China: Beyond Communist Rule and Capitalist Change, What's the Real Story?

Article excerpt

China is often depicted in extremes. But in figuring out how much China has changed or how much it has stayed the same, the trick may be simply to refuse to choose between those two options.

Is the most surprising thing about China how much it's changed in recent decades - or how little?

Those with only a casual interest in the country can easily feel that they have to pick between these two options - and that doing so isn't simple. Not when the sound bites about and punditry on China is shaped by a sort of bipolar disorder, toggling continually (and sometimes swiftly) between accounts stressing the dizzying pace of change (cue photo of Shanghai skyscrapers) and reports highlighting the stubborn hold of old ways (cue shot of the giant portrait of Chairman Mao by Tiananmen Square).

When the Chinese economy makes headlines, the emphasis is likely to be on breaks with the past. No surprise there. While Mao was alive, who thought capitalists would be welcomed into the Communist Party and Big Macs sold in Beijing?

If political issues rather than economic ones are the focus of the China story du jour, though, the emphasis is likely to be on how deeply China remains stuck in old ruts. Here, again, the logic is obvious, and not just because Party Congresses and National Day parades can give someone who has been following Chinese events for years a sense of deja vu.

Consider the case of dissent, as exemplified by the treatment of Liu Xiaobo, a scholar and human rights activist who was sentenced to 11 years in prison on trumped-up charges of "subversion" last Christmas. He had already been imprisoned for participating in the Tiananmen protests of 1989. So his latest incarceration immediately brings to mind the fact that the government still clings to the "Big Lie" narrative that treats the Tiananmen struggle as a "counterrevolutionary riot" that was handled with restraint, rather than what it was: a popular upheaval crushed by a massacre.

In addition, Mr. Liu's latest incarceration has disturbing echoes that go back to the Democracy Wall Movement of the late 1970s. He drew the ire of the state most recently through helping to draft and circulate "Charter 08," a bold online call for increased civil liberties. While inspired by the Czech Charter 77 movement associated with Vaclav Havel, Charter 08 also fits into the same indigenous tradition of calls for change as a poster demanding greater political freedoms that earned Wei Jingsheng, a Democracy Wall leader, a 15-year prison term 30 years ago.

Some Chinese bloggers, noting the parallels between the treatment of Mr. …