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 …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.