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It is easy to get gloomy about China nowadays. The economy is slowing down and the ruling party is cracking down on dissent across the spectrum of Chinese society. Many rights lawyers, vocal journalists and free-thinking professors have either been arrested or dismissed.
Beijing is building a taller ‘Great Firewall’ to make life difficult for dissidents and even for foreigners living in China. The education Minister has just warned university presidents to get rid of nasty Western textbooks that are critical of the party.
The list goes on and on. But before we get completely disillusioned about the future of China, there are significant progressive forces there that could potentially charter a new course for the world’s most populous nation: the internet, NGOs, private entrepreneurs and liberal scholars.
- The internet
The internet is a game changer for China. The country has 632 million internet users, twice the size of the US. The total market size of the e-commerce sector in China is $295 billion, larger than the US’ $270 billion. The internet sector is easily the most dynamic part of China’s $10 trillion economy.
Indigenous Chinese tech and e-commerce companies like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu are some of the largest listed internet companies in the world, rivalling many Silicon Valley giants. The industry is transforming many aspects of the economy from retail to banking.
McKinsey estimates internet adoption could add four to 14 trillion yuan to GDP by 2025, when China is expected to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy. The internet industry is also expected to contribute 7 to 22 per cent of total GDP growth from 2013 and 2025.
However, most importantly, Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat are challenging Beijing’s monopoly over information. Despite the recent crackdown and ubiquitous presence of censors, China is a vastly freer place because of the internet. We can compare the internet to the foreign concessions of the early twenty century China, where journalists and people could escape from the tentacles of the government.
- Non-governmental organisations
When the Communist party came into power, they pretty much destroyed China’s civil society. However, there has been a re-emergence of civil society in the country since 1979 despite heavy-handed government intervention and repression. A lot of NGOs have emerged to take on many pressing social and environmental issues.
In 2008, there were nearly 4000 environmental protection and advocacy groups in China and less than a quarter of them were registered with the government. In Elizabeth Economy’s seminal book on China’s environmental crisis, The River Runs Black, she tells a heart-warming story of rising civic consciousness in China and people’s willingness to engage and sometimes challenge the government on environmental issues.
A coalition of journalists, activists, actors and even legislators are re-writing China’s WWII history. The Party had until recently airbrushed the Nationalist government’s contribution in the war against Japan from the official history. However, many civically minded people are challenging that and have made hugely successful documentaries setting the record straight.
They have established foundations to assist National veterans who have been persecuted by the Party during the 1960s and 1970s.
- Private entrepreneurs
At the end of 2012, China has more than 10 million private businesses and 40 million business people. This is the largest ever property-owning capitalist class in the country’s long history. Though a lot of them have migrated overseas or in the process of doing so, they are still interested in securing their wealth and rights in China.
At a large gathering of the China Relay Club, one of the country’s most influential business associations, in Hainan two years ago, many company owners openly and vocally criticised the government’s decision to arbitrarily seize people’s assets and put people behind bars on dubious charges.
The younger generation of business people, especially those from the technology sector, don’t want to have anything to do with the government if they can help it. It is in the interests of China’s ever expanding business class to fight for better protection of property rights and rule of law in the country.
- Liberal scholars and opinion leaders
The scholarly class has always played a disproportionately large and influential role in Chinese society. For centuries, a scholarly class who had mastered the Confucian classics, effectively governed the country. It even served as a role model for the British civil services.
However, the Party largely destroyed this scholarly class from the 1950s to the 1970s through various vicious campaigns – most notoriously, the Cultural Revolution. This historically important group has re-emerged since the late 1970s. Many of them have studied abroad including in the U.S. and Europe.
The group includes market economists, constitutional scholars and political scientists. They are spreading the ideas of constitutionalism and free market economics at Chinese universities and thoughout society in general. The government is fearful of them and is trying to censor their work and voices. But it’s quite an impossible task to accomplish even for an organisation as powerful as the Chinese Communist Party.
These new and progressive forces have the potential to shape the future course of China in an unexpected way. Though China is not a pluralistic society like Australia, it is also not a monolithic society.
Peter Cai is the Editor of China Spectator. Follow him on Twitter: @peteryuancai