In an authoritarian nation, individual freedom is subordinate to the state’s authority. Dissenters risk their lives and personal fortunes. In the People’s Republic of China, those risks are ongoing.
As the U.S. State Department noted for 2006, China’s “human-rights record remained poor, and, in certain areas, deteriorated. There were an increased number of high-profile cases involving the monitoring, harassment, detention, arrest and imprisonment of journalists, writers, activists and defense lawyers, many of whom were seeking to exercise their rights under law.”
But reportedly, freedom-seeking risk-takers increasingly are aided and perhaps emboldened by Internet communications. Take for example, Zhang Zilin, of the Web-based China Pan-Blue Alliance seeking re-unification with Taiwan. Zhang recently spread details of a bloody clash between 20,000 farmers and police armed with batons in central China. Farmers had protested a bus-fare increase.
In another day and time, crushing such a protest might have gone largely unnoticed by the rest of China or the world. But Zhang, the Associated Press reported, “is a part of a burgeoning breed of activists … eager for social justice and linked by the Internet.”
After World War II, China’s socialist system imposed repressive controls over everyday life at the cost of tens of millions of lives. After 1978, China’s leaders turned to market-oriented economic development. By 2000, output quadrupled, according to the CIA World Fact Book. For many, living standards improved dramatically, yet political controls remain tight.
As New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof has noted, “(P)olice can arrest people and torture or kill them with impunity, even if they are trying to do nothing more than worship God.” Fellow Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal described China as “the world’s biggest dictatorship, one particularly devoted to religious persecution.” The Voice of the Martyrs, a ministry to persecuted Christians worldwide, says China’s government “is ramping up persecution against Christians as the 2008 Olympic Games approach.”
China is proof that there is more to freedom than free markets. Yet among the fruits of China’s market reform has been “a huge expansion in computer Internet use, with more than 100 million users at the end of 2005,” according to the CIA World Fact Book. Will increasing freedom of communication spurred by the Internet ultimately transform this authoritarian nation? That’s our hope.