Ever since the triumph of China's communist revolution--sixty years ago yesterday--left-leaning intellectuals have convinced themselves of cheerful falsehoods about the regime. Visitors to China, even during the heyday of Mao Tse-tung's ruinous economic policies, saw a "uniquely creative" and "profoundly ethical" political system. "Life in China today," claimed Simone de Beauvoir, "is exceptionally pleasant." English clergyman Hewlett Johnson perceived in Mao "an obvious preoccupation with the needs of others."
The delusional narrative of China's brave progressivism dominated the skyline of New York City earlier this week: The Empire State Building paid homage to China's revolution with a display of red and yellow lights, the colors of the People's Republic of China. Despite protests from human rights groups, the lights burned brightly until early yesterday morning. Asked to explain the multi-megawatt celebration, the Empire State Building's management told reporters it "doesn't discuss the intricacies of the lighting approval process."
The management philosophy of corporate quislings does not concern us here. What needs explaining is what America's premier city of tolerance and diversity finds honorable about a dictatorship famous for its political repression and ideological conformity.
To this day, the political left will not allow the facts about China's rancid experiments on hundreds of millions of human beings to intrude upon their sensibilities. Robert Scheer, a contributing editor at The Nation, complained this week about the "demonology" and "unrelenting hostility" that has driven U.S. foreign policy toward China. Scheer managed to ignore any hint of anything amiss--anything at all--with the record of Chinese communism. The leaders in Beijing, he claims, have always been "nationalists, first and foremost."
It was not nationalism that caused China to instigate an unprovoked war of aggression in the Korean peninsula, leaving in its wake a concentration camp--North Korea--masquerading as a sovereign country. It was not nationalism that inspired Mao's "Great Leap Forward," a massive collectivization program and man-made famine that obliterated an estimated 36 million people. Neither was it nationalism that produced the Cultural Revolution, which set loose the Red Guards in a killing spree that claimed another 400,000 lives. Likewise, the rulers who ordered the 1989 massacre at Tienanmen Square--when Red Army tanks and infantry murdered 2,600 student demonstrators--were not "nationalists, first and foremost." No, in each case, the policies that created this inventory of human suffering resulted from a political theology: communist, totalitarian, utopian, and atheistic.
China's recent experiment in capitalism--it now boasts the world's third largest economy--supposedly makes all of this irrelevant. Beijing pursues a "generally cooperative and pragmatic foreign policy" that embraces globalization, according to Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. At home, the government relies on economic growth, rising living standards and "selective" measures of repression. "Needless to say," Pei writes, "the party's strategy of staying in power has changed almost completely during this period."
Needless to say, this chirpy narrative of China's good manners doesn't sit well with human rights groups, political dissidents, religious leaders, and other victims of the regime.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maintains an unrivaled grip on power. The 3,000-member National People's Congress is a slavish, symbolic tool of the party. Even supposedly competitive local elections are rife with fraud, corruption, violence, and attacks on independent candidates. Opposition groups, such as the China Democratic Party, face harassment and the constant threat of arrest.
Every important political freedom taken for granted in the West is either denied or severely restricted in China. Media coverage of "sensitive" topics--such as criticism of political leaders--is censored. Material in virtually every Chinese medium requires state approval. Freedom of assembly is routinely thwarted or limited. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the lifeblood of a healthy civil society, are regarded as enemies of the party. Activists accused of "damaging national unity" or "upsetting ethnic harmony" find themselves under surveillance or under arrest. Since the CCP controls the judiciary, verdicts against the accused are often a foregone conclusion. "Torture remains widespread," according to Freedom House, "with coerced confessions routinely admitted as evidence." At least 65 crimes--including nonviolent offenses--carry the death penalty. China's one-child policy, and preference for boys, has produced a culture that winks at forced abortion, sterilization, sexual trafficking and domestic violence.
From the earliest days of the communist takeover of China, party leaders have tried to manipulate religion to serve state interests. No wonder: Belief in God always implies limits on the authority of the state. President Hu Jintao, China's leader since 2002, has ordered government agencies to "strengthen Marxist atheist research, propaganda and education" to check the influence of "Western hostile forces" in the guise of religion. All religious organizations must register with the state. Members of unauthorized groups, including the Falun Gong as well as Christian "underground" churches, risk imprisonment and torture. The government bans baptisms, religious education, and evangelism.
China strove mightily last year to improve its image in anticipation of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. But party moguls couldn't help themselves: The government stepped up surveillance activities, cracked down on rights activists, and bullied religious and ethnic minorities into silence. The same brutish tactics were applied to quell recent ethnic disturbances in the Xinjiang region and riots in Tibet.
Apologists for China's "internal affairs" ignore the link between its contempt for democratic ideals at home and foreign policies that threaten human rights and international security. It is China, after all, that has helped Iran develop its ballistic missile program, a fact made more fearsome by Tehran's growing nuclear capability. Chinese arms shipments have supplied insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. China's oil interests in Sudan have dictated its support for an Islamist thugocracy and underwritten genocide in Darfur. China props up the murderous Burmese junta with military aid--jets, armored vehicles, training--in its war against ethnic minorities and pro-democracy forces. In exchange, Beijing enjoys favored access to Burma's natural resources. Says Benedict Rogers, a human rights activist with the London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide: "If China wishes to be seen as a responsible player on the international stage, it must end its complicity with Burma's crimes against humanity."
Is this what Manhattan's mealy-mouthed muppets find so laudatory? Are they so insulated from the effects of China's despotisms and craven self-interest? What kind of a mayor allows his city to be debased by this tribute to barbarism? Their apologia, a staple of U.S. foreign policy, is China's economic liberalism. "In the last 30 years, China has undergone an extraordinary economic transformation, lifting millions of people out of poverty," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday. "This is truly an historic accomplishment."
The problem with this version of history is its materialism: Its shrunken view of human aspirations represents an assault on the human spirit. It is a sickness well understood by Chinese dissidents. Last year over 11,000 of them signed a document, Charter 08, calling for democratic reform in China. "The Chinese government's approach to 'modernization' has proven disastrous. It has stripped people of their rights, destroyed their dignity, and corrupted normal human intercourse," the document says. "So we ask: Where is China headed in the twenty-first century? Will it...embrace universal human values, join the mainstream of civilized nations, and build a democratic system? There will be no avoiding these questions."
The pathetic and fraudulent spectacle in New York this week suggests that there are many in the West who wish to ignore these questions. We may hope that the conscience of China's freedom-fighters will not allow this evasion to continue indefinitely.
Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow and lecturer in politics at the King's College in New York City.