China's Economic Vitality Contrasts with Its Politics

Article excerpt

BEIJING -- Don't hold your breath waiting for any kind of Occupy Beijing movement to set up camp. Visitors to Tiananmen Square must pass through airport-style security checkpoints, and nobody is likely to try smuggling in a protest sign, much less a tent. The vast, wind-whipped plaza is a quiet place. China's leaders intend to keep it that way.

Walk away from the square in any direction, however, and soon you find yourself amid a raucous riot of commerce. Whatever you've read about the speed and scale of development here, you have no idea until you see it with your own eyes. The contrast between China's uninhibited economic life and its repressed political life could not be more stark.

The iconic portrait of Chairman Mao that looks out over Tiananmen seems anachronistic. At least in the urban centers, today's China has abandoned communism in favor of a kind of hypercapitalism. Even officials acknowledge Mao's mistakes, especially the ruinous Cultural Revolution.

Yet Mao's portrait remains. The government has essentially re-branded him as a nationalist who put a definitive end to centuries of imperial decadence and foreign domination, elevating a sovereign China to its rightful status as a great power.

"We have been very candid," said Hong Lei, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. "We admit that he made serious problems for the country. But we never give a 100 percent disavowal of Chairman Mao's accomplishments."

And in any event, Hong said, the way to look at China's evolution is that it has now moved into a new phase of the transformation that Mao's revolution began. Never mind that China is speeding down a road Mao never would have taken.

Living in a communist country without communism requires a finely tuned sense of what is permissible and what is not. …