Authoritarianism in China: A Hard Nut to Crack

Personal reflections from my recent government-sponsored visit to China on the country's current Communist regime.

Recently, I was in China for 10 days as a guest of the Chinese government. I was among five Americans who gave lectures at a conference at Nanchang University in Nanchang, China. The city is located west of Shanghai; it is the 20th largest city in China with a population of 5 million (2009-2010 estimates). The University has approximately 82,000 students.

While there, I formed some opinions of whether or not China still works on Communist principles even though it is reportedly aspiring to a different model. This didn’t take very long. Already in the airport before my plane took off, I was in receipt of suggestive information from a fellow traveler. He was a young man who works for an Indianapolis firm that manufactures in China. Their whole operation is there. Since the Chinese do every step of the production, I wondered why they didn’t just take the business and run with it, leaving the Indianapolis Company high and dry. My traveling companion seemed confounded by my idea. He told me outright, “They’re not able to do this.”

When questioned further he said, that virtually no one working at the company was more than 30 years old. They all did what they were told, absolutely nothing more. Rather than quality control, they were interested in production numbers, whether the product worked or not. Supervision, other than from the Indianapolis firm, wasn’t in place because the Chinese weren’t able to do it; at least that was his opinion.

This conversation fell into line with something else I learned later on my trip. The students do a lot of rote memory while in school. Creativity is not encouraged. This leads to followers rather than leaders, perhaps a continuation of the earlier Communist regime.

There is more. The Nanchang University students who translated our presentations and shepherded us around (since we did not speak Chinese) were the brightest and the best in the country. All they want to do is leave China. This is, I believe, not only because they perceive better opportunities abroad, but also because they sense that the atmosphere is more open and fair, essentially less oppressive. By interacting with foreigners they hope they might have an entry to America. To keep up the connection, one of my translators e-mails me more than my own daughter. The others continue to make contact too, at least every several weeks.

Sylvia, a translator, told me a story that illustrates how following the rules is not only important in China, but essential. She had recently translated for several Africans who were in China illegally. They were aided by a Chinese professor who said they were studying with him and thereby they received bogus student visas. When they were found out, they were charged with entering the country illegally and a trial was held.

The Africans received one year in a Chinese prison; the professor six years. Though this story could have played out in the U.S. too, it would have been less likely. First, professors here receive a higher salary than their Chinese equivalent and are less likely to be induced into such a scheme. Secondly, even if one did engage in this trickery, the sentence would almost certainly be lighter.

A pervasive repression is still felt in other little ways. For example, in the ladies restroom in one museum, a five-year-old girl on a classroom visit came out of the lavatory with her skirt up over her underpants. In a matter of less than 30 seconds five older Chinese women descended on this child. It was not pleasant. They scolded her vigorously; I assume a holdover from an earlier oppressive regime. In the States, I expect the response would likely have been motherly intervention, not an attack.

The new Communist regime may still be overbearing (or worse) but wishes it weren’t. A Financial Times article from Jan. 5, 2013 suggests this is the case. A first-page headline read, “China’s Censors in Media Crackdown.” It follows with, “Magazine website run by party liberals shut; hopes of reform by new leadership dashed.”

It appears that the adage, “Old habits die hard,” is still true.

Have you visited China? What has been your experiences in the country? Let us know in the comments!

Read more:

Chinese authorities crack down on reporting about media censorship