Reporting this spring in China, I became convinced that the western impression of Big Brother Beijing needs serious revision. Yes, China can at times crack down with terrible ferocity. But when it comes to routine maintenance and oversight, the ordinary business of running a government (read: ensuring Beijing's laws are followed in the hinterlands), the central government often stumbles.
This touches on one of the ways in which day-by-day experience in China differs most substantially from the general impression in America. Parts of daily life here are thoroughly, and if need be brutally, controlled. There is to be no political challenge to the Communist Party. Each year tens of thousands of protests, mainly in the countryside, are put down by force. Recently the government has squashed protests over environmental disasters and the one-child policy.
But that is not how it looks or seems for most people most of the time. (No, I haven't seen "most" of China. But I have been a lot of places in the last year and this impression is consistent.) To the extent Americans imagine something like Stalin's Soviet Union, or the old East Germany, or Hitler's Germany in the 1930s, or Orwell's 1984. it just is not like that day by day. The world has never before seen quite this combination of repression and laissez faire, even chaos. Its full implications, good and bad, will take a long time to understand. The main point is: it's different from what most Americans think.