In the post-war period period (possibly throughout the dynasties), truth has been relative in China, while power has been absolute.

Today’s propaganda and censorship can be shockingly ham-handed. Foreign websites are routinely blocked. While the policies change, unaccessible sites on my recent visit seemed to include YouTube, most social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and blogging platforms like Blogger, WordPress. Seemingly odd sites like Picasa for photo sharing were blocked. Other social media sites like Reddit were available, maybe they just not popular enough yet, and as every site goes social, you can’t block everything. Google and Gmail have seemed mostly accessible but occasionally not _ no way to tell if it was a problem on my end, Google’s end, or government interference, but Google complained that it was the government and I am inclined to take them at their word.

I had not prepared for the eventuality of no Facebook, but was able set up a VPN connection in no time that fully circumvented the restrictions ( VPNs have also been blocked in the past. I tend to think the rapid circumvention is not ineptitude, but security agencies keep some VPNs open to keep an eye on users, and they may be either technically compromised or in cahoots with the security forces.

(An aside on Google _ Google moved its site offshore, complaining of ham-handed interference and Chinese attempts to hack them and gain access to dissident accounts. I’m sure they also felt they would be unable to crack the market beyond their share of 30% or so and the upside of staying was limited. The government appoints national champions they can work with, and this seems to be Baidu. Baidu has no problem indexing MP3s, something Google can’t do. (Ironically, Google got in big intellectual property trouble in China over Google Books.) Google itself doesn’t trust the Chinese and restricted local engineers’ access to source code. And of course, there’s the usual culture gap _ local competitors have been more nimble and better with the Chinese writing system.)

To foreigners and English speakers this kind of censorship seems like a pretty big deal. But it’s highly unclear if Chinese speakers really find it that intrusive, since censorship is highly effective on local publishers, so the need for crude blocking tools is less noticeable.

Local media are pressured and harassed if they step out of line. The case of the investigative magazine Caijin is highly instructive. Despite a finely tuned ear and pen and highly placed government supporters, they were eventually hamstrung and the real reporters replaced with government stooges. (An excellent longer read). Reporters Without Borders ranks China 171st of 178 countries on its press freedom index, between Yemen and Sudan.

Reportedly, broadband availability is high, even in rural areas (if expensive), and about 1/3 of the population is using the Internet. Mobile phones are ubiquitous.

The rate of change is stunning and I cannot really imagine what the generation gap must be like. Grandparents might have experienced civil war, revolution, turmoil of the Mao era, and now an incredible modern world. Parents worked hard to build modern China. Children have access to pop-culture riches parents could never have dreamed of.

The urban-rural divide is gaping. Guangdong in the south near Hong Kong and the huge Yangtze river delta from Shanghai inland have the bulk of the industry. The little I saw of countryside from train windows was decent houses but pretty small plots, solar water heaters but not big combines (of course anecdotes are not data and regional variations must be huge).

Within the cities, the wealth gap feels more or less Latin American, the destitute next to high-end luxury stores and gleaming vanity office projects. The official numbers show much less inequality, but have little credibility.

The hukou system, forcing people to register in their home towns and get permission to move, is one burden. China understandably seeks to limit massive influx into the cities leading to giant slums and an even bigger informal economy. But the numerous migrants who do make the journey are illegal aliens in their own country, unable to access education for their children, medical care and other services unless they go back to their home. This results in children left with grandparents, homeschooled, or not in school. The more or less universal literacy rate is a huge achievement and the necessary precondition for all of China’s other achievements, but progress may have stopped since the 90s.

The one child policy doesn’t apply to everyone and is unevenly enforced when it does. It has reduced fertility to 1.8% vs. a replacement rate of 2.1%. It may have prevented 400m births, and one can hardly blame authorities for recoiling at the implications of that kind of population growth. There is a shortage of women nationally, with 118 boys born for every 100 girls, but in some villages it can be as high as 140. North Korean women have been known to be trafficked and sold as wives. Stories of pressured abortions and sterilizations are commonplace. The rate of female suicide has been reported to be the highest in the world. It seems likely that the policy will be relaxed eventually. If for no other reason, this will happen because while current demographics are highly favorable for growth and savings, if trends continue, the dependency ratio is set to rise dramatically, putting pressure on improved living standards, and the population will then decline. (Low fertility takes a long time to reduce fast population growth _ at first the cohort dying off is smaller than the fertile one)

Corruption and land grabs are a continuing problem. All land still belongs to the state, but you can get long-term rights. Decentralization has left provinces scrambling for money, especially the poorer ones. Requests to the central government for financial help are not necessarily heard, nor a ticket to political success. Rapid growth makes it a great business for local authorities and developers to grab land from farmers, build factories and apartments, and share the booty. In theory, compensation is offered for landgrabs, in practice it is at best below market rates. At worst, you get your utilities shut off and goons harass and beat you until you leave. If you dissent, Chinese courts have a conviction rate of 99%. And the CCP can still send you to labor camps for no reason whatsoever, although it happens much less frequently.

Three corruption scandals: the massive AIDS outbreak after villagers were strongly incentivized by the state to sell blood; two were executed for adulterating baby food by adding an inedible nitrogen-rich compound to make protein content appear higher in tests, officially killing 6 and sickening 294,000 ; and Chongqing trials showcased the nexus between corruption, politics, and the underworld. These also highlight the current government’s aggressive response when corruption crosses a line and threatens social stability, and a very limited check and balance in the form of a thin strain of activism and press freedom which is not fully stamped out.

The diminishing safety net and land grabs have left some worse off than before. Dislocation has increased, even as roads and railroads tie the country closer together. Between heavy-handed state direction of the economy, censorship, the hukou system, and the one-child policy, corruption, it would be stunning if there was not a lot of latent dissatisfaction. But directionally, the improvement in most people’s living conditions vs. their parents is equally stunning. The Chinese people have suffered so much that things still look pretty good. They have had zero indigenous experience with liberal democracy and it is a foreign and shocking concept to the overwhelming majority of people. Since Tienanmen, it’s clear the CCP will do whatever it takes to hold on to power. That resistance to reform (and all of Chinese history) presents a choice between submission to a strong central authority, or chaos and destruction of the progress China has made toward unity, wealth, and global respect. These facts, together with state control of media and the harsh reaction to any dissent, explain the lack of pressure for liberalization. However, the Hong Kong experience with civil liberties (despite the complete lack of democracy under either the British or the mainland), and increasing travel and Internet access, cannot help changing that equation on a generational time scale.

In 2012, China will get new leaders. I don’t have anything brilliant to say about this, so I’ll return to it if I do in the future. However, the new leader Xe (pronounce ‘She’) is associated with the Shanghai clique brought to power after Tienanmen and responsible for the top-down industrial policy and FDI focus. But he is also ex-governor of Zhejiang, which is the province south of Shanghai with a far higher rate of indigenous entrepreneurship and non-salary income than Shanghai and other neighboring provinces. He is also a ‘princeling’, the son of a man who was appointed Guangdong ex-governor, and seems to have had a privileged career. But after his farther was purged in the Cultural Revolution, Xe was sent down to work on rural farms, where he spent seven years, finally able to go to university after Mao’s death. The number two, Li, is a member of the ‘Youth League clique’, the perhaps somewhat more ideologically and rurally focused faction of current leader Hu. While I have little insight, the focus may be on reducing export dependence and increasing domestic consumption, if anything stepping back from market reforms towards international standards of accounting and corporate governance, never mind political liberalization.

The Chinese have made a deal with the devil (or the CCP anyway): stay out of politics, don’t challenge the absolute authority of the CCP, and you can do more or less what you want. The trains will run on time (and will be new high speed trains). The Communists fundamentally underestimated the ability of capitalist democracies to evolve. Could we be making the same mistake with China? A deeply mysterious process has enabled a highly competent succession of leaders to emerge and hand off power peacefully for 30 years. Western style democracy and capitalism often do no better. But they have proven the ability to self correct their worst excesses. The political will that enables China to get things done, even when they cause massive dislocation, does not appear to allow for similar checks and balances.

Some of China’s small neighbors have experienced effective dictatorial leadership that over time moved countries closer to true liberal democracy _ Korea and Taiwan come to mind. It’s possible China is following the same path 20 years behind them. It also seems possible that ineffective, kleptocratic leadership could come to power _ Russia comes to mind too. China has experienced rapid change and tumultuous upheavals, and they do not appear to be over.