In order to understand China today, it's helpful to understand this simple rule: nothing is as it seems. In fact, I would say this rule applies when observing and analyzing nearly all segments of life in China: politics, economy, social relationships, and even religion. To put it another way, whatever China seems to be at any given moment, it is in fact the opposite. This can be difficult for Westerners, because we tend to be dichotomist in our thinking, wanting something to be either this or that. We don't do well with this and that. Rob Gifford, in his book China Road, expresses well the confusion and bewilderment that await those engaged with China when he writes:
China messes with my head on a daily basis. One day I think that it is really going to take over the world and that the Chinese government is doing the most extraordinary thing the planet has ever witnessed. . . . The next day it will all seem built on sand and I expect it to all come tumbling down around us.
To illustrate this principle, I would like to highlight eight myths or misconceptions that abound regarding China today.
Myth #1: China is a communist country.
What I mean here by communism is a Communist or Marxist belief system. Although the Communist Party of China (CCP), with its 72 million members, remains firmly in power, the reality is that communism is no longer a unifying ideology. China today is essentially a consumer society. Every human being is hard-wired to want more stuff; the Chinese are no different. The economic reforms of the past 30 years have significantly raised the standard of living of most Chinese, and China's participation in the global economy means that anything can be purchased for a price. Most Chinese today are concerned with bettering their economic condition and/or accumulating wealth.
Myth #2: China is a capitalist country.
Capitalism here refers to a particular economic system where the means of production are in private hands. While private enterprise flourishes in China, many sectors remain under state control. These include key sectors such as education, media, resources, and transportation systems. The official line the Chinese use to describe their system is “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” When queried about this Chinese friends usually say, “It means capitalism, but we're still uncomfortable with the word.” What it really describes is a system where the economy is increasingly ordered along free market principles, but the political system remains authoritarian.
Myth #3: China is a wealthy, modern country.
Since most visitors to China spend their time in cities, this is usually the overwhelming impression. To be sure, many cities are extremely wealthy and modern. However, trips to the rural areas of China reveal a different reality, namely that China is still very much a developing nation, where millions of people live in poverty with lifestyles that differ little from their ancestors of a century ago. Recent statistics indicate that only 24 million people in China earn more than RMB 2,000 per month (approximately $300), the minimum tax exemption threshold. In other words, more than a billion Chinese still make less than RMB 2,000 per month.
Myth #4: China is a poor, backward country.
China has many characteristics of an emerging modern nation. There is extreme wealth, with China now lagging behind only the United States in the number of billionaires. There is a sophisticated telecommunications system, with more than 900 million cell phone subscribers. China has an ambitious space program that aims to put a man on the moon by 2025. These are not typically characteristics of a poor and backwards country.
Myth #5: People live under severe oppression.
While there was a time when fear was the dominant feature of the lives of Chinese people, the reality in China today is quite different. As the state and party continue to back out of personal lives (not entirely, mind you, as evidenced by the one-child policy) people today have many choices that were not available to them 10 or 15 years ago: choosing majors and jobs, buying homes and cars, and traveling abroad, for example. In some ways the government has made a bargain with the people: we'll give you space and freedom to prosper economically, and you leave the politics to us. “So long as you don't challenge the authorities, you can say and do anything” is how a friend has described it to me. It's also important to remember that people in China are very patriotic, and they love their country deeply.
Myth #6: People live in freedom.
While Chinese people enjoy many personal freedoms today, these freedoms do not extend to the political sphere. Freedom of expression is severely limited, with no room for criticizing the government or the Communist Party. Citizens do not participate in choosing the leaders; rather, they are appointed and selected within the personnel system of the party. Further, since China's legal system is still weak, and the party sits outside (and above) it, people are often subject to the whim of local political leaders accountable to no one.
Myth #7: Religious persecution is the normal experience for believers of all faiths.
Many people have the false impression that no religious activity is permitted in China and that believers (particularly Christians) are severely persecuted. While there was a time when that was true (1950s to 1980s), persecution is not the normal experience for most believers in China today. Religious belief has made a significant resurgence in the past 30 years. There are five “approved religions” in China: Buddhism, Daosim, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Accurate numbers are difficult to come by, but Buddhism claims the most adherents, with Protestantism being second (perhaps 50 million to 70 million). Christianity is the fastest-growing religion, with that growth taking place in both the registered and unregistered churches. In addition, the church's role in society seems to be expanding, with opportunities for church involvement in meeting social and humanitarian needs. In addition to the approved religions, Chinese traditional folk beliefs and superstitions are also common, especially among the rural population.
Myth #8: There is religious freedom.
While the government says it offers “freedom of religious belief,” it reserves the right to set the boundaries within which religious activities can be practiced, and those boundaries expand and contract in response to the political environment. Religious activities are supervised by the State Administration of Religious Affairs and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Self-Funding, Self-Governing, Self-Propagating). All religious activities must be registered and approved, and unregistered groups are often harassed and/or shut down. The government is fearful of allowing space for competing ideologies and belief systems that may pose a threat. If you find all of this confusing then consider, once again, this observation from Rob Gifford: “If you're not confused then you simply haven't been paying attention.”