China’s cutting-edge authoritarianism

By David Rohde
November 10, 2011

BEIJING–Just down the street from a faded Communist billboard declaring “art, harmony, joy, justice, peace,” dissident artist Ai Weiwei is trapped in a state-of-the-art authoritarian labyrinth.

To avoid prison time, the democracy-advocate known for his work on Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium can pay $2.4 million in back taxes and fines that he insists he does not owe. Or he can face a repeat of the 81-day secret detention he endured earlier this year. Either way, China’s all-powerful Communist party succeeds at smearing him.

“The police told me yesterday ‘if you pay, that means you admit the crime,” Ai said in an interview in his Beijing home and art studio. “It will justify that they arrest me.”

Ai’s position – and the charges against him – is cutting-edge repression. For Chinese who do not challenge one-party rule, Western-style consumerism beckons. Police do not line Beijing streets. Starbucks cafes, Calvin Klein ads and Porsches do. The internet is freely available, with references to corruption, environmental degradation and protests in China removed. The suppression here is surgical.

Most chillingly, the financial crisis and political sclerosis in Washington may have convinced China’s ruling elite that Western democracy has failed. A fractured west is in disarray and decline. China’s economic growth and three trillion in foreign currency reserves justifies one-party rule.

Gao Anming, deputy editor-in-chief of China Daily, a state run newspaper, was blunt in a meeting this week with me and a group of American journalists visiting China on a trip arranged by the China-United States Exchange Foundation, a group with close ties to the Chinese government. (Reuters is paying the full cost of my trip.) Gao blithely stated that he engages in self-censorship, avoids “sensitive issues” and his newspaper’s view of the Ai case was “roughly the same as that of the government.”

“You might not agree with me, but that’s the way we are,” he said. “And we have been very successful the last thirty years.”

In some ways, it is difficult to blame him. China’s gleaming skyscrapers, staggeringly impressive infrastructure and burgeoning cities are extraordinary. Over the last thirty years, 200 million Chinese have been moved out of poverty. On the day Gao spoke, western leaders were begging Chinese officials to help ease Europe’s debt crisis. China is simultaneously a repressive authoritarian state and, for now, a successful economic system.

From the perspective of the United States’ current malaise, China’s rise is haunting. In America’s Faustian bargain of the 1980s and 1990s, cheap Chinese consumer goods helped convince middle class Americans that their standard of living was increasing. In fact, wages stagnated. Manufacturing jobs, capital and national confidence shifted east.

Yet the system here has its cracks. Last Sunday afternoon, I visited Beijing’s Ikea store in search of China’s growing upper middle class. In China, Ikea is a store and social destination. Well-educated and upwardly-mobile Chinese in their 20s and 30s cruise through the store’s enormous showrooms, having pillow-fights on beds, lounging on couches and devouring meatballs in the dining room. They are the winners of China’s economic boom.

I interviewed a banker, an accountant, an interior designer and other white-collar professionals. Four of the six people I spoke with complained about spiraling housing prices, corruption and inequality. Several griped about the Communist Party’s online blocking of Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and other websites.

A 37-year-old software developer for Ali Baba, a hugely successful company that is China’s equivalent of Amazon, was the most negative of all. Despite being enormously successful in China, he was applying for a Canadian visa and convinced that pollution and poor schools were harming his 18-month-old son.

“They teach children to tell lies,” said the man, who asked to remain anonymous. “They teach bad values.”

Interviews with a half-dozen migrant workers – the 200 million laborers from rural provinces who run China’s urban factories – prompted responses more favorable to the Party. They complained of high housing prices but said government subsidies had lowered food prices.

Dissidents say the Party’s ability to produce jobs and subsidies will determine its fate. Household income represents only 50 percent of China’s GDP, one of the lowest rates ever recorded. China’s staggering profits have been re-invested in massive infrastructure and economic development projects, not the average person. Widespread discontent exists over inequality and corruption, but little chance exists of Arab Spring-like uprisings for now.

“As long as most of the people can find jobs here, I don’t think there is any chance of a national revolution,” said one dissident who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Just like Clinton said, ‘it’s the economy, stupid.’”

China’s leadership, though, does worry about its future. While China seems like an unstoppable economic juggernaut from abroad, there is a clear sense here that its export-driven economic model cannot be sustained. With demand in the United States and Europe declining, government officials are trying to increase Chinese consumption of homemade goods. As wages in China’s coastal factories have risen, some manufacturing is shifting to Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh. And government officials are trying to slow growth, deflate the country’s housing bubble, and curb inflation.

As he should, Ai criticized the West for its role in empowering and enriching the Chinese Communist party. Eager for quick profits, Western governments and companies embraced China’s cheap labor and turned a blind eye to its repression.

“Every penny, every deal made, everyone should understand the condition you’re dealing with,” Ai said. “A nation where the people do not have the right to vote after 60 years.

The burly 54-year-old faces a bleak choice. He could join Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel peace prize-winning dissident and writer sentenced to eleven years in prison in 2009 for championing the “Charter 08” manifesto calling for democracy in China. Liu’s exact offense under Chinese law? The crime of “inciting subversion of state power.”

Dressed in blue sweatpants, a blue cotton shirt and grey Nike sneakers, Ai calmly discussed his fate and insisted his case was energizing government opponents. In a four day period, over 20,000 people donated roughly $945,000 this week to help Ai pay his tax fine. Most of the donations, made online and through the postal system, can be traced yet they continue to arrive.

For now, China’s model is outperforming Western democracy in economic terms. Over the long term, I believe China’s stilted system is unlikely to produce the innovation it needs to continue its astonishing economic growth.

Emerging market nations, though, could choose to adopt the Chinese model, legitimately seeing China’s stability and growth as preferable to the West’s stagnation and dysfunction. China today is both light and dark. It is succeeding economically but failing politically.

I acknowledge western democracy’s current paralysis, indulgence and failure to reform. But I hope the Chinese Communist party fails first.

PHOTO: Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei waves from the doorway of his studio after he was released on bail in Beijing June 23, 2011.  REUTERS/David Gray

23 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

I applaud this reporter’s balance and candor, as well a that of those he interviewed. No villians, one hero, as Joe Friday used to ask: “Just the facts”. FINE example.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

The comparison between economic systems? Its well done, one error though … if they could innovate to succeed today they can do it again in the future.

The political system? You can never make everyone happy. No political system was able, is able, will ever be able to satisfy 100% every subject. You can find an Ai Weiwei in every nation of the Earth. Democracy, as a great man once said, its 2 wolves and 1 lamb voting what they will eat for dinner.

Posted by Qeds | Report as abusive

Good article with valid points, Thank you

Posted by dinushajm | Report as abusive

This is one well-written and balanced piece of journalism. Take note, CNN.

Posted by peaceisgreat | Report as abusive

This sort of thing is not only a problem in China… There are plenty of other countries that carry off the fraud more convincingly than China does, all the while pretending only to be implementing the “rule of law”. The typical technique is:
1. Implement laws that are broad and vague, or better still, which are so punitive to everyone that NOBODY will truly comply.
2. When you come across some pestilent fellow who disagrees with you, start “investigating” him for breaking these laws.
=> SELECTIVE ENFORCEMENT of the rule of law.

If Ai WeiWei’s claim is true, that the Chinese authorities have confiscated his accounting records (denying Ai WeiWei any means of proving his innocence); then shame on the Chinese government: that’s not “the rule of law”. It’s obvious even to a child that an unjust system (that punishes the innocent for their free thinking but lets the guilty walk free for their agreement with the Party line) cannot be the optimal engine for dynamic innovation or economic growth. Chinese economic growth will falter in the coming decades, for:
1. Their one-child policy, which will hit their demographically based economic growth in about 10-30 years time.
2. Their system (which cannot survive in its current form, without comparatively numerous wealthy foreign customers).
If either of these policies/circumstances is changed, the Chinese system will ultimately fall, unless it first undergoes major liberalisation.

Commercial & diplomatic support of the Chinese system was a gambit of Nixon, Kissinger and Reagan against Soviet expansionism. The gambit worked, and the more harmonious/Confucian Chinese approach made it all worthwhile. But American politicians sacrificed working-class Americans on the altar of diplomatic victory, and have led the Chinese leadership to believe something that isn’t totally true: that their system is the main reason for their present comparative success.

Americans should sit up and take note however: there is a partial truth in the apparent Chinese position. The U.S. system could benefit from better auditing and coordination at the top. Systemic imbalances (such as property price inflation = housing unaffordable for the poor) should not be ascribed to the “success” of the capitalist system. Any sort of imbalance (whether nominally +ve or -ve) should be taken as a potential sign of trouble ahead…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

The name of the “Nobel peace prize-winning dissident” is Liu Xiaobo, not Lao Xiabo.

Posted by twitchyboy | Report as abusive

China vs. US account is deeply disturbing for the US. US became world policemen, with 1000 military outfits all over the world and two recent prolonged wars. All this is unsutainable and collapsing economically, political system is disfunctional. Chinese system of enlightened communism has done brilliantly in lifting 2-300 million people out of poverty. This has to be contrasted with the
Soviet version. But obviously expectations of those lifted-up Chinese went up to the level of developed countries. I would suggest they wait up until the rest of one billion of their comrades will get out of extreme poverty.

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive

It is interesting to compare the Chinese openly authoritarian system with the Russian supposed democracy. It seems to me – though I am at a great distance from both – but it seems that more benefits are flowing to more people in China than in Russia, and that the control is even harsher there. Weren’t several critical journalists murdered in Russia recently?

Posted by jmmx | Report as abusive

@jmmx: journalists and investigating judges get murdered all the time in Mexico. Russia is like heaven compared with parts of Mexico at the moment, based on what I am reading… Americans ought to be thinking and talking more about how to help the Mexicans (on terms the Mexicans will accept).
Russians vote for Putin & Medvedev because they’re better than the alternatives (Yeltsin left Russia in a huge mess; selling out Russia’s assets & industries to cronies: because of Yeltsin’s inebriated & incompetent “democratic” rule, Russia now needs strong leaders to stand up to the oligarchs, mafias etc.; and put Russia back on an even keel – granted there remain large imbalances in Russian society, but Russia is more balanced under Putin & Medvedev than it would be under any of the alternatives).

There are good and bad democracies, and good and bad communist dictatorships. Tito’s Yugoslavia was obviously preferable to the warring democracies that followed… If only Tito had had the foresight to implement a sustainable system.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

1,The housing prise in china is about 800usd/m^2.Some cities are higher,like Shanghai and Beijing.It is about 3500usd/m^2.Price earning ratio is still lower than Tokyo,Singapore,Mumbai,etc.And about 200 million people will migrate to city in the next 10 years.At the same time,its economic growth rate is about 9%.
Buble?Are you kidding?Don’t forget,China has no property tax.

2、The one-child policy is changing.If you and your wife has no brother or sister,you can have another child.

The problem is not only an answer.

Posted by miumiuoo | Report as abusive

Very well done. Reuters got their moneys worth.
I think that if the Chinese can sustain their momentum for another decade, they will have fostered enough of their citizens in a society just capitalistic enough to generate the next Steve Jobs, or more likely, the next Bill Gates.

The Chinese have more to worry about from south east Asia and the other BRIC countries than from and the US. It’s the economy stupid. America’s economy is still based on large scale international warfare. We have this massive military industrial complex that was created to defeat the soviet union in the cold war. It did too. But, the Chinese are not playing that game. In fact, no else is. Another large part of American Manufacturing that will necessarily disappear over the next decade. And it’s going to hurt.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

The CPC is very effective at using the argument “Look at how China has improved over the last 30 years!” while ignoring the hellish conditions under Mao. And even then, his face adorns every RMB note. The CPC has truly succeeded in convincing the populace that its own brand of history is correct.

As for the successes, its impossible to deny how quickly the economy is growing and how many Chinese are becoming rich. But no one will dare ask if the economy would grow more quickly (or at least equitably) under a democratic system. The Party says that the country would be in ruins without its leadership, and for some reason many people believe that to be true.

Posted by Andao | Report as abusive

The chinese “communists” have discovered that capitalism works to improve economic conditions. The leaders have allowed capitalism to flourish and the chinese economy has flourished. Communism is the driving force behind Chinese repression. Looking at the west, we see a steady trending towards communist principles, central planning, and a throttling of capitalism, with the concomitant stagnation of our economies. I don’t know why this is not crystal clear to everyone, but if the west went back to capitalism our economies would take off, just like the chinese.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

“I acknowledge western democracy’s current paralysis, indulgence and failure to reform. But I hope the Chinese Communist party fails first.”

Well Ai, its going to be a race….. And right now I’d say the US is failing faster than China….

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

Yeah, China is a real threat. They started an imperialist war in Iraq and killed thousands of people, caused chaos, caused hundreds of thousands of injuries, built secret prisons and gave people over to be tortured to repressive governements, started shooting missles from drones and killing innocent people left and right in a tribal society in Pakistan, they really failed strategically there, started proxy wars who knows where, spy on their own people, their economy is on life support, fat superficial and uninformed people with high cholesterol, they think the world ends at their border. The kids are apathetic, passive, satisfied consumers, looking to be entertained. China’s days are numbered. Oh, yeah, their politicians are backed up by big money. Bad China, bad, bad, bad.

Posted by GotIQ | Report as abusive

China is not doing more authoritarian things than the USA. The difference is simply what is suppressed, which is understandable. But both systems are authoritarian. Neither offers meaningful alternative to what the Government wants. The people are told what to want.

Here, we must want war on Muslim countries and we must want a religious / racially based government in Palestine. There are no political choices to not do this. In a country where these wars have had less than 25% support from the population for years, this is a clear indication of “soft” authoritarianism. Do as we tell you.

China learns from us.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

It is obvious that the Western-style democracy has to be be anchored in a strong economy. A well fed and housed people will participate in democratic political activities. In China the number one concern for the populace is still “rice” (rice symbols livelihood, and therefore a greeting in Chins is “Have you had rice yet?”). It is therefore still a minority of people in China who revolt against the government demanding more political democracy. But as the generation born before 1976 (the year Mao died) is fading away into sunset, the Chinese will have different set of priorities. A depressive government cannot live forever. Just look at the Soviet Union.

Posted by jlpeng | Report as abusive

I don’t know what David Rohde is on about.

Freedom and democracy are soo yesterday. Some types will always get persecuted. There are always dissidents who’d like to sail against the wind. In Europe people are more interested in a house, a car and a bag of money than this democracy nonsense. Why do you think an authoritarian organisation like the EU-commision gets so much support? They’re now installing their Kommissars in the member states. As long’s the money is OK, who cares about the rest…

Posted by aristidis500 | Report as abusive

In support of your article:
BLOG Report: OBAMA-CHINA ON CURRENCY & TRADE?, By AMB MO
APEC started as diplomatic talk of economic cooperation & ended with blunt accusations of unfair currency & trade practices. Was it motivated by coming US political campaign or biting reality of China’s increasing domination of global trade? More critically, is China an opportunity or threat on economic & political level?
http://diplomaticallyincorrect.org/films  /blog_post/obama-gloves-off-on-currency -trade-by-ambassador-mo/41743

Posted by Politica | Report as abusive

Do American Corporations and politicians know what they are doing? When they let alone middle east corruption for interest of oil, they should know bad things like 911 would happen one day. Now they are dealing with a county with 13 billion people, do they know they set free a real juggernaut?
What the author is thinking? Does he think American Innovation will curb China? He is so wrong! China will drag the whole world into a world of non-innovation. Look at American technology corporations, which can make some money in China? Only bureaucratic and corrupt big Corporations like GE and IBM!

Posted by HaleyStar | Report as abusive

Good article but too short. Too much of the cliche ‘ikea soundbite’ approach.
Remember: Beijing is not China, nor is Shanghai. Beijing in particular is repressive, becoming increasingly intolerant of waidiren (eg closure of migrant schools, difficulties in buying houses for non Beijingren, access to medical care, access to local law courts). Doing business in Beijing is increasingly difficult and really requires political connections unless you want to stay under the radar.
Outside of Beijing you depend far more on the local conditions and whatever local powers are allowing or failing to observe. Some places are supposedly good, others (eg Linyi), well Hell may seem a cosy alternative.
One thing is quite correct: the number of people with money seeking to secure a future outside of China either for themselves or for their children is increasing. Students going abroad are at levels never seen before. Health care in China is on the verge of collapse. Even with a one-child policy hospitals are unable to cope with demand for maternity rooms. Only guarantee is hongbao (“donation”) in many places.
The law is a joke. It is used as an instrument of repression when needed and an instrument of coercion, but not as an instrument of social equality or even to resiolve crimional matters. The law is whatever is seen as being fit to be claimed as “the law”, “the relevant regulations”, but not what is written nor what is meant. The law is political. Hence the use of “the law” against Ai wei wei, as it can be used against him arbitrarily by people in power who don’t have to justify anything, but he has to justify everything. Just remove his ability to justify himself (deny him access to his own accounting books) and you have won. That is a travesty of the law.
No wonder that people have to resort to violence and desperate acts, as only by becoming bigger than life can you hope to achieve anything, only by becoming something that cannot be ignored can you still have hope.
Can you then understand why so many would rather hope elsewhere? Is it not logical that having made money you want to run away from such a terrible system that takes away your personailty and soul? Only those who have no hope of being somewhere else (the migrant workers) still look up at the Party for their salbvation. What else *can* they look for, what else is there available for them?

Posted by daxiongben | Report as abusive

Ai wei if said in Spanish is a REALLY funny thing!

Muahahahahaha.

On a more serious note, @daxiongben, what you wrote is truly poetic and really made me think. This is just a question that I have to ask:

Based on what you said, that “only by becoming bigger than life can you hope to achieve anything, only by becoming something that cannot be ignored can you still have hope,” do you think that if you turn around and replace the people from this statement and replace them with countries instead, do you think that perhaps China as a whole, having been essentially dormant for such a long time during the years preceding the past 30 years, has been on a trajectory to reach larger than life status so that they, too, could be free, and the only way to get there due to the stiff competition was precisely by stifling out dissent and committing the human-rights violations they commit so as to maintain a tunnel-vision focus and reach their destination?

I am not saying this is a good thing nor that it is worth it – I am simply asking with genuine curiosity. I agree and feel that growing up “American,” I would have a hard time not having a voice to freely speak my thoughts or witness injustice and not be able to say or do anything. It is definitely an almost suffocating level of control. But I understand Gao when he says while talking about self-censorship “You might not agree with me, but that’s the way we are,” he said. “And we have been very successful the last thirty years,” and feel that perhaps the only reason why there will not and cannot be any type of political revolution is because secretly, all Chinese people are very proud of where they are today and cannot allow their journey to come to an end before they reach their destination, at any cost.

Posted by johnhuetteman | Report as abusive

So sad for anyone to wish someone failure… reveals how disingenuous we really are. We have problems, they have problems. Lets concentrate on ours. Instead the author is invited to go there, probably treated with respect but basically ends up trying to bad-mouth them in a very eloquent way. And makes it sound like they have a monopoly on corruption and for all our ills he never mentions once how corrupt our own system is.

Lets be clear on one thing which is a VERY common false notion held in the west. The chinese DO have GIGANTIC struggles within their one party, just like we have gigantic struggles in congress under our one constitution. Their are reformers and hard-liners probably going at vehemently (probably with hand and fist!) They just do it behind closed doors. This party has almost a hundred million members and apparently mobility within the ranks is based at least partially on performance. Importantly, they don’t preach their system onto others worldwide. We do of course, and are so judgmental like this author.

I hope both systems (ours and theirs) flourish and treat each other with respect. Sadly, I’ve visited china too and they respect us a lot more than we respect them.

Posted by mgunn | Report as abusive