China is the world’s fastest-growing economy, but what I saw in Hong Kong recently signals a challenge for continued growth in a society that has progressed largely via a government-controlled economy. True political reform in China will be elusive as long as the government there restricts the people’s natural desire to be free. China can look to United States history for lessons about human desire for freedom that bump up against a government’s control.
Hong Kong is a 426-square-mile island south of China. It was ceded from Great Britain to China in 1997. Under the terms of the transfer, Hong Kong protected a “high degree of autonomy,” encompassing essentially a “one country, two systems” principle. But since the turnover, those living in Hong Kong have seen the Chinese government exercise growing dominance over the 7 million residents of this densely populated, vibrant area of the world. The people of Hong Kong want a popular election of the Hong Kong chief executive to occur by 2017, but Beijing officials believe consultation on electoral reform should not begin until most Hong Kong residents agree that any candidate who confronts the central government should not rule the city. The Chinese government asserts that a prerequisite for electing the chief executive by universal suffrage should be in line with the Basic Law of China, and that those confronting the central government should not be allowed to become the chief executive.
China has ruled that criticism is allowed as long as it is for the good of the country. Not being confrontational toward Beijing means not attempting to overthrow the Communist Party leadership or change the nation’s socialist system.
When 56 American colonists signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, they confronted an oppressive British system that restricted their freedom when Great Britain was a dominant world force. But it was their human desire to be free that propelled a fledgling group of American patriots to seek liberty and independence, not to overthrow the British government, but to be independent of it. On America’s journey to freedom, the world has seen what freedom-seeking can yield — a vibrant economy, technological ingenuity, individual liberty, personal prosperity and international dominance, all under twin principles of justice and liberty for all.
There are nearly 1.4 billion Chinese living in China today. By 2020, China will have 200 cities of more than 1 million residents. A few years ago, Shanghai boasted 20,000 cranes at work in its construction industry, about one-fifth of the world’s total. China will soon possess one-half of the global GDP with new industries and rapid growth. Hong Kong is already planning for the next 20 years of airport growth, even though it has served 571 million passengers already, its prior 20-year growth plan having been exceeded. With an Asian population expected to grow by some 4 billion by 2030, it’s no wonder that China is seeking worldwide energy and food resources, transportation and housing technologies and a military force to support them in the coming years. It’s also no wonder that China is making sure a modern, bustling financial empire like Hong Kong doesn’t stray politically.
Imagine the imposition of a “criticism is allowed as long as it is for the good of the country” policy in the United States — or in Spokane. There would be few opposing candidates for public office. Few citizens would appear at weekly City Council meetings to criticize Spokane’s miserable street conditions, or local taxes, or raise any other pressing domestic issue. Presidential campaigns wouldn’t discuss immigration policy, debate health care or express differing views on military strength or education policy. Congressional elections would lack drama without a free and open discussion of issues the candidates deemed important to the people. Why? Because a higher government official might declare such discussions “not good for the country.”
A truly enlightened country doesn’t fear such debates and discussions because controlling thoughts leads to controlling actions, which leads to suppressing the natural inclinations of humans to be free to control their own destiny. The diverse and independent thought present in America today wouldn’t stand in China, even an economically progressive China slowly recognizing that it can’t forever suppress natural human inclinations toward freedom.
Plenty of idealists hold China up as a paragon of economic virtue in comparison to America. But deep down, China clings to its freedom-restricting, government-controlling ways. Is it truly a good model for the world?