Sieren′s China: More diversity, more freedom | Opinion | DW | 29.09.2019
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Sieren's China: More diversity, more freedom

As China marks the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic, the government would have good reason to lean back and grant the population a little more freedom, says DW's Frank Sieren.

The People's Republic of China turns 70 on October 1. The sky above Beijing is blue — not only because the factories have been closed for the occasion but also because the air in China has improved over the past few years, as even Greenpeace concedes.

Like France on such days, China, too, will celebrate with a parade. Last weekend, Tiananmen Square and the Chang'an Avenue were closed down for the third time to allow rehearsals for one of the biggest military parades that the country will ever have seen.

There are many reasons for China to feel proud. When the People's Republic was founded on October 1, 1949, it was hardly imaginable that it would develop so fast and might one day challenge the US as a global power, as it does today.

Relatively stable

Within a few decades, China has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the world to the world's biggest trading nation and strongest economy in terms of purchasing power, as well as a driving force in global innovation. GDP per capita has risen dramatically over the past 70 years, going from the equivalent of about €6 to €3,600 ($6.56 to $3,939). Most Chinese citizens have more opportunities today than they could ever have dreamed of 30 or 40 years ago. Despite many problems, the country is relatively stable.

Frank Sieren

DW columnist Frank Sieren

It is thus surprising that the government still wants to exert so much control despite the country's success. "National Day is approaching and it's extremely difficult to access the web," the editor-in-chief of the Global Times, Hu Xijin, even complained earlier this month in a post on the social media platform Weibo.

"This country is not fragile. I suggest society should have more access to the outside internet, which will benefit the strength and maturity of China's public opinion, scientific research and external communications, as well as China's national interests," he said.

Hu is hardly a dissident; his paper is state-based and has an English edition. He needs to know what others think outside of China.

Read more: Can Taiwan counter China's 'diplomatic aggression'? 

Just a suggestion

For some time now, the Chinese government has accepted that citizens use VPNs to circumvent the censors and connect with the rest of the world. It's cheap and easy. It has also helped to push forward the country's innovation. Posts such as Hu's are not completely rare and yet he immediately deleted it and apologized. He said that he had not wanted to trigger a "heated debate" but had just made a "suggestion."

China junge Frauen machen Selfie Symbolbild

Young people in China are continually online

It is very probable that access to Google and Co. will function via VPN again after the celebrations.

However, it is not good for China that such discussions remain difficult to conduct. A little more freedom of opinion would not harm the country's stability. On the contrary, it would help to clarify what can be improved and what there is to be proud of. A new white paper entitled "Seeking Happiness for People: 70 Years of Progress on Human Rights in China" states that "Living a happy life is the primary human right." A happy life includes being able to express a controversial opinion publicly. Doing so is not impossible in China but there could be more room for maneuver.

Read more: Global population decline will hit China hard

Outdated language

For the younger generation, used to traveling about the world with complete self-confidence, the propaganda machine's stiff-sounding language seems to hail from another age. It does not tally with China's modern hi-tech image. The party should strike a different tone to win over young people and set the course for the future. It should also have enough self-assurance to believe that if civil society were given freer rein, it would not necessarily question the party's legitimacy.

People in China are very aware of what has been achieved. They also know the country's weaknesses. But even most intellectuals are proud of their nation. They are not seeking to overturn the regime. They just want more plurality and progress. However, many are reluctant to express themselves clearly and this means that the plurality that would help China's development is somewhat lost.

Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for more than 20 years.

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