The Cooperative Society Newsletter
July 2019, Issue 17
by E.G. Nadeau
A friend and I visited China as tourists in April of this year. Our itinerary included the south-central part of the country, Hong Kong, Tibet, Beijing, and a hike on the Great Wall.
China is impressively modern in many ways – shiny new airports, attractive hotels and restaurants, a well-constructed road system, electric mopeds that have mostly replaced bikes in larger cities, and, at least in tourist sectors, well-kept-up streets, buildings, parks, and gardens.
A darker side of China
But in Lhasa, the administrative capital of “the Autonomous Region of Tibet,” we saw another, darker side of the Celestial Empire that was the opposite of autonomous – a strong police and military presence, including occasional snipers positioned on rooftops; and many Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in the country, imported to dilute the percentage of Tibetans in their own region.
There continues to be controversy over the historical relationship between China and Tibet, the number of Tibetans who have died in the aftermath of China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950 (500,000 seems to be about right), the number of Han Chinese living in Tibet, the extent to which Tibetan Buddhists are allowed to practice their religion, and many other issues.
Although the large majority of Buddhist monasteries was destroyed in the 1950s and 1960s, those that we visited in Lhasa were beautiful and well-maintained. Buddhists appeared to be able to practice their religion freely. At the same time, however, we had the sense that the traditional culture of Tibet was gradually, but inexorably, being subsumed into a monolithic Chinese society.
Tibet is just one example of the Chinese government’s drive to homogenize the diverse cultures and beliefs of its citizens, crush dissent, and snuff out expressions of democratic values. The brutal crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the current suppression of the religious and cultural identity of 11 million Muslim Uighurs in northwestern China, the ongoing attempts to restrict civil rights in Hong Kong, and the ever-present threat to the autonomy of Taiwan are all manifestations of authoritarian rule by China’s political leaders.
In many ways, Tiananmen Square marked a decisive turning point in recent Chinese history. As one author commented: “When China’s moment of reckoning came, Communist Party leaders chose bullets, not ballots. And they made a long-shot, long-term Faustian deal to guarantee economic development in exchange for continued party control that has lasted ever since.”
Another example of oppression
The current plight of the Uighurs represents a doubling down on the repressive side of this “Faustian deal.” There are up to two million Uighur adults in detention centers. Many of their kids are required to attend state-run schools intended to mold them into compliant Chinese citizens while stripping away their religious beliefs, language, and culture. On top of this indoctrination, the Uighur homeland, the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (note again the irony of this province’s name), may be the most concentrated police state in the world, with sophisticated electronic surveillance, facial recognition profiling, apps inserted into phones to track potential dissidents, and, believe it or not, the required boarding of Han Chinese in many Uighur households.
But there is nothing immutable about the current paranoia of China’s leadership toward diversity and dissent.
There have been major shifts in China’s politics and economics since the beginning of Communist rule in 1949 – some disastrous, such as the Great Leap Forward in which an estimated 45 million people died (mostly of starvation) between 1959 and 1962, and the Cultural Revolution in which up to 2 million more people died between 1966 and 1976 – mostly as a result of violence by the Red Guard. On the positive side, Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong’s immediate successor as Chairman of the Communist Party, shifted away from a tightly controlled, state-run economy to a mix of state and private enterprises, beginning in 1976. This change brought rapid economic growth, which has mostly continued to the present day.
A democratic foothold
Most people are unaware that there is a democratic side to Communist China. In 1987, the national government instituted a reform in which village leaders were to be elected by residents and others affiliated with each village. With a few interruptions along the way, this local-level democracy is still in effect. Thus, electoral democracy already has a foothold in almost all of China’s 900,000+ villages.
Just as there have been major changes in China over the past 70 years, it would be imprudent to dismiss the potential for future significant reforms, including ones toward less repression and greater democracy, in the next couple of decades.
 History of Tibet (1950-present), last edited on July 9, 2019, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Tibet_(1950–present)
 Miscellaneous sources.
 Zegart, Amy, June 8, 2019, “Decades of Being Wrong About China Should Teach Us Something,” The Atlantic.
 See for example:
Gershman, Carl, July 4, 2019, “The world knows about Uighurs. There should be a rallying cry to save them.” Washington Post,
Sudworth, John, July 4, 2019, “China Muslims: Xinjiang schools used to separate children from families,” BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-48825090;
Buckley, Chris and Paul Mozur, May 22, 2019, “How China Uses High-Tech Surveillance to Subdue Minorities,”
Withnall, Adam, November 30, 2018, “China sends state spies to live in Uighur Muslim homes and attend private family weddings and funerals,”
Zhong, Raymond, July 2, 2019, “China Snares Tourists’ Phones in Surveillance Dragnet by Adding Secret App,”
 O’Neill, Mark, September 5, 2010, “45 million died in Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Hong Kong historian says in new book,”
 See for example:
Babones, Salvatore, October 14, 2015, “Country Lessons: A Rural Incubator for China’s Political Reform?” Foreign Affairs,
He, Baogang, 2007, Rural Democracy in China: The Role of Village Elections, Palgrave McMillan US, https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9780230600164;
Gannett Jr., Robert T., April 2009, “Village-by-Village Democracy in China,” American Enterprise Institute.