The darker side of the Chinese 'miracle'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 5:32pm

'The Chinese people have stood up!' Whether or not Mao Zedong actually used this famous phrase in establishing the People's Republic 60 years ago, it has surely been vindicated. Today's celebrations reflect the nation's tremendous economic and social progress, especially during the past 30 years, and its increasing power and influence on the world scene. For China's leaders, successfully completing the 60-year cycle of the traditional lunar calendar must be a source of great satisfaction.

Getting to this point has not been easy. The political convulsions of the first three decades of the People's Republic inflicted vast human suffering. Young Chinese learn little about the regime's first decade - including the extermination of 'counterrevolutionaries', expropriation of the business community and starvation of tens of millions following the Great Leap Forward. Even the excesses that shattered 100 million lives during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 have receded from public view. Yet parents, and particularly grandparents, have not forgotten those prolonged nightmares.

The progressive decade initiated by Deng Xiaoping's 'open policy' in late 1978 was marred by periodic 'strike hard' campaigns and attacks on 'bourgeois liberals', culminating in the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen slaughter that brought a remarkable era to a tragic close.

Fortunately, Deng sought to compensate for that political disaster in the early 1990s by liberating the people's commercial energies to an unprecedented extent that has boosted living standards, expanded educational opportunities and enhanced China's interaction with the world. The new policy has also brought many important 'little freedoms' to improve the daily lives of ordinary citizens such as the ability to choose one's career and to travel.

Yet the social and economic costs have been enormous. Rapid development has caused horrendous environmental pollution. The gap between rich and poor is one of the greatest in the world. Although hundreds of millions have been brought out of poverty, the average gross national product per capita remains very low. Land and housing rights have too often been sacrificed to redevelopment. Large numbers of farmers and workers have had their jobs eliminated, unemployment and underemployment are a constant challenge, and more than 100 million migrant labourers are often exploited. Even China's growing middle class is hard-pressed to pay soaring medical and educational charges.

Corruption is endemic and has reached into the highest circles of the Communist Party and government. Nor are police, prosecutors, lawyers and judges immune to this cancer in the body politic.

As events in Tibet and Xinjiang have demonstrated, party policies for dealing with minority nationalities and disfavoured religious practices have failed dismally.

This darker side of the Chinese 'miracle' has produced a huge number of complaints, grievances, petitions, protests and disputes. Yet the country's leadership seems paralysed in its ability to respond to this creeping crisis with little more than repression, censorship and force.

China's situation cries out for more meaningful political and legal reform, and less repression, to provide improved channels for asserting and processing the now dangerous accumulation of grievances. This, as South Korea and Taiwan can show, is the path to long-term stability.

Today's spectacular show of tanks, troops and fireworks cannot conceal the urgent needs for institutional reform and free expression. In their own interests, as well as those of the people, party members should insist on farsighted, bold leadership to meet these needs. Otherwise, at the end of China's next 60 year cycle, historians may conclude that the party was a victim of its own success.

Jerome A. Cohen is co-director of NYU's US-Asia Law Institute and adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. See