Dispatch: China’s Balancing Act

BY Ray Suarez  May 12, 2010 at 12:49 PM EDT

I spent last week in northeastern China zipping around on new superhighways, passing millions of newly planted trees, new rail lines and massive train stations, enormous shopping malls, and skyscrapers — all amid a people working, working, working.

When I was a kid, China was trying to recover from the terrifying whimsy of the Great Leap Forward, in which Chairman Mao exhorted his people into even deeper poverty with crackpot industrialization fantasies.

Waiting just a few years into China’s future was the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, in which China marginalized many of its best minds for years and destroyed the cultural deposit of centuries. The Chinese people were poor, their officials corrupt, their diets insufficient, and their industries decidedly third-rate.

Right now, though, it looks like there’s little the Chinese can’t do… they’re heading to space, pioneering green technologies, and rapidly raising the standards of living for hundreds of millions of people.

But let’s stop right there.

There are still hundreds of millions whose lives have been little touched by China’s transformation. The staggering foreign currency reserves and world-beating trade surpluses are in part achieved by keeping domestic consumption lower than it would be in the rest of the world, so China’s productive workers are only getting a small taste of the profits they are creating. And all this wealth is being created while the Chinese Communist Party continues to maintain a monopoly on power.

Sure there are safety valves: a little press criticism here, a little citizen outspokenness there. But the men in Beijing are trying to pull off one of history’s toughest balancing acts: allowing a billion people to get rich without a proportional increase in personal freedom. The millions of Chinese watching historical dramas on bright and sharp flat-screen televisions — who’ve traded their scooters and bicycles for automobiles, and no longer worry if their children will have enough to eat — did not choose the men running the country. If something is going seriously wrong elsewhere in the country, they may find out about it through the press…or they may not. It turns out the road to freedom is a zig-zagging one: There are no elections, but that doesn’t mean the surging, ambitious, better-educated millions will put up with anything, or are without influence.

After the earthquake in Sichuan Province, citizen power forced officials to acknowledge that schools that crushed schoolchildren by the thousands were shoddily built from substandard materials.

There was no way to keep the anger and grief bottled up in Sichuan a secret to the rest of the country. Offending officeholders and guilty contractors were named and shamed. There is increasing accountability in the operation of the Chinese system. It’s just not democratic accountability that allows the governed to choose and remove their leaders.

It was strange, sitting in a well-appointed room in a modern hotel, windows facing out onto a string of nearby hotels and a humming eight-lane arterial street packed with cars, to find my browser couldn’t load Facebook or YouTube.

When our NewsHour team here in China was heading to the nearby city of Tianjin, less than a hundred miles away, we were trapped on a major highway along with thousands of other travelers and millions of dollars worth of goods as police simply shut the highway down to ease the travel of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il. The Dear Leader does not fly, you see, so to satisfy his paranoia and keep his trip safe, smooth, and convenient, the corridor between China’s largest and its fourth-largest city was closed with the snap of an official finger, with no prior warning to those of us about to be trapped.

Could we talk with leaders of the government-owned tobacco industry, the world’s largest tobacco business? No. Could we see a factory? No. Could we get a statement on how the country is managing the straddle of encouraging and discouraging smoking at the same time? Well, what do you think?

At the same time, the soldiers and secret policemen who would have stopped any camera crew on the bygone streets of the capital city were invisible, or remarkably permissive. We spoke to shopkeepers, doctors, patients, public health campaigners, and business people with only the occasional reminder that the streets were monitored and the people not entirely free.

China is a new political animal for the 21st century — an increasingly wealthy, kinda free, authoritarian one-party state. There have been plenty of authoritarian states in the modern world, but they couldn’t deliver prosperity to their people. There are plenty of wealthy countries, but none of their citizens would countenance one-party rule.

There seems to be an unspoken pact between the leaders and the led: Keep delivering the goods, and we will leave you a free hand on the big stuff–all in a breakneck race forward to be the country that defines the 21st century, for better or worse.