Giant on the move
Freedom — with Chinese characteristics
At the Aspen Ideas Festival this week, I’m on a panel that’ll debate the issue of “How Much Freedom is Enough for China.”
Obviously the crux of the question is defining terms — starting with what is China, and who among its 1.3 billion people are you talking about.
The answer to how much is enough is one thing if you’re an outspoken artist like Ai Weiwei, recently released from detention after reportedly confessing to economic irregularities. The answer is different if you’re an urban intellectual or if you’re an urban entrepreneur. And it starts to be really different if you’re a frustrated migrant worker or an impoverished farmer.
What you mean by freedom and what you want from your state really depends on who you are and what your circumstances are.
I first visited China around 1980. I reported from Beijing from 1991-4. And boy, with the perspective of 20 or 30 years, the amount of freedom now in China is extraordinary.
Of course, it is easy to focus on what’s not free. You can’t challenge the Communist Party. You can’t call for democratic change or promote the Dalai Lama or issue a charter for reform without inviting serious trouble.
But in a country that has 500 million people on the internet, creating vast communities and inventing a torrent of content every hour of every day, there’s unprecedented freedom of expression for huge numbers of people.
There used to be no freedom of fashion – it was regulated and rationed. Now there is.
There used to be no freedom of housing. Now there is.
There used to be no freedom of where you worked. Now there is.
There used to be no freedom of travel. Now it’s visa restrictions from the U.S. and UK governments that provide the biggest obstacle, not restrictions from China itself.
One measure of freedom is a country’s creativity and innovation, and in this China is a country of superlatives.
Research and development spending is growing at 19% year on year, and has done so for more than 15 years. China is the third largest patent office in the world. It is the largest internet community, the largest mobile phone population. It is wired and connected and that connectivity is growing.
You can focus on the freedoms that don’t exist, and that’s a long list. You can focus on the restrictions that exist, and that’s a long list too.
Or you can focus on the changes that have occurred in a very short time and on the vibrancy in society.
It is no longer a question of whether China has freedoms or not.
It is simply a question of how much freedom it has, in what areas.
It is a question of what restrictions chafe and chafe for whom.
It is a question of what happens to individuals, to be sure. But it is also a question of what has happened and is happening to a society.