Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Cleveland of Asia: A Journey Through China’s Rust Belt

For years I’ve been active in Freedom House, the oldest of the private organizations advocating for international freedom and democracy. We’ve seen progress, especially since 1989. We’ve seen backsliding. And we’ve seen stasis, notably 1.3-billion-persons’-worth of stasis in China. Freedom House rates China as “Not Free.” On a scale of 1 to 7—where 1 is as free as human nature allows and 7 is completely otherwise—China scores 6 on civil liberties and 7 on political rights.

Yet we at Freedom House cannot be exactly right. A mere increase in China’s prosperity must mean that more Chinese have greater wherewithal to exercise some aspects of free will. Certainly the Chinese are more free now than they were during the Great Leap Forward, when millions were constrained by starving to death. And the Chinese are freer to go about their business than they were during the Cultural Revolution, when there was no business to go about.

Freedom and democracy are abstract. Daily life is concrete. This is not to denigrate the importance of the abstract. God himself is abstract, until he strikes us with a bolt of lightning. The monks and nuns of political science may be overwhelmed by abstraction, as are the victims of such abstractions as Mao Thought. But, mercifully, quotidian existence is conducted mostly in the world of things and stuff.

I went to China for a month in 2006 and ended up taking a tour of the world of things and stuff. I didn’t mean to. I was just sightseeing. I’d only been to the mainland once and then only to Shanghai. I wanted to visit the Three Gorges before the new dam turned the Yangtze into a cesspool. I wanted a look at the Terracotta Warriors. And that sort of thing.

I was traveling with old friends from Hong Kong, whom I’ll call Tom and Mai. Tom has spent decades in the mining and metallurgy business. He was breaking ground on an ore-processing plant in Nanjing. He seems to know everyone in China who has anything to do with iron, steel, coal, or beer. And Mai and her brothers owned a company in Hong Kong that brokered textile machinery. When China initiated its “Open Door” economic policy, Mai would take mainland clients to Europe (where they’d encounter their first fork) and arrange for the purchase of used spinning and weaving equipment.

Continued here (World Affairs, dated Spring 2008)