In the early 1980s, the love songs of Taiwan heartthrob Teresa Teng blew into China as a breath of fresh air in the wake of the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. That breeze, however, angered many ideologues who banned the broadcast of such songs, accusing them of being decadent, vulgar and corrosive.
This year is the 30th anniversary of the launch of China’s reform and opening-up drive, initiated by Deng Xiaoping. What then appeared frightening now appears laughable. In the same way, will topics taboo today also become meaningless when looked back upon?
No country can match China in the dramatic transformation brought about by its reform process. New China has evolved from an economic backwater into an export-powerhouse and key international player. Apart from improved standards of living, the greatest benefit of the last 30 years of development lies in the sea change in mentality.
From the national uniform of Mao suits to business suits and all sorts of other fashions; from food rationing to Coca-Cola and Big Macs; from shared dormitories and the welfare housing system to privately owned apartments; from staying in one place from birth to death to greatly expanded mobility; the Chinese people are today enjoying freedoms not seen since 1949.
The same also applies to foreigners living in China. I came to China in 1994 when just about all foreigners had to live in diplomatic compounds. Such restrictions have basically been lifted. Reporters used to be regarded as a scourge and foreign reporters as spies. Now, people have more or less outgrown these biased views.
I would summarize these changes as "glass half-full."
But we must remember that as China moves ahead, it still has many problems. These include a poor record on government transparency and accountability, the patchy watchdog role of the media and a substandard legal system. So while the glass is half-full, we must see that it is also half-empty.
The first issue is transparency in the decision-making process. While chairing a recent cabinet meeting, Premier Wen Jiabao said that the more difficult and complex a situation is, the more transparent policy-making should be. Western governments and human rights groups criticize China’s human rights record and corruption; to fix such problems, an important step is to increase transparency and make decision making open and fair.
Moreover, there should be no cover-ups when things go wrong. An environment is needed in which ordinary people can speak up without fear of repercussions. The Weng’an riots in Guizhou province – which saw thousands take to the streets in response to an alleged police cover-up of a girl’s death – could have been avoided if such an environment existed. Similarly, the melamine milk contamination may have come to light earlier.
Secondly, the Chinese media, particularly online media, is starting to become effective in its oversight of the government, but this role could be enhanced. In the West, the media is separate from the legal, administrative and judicial systems. By comparison, the Chinese media lags far behind.
The Chinese government decrees that two things cannot be challenged: stability and the primacy of the Communist Party’s leadership. But progress can hardly be made in a world with only applause. As an old Chinese saying goes, good medicine tastes bitter and good advice sounds harsh.
Thirdly, while China’s judicial system is developing and many miscarriages of justice have been overturned, corruption is still out there and many courts and prosecutors do not perform their roles properly. In a country with a developed judicial system, ordinary people should be able to use judicial institutions as a last resort, and the military and police should be neutral.
The Western world often debates when China will become a democracy. Yu Keping, deputy director of the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, once said that democracy is a good thing. Westerners advocate one person, one vote because nobody has yet found a better or more civilized way of peacefully transferring power.
Regardless of the system, 2008 was a turning point for modern China. A string of major events, including riots in Tibet, the Sichuan earthquake and the Beijing Olympics, led to the country gaining a better understanding of both the world and of itself. Following the Tibet riots, the Chinese people only asked why the Western media and governments were prejudiced against China, but we rarely saw local people asking why the unrest broke out. The earthquake awoke the Chinese people’s compassion but also taught them that Man cannot conquer Nature. The first space-walk by a Chinese person swept away any lingering humiliation over events of the past century.
But of greater importance than national pride at this point is rediscovering the traditional Chinese virtues of tolerance, modesty and thoughtfulness.
Some people think the West is demonizing China’s rise; that it sees China’s development as a threat to world peace. But if China is incapable of modesty and thoughtfulness and lacks the magnanimity of a great power, how can hawks in the West be blamed for fearing it?
China’s stance toward Taiwan has mellowed. It has sought cooperation, and no longer repeatedly issues threats of force. In a sense, "peaceful evolution," a term that is taboo with the Chinese leadership because it was coined by the then US Secretary of State John Dulles to mean the eradication of communism, started the day Teresa Teng first journeyed across the Taiwan Strait. Peaceful evolution is also reflected in the economy, where private ownership of property and fair treatment of the country’s labor force is now properly enshrined in law.
The world is getting flatter. From a global perspective, what matters is not whose culture prevails, but rather how different cultures mix. Exchanges between Chinese and Western cultures are not a one-way street. Sun Tzu’s Art of War is a compulsory textbook for military academies worldwide and the fever for learning Mandarin is not going to abate. In 30 years time, what is unacceptable today may no longer be an issue, and what may seem impossible now could be within reach.
It has been nearly 60 years since the Communist Party founded new China. The second 30 years of Communist rule (1978-2008) basically fixed the problems of poverty, hunger and turmoil left over from the first 30 years. The third 30 years should seek to resolve problems still outstanding from this period, namely the growing wealth gap between rich and poor, seemingly all-pervasive corruption and the legitimacy of new generations of leaders.
The year 2009 will be of great significance to China beyond marking 60 years of Communist rule. It is also the 90th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile, and the 20th anniversary of the pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen Square. These are issues the Communist Party, the Chinese government and the Chinese people must face up to sooner rather than later.