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Freedom in China

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James Reynolds | 11:26 UK time, Monday, 4 August 2008

How much freedom is there in China? There are two competing ways to see it.

Shoppers in ShanghaiInternational human rights groups say that China is a police state in which the government has the power to bully, detain, or even execute citizens who step out of line. In this state, ordinary people are denied their inherent rights. They have to rely instead on the mercy of a state which often shows no compassion towards its most vulnerable citizens.

But the Chinese government insists that this view is a distortion. The Communist Party says that China's citizens now enjoy far greater freedoms than they did before. Around 400 million people have been lifted out of poverty over the course of just one generation - that these people now have freedom from hunger and disease.

The argument between these two competing points of view batters about throughout the year (the most recent round took place a few days ago with the publication of a report by Amnesty International followed by a rebuttal by the Chinese government.)

But here's the problem with this continuing argument - both points of view are actually correct. China is an authoritarian state which punishes dissent. But, at the same time, it's also a state in which today's young people enjoy far more freedom than their parents ever did.

A generation ago, your life as a Chinese person was mostly decided for you by the state. Every citizen belonged to a work unit - the most basic structure of organisation in the Communist system. This unit was your careers advisor, social worker, matchmaker, and parole officer in one.

In return for your obedience, you were given free education, free housing, an assigned job, and free healthcare (this universal welfare and work system was known as the iron rice bowl.)

Sometimes, the unit would even pick you a husband or wife as well. In this system, Chinese people hardly had any space left for their own decisions (and even if they had any money to spend, there was very little to spend it on.)

But, in 1978 China's leader Deng Xiaoping began a series of economic reforms that opened up China to the rest of the world (effectively swapping pure communism for high-concentrate capitalism.) As a result, the old state-tells-you-what-colour-socks-to-wear system has changed. The Communist Party has now retreated from many parts of people's lives.

Today, people in China now have much greater freedom of choice than they did several decades ago...

What people in China can now do:

• move around the country more freely
• travel abroad
• buy their own house (a law protecting private property was passed in 2007)
• pick their own job
• decide who they want to marry (and decide if they want to get divorced)
• openly criticise government corruption & failure (but only at mid and low levels)

It's worth bearing this new set of freedoms in mind, because it's often the most immediate benchmark for younger people in China (mostly because it's a direct comparison with their own parents' lives - surely the most meaningful comparison in anyone's life.)

By contrast, to many of the older generation in China, this new freedom can sometimes feel a bit like abandonment. Among those who grew up under the certainties of old system there is regret over the loss of free education, housing and health care. Now, if you get sick, or lose your job - you're largely on your own. (The government has caught onto how angry people feel about this - and it recently promised to bring back parts of the old welfare system.)

For all the new freedoms and choices, there are still many restrictions and red lines in modern China...

What people in China are not allowed to do:

• choose their government in an open election
• criticise the Communist Party's top leaders (at least in public)
• have more than one child (rule applies to the ethnic Han majority living in urban areas)
• form an independent trade union.
• worship a religion which does not pledge loyalty to the Communist Party
• access all parts of the internet (although the smartest can find ways round the firewall)

Some of the political red lines were firmly drawn up in 1989 when the government sent in tanks to end student protests in Tiananmen Square. Since then, many believe that the government has worked out a tacit bargain with its citizens - the Communist Party makes the people rich, in exchange the people let the Party handle all the politics.

But if you don't buy into this agreement, or if you just happen to get into trouble, the system can be pretty unforgiving. The recent Amnesty report details the continuing use of detention without trial as a means of controlling petitioners trying to get their voices heard, and it also documents the continuing harassment of human rights defenders.

During my time in China I've reported on the stories of many ordinary people who've been defeated - or even crushed - by a system which has no room for their views or problems.

In the end, perhaps the way you see freedom in China depends on your starting point.

If you compare things to a generation ago, the average Chinese person now has much more choice - and freedom - in his/her life.

But if you compare things to the way they are in other countries - or even to the promises that China itself has made - then the average Chinese person has a tougher time.

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