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China: Analysis From Washington -- Can Markets Alone Make Men Free?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 12 March 1999 (RFE/RL -- The Chinese government is providing ever greater protection for the economic rights of its citizens even as it continues to deny them their political ones. In doing so, Beijing is directly challenging the widely-held assumption that economic freedoms will inevitably lead to political ones.

Over the past decade, the Chinese communist authorities have regularly tried to gain the advantages that a more open and free market can provide even as they have used often-brutal means to defend their authoritarian political prerogatives. But rarely has the divergence between Beijing's attitudes to these two kinds of freedoms been more obvious than this week.

On Tuesday, the Chinese leadership submitted for ratification to its parliament a constitutional amendment that declares private entrepreneurial activity "an important component of the socialist market economy."

Such a constitutional provision by itself provides no direct legal protection for private property and other instrumentalities of the market economy. But experts in both China and the West have suggested that its language will in fact provide those who engage in free market activities with far greater protection from official harassment. Even more, these observers say, it is likely to attract more Chinese into the marketplace.

But even as Beijing moves to expand the protection of economic rights, it is seeking to curtail the very limited political rights that its citizens now enjoy. Prior to the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last month, Beijing arrested numerous pro-democracy activists. And it dismissed as "interference" all American and Western criticism of its record on human rights.

Moreover, in advance of the 40th anniversary on Wednesday of China's suppression of an uprising by Tibetans, the Chinese authorities took extraordinary steps not only to prevent any commemoration of the rising but also to make clear they are not prepared to compromise in any way with the Tibetans or their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Beijing has increased security along the Tibetan border. And it has expanded its police presence in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. But most significantly, the Chinese government has launched a campaign of vilification against the Dalai Lama.

According to Communist officials, the Dalai Lama was and is "the chief representative of the feudal serf system" in Tibet. Prior to his ouster by the Chinese in 1959, they say, he is accused of having reduced the Tibetan people to "animal status."

Such charges are not new, but the vehemence of their delivery is as is the suggestion that the Tibetan spiritual leader lied when he said he was prepared to discuss his country's future with the Chinese authorities.

Will Beijing be able to combine support for greater economic freedoms with its insistence on denying its population basic political rights?

According to most recent Western discussions, the answer is almost certainly going to be: not for long. Most analysts argue that economic freedoms will sooner or later generate demands for political ones and that regimes will be unable to refuse what those with economic power want.

Economic freedoms, the argument goes, will almost inevitably decentralize power, give individuals who enjoy them a sense of their own autonomy and self-worth, and ultimately attract ever more members of society including, not unimportantly, members of the authoritarian political establishment.

In this way, the advocates of this point of view maintain, the free market will by itself transform even the most regressive of political systems. And consequently, those who support the expansion of political freedom can rely on the marketplace to do most of their work, at least after the market gets established.

Over the very long term, free markets may have such an effect. But as economic theorist John Maynard Keynes remarked, "in the long run, we will all be dead." In the hear and now, as Chinese repression in Tibet shows, authoritarian governments can take advantage of the entrepreneurialism of free markets for a long time even as they deny basic political freedoms to their populations.

And that pattern suggests that those who want to protect and expand political freedom both in their own countries and abroad will have to use political means to do so, rather than waiting for power of the free market to do their work for them.