Reality Check on Liu Xiaobo

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Ten years ago, tech-savvy Westerners were confident that, once the internet spread across China, the central government's power to control what people thought and knew would surely evaporate. As argued elsewhere, it has not really turned out that way. For instance: the Google-v-China dispute.

There is a variant of this argument that I would still advance: that in the long run, the Chinese system will have a hard time developing really high-end brands (the next Googles, Apples, Mercedeses, GEs), fostering truly great universities, or attracting top-level talent from the rest of the world (yes, even China needs it) if the media and political system remain closed. Seeing how this tension is resolved will be one of the great nation-scale experiments of the next generation.

For the moment, here is a sobering bit of evidence about the level of insulation the current system can sustain. It is from a Westerner who has lived and worked in China for a long time. He writes:

>> Our NGO works extensively in China, with an office there for training and consulting for foreign brands as well as Chinese suppliers. I was in [one of China's fastest-growing and most cosmpolitan cities] last week for our annual conference, and spent some time with our 15 local staff there. With the exception of our 40-something directors, the staff are for the most part in their late 20s and early 30s, educated, worldly, cosmopolitan, savvy, bi-lingual. They work to improve human rights in China.

Most of them hadn't even heard of Liu Xiaobo. One of our senior staff had heard of him but didn't know he was in jail.

I consider myself pretty sensible about China, having been involved extensively there since first living in [a big regional capital] from 1985-88, and then in Hong Kong and Beijing in the 90s (with an international NGO). In my work and among friends I've advocated for realism about the limits to Chinese interest in 'democracy,' and recognized how far off we Americans are from mainstream Chinese opinion about Tibet and the Dalai Lama.

But I was still surprised and a bit depressed to learn how effective Chinese silencing of Mr Liu's voice has been among people who should be more exposed to alternative China news. [emphasis added]<<

I've said, and still think, that the choice of Liu Xiaobo is an important one in China's long-term evolution -- and that the expansion of liberties and civil society within China is a crucial goal for its people and for the world. But the Chinese system is more robust than many of its Western critics recognize. It has been successful in making (most) people's lives materially better year by year, adaptable in responding (usually) to domestic dissatisfaction before it explodes, and surprisingly effective in steering general knowledge and debate within the country, as this anecdote shows. The more you're exposed to it, the less certain you are about how it will evolve.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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