BEIJING â€” Over the nearly four decades since President Richard M. Nixon established diplomatic ties with Red China, American politicians have clung to the idea that the growing ranks of Chinese entrepreneurs and college-educated strivers would one day find electoral democracy irresistible. But a stroll through one of the capitalâ€™s upscale malls quickly demolishes such idealistic notions â€” and instead makes you wonder whether Chinaâ€™s autocrats have struck on a flexible model of long-lasting rule.
At the Oriental Plaza mall, young professionals dressed in Nikes and Abercrombie & Fitch openly profess their admiration for Communist Party governance. â€Any change in the political system would just throw China into disorder,â€ said Guo Ting, a 30-year-old office assistant. â€œOur leaders are doing a good job.â€
Educated, white-collar workers like Ms. Guo are emblematic of an increasingly self-confident Chinese middle class willing to cut the government slack over its strictures and imperfections. To this group, such flaws are outweighed by the nonstop double-digit economic growth the regime has presided over, and they have come to appreciate the social stability that comes with autocratic rule.
Not to say that opposition to the status quo doesnâ€™t exist. Dispossessed peasants regularly take to the streets over seized land. Dissidents continue to call for pluralism, though the authorities are increasingly suppressing them for fear that an Arab-style â€œjasmine revolutionâ€ could take hold here. And disaffected young people share barbed criticisms of their leaders online â€” until the censors delete the posts.
But the ruling Communists, most Western experts agree, are in no danger of being toppled anytime soon. â€œTheyâ€™ve shown themselves to be a whole lot more flexible than the Egypts and the Tunisias of the world,â€ said Kevin Oâ€™Brien, a China expert at the University of California, Berkeley, pronouncing himself amazed at â€œhow much theyâ€™ve managed to develop thumbs.â€
Such a Darwinian ability to evolve grew out of the partyâ€™s near-death experience in 1989, when students and intellectuals occupied Tiananmen Square for seven weeks to demand free elections and an end to press restrictions, corruption and nepotism. In the years since it violently crushed those protests, the regime has found a way to satisfy many people much of the time â€” enough so that it has dissuaded most citizens from rolling the uncertain dice of pro-democracy street demonstrations.
Until recently, Chinaâ€™s leadership also held out the promise of incremental political reform, although the recent Arab unrest, combined with preparations for a change in leadership next year, has effectively killed such prospects. Still, any way you run the numbers, life has undoubtedly improved for most Chinese. Over the past two decades, annual per capita urban incomes have more than tripled, to $3,100 a year; life expectancy has jumped by more than six years, to an average age of 75; and the ranks of illiterate adults have dropped by 46 million. Chinese cities, with their heady, mercantile buzz and acres of gleaming residential high-rises, embody the nationâ€™s optimism. â€œTen percent growth solves a lot of problems,â€ Professor Oâ€™Brien said.
But economic growth alone does not explain the widespread aversion to political change one hears among intellectuals and professionals. For the countryâ€™s 70 million party members and the growing business class, the current arrangement delivers enormous advantages to those who play by the rules. The benefits can include low-interest loans from state banks and the forbearance of an all-powerful bureaucracy that could quash a company trying to start up outside the privileged club of state-owned behemoths.
The current setup fosters allegiance to the party, even if it is based on the survival instinct and not a small dollop of greed. Li Fan, director of the World and China Institute, a nongovernmental group in Beijing that studies political reform, said electoral democracy would threaten the benefits entrepreneurial elites enjoy under the current system. â€œThose who have prospered from economic reform have no interest in sharing power or the spoils of prosperity with those beneath them,â€ he said.
The same can be said of the 300 million members of Chinaâ€™s growing middle class, many of whom subscribe to the belief that universal suffrage would overempower their impoverished rural brethren. It has become an article of faith, even among idealistic college students, that Chinese peasants are too unschooled to intelligently select the nationâ€™s leaders. As Jiang Zemin, then the Chinese president, told Mike Wallace in a 2000 interview, â€œThe quality of our people is too low.â€
The demonization of democracy emanates from top leaders like Wu Bangguo, the partyâ€™s top legislator, who last month warned the nation that electoral democracy would drive China â€œinto the abyss of internal disorder.â€ Chiming in are celebrities like Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong actor who has denounced democratic societies like Taiwan as â€œchaotic,â€ saying the Chinese require authoritarian governance. â€œIf weâ€™re not being controlled, weâ€™ll just do what we want,â€ he said at a gathering of Chinese executives two years ago, prompting a round of hearty applause.
Although most upwardly mobile Chinese are not eager to talk about it, there is another compelling disincentive against agitating for the kind of Western-style democracy they admit to admiring so much â€” when it is practiced in places like the United States. Liu Xiaobo, the last Chinese citizen of note to call for an end to single-party rule, found himself in jail for 11 years on charges of subversion. Even his Nobel Peace Prize, awarded last October, did nothing to ease his predicament, nor has it sapped the governmentâ€™s zeal for repression: In recent weeks, more than four dozen public intellectuals, rights lawyers and bloggers have been detained or â€œdisappearedâ€ by the authorities as part of an ominous new campaign against dissent.
â€œIt is true that people have seen a significant improvement in living standards and they are optimistic about the future,â€ said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong. â€œBut they also know there is nothing to be gained by sticking their neck out.â€