Chinese President Hu Jintao delivers his speech during the celebration of the Communist Party’s 90th anniversary at the Great Hall of the People on July 1, 2011 in Beijing, China. (June 30, 2011 – Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images AsiaPac)
By TOM LASSETER
BEIJING — Lu Weixing decided this year to run as an independent candidate for a local council position in Beijing.
Lost for the right words to describe what came next, he stuck his hand into his pocket and fished out a white and orange Vitamin C tube. He tilted it forward until a single tooth rolled out.
“They beat me and then I lost a tooth,” Lu said recently.
Voting for the largely powerless councils happened Tuesday. Lu’s name was not on the ballot.
The next day, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde flew into Beijing, likely seeking financial help from China to prop up the European Union’s flailing economy.
The juxtaposition of the two events – a stage-managed election marred by thuggish behavior and the West’s lender of last resort looking for cash – was a reminder of a central question surrounding China’s growing strength on the world stage:
What are the consequences of an opaque, authoritarian government hurtling toward such immense international power?
The lack of a clear answer has created an ambiguous and, to critics, an unsettling situation.
Most Chinese, pleased by the material gains of the past few decades, stay away from politics. But in instances when someone openly defies the Chinese Communist Party’s sense of order, the consequences can be severe.
That same party is now in command of the second-largest economy in the world, and increasingly it calls the shots when the West comes hat in hand.
A few weeks before the trip by Lagarde, the head of the European Union’s bailout fund made a similar appearance in Beijing.
There was a time when analysts in Washington spoke hopefully that China’s economic growth would lead to a broad expansion of civil liberties. Engage China’s business interests, the thinking went, and the government’s harsh ways would relax.
Decades later, that has not happened.
Instead, China continues to be guided by a system that at its core would be familiar to Vladimir Lenin when he founded the disappeared Soviet Union 94 years ago: a secretive group of nine men in the standing committee of a politburo, and a Communist Party that seeks a firm grip on all facets of society.
The first part of the equation, however, has been more successful than anyone could have imagined when China began its “Reform and Opening-up” at the end of the 1970s.
Trade between the United States and China reached some $457 billion last year. Fueled by its seemingly endless exports, Beijing now holds more than $1.1 trillion in American Treasury debt.
At the same time, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a group Congress created in 2000 to monitor the country’s democratic progress, noted last month: “Official rhetoric notwithstanding, China’s human rights and rule of law record has not improved … a troubling trend is officials’ increased willingness to disregard the law when it suits them, particularly to silence dissent.”
As Lu found out after returning last year from a decade abroad in France, that extends all the way down to obscure neighborhood politics.
His quirky and unsanctioned campaign in west Beijing included wearing a cap with a long queue braid reminiscent of the Qing Dynasty. It was a reminder that although 100 years have passed since the Qing fell, China’s central government is still ruled by non-elected officials.