Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

China Rising

Steven Meyer


May 30, 2005

China is exploding economically. Having just returned from traveling in that huge country, I'm still trying to comprehend the scale of what I saw. Shanghai looks like New York City on steroids. I heard it said that 25 percent of the world's heavy cranes are in Shanghai to support that city's building boom. Beijing feels boundless with its 14 million people, most of whom seem to be driving a car and talking on a cell phone. According to the city government, Beijing gains 30,000 cars every month.

The remarkable thing in Communist Party-controlled China is that its amazing growth is based on capitalism and China's frenetic participation in the globalizing economy, not on traditional Maoist-inspired socialism. This is no longer the China of the Great Leap Forward (1958-60) or of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

As is true with many developing countries, however, the story in the countryside is much different. Eighty percent of China's 1.3 billion people live in rural areas. Agriculture remains the single most important economic enterprise. Moreover, many rural citizens rely on subsistence living and are locked into significant poverty. The government is trying to alleviate rural poverty because each year millions of rural citizens move to the cities to seek a better life. Can the great gap between explosive urban growth and rural poverty be overcome?

China's rapid economic growth is also producing widespread environmental damage, fouling the air and water and leading to increasingly serious health problems. Seventy percent of the country's growing energy needs are met by dirty coal and much of the rest is satisfied by rapidly expanding imports of oil. China and the United States together now account for nearly 40 percent of the world's air pollution, and China's thirst for oil is partly responsible for rising gasoline prices in the United States and elsewhere. In short, China is caught in the typical bind of developing countries—to have to choose between economic growth and environmental quality, and the choice is for growth. It is common in China to hear the expression, "Better to choke than to starve."

Another tension in China's remarkable development stems from the growth of religion and the government's continuing attempt to control what people express publicly and try to organize on their own. Religious expression is much freer now than at any time since the Communists took control in 1949. The Christian church is growing. There are thousands of missionaries throughout China, some of whom are there to teach English. Yet churches must register with the government in order to operate publicly, and those which refuse to register may well be the target of police action. Many in China (and outside) hope that China's push to become an integral part of the global economy will lead to ever increasing freedom of speech, association, and religion. But will that be the case?

There are still other signs of expansion-with-tension in China. The Communist system of requiring permission to travel within the country is now all but defunct. Yet the right to travel freely is not quite inscribed in the law. It is also now possible to own private property, such as a house or other buildings. But the land on which the buildings stand must still be leased from the government.

The new China that I witnessed first hand is still far from an open, democratic society. But it is no longer the Maoist totalitarian state of the past. It is now much closer to a traditional authoritarian system. What this will mean for the future of the Chinese people remains to be seen. The challenge facing Americans is more likely to come from Chinese refrigerators and dishwashers than from the Red Guard or the Peoples' Liberation Army.

—Steven E. Meyer,  Professor of Political Science
    National Defense University
    (The views expressed here are those of the author alone.)

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”