I’m in Beijing, China, for the first time.
What an interesting experience. The city is modern – spacious, well organised, clean. The people are gracious, relaxed and open. Yet this is clearly a tightly managed state. This hotel broadband connection links me to about half the internet – the rest is conveniently firewalled off. Surfing the net for news is painful, many sites and stories just time out. Others are blazingly fast. The firewall rules decide who can see what.
There are closed circuit video cameras all over the show, and they obviously and actively track the pretty girls. Because they’re obviously a clear and present threat to national security. I’d take that line too, if it was my job to monitor the damn things.
This is a country that will certainly take its turn as the dominant global superpower. Again. History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes, and the pattern of the ages is that major cultures each take their turn at the top. Of course, China has been there before in days gone by, and if modern history had been written by the Chinese we might all be more aware of their great early discoveries, exploration and civilisations. But that’s history now, the important thing is the future. And the future here is bright. China is moving fast.
The story of recent Chinese “management policy” is interesting. Many concepts, such as the one-child policy, are outrageous or offensive to Western sensibilities, but they are widely supported and well regarded here. And frankly, they make a certain amount of sense. Keeping the population growth rate down has made the economic growth rate contribute more directly to personal well-being. Having come directly from India, the contrast on that front is immediately obvious. There may be a billion Chinese here, but they each seem to have a reasonable amount of space, and less pressure on resources means fewer reasons for domestic tension.
In practical terms, the West will likely end up adopting similar policies. While we all have the right to do what we like with our lives, there are likely to be increasing consequences for behaviour that has a social cost to it. Most Western countries are banning smoking in public places, because your right to smoke doesn’t give you the right to harm the health of others. And I think it’s likely to go further (sensibly so) to reflect the fact that self-induced harm should not be the problem of the state. Countries are going to say to obese people: you lose your rights to free health care unless you take care of yourself. Same goes for smokers. Here in China, the one-child policy is similar. You can technically do what you like, but if you don’t help the state manage itself, then the state won’t help you. Fair enough.
What I find more difficult to understand, though, is the restriction on speech and access to knowledge. A free country has nothing to fear from the truth. That’s something we need to remind ourselves of today. In the USA, there are awkward signs of the truth being surpressed when its politically inconvenient. NASA’s climate scientists are getting told to keep the facts of global warming to themselves – by a 24 year old who lied on his resume about actually having a degree, but who proved his political loyalty during the Bush campaign. Journalists who probe allegations of White House impropriety face censure and are ostracised. Their employers come under pressure to silence them or fire them, or face economic sanction in subtle but meaningful ways. As much as the White House would love some things to be true, the facts don’t always cooperate. A mature leadership recognises that and adapts its plans to reality. An immature leadership tries to manipulate the presentation of reality to fit its ideas. So it’s not just in China that we see the systematic suppression of the truth.
But in China, the filtering of information reaches a new height. And I wonder how the transition to an open society will be made. Because sooner or later that transition must come. In cities, people have ever increasing wealth. They find it easier to live with things like the one-child policy, because their modern lifestyles make fewer, smarter and better educated children a sensible strategy. They share increasingly Western values – and sooner or later they are going to expect Western-style freedoms. Their rural peers, however, are on a different track. So much as there is a widening economic divide, there is a widening divide in values, needs, and expectations. The people of the cities may well want to get a real say in what happens long before the rural communities are comfortable with that idea. Or before the state is comfortable with the rural community vote. And that will make for an interesting transition.
It must be an extremely difficult responsibility, that of the future of a nation of one billion people. And we should be impressed with the results that this management team has delivered in recent decades. An economic transition from central planning to rampand capitalism is under way, and it’s been much better handled than the same transition in Russia was. Well done. I wonder if the information transition will be as well handled. And I wonder what the country has to fear from the truth. None of us has a monopoly on the truth, but it’s only in letting each of us speak our individual truth that society creates its consensus view.