During the last few decades, China has rapidly transformed itself from an impoverished and destitute society into a growing and prosperous global economic powerhouse with a GDP (PPP) of $11.29 trillion. As a result of its roaring economy, China will inevitably become the next superpower of the world, whether it is in 2016 as predicted by the IMF last year, or in 2020. China meets all the prerequisites for a superpower: a large manufacturing economy, a strong military, a huge population and a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Therefore it is not a question of if but when China — which currently is the second biggest economy in the world — will be the world’s biggest economy. Whenever it happens, that era will catalyze new challenges and problems for the propagation of human rights and freedoms. By looking at the China of today, it is imagine a future China that will, like the United States, become a place where oppressed and unprivileged people from around the world seek refuge, asylum and freedom. I cannot imagine “pilgrims” on a modern-day Mayflower ship settling somewhere in China in search of liberty. And I doubt people will ever endanger their lives by scaling the Great Wall of China unless the current socio-political paradigms are changed.
It is true that China abandoned its command economy in favor of free-market principles. But this transition only created deregulation of prices, property rights and trading, not deregulation of individual freedoms, ideas and liberty. One economic step forward has been a leap backwards for human rights. As a result, Freedom House, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization which monitors freedoms around the world, rates China as a “Not-Free” state with a 6.5 freedom rating. Such a low rating is manifested in the religious and political suppression of Uyghurs and Tibetans, who are marginalized and treated as sub-class citizens.
Additionally, the persecution of Chinese dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei epitomizes not only on the arduous human rights abuses, suppression of dissent, and Internet censorship of today’s China, but also paints an unfortunate picture of what could happen in the future when China becomes a superpower. If China can so openly and effectively suppress the views of its own, imagine its reactions to the opposing views of a dissident from a different ethnicity or color living there.
The reason for the lack of freedom is because China had prioritized modernization before democratization and thereby instilled cultural and institutional resistance to change. In order to create political legitimacy and international popular appeal, China and its Communist government need to allow more democratization instead of only pursuing modernization. Corruption, abuse of power, injustices and censorship needs to be reduced. Deregulation of the political system will spearhead the much-needed reforms and changes in the Chinese societal and political atmosphere.
But it will be hard to achieve those reforms because the Chinese elite do not want to completely succumb to democratic elements for fears of losing the Communist Party. The Chinese elite will resist any political changes to the status quo because it will inflict losses upon the elite. The Communist Party and elites of China believe that democracies are prone to conflicts due to social, ethnic and class struggles. They favor authoritarian practices to suppress any potential triggering mechanisms for change.
Nevertheless, China does have the ability to become a prosperous and freer nation. There are two methods, one external and one internal, to achieving that goal. The external method is for the outside world, particularly the West and China’s other trading partners around the world, to exponentially enhance their support for democratization in China through active cooperative dynamics. That includes using all kinds of legal, political and economic aid and sanctions to help the oppressed Uyghurs and other minorities as well as increase civil freedoms. However, if the external method fails, then there arises a need for a “Chinese Spring,” much like the popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, to develop a bottom-up movement. There is hope that as the Chinese educated middle class grows, the probability of a “Chinese Spring” also becomes greater.