• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

China: How Much Freedom?

From the middle of January this year to the end of March, we traveled freely in China, making a large circle through seven of the central provinces: Hunan, Guangdong, Guizhou, Sichuan, Shaanxi, Shanxi, and Hebei. We spoke with a great many people, including peasants in poor and in prosperous areas, workers, artists, writers, journalists, engineers, scientists, students, professors, dissidents, beggars, shopkeepers, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and the unemployed. We lived, most of the time, as the Chinese do and visited regions few foreigners have seen, traveling in crowded and sometimes dangerous vehicles, and staying often in hotels intended for Chinese only. For one of us, Liang Heng, who grew up in China, this was the first visit since he left in 1981.

Many of the people we spoke to we had known for years; others also talked to us freely, both because China’s official policy of openness to the West now allows ordinary people to express their hospitality and curiosity, and because our own experience with Chinese customs, concerns, and difficulties made rapport easy. Chinese are sometimes more open with outsiders than they can afford to be with one another; many Chinese also see Sino-American couples such as ourselves as a symbol of China’s opening to the outside world, and are more friendly because of it. To have foreign friends has become, furthermore, a sign of status, like foreign cigarettes and foreign television sets.

China may be, in some respects, freer than it has been since 1949. Personal freedoms and human rights are still very limited by Western standards but, especially when compared with the still-recent fascist Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), today’s “warmer” climate is remarkable. Particularly among members of the Red Guard generation we found much less cynicism than was common in China during the last phase of the Cultural Revolution, and after it. It is as if many have at last come to believe that the Cultural Revolution is behind them. In ordinary conversation Chinese people seem less nervous that “small reports” will be made to their superiors, and open disagreement with them is common. We even witnessed an argument in which dancers screamed at their troupe leader who was trying to force them to take classes with an unpopular instructor. In the end several dancers were allowed to study with the teacher they preferred.

Among officials in the cities as well, a greater degree of dissent is tolerated. Noncommunist parties, such as the Democratic party, and groups of intellectuals, returned overseas Chinese, and ex-Guomindang (KMT) members now have somewhat greater freedom, and can at least gather and circulate information. Membership in noncommunist parties has increased and they are making efforts to enroll younger people.

The meetings in April 1985 of the People’s Political Consultative conference, a group whose discussions previously were both perfunctory and ignored, were far livelier than they have been for many years. We were told that dissent from some basic principles, such as Marx’s dictum that religion is an opiate, was openly expressed. Policy makers are taking the suggestions of intellectuals seriously, as part of the new policy of emphasizing their contribution to modernization. Many intellectuals are being recruited to work in the policy-making bureaucracy itself, where they do research connected with the recent reforms and work on major policy statements.

Perhaps the most dramatic change in Chinese life has taken place in the countryside. Under the new “responsibility system,” land that was previously farmed collectively by production teams has been divided among peasant families according to their size and labor power. This return of collectivized land to family control is one of the most radical reforms ever to have taken place in a Communist society. The families can plant how and when they wish, free from the despotic power of local officials who used to control the number of “work points” a person earned for a day’s work. Now the family contracts with the government to produce a set quota of a crop and is free to sell whatever it grows over that amount. With such incentives, yields in most regions have been huge. Peasants who grow grain are being urged to turn to other money-making occupations. They are still prohibited from living in the larger cities, except for short periods, but their ability to change their residences and jobs is probably greater than at any other time since the Revolution.

The most evident deprivation of freedom in recent years has come from the policy of limiting each family to one child—a far greater hardship in the countryside where the contribution of male children is seen as an economic necessity: the more working males in the family, the more land it will be assigned under the new system. And with the elimination of some of the collective social guarantees, couples with only female children (who almost always have to leave home when they marry) face poverty and loneliness in old age. Thus while the economic reforms have vastly increased freedom in rural China, they run into conflict with the regime’s policy of limiting population growth through strict controls.

In the cities and towns the new system being applied to economic enterprise is designed to allow more qualified people to make decisions on how production is to be organized, on what is to be manufactured after the primary contract with the government is fulfilled, and, to some degree, on the salaries paid to employees. The overall effect, we were often told, has been to raise workers’ morale. Managers are elected by the workers for a set term. In principle at least, if they perform poorly, they will not be chosen again. In most cases, the workers do not vote for their managers directly but elect representatives to a committee, which then selects the manager; in one factory a worker told us the campaign was “as exciting as your elections for president.” The elected manager has authority to appoint vice-managers and division leaders, with whom he or she signs a contract for a set number of years.

Since many workers now have the power to change their immediate bosses, the atmosphere in many work places has changed. Complaints, even open disagreement with managers, have now become common. But no matter who is in charge, in most work units there are still too many layers of bureaucracy and a continual need to obtain permission to carry out even routine tasks. And some people point out that the new leaders are often little better than the old ones. They know they probably have only a limited time in which to get themselves better places to live, find good jobs for their relatives, and enjoy the other privileges of rank. So they pay even more attention to those matters than did their predecessors, who were confident of their tenure.

The new system is still experimental: reform in the cities began officially only in October 1984. However, most workers appear far more interested in the quality and productivity of their factories than they were during the Cultural Revolution. It has become common for shares to be sold to the workers, giving them a stake in the enterprise that employs them. Some enterprises in Guangdong province and Shanghai have even raised capital by selling shares to the public.

Several officials told us the reforms were proceeding “unevenly” and they described some of the problems that have arisen. Many managers, we were told, are more protective of the interests of the workers who have elected them than of the interests of the state. Tax evasion is widespread, and the lavish bonuses issued by some enterprises at the end of 1984 did not reflect their financial situation. In effect, the managers were borrowing from the state in order to ensure their popularity with the workers. Nevertheless, many of the new developments seem promising for the future of political participation. Some policy makers who are drawn to Western ideas even mentioned to us the need for a system of “checks and balances” among managers, union, and advisory board.

Other attempts to increase political participation have been taking place within the Party itself. Local Party leaders, for example, are being elected by Party members within the various work units. The most important leaders, however, including the members of the provincial, municipal, district, and country Party committees, are still appointed by the Party from top to bottom. In work units where Party members are dissatisfied with their local Party leaders, “work teams” are sent from higher Party organizations to discuss with the members their opinions of who would be best qualified for leadership. These opinions have no official weight, but they have often had an effect on appointments.

As a result of economic reforms, Chinese spend fewer hours each week in political study meetings. When they are held, these meetings are devoted less to ideology than they were before and much more to practical matters, like bonuses and salaries. Political study meetings are also the most common forums for the election of enterprise managers. For these reasons, much of the earlier hatred of political study is gone, especially since there are now far fewer sessions in which people have to engage in “criticism/self-criticism” and other compulsory rituals where each person has to express an opinion.

Those who apply for membership in the Communist Youth League or Party must still write “thought reports” showing in detail their belief in the Party and Communist ideology. However, in the spirit of the reforms, such reports may now contain criticisms of the Party’s past mistaken and express the desire to help rectify the Party’s image. Furthermore, with the change in leadership, whoever reads the reports is likely himself to have been a victim, at one time or another, and hence to look more favorably on outspoken criticism of the past.

In the schools, students are still required to take classes in politics, and there is still considerable emphasis on the virtues of “political thought work,” but the curriculum is largely practical. The atmosphere in the better city schools is one of intense study for the examinations to enter the Chinese equivalents of junior and senior high schools and for the extremely selective university examinations; many families hire private tutors for their children or arrange special summer classes. In the past those honored as “three good” students (good morals, good grades, good health) were practically always those who spied on other students for the teachers. This practice continues, but it is less pervasive and is even discouraged by some teachers who were dismayed to see the heavily ideological education system transforming children into little automatons. The 1984 film The Girl in the Red Clothes suggested that a sociable girl who paid attention to her personal appearance should not have been disqualified as a “three good” student. (The film won the Golden Rooster award for the best Chinese film of the year.)

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print