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.)

Because the reforms have meant that people have greater flexibility in finding jobs, the threat to students, teachers, and others that their “thought” will be evaluated negatively by their leaders is less strong than in the past. If Party leaders cannot control your future by their perceptions of your “political performance,” whether you believe in Marxism-Leninism becomes irrelevant. The activists who took part in the democratic election movement in 1980 were often given demeaning jobs upon graduation. Many of them have now managed to find their way back into productive, even powerful, positions. For example, a freethinking friend of ours has been appointed to the municipal Party committee of one of Hunan’s largest cities.

Still, China is a Communist country. Few people dare to make plain any lack of belief in the virtues of the system. Most avoid direct conflict with the four basic Communist principles—to uphold Marxism-Leninism and the thought of Chairman Mao; the people’s democratic dictatorship; the socialist road; and the leadership of the Party. As one intellectual remarked to us, if intelligent people wish to criticize the Party and its mistakes, they wrap their words in the “flag of reform.” If he wanted to criticize China’s lack of democracy, for example, he would talk of the ways the bureaucracy continued to block reforms. Others avoid discussing politics altogether and talk about economic management, history, their personal lives, and other concrete matters instead.

But much has changed since the 1983 campaign against “spiritual pollution”—an attack on a variety of allegedly “decadent” activities, including religious practices. People are once again allowed to attend Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, and Moslem religious services, and folk customs are being revived, such as the reading of religious texts at funerals or dressing in white and singing songs of grief. The restoration of temples and churches continues, even in Tibet, where Buddhist religious activity is still viewed as a dangerous form of political expression, and is tightly controlled.* Few religious leaders survived the Cultural Revolution, and the government is now allowing some to be trained. The regime certainly does not encourage religious belief or practices but it does not prohibit them so long as they take place within one of the four large denominations officially recognized by the Party, and don’t conflict with Party policies. One open-minded official told us that in view of the lack of welfare services in the countryside, the charitable programs of Christian churches were providing welcome supplementary activities.

However, Catholics who refuse to renounce papal authority by joining the Catholic Church that has been set up by the government face severe problems. Those who attend clandestine religious meetings at Catholic “house churches” may be arrested, and several elderly priests are still in prison, despite the recent release of a Shanghai bishop. The Pope’s sympathetic position toward Taiwan and the Church’s opposition to birth control are claimed to be the main obstacles to their being better treated. “Superstition,” particularly belief in the powers of sorcerers whose activities may be dangerous or exploitative, continues to be discouraged. In public display cases in some cities one can see dramatic tableaux showing how people died after being treated by witch doctors.

The main reason most Chinese feel they have comparative freedom of speech and belief today is that much of what they want is close to what the reformers want. After years of being told that the poorer they became, the more revolutionary they were, people naturally long for more comforts and consumer goods. Since much of the population evidently approves of the policy of “enlivening the economy,” China’s leaders have less to fear if they loosen controls. Party policy encourages criticism of bureaucracy, of injustice toward intellectuals, and of abuses of power by Party leaders. Most intellectuals, who are still getting used to the dramatic improvement in their position, are grateful that they are no longer among the most vilified of social groups.

What, then, of China’s dissidents? Many of them have not been released from prisons, including the most distinguished democratic thinkers and the editors of influential “unofficial” magazines. But another reason that one finds few visible dissident activities is that many former dissidents who were not sent to prison are supporting the reforms; some have even entered the power structure by becoming Party members or Party leaders. A former leader of the democratic election movement of the fall of 1980 sought us out not to talk about democracy or human rights, but to ask us to find investors for a company he has set up to sell reproductions of paintings and to build a small museum and hotel; another former leader, we were told, has become a housing official in the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen. These people have a strong sense of the gravity of China’s economic problems and they see the reforms as dealing with them; although they would prefer to see a more democratic China immediately, many have come to believe that the process will be more gradual than they once thought.

On the other hand, there are occasional public demonstrations of protest, far more than are reported in the Western press. These are often no more than small gestures of disobedience. For example, a group of peasants we saw near Xian were about to begin a sit-in on a piece of land which they had turned into a profitable parking lot. Local officials, envious of their success, were trying to take over the lot to set up a peasant market. Weeks afterward, when we wrote to the Xian Evening News to find out what happened later, an editor replied that since the nearby road was being paved, the parking lot would soon have become obsolete anyway, and work on the peasant market was going forward. “The majority have agreed,” he wrote—a euphemism we recognized as meaning that people continued to be angry and unhappy over the situation.

Another incident happened while we were in Hunan: so convinced were a number of families that housing in a newly constructed building would be unfairly allotted to officials and their friends that they broke into the apartments and moved in. They were finally forced to leave, but they were given assurances that their claims would be considered fairly. What became of their demands we don’t know.

The most conspicuous example of recent civil disobedience took place in April when demonstrations were being held at Beijing’s city hall by some city dwellers originally assigned to the countryside in Shanxi province, during the Cultural Revolution. According to government policy, if a husband and wife are together, they may not return to the over-crowded cities where they previously lived. Perhaps millions of Chinese do not live in the place they consider home, whether because they have been uprooted by famine, by political persecution, or by arbitrary economic measures, such as the relocation of major industries to the mountains during the early 1960s, when Sino-Soviet relations were particularly tense. Others who volunteered to “settle the border regions” in the 1950s were to regret this after it was too late. After the April demonstrations a handful of people in Shanxi were allowed to return to Beijing, but countless others are still prevented from doing so.

Very few people are being arrested today for political offenses. Most of the new prisoners are ordinary criminals—thieves, rapists, and murderers. But those arrested during the 1983 campaign against “spiritual pollution” for involvement in “pornography”—by showing “yellow” videotapes, going to sexy dancing parties, and distributing sexual pictures and books, for example—were dealt with cruelly. Some were executed and many others remain in prison. So do many of the dissidents who were arrested for putting up posters on the “democracy walls” in several cities in 1978. We were told that the sentences of some of these people have been shortened. When we asked about Wei Jingsheng, China’s most famous dissident, we were told he was in a labor camp in Qinghai province, reading and writing his opinions on the reforms, and that he was not being forced to do hard labor. Our sources, apparently reliable ones, who asked us not to reveal their names, gave us the impression in April that although some officials in the central government wanted him released, the public security bureau stood in their way. So far as we can learn, writing in late September, his situation remains unchanged.

The people being treated with the most conspicuous harshness today are not “dissidents,” but those charged with ordinary crimes. Many are executed without appeal, even for petty crimes such as stealing watches. (Such executions were most frequent during the campaign against crime in 1983.) China’s system of justice often operates on the principle of “killing the chicken to scare the monkey.” In the apparent belief that the people will have a safer holiday if they are sharply reminded of the penalties for crime, numbers of prisoners are shot before major festivals each year. Mass rallies are held before the executions, with tickets distributed to the main local work units. Posters describing the offenders and their crimes are displayed all over the cities. Large red check marks show that they have been shot.

For most people, however, this is a time of relatively great freedom. They can call Deng “shorty” when once they would have been killed if they had called Mao “baldy.” The Party’s economic policies have given them opportunities to participate in political and economic life; their own main concern is often with improving their standard of living—with the prices of goods, with the quality of their clothing, food, and furniture. Only rarely are they openly angry over their inability to exercise more direct control over their own lives; we found many grateful to be free to enjoy more material comforts, and to be free from having to join mass political campaigns.

We hope, of course, that this relatively liberal period will not someday be proven to have been a brief aberration. China’s Communist party has been responsible for some of the most fearsome and murderous totalitarian practices of this century. If it does not retract its recent policy of allowing greater intellectual freedom and flexibility in personal life, it will have accomplished a remarkable feat of liberalization. Nevertheless, for intellectuals who would like to see China have even more freedom, there is little hope. In our view, the Party has gone as far as it will go in loosening controls on speech and belief: to relax them much further would put its position as the ruling party in jeopardy. It might also cause a reaction against the reformers by the more orthodox Party forces, which continue to challenge Deng’s policies at all levels of the regime. In July, the notoriously orthodox Deng Liqun—the man behind the campaign against “spiritual pollution”—was dismissed from the post of propaganda minister. This was seen as a victory for Deng, as was the resignation in September of more than sixty elderly members of the Central Committee. But we see no prospect that the officials controlling the Party’s propaganda apparatus will allow freedoms approaching those of the West, particularly to the newspapers. This is a severe and continuing hardship for the many journalists who long for greater liberty and integrity. As in other Communist regimes, an independent press would be seen as an intolerable threat to the rule of the Party.

  1. *

    In an article published in The New York Times on August 9, the Dalai Lama wrote that “virtually all of the 5,700 monasteries and 500 temples of which we have records have been destroyed.” Protesting against the death of 1.2 million Tibetans as a “direct result” of the thirty years of Chinese occupation and the presence of 250,000 Chinese troops and 1.7 million civilians in Tibet, he also wrote that he was “pleased at the slight improvement…since 1979. More food is available, a small degree of economic freedom has been reintroduced and the movement of people is less restricted.”