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How democracy may come to China

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
  • David Frum says China's rising middle class wants its gains safeguarded
  • He says that for security, they depend on the Communist Party regime
  • In many ways, the middle class wants more freedom of expression, Frum says
  • He says they want "Facebook, YouTube, Gmail, safe milk ... cleaner air"
  • China
  • Communism
  • Mao Tse-tung
  • Beijing

Editor's note: David Frum writes a weekly column for A special assistant to President Bush in 2001-02, he is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again" and is the editor of FrumForum.

Beijing, China (CNN) -- "Why do you assume that we want Western democracy?" The question was put by an English-speaking Chinese woman, a graduate of an American university, over an elegant dinner served in a private dining room at an expensive restaurant in the most fashionable neighborhood of Beijing.

It's a grim ironic paradox of modern China: China's vast new middle class -- not to mention its estimated 600,000 millionaires -- look to one-party rule by Mao Zedong's communists as the best protectors of private property.

That middle class has a lot to protect: handsome new suburban villas, opulent new apartments (they are just putting the finishing touches on a Four Seasons condominium tower), 4 million cars in Beijing alone.

The middle class also has a lot to fear. After I said good night to my democracy-skeptical acquaintance, I stepped into the main room of the restaurant. It had emptied out, and the kitchen staff were settling down to a late-evening meal: steamed rice and a watery cabbage stew, ladled into Tupperware tubs.

The kitchen staff can consider themselves fortunate: Many Chinese are much poorer still. You don't have to depart very far from the newly enriched cities to see porters scrambling up hills, a pole across their shoulders, 100 kilos of rice dangling from either end. The cities are crowded with migrant laborers, who lack any right to use an urban hospital or send their children to an urban school. The urban poor drink water polluted with industrial effluent, and discover that they have given their children milk poisoned with melamine.

An American who has lived in China for most of the years since 1989 told me: "This is a country where a traffic accident can trigger a riot, and a riot could turn into a revolution."

And if a revolution overthrows Communism, who will protect the rich from socialism? Much safer to stay with the status quo.

Even at the bottom of Chinese society, the past 10 years have probably been the best in the past half-millennium of Chinese history. The middle-aged can remember the famines of the 1950s, the elderly can remember the violent holocausts of the 1930s and 1940s. Now there is peace, security, and rice with cabbage and sometimes pork. Why change?

Yet change is coming.

My anti-democratic dinner companion told me a story about a neighbor of hers.

The local government had announced plans to build a new incinerator nearby. The government promised that the incinerator would be built to the highest environmental standards, nothing to fear. The neighbor did not believe it, and organized a petition against the plan. He was arrested.

The arrest stunned him. He did not think he had broken the no-politics rule. He was not protesting against the national government. He just wanted the incinerator to go away. Was that illegal? If so, why was it illegal? He was a property owner, a taxpayer, a respectable citizen. Didn't he have rights? Why not?

He may still have doubts about democracy -- but now suddenly he wants a little more freedom.

Another story: I met a young computer expert, quite successful at his work. He kept a blog where he talked about computers. One day, he advertised a computer server for sale. Apparently, the characters for "server for sale" can be pronounced to mean "Taiwan independence." He received a visit from the Security Bureau, which warned him to be more careful. Now he takes pleasure in teaching his blog readers how to hack their way past government censorship.

When I asked him if he wanted democracy, he gave me a blank look. He just wanted his government to be less idiotic.

Last story: A popular TV soap opera recently broadcast an episode in which a recurring female character had an extramarital affair with an official. The Ministry of Culture sensed a veiled criticism of the authorities and issued an order: No more extramarital affairs on daytime TV. The writers protested, but the ministry hung tough. The story spread. Viewers began to complain that their favorite shows were getting dull, and the ministry retreated.

No, I don't assume that Chinese want Western democracy. But they themselves say they want Facebook, YouTube, Gmail, safe milk, buildings that don't fall down, cleaner air and sexier TV. Those may not sound like radical demands. They are, they are.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.