I must say at the beginning that I am not an expert on China. I have just observed Chinese people for three weeks, and I have made short visits to China before.
The question “how free?” is very important to me and to many people. In many countries, such as Syria and Egypt, citizens dissatisfied with their level of freedom have come into the streets and risked their lives to demand more. Our own politics revolves around questions of how free the market should be. So how free is the market in China?
For many people in the US, the fact that China is ruled by the Communist Party provides a ready-made answer – communism is the opposite of freedom. Like most simple responses to complex questions, that answer is of little use. Freedom is not yes or no, black or white, but a broad spectrum of rights and limitations. Communism, like democracy, comes in many forms. I offer these observations about market freedoms in China.
Chinese are free to buy the same variety of goods and services that we are. I saw all the familiar global brands here: KFC, Rolex, Levis and Toyota. There appear to be few rules about selling. People sell from stores, from carts on bicycles, from blankets on sidewalks. As I walked around Beijing looking un-Chinese, many men tried to sell me rides in pedicabs or tours of the Great Wall. I don’t think it was a sign of my attractiveness that young women tried to sell me their company, following me until I had said “no” a dozen times.
State-supported capitalism is everywhere. On the long train ride from Beijing to Kaifeng, uniformed railroad employees insistently hawked various products to a captive audience, including a “traditional Chinese medicine”, a crude vacuum device to put on the skin to “cure various diseases”.
Making and spending money may be freer in China than in the US. We have a much more highly developed set of legal regulations about how products must be manufactured and sold, especially where consumer safety is concerned. A persistent problem in China is adulteration of food products. Recent scandals about unhealthy ingredients in powdered milk have caused better-off people to order foreign baby formula over the internet.
Manufacturers and consumers are also more free to pollute than in the US. Factories pour poisons into rivers, and cars spew so much particulate matter into the air that Chinese cities are blanketed in a permanent haze.
The greatest freedom appears to be enjoyed by drivers, unhindered by stoplights, pedestrians, or what we would consider common courtesy. While most drivers of cars usually obeyed internationally accepted rules of the road, apparently anything goes for motorcycles and scooters. For my own safety, I quickly learned always to give way, wherever I was, whoever had the green.
Information is not as free. In my hotel rooms, I could only get Chinese TV channels, all controlled by the government, although CNN was broadcast on big screens in one hotel restaurant.
Politics is less free. All political decisions are tightly controlled by the Communist Party. Protesting political authority is not impossible, as many news reports have demonstrated, but it takes courage and might be dangerous.
In the center of Beijing, police are everywhere, especially around Tiananmen Square, site of the largest modern mass protests in China in 1989, which were repressed with violence. More generally, this is a highly policed society, with uniformed men, parking attendants, and others whose jobs I could only guess at on every street. These people provide security, for the citizen against crime and for the government against opposition. They can be both comforting and threatening.
A free market and free politics don’t necessarily go together. Freer political systems, where citizens can exercise some control over the economy, usually lead to restrictions on the market in the public interest. Complete freedom of big business, whether owned privately, as in the US, or controlled by the government, as in China, means less freedom for average citizens to enjoy safe working conditions, a clean environment, and healthy products. The free economic market in China is exciting, as is their traffic, but I’ll take our regulated system any time.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 24, 2012