China's economic rise hasn't brought moves toward democracy

As the 100th anniversary of the revolt that ended 2,000 years of imperial rule in China passes this month, Beijing's central leadership increasingly finds it has similar problems to the Qing dynasty that preceded it.
As the 100th anniversary of the revolt that ended 2,000 years of imperial rule in China passes this month, Beijing's central leadership increasingly finds it has similar problems to the Qing dynasty that preceded it. Tom Lasseter/MCT

BEIJING — Lu Weixing decided this year to run as an independent candidate for a local council position in Beijing.

Lost for the right words to describe what came next, he stuck his hand into his pocket and fished out a white and orange Vitamin C tube. He tilted it forward until a single tooth rolled out.

"They beat me and then I lost a tooth," Lu said recently.

Voting for the largely powerless councils happened Tuesday. Lu's name was not on the ballot.

The next day, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde flew into Beijing, likely seeking financial help from China to prop up the European Union's flailing economy.

The juxtaposition of the two events — a stage-managed election marred by thuggish behavior and the West's lender of last resort looking for cash — was a reminder of a central question surrounding China's growing strength on the world stage:

What are the consequences of an opaque, authoritarian government hurtling toward such immense international power?

The lack of a clear answer has created an ambiguous and, to critics, an unsettling situation.

Most Chinese, pleased by the material gains of the past few decades, stay away from politics. But in instances when someone openly defies the Chinese Communist Party's sense of order, the consequences can be severe.

That same party is now in command of the second-largest economy in the world, and increasingly it calls the shots when the West comes calling.

A few weeks before the trip by Lagarde, the head of the European Union's bailout fund made a similar appearance in Beijing.

There was a time when analysts in Washington spoke hopefully that China's economic growth would lead to a broad expansion of civil liberties. Engage China's business interests, the thinking went, and the government's harsh ways would relax.

Decades later, that has not happened.

Instead, China continues to be guided by a system that at its core would have been familiar to Vladimir Lenin at the founding of the Soviet Union: A secretive group of nine men in the standing committee of a politburo, and a Communist Party that seeks a firm grip on all facets of society.

The first part of the equation, however, has been more successful than anyone could have imagined when China began its "Reform and Opening-up" at the end of the 1970s.

Trade between the United States and China reached some $457 billion last year. Fueled by its seemingly endless exports, Beijing now holds more than $1.1 trillion in American Treasury debt.

At the same time, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a group Congress created in 2000 to monitor the country's democratic progress, noted last month: "Official rhetoric notwithstanding, China's human rights and rule of law record has not improved ... a troubling trend is officials' increased willingness to disregard the law when it suits them, particularly to silence dissent."

As Lu found out after returning last year from a decade abroad in France, that extends all the way down to obscure neighborhood politics.

His quirky and unsanctioned campaign in west Beijing included wearing a cap with a long queue braid reminiscent of the Qing Dynasty. It was a reminder that although 100 years have passed since the Qing fell, China's central government is still ruled by non-elected officials.

Lu said that one afternoon in September, a group of plainclothes security officers told him to cut it out. When he refused, Lu said, the men dragged him into a grove of trees and kicked him in the face. Uniformed police were called to the scene, he said, and they broke up the melee. Still, the damage was done.

During lunch the next day, Lu said, he felt his tooth loosening, and when he gave a little tug, it popped out.

Lu said the local election office had refused to give him the form needed to collect signatures to certify him as a candidate. When friends submitted one on his behalf, Lu said, it was ignored.

"By law we're able to run as candidates," Lu said, apparently not sure how to finish the sentence.

Another independent in the west of the capital, Han Ying, managed to be accepted as a candidate. But as elections approached she reported being hounded by both police and unidentified men. The day she was scheduled to meet with a McClatchy reporter, Han called to give her regrets.

"When I stepped outside to walk my son to school this morning, a policeman stopped me," explained Han, who said her name was ultimately omitted from ballots.

In addition to the attempts at independent candidacy, there have been broader signs of citizenry pushing for change in China. In August, a large demonstration demanding the relocation of a chemical plant in the northeast city of Dalian was met with promises to do just that.

Rising frustration with pollution levels in Beijing, and the government's prior insistence that it was only fog, led this month to state press coverage of the issue. There's also been public discussion about why the U.S. Embassy's air quality readings give a more alarming picture than do official statistics.

But those examples so far seem more indicative of allowing the public to release some steam than of any large-scale change to the way the Chinese Communist Party operates.

One example of the direction in which the party might be heading: China has announced proposed revisions to its criminal law code that would legalize the secret detention of suspects for up to six months. Details of the detentions could be kept secret if authorities deem that informing families might "hinder" their investigation. In other words, it would be lawful to make people disappear.

On Thursday, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch warned that the measure also could formalize the use of "soft detention," a form of extrajudicial house arrest that's been used on a raft of dissidents and rights lawyers in China. The Human Rights Watch press event on the announcement took place in Hong Kong; such meetings are not allowed on mainland China.

Among the oft-cited cases of "soft detention" is that of Chen Guangcheng. The blind legal activist received a 51-month prison sentence in 2006 on charges related to his attempt to arrange a class-action lawsuit against officials who'd forced women to have abortions or be sterilized in China's eastern Shandong province.

Upon his release in 2010, Chen was not only put under de facto house arrest, but his village was surrounded by plainclothes guards who've attacked outsiders trying to visit him.

Many observers were surprised, then, when a Hollywood film production company named Relativity Media decided to shoot part of a raucous comedy last month in Linyi, the city with administrative oversight of Chen's village.

The movie, "21 and Over," was billed as "a wild epic misadventure of debauchery and mayhem." Relativity is in a partnership with a Chinese state-backed film distribution company.

After controversy flared among activists in China and abroad, Relativity put out a press release that sounded a familiar argument: "As a company, we believe deeply that expanding trade and business ties with our counterparts in China and elsewhere can result in positive outcomes."

As of this writing, Chen Guangcheng was not a free man.

After meeting with senior Chinese leadership, the IMF's Lagarde told reporters that there was "clear understanding" that China's currency would in due course be included in the basket of currencies used for much of global trade.

And Lu Weixing was still missing a tooth on his lower right jaw.


Congressional-Executive Committee on China website


Tibetans' self-immolations lead China to crack down harder

China cuts access to lawyer who fought one-child policy

After 100 years, corruption still a major problem in China

Follow Tom Lasseter on Twitter.

Related stories from McClatchy DC