and censored so that subversive thoughts and acts get curtailed and its perpetrators punished severely.  A much publicized recent case is that of Google’s cooperation with Chinese government in censoring content transmitted by Chinese Internet users.  As a result of such curbs on free expression, the Chinese citizenry are unable to politically organize and press for civil rights reforms.  An allied case is that of Tibet (now referred to as Tibet Autonomous Region)  – an erstwhile sovereign and independent nation that was annexed into the People’s Republic of China in the middle of last century.   Despite pressure from the international community as well as constantly simmering dissent from within Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), the Chinese government persists with its high-handed citizen control policies.  The perennial exile of the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso emphasizes the hostility and tension within the region. (Qing & Xue, 1996)

Going back a little in history, the fourth of July (1989) protests in Tiananmen Square, where the public expressed its discontent with the economic and domestic policies adopted by the authoritarian CPC leadership, is a key event in the context of human rights and democracy.  Only a few years prior to this event did China open up its economy and became a major global manufacturing center.  While the economic prosperity was boosted as a result of this policy shift, some intellectuals were apprehensive about the long-term consequences of this move. Added to this, the fall of the Berlin Wall instigated the Chinese population to question long-held assumptions about the merits of communism and totalitarian control (Gu & Goldman, 2004).  In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square confrontation between the police and protesters, many Chinese intellectuals speculated about the ideal model of development that China should follow.  And they seem to have come to a consensus that was based more on pragmatism and less on ideological principles.  For example,

“The initial focus of China’s domestic discussion of civil society was on individual rights and freedom.  In the mid-1980s, Chinese theoreticians reimported the notion of individual rights through ingenious reinterpretations of Marx’s classical writings.  To accommodate this notion to China’s political context, Chinese intellectuals did not go so far as to reject collective values or the role of the state in fostering such civic  virtues. They stressed the importance of citizen rights, but also maintained that citizens in a civil society would be in a harmonious relationship with the state” (Yang, 2002)

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