Americans are tempted from time to time, in light of China’s economic progress, its cooperation on matters such as Iran’s nuclear aspirations and the new face of its leadership under President Xi Jinping, to see it as a modern society that is different but still shares democratic values.
That would require a person to ignore the fact that, even if China’s government is to a degree participatory, the country is not a democracy and its government continues to crush any expression of an alternative political view. The Chinese Communist Party and its “red nobility” — the children and other relatives of key figures in power — not only dominate politics but also occupy a prosperous sliver of society not unlike America’s own wealthiest “1 percent.”
The ugly truth about a still-divided China comes out in broader displays of differences, between urban and rural people, the coast and the interior, the north and the south and in groups such as the Muslim Uighurs of the West, the Falun Gong religious minority and the Tibetans.
The Communist government devotes considerable time and attention to keeping information out of the country and to throttling the media. News gatherers in the rest of the world can only honor Chinese journalists in their endless struggle to bring the truth to their people.
The most glaring manifestation of Chinese government intolerance is the fierce treatment of dissidents. Its typical approach is to harass them, put them on trial — or not — and lock them up for long periods. On trial now in Beijing is activist Xu Zhiyong, who is accused of having tried to organize public opposition to the Xi Jinping government. No one knows how many political prisoners are held in China or the names of many of them.
The real loser in all this is China itself, which is deprived not only of the potentially valid content of opponents’ words, but also of the ferment and creativity that different points of view can bring to political dialogue. The process of dialectical materialism, once considered the core of Marxism, used to require such dialogue. The absence of it in China now, if not corrected, could be its seeds of destruction.