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The Wall Street Journal Europe.

The Truth About China
April 20, 2007

By Guy Sorman

The Western press is full of stories these days on China's arrival as a superpower. A steady stream of Western political and business delegations visit Beijing, confident of China's economy, which continues to grow rapidly. Investment pours in. Crowning China's new status, Beijing will host the 2008 Summer Olympics.

But after spending all of 2005 and some of 2006 traveling through China—visiting not just her teeming cities but her innermost recesses, where few Westerners go, and speaking with scores of dissidents, Communist Party officials, and everyday people -- my belief that the 21st century will not belong to the Chinese has only been reinforced. True, 200 million of China's subjects, fortunate to work for an expanding global market, are increasingly enjoying a middle-class standard of living. The remaining one billion, however, are among the poorest and most exploited people in the world, lacking even minimal rights and public services. The Party, while no longer totalitarian, is still cruel and oppressive.

Its mendacity has been fully displayed in China's AIDS crisis. The problem is gravest in Henan province, where an untold number of poor peasants contracted AIDS during the 1990s from selling their blood plasma—a process that involves having their blood drawn, pooled with other blood and then, once the plasma has been removed, put back into their bodies. China didn't conduct HIV tests and therefore ended up infecting donors by giving them back tainted blood. Victims are now reportedly dying in the hundreds of thousands.

The government's initial reaction was to deny that the problem existed, cordon off AIDS-affected areas and let the sick die (a pattern that the government tried to repeat when SARS broke out). In this case, police barred entry to villages where infected people lived (new maps of the province even appeared without the villages). Forced to acknowledge the problem after the international media began reporting on it, the Party nonetheless continues to obfuscate.

When Bill Clinton visited Henan in 2005 to distribute AIDS medicine, for example, the Party prevented him from visiting the worst-off villages. Instead, in Henan's capital city, he posed with several Party-selected AIDS orphans as the cameras clicked. It was an elaborate public-relations charade: China, with the West's help, was tackling AIDS!

Had Mr. Clinton been given a tour by Hu Jia, a human-rights activist, a far grimmer picture would have emerged. Only 30, he is a democrat and a practicing Buddhist who favors Tibetan independence. In 2004, Mr. Hu gave up studying medicine to look after Henan's sick. Months after Mr. Clinton's photo-op, Mr. Hu and I traveled to one of the villages that the former president missed: Nandawu, home to 3,500 people. It's not hard to visit—you can get past the police checkpoint at the village's entrance by hiding under a tarpaulin on a tractor-trailer, and the police fear AIDS too much to enter the village itself.

What I saw there, however, will remain with me forever. The disease inflicts at least 80% of the families there; in every hovel we entered an invalid lay dying. Most of the sufferers had no medicine. One woman put a drip on her sick husband, a man who has been bedridden for two years and who is covered with sores. What did the bottle contain? She didn't know. Why was she doing this? "I saw in the hospital and on television that sick people had to be put on the drip."

As long as Mr. Hu worked alone to help the sick, bringing them clothes, money and food, the Party left him alone. But he has recently drawn attention to himself by urging the victims to form an organization that can demand more from the government. The Party will sometimes put up with isolated dissent, but it won't tolerate an "unauthorized" association. Several months ago, the government placed Mr. Hu under house arrest in Beijing.

But dissent cannot be stifled everywhere. There has been an explosion of revolts in the vast countryside. The government estimates the number of public clashes with the authorities (some occurring in the industrial suburbs too) at 60,000 a year. But some experts think that the true figure is upward of 150,000 and increasing. When, in late 2006, I reached one village in the heart of the Shaanxi Province after a 40-hour journey from Beijing by train, car and tractor, I saw no trace of an uprising that had taken place a month earlier. Alerted by a text message sent from the village, the Hong Kong press had reported a violent clash between the peasants and the police, leaving people injured and missing or even dead, with the authorities spiriting away the bodies.

I pieced together the reasons that had provoked the uprising. The village had a dilapidated school, without heating, chalk or a teacher. In principle, schooling is compulsory and free, but the Party secretary, the village kingpin, made parents pay for heating and chalk. Then a teacher came from the city who wanted to be paid more than his government wages. He demanded extra money from the parents. Half of the parents, members of the most prosperous clan, agreed; the other half, from the poorer clan, refused.

A skirmish erupted, and the teacher fled. The Party secretary tried to intervene and was lynched. Then the police roared in with batons and guns. The school has reopened, the teacher replaced with a villager who knows how to read and write but "nothing more than that," he admits.

The uprisings express peasants' despair over the bleak future that awaits them. Emigration from the countryside might be a way out, but it's not easy to find a permanent job in the city. All kinds of permits are necessary, and the only way to get them is to bribe bureaucrats. The lot of the migrant—and China now has 200 million of them—is to move from work site to work site, earning a pittance at best. The migrants usually don't receive permission to bring their families with them, and even if they could, obtaining accommodation and schooling for their children would be virtually impossible.

The fate of Chinese citizens often depends on where they are from. Someone born in Shanghai is considered an aristocrat and conferred the right to housing and schooling in Shanghai. Someone born in a village, however, can only go to the village school, until a university admits him -- a rare feat for a peasant. An American scholar, Feiling Wang, had come to China to study this system of discrimination, which few in the West know about, but the government expelled him.

Villagers often told me that it wasn't the local Party secretary whom they most hated, but rather the family-planning agents who enforce China's one-child policy, often subjecting women to horrific violence. The one-child policy is not only monstrous, it is yielding an increasingly elderly population in need of care—a problem that a poor country like China is unprepared to handle.

Will China's surging economic growth end the rumbling discontent? Not according to the esteemed economist Mao Yushi, under house arrest for asking the government to apologize for the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. He doesn't trust the Party's claims of a 10% annual growth rate -- and why believe the official statistics when the Party lies so consistently about everything? Doing his own calculations, he arrives at a rate of about 8% per year, vigorous but no "miracle," as some in the West describe it.

Moreover, he believes that the current growth rate isn't sustainable: natural bottlenecks—scarcity of energy, raw materials, and especially water—will get in the way. Also, Mr. Mao says, the fact that investment decisions frequently obey political considerations instead of the market has helped generate an unemployment rate that is likely closer to 20% than to the officially acknowledged 3.5%.

Many in the West think that Chinese growth has created an independent middle class that will push for greater political freedom. But what exists in China, Mr. Mao argues, is not a traditional middle class but a class of parvenus, newcomers who work in the military, public administration, state enterprises or for firms ostensibly private but in fact Party-owned.

The Party picks up most of the tab for their mobile phones, restaurant bills, "study" trips abroad, imported luxury cars and lavish spending at Las Vegas casinos. And it can withdraw these advantages at any time. In March, China announced that it would introduce individual property rights for the parvenus (though not for the peasants). They will now be able to pass on to their children what they have acquired—another reason that they aren't likely to push for the democratization of the regime that secures their status.

Because China's economy desperately needs Western consumers and investors, China's propagandists do all they can to woo foreign critics. "Do you dare deny China's success story, her social stability, economic growth, cultural renaissance and international restraint?" one Party-sponsored scholar asks me in Paris. I respond that political and religious oppression, censorship, entrenched rural poverty, family-planning excesses and rampant corruption are just as real as economic growth in today's China. "What you are saying is true, but affects only a minority yet to benefit from reforms," he asserts.

Yet nothing guarantees that this so-called minority—one billion people!—will integrate with modern China. It is just as possible that it will remain poor, since it has no say in determining its fate, even as Party members get richer. The scholar underscores my fundamental assumption: "You don't have any confidence in the Party's ability to resolve the pertinent issues you have raised."

That's true. I don't.

©2007 The Wall Street Journal


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