China now undergoing its third revolution
By John C. Bersia
When Mao Zedong, the first Chinese paramount leader of the communist period, spoke, people trembled. When Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, spoke, people bowed and complied. When Deng's successor, Jiang Zemin, spoke, people paused and paid close attention. And when Jiang's successor, Hu Jintao — who is visiting the United States this week — speaks, people listen and increasingly decide for themselves.
That evolution in the perception of and response to Chinese leaders illustrates the incredible changes that modern revolutions have brought to China — and hints of more to come.
China's first revolution — Mao's communist one, which the United States vehemently opposed — shook the Chinese system to its core and set it on a course that appeared to have long-term staying power. But it turned out that the first revolution derived more fire and fury from Mao himself than from other influences. When he died three decades ago, Mao opened the door not only to political succession but to ideological experimentation.
The result, China's second revolution — led by Deng and properly encouraged by the United States — has brought the Chinese people a plethora of reforms. Most changes have occurred in the economic realm, boosting industry, lifting millions of Chinese into higher socioeconomic categories, and producing the gargantuan trade imbalance favoring Beijing that will rank among the key issues that Hu and President Bush discuss.
As Bush noted a few days ago, "China needs to make itself more transparent. China needs to enforce intellectual property rights. China needs to take additional steps to address the trade imbalance between our countries. And China needs to move to a flexible market-based currency."
It would be hasty, though, to ignore the gradual but important political reforms that have developed across China, particularly democratically oriented village elections that have given hundreds of millions of people intoxicating tastes of what it means to help shape one's future.
In that direction lies the potential for China's third revolution, particularly if Beijing extends similar rights to people at the regional and national levels. A third revolution, which could create the circumstances for an even better relationship with the United States, will not happen quickly or easily. But it is a virtually inevitable result of China's reforms. Other alternatives, such as an indefinite status quo or a regressive crackdown, appear unlikely.
Although he would never acknowledge it publicly, Hu surely knows that he presides over the closing chapters of the communist era in China. The party is nearly over. I sense that anecdotally from comments by Chinese readers in the United States and other countries. Never have they displayed as much optimism about China's prospects, economically and politically. Some have even gone so far as to forecast China's turn toward a clearer democratic track by 2050.
I don't know about the time frame, but I fully anticipate that China will follow in Taiwan's footsteps. Those have led to a model democracy and free-market economy for Taipei.
Will Hu be the Chinese leader who seizes the moment to tilt his country more decisively toward such possibilities?
Prudence and opportunity certainly urge him to consider such boldness. As Mencius, the famed Chinese philosopher, once said, "He who understands destiny does not stand under a wall on the verge of collapse."