Thanks to a fellowship from the East-West Center in Hawaii, this reporter traveled to China to visit with governmental and business leaders.
Impression No. 1? That capitalism has replaced communism as the state religion. Factories and apartment buildings are being built with the feverish energy of a Silk Alley salesman. Black Audis--the luxury car of choice for party apparatchiks--clog the roads. The average per-capita income may only be $1,200 per year, but there is still enough wealth and people to fuel an economic boom.
For example, in Chengdu, deep in China's interior, sits a thriving software plant that would not have looked out of place in Beaverton. The day we visited, many of the employees--all of whom spoke English--were in a conference room, attending a seminar on The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
Impression No. 2? That the modernization of the economy does not extend to the free flow of information.
The government still owns all the country's newspapers and television stations. Chinese journalists engage in a form of self-censorship. "We can criticize the government in some areas," a young female journalist said, "but not in others." It's OK to chide the government for small things, like not doing enough to prevent suicide, but one should not criticize officials by name or challenge the government's position on matters of real import, like Taiwan.
Earlier this year, Cheng Yizhong, editor of the Southern Metropolis Daily, was arrested after printing a story about the brutal killing of a man by local police. Cheng was held in prison for five months without being charged. (China is the world's leading jailer of reporters, with 43 currently behind bars.)
Those media the government doesn't directly own it seeks to control in other ways. Take television, for example: While CNN is available in hotels, it's banned from most homes--though the black market in satellite dishes is thriving.
Beijing even tries to corral the Web. A Communist Party member confided that his government blocks certain pornographic websites and any site having to do with the Falun Gong--a quirky spiritual group China's leaders think is subversive.
News publications published outside of China also face difficulties. For one thing, journalists have trouble entering the country on official business and almost always are "chaperoned" by a state official (as was this reporter).
Occasionally, the government takes more drastic measures. Last week, it detained a researcher for The New York Times, believing he revealed a state secret. The secret? That Jiang Zemin would resign as head of the military, a story proven true when Zemin stepped down weeks after the Times published the tip.
It's not clear how long this authoritarian approach can last. People who enjoy economic freedom will begin to demand the freedom to watch, read and say what they want.
At a recent dinner in Guangzhou, a provincial official, lubricated by several glasses of Maotai, was candid on a variety of subjects. As evidence of how far things had come, he said that 10 years ago, even talking about these matters would have landed him in jail.
That's a far cry from the privilege we have--not just to print the news without fear of official retribution, but to bitch about it when it receives less attention than it should.