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In China, it's all about prosperity, not freedom

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By David Ignatius
Thursday, October 21, 2010

BEIJING

In the week in which China's secretive leadership signaled the identity of the country's likely next president, I found myself meeting here with groups of Chinese high school students, business people, journalists and academics. The eerie thing was that politics almost never came up.

Americans sometimes assume that a richer China will soon demand greater freedom and democracy. Don't bet on it: What Chinese repeat to foreign visitors, in so many settings that the canned phrases become credible, is something like this: We like what we've got; we're worried about losing it; we want stability even if it means less freedom and openness.

Chinese don't seem to know much about Xi Jinping, the man who this week became heir apparent to President Hu Jintao, beyond the fact that he is a "princeling" son of power and that he is married to a star singer. This makes him a man who is likely to maintain the status quo -- and perhaps reform the system and spread the wealth just enough to keep any dissenters quiet. For most Chinese I encountered, those qualities seem to be enough.

"You don't find many idealists in China today," says Alan Guo, a former Google employee who has created an online shopping business here. "It's more important to solve a traffic jam in Beijing than vote for president."

There's protest in China, to be sure, but it's largely about economic and property issues. The freedom agenda of Tiananmen Square in 1989, embodied today by the imprisoned Nobel Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, has mostly been throttled. Among the elite in China's wealthy cities, fear of the peasants in the hinterlands seems to be a bigger concern than the opaque Communist Party leadership.

For a snapshot of China's future, talk with students at Beijing High School 101. Decked out in their blue-and-white uniforms to meet visiting Western journalists (organized by the Committee of 100, a private U.S. group that promotes Chinese-American dialogue), the children are astonishingly bright and well-spoken in English. But even here at the top of the heap, there's a fragility. They're all products of China's one-child policy, and you sense the heavy expectations of their parents: Study, succeed, prosper, don't lose your seat on the express train to riches.

A boy with a wisp of a mustache worries that the gap between China's rich and poor is widening and that the wealthy "just want to play golf." A female classmate agrees: "In this society, materialism prevails. People chase after riches." But these kids don't seem likely to rock the boat. Many look quizzical when the visitors advise them to follow their dreams in choosing a career.

At Tsinghua University, a graduate student named Yin Wang offers a catchy and probably accurate line: "Young people don't care who succeeds Hu Jintao; they care about who succeeds Michael Jackson."

A recurring theme here is self-censorship by a population that doesn't want to risk crossing the fuzzy limits on free speech. Students attend journalism school partly to learn what subjects are off-limits. Young reporters who dig beyond the official account get branded as "unreliable" and lose good assignments.

The government monitors the Internet to keep it tame, and Chinese businesses and consumers play along. One of China's biggest Web sites is said to employ 100 people to scan the proliferation of micro-blogs here. Parents avoid telling their children about the Tiananmen protests for fear they will ask more questions -- and get in trouble.

The threat to this elite urban life comes from the still-poor rural provinces. The Chinese revolution began among such peasants, and there's an almost palpable fear that the new China's growing inequality could trigger another such revolt. That's one reason people are nervous about democracy: They don't want to enfranchise those angry peasants. The Communist Party this week approved a five-year plan that calls for "inclusive growth" -- meaning a bigger share of the pie for the potentially restless rural areas.

At a banquet in the Great Hall of the People, a Chinese official named Nan Zhenzhong explains that although the coastal cities may resemble Europe, the interior of China is more like Africa. He repeats the word "stability" so often it sounds like a creed.

In nearly two hours of talk, Nan doesn't once mention the new leader, Xi, who was validated that very day. That's another sign of the anti-political mood. Perhaps only a country born in a revolution could be so wary of change.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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