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The Big Question: How Much Choice Do The People of China Have?

Updated Monday, 7th March 2005

Communist crack-down or capitalist playground? Do the Chinese have freedom of choice?

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A new generation - Young people steal a kiss in a Chinese park Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

For most of the past fifty years, the Chinese communist government made the decisions affecting people's lives. But increasingly that is changing. Thanks to the economic boom in China, more and more people can buy what they want, eat what they like, and choose where they work. But they cannot choose their government.

So what role does choice play in modern China? The Big Question: How much choice do the people of China have?

Shoes for sale in Shanghai "You can buy almost everything you want in Shanghai!" says Elyn, a university graduate, who takes Emma on a Shanghai shopping spree: from the exclusive designer boutiques where a pair of trousers can cost twice the average Shanghai monthly salary, to the packed department stores and the crowded street markets.

It is a stark contrast with the China of Mao Zedong where there was no place for individual choice, as Professor Shen Dingli of Fudan University tells the Big Question.

"Chairman Mao thought there were a few Chinese people who dreamed to bring capitalism to China. He wanted to remove them and launched the Cultural Revolution. He used the ordinary people to use the revolutionary way to remove these highly placed officials."

Chinese people were indoctrinated, he says. "A wife would report the so-called politically incorrect wording of her husband. She thought she was right."

Shen Dingli and Emma Jospeh Like millions of Chinese people who were sent to labour in the countryside, Professor Shen's father was sent to work in an open-cast coal mine and his mother lost her job in an opera troupe.

"That system cared only about the revolution. It didn't deliver anything good to the people."

Under the Iron Rice Bowl system of guaranteed employment in the state sector, the Communist Party was able to keep a tight control over people's lives. From housing to food allocation, from family life to job prospects, the state left little room for individual choice.

After Mao's death and under Deng Xiaoping, Professor Shen says, "China launched a campaign to be self-critical, to review our history. We considered we had wasted a great amount of time - now is the time to learn from the industrialised west and develop our economy."

Over the past two decades, private enterprise has been playing an ever greater role and that has seen the state loosening its grip on people's lives.

The staff of Skylighting Advertising "Advertising is the perfect example of the big changes taking place in China," says Xu Jianxin, co-founder of Shanghai-based Skylighting ad company. "20 years ago, there weren't any adverts, because there were so few products to buy. 10 years ago, there were lots of adverts, especially in cities like Shanghai, but most of them were foreign-made. Now most of the ads are designed by Chinese talent with Chinese characteristics!"

"For instance, 5 or 10 years ago, the state-owned hospitals didn't have to advertise because patients didn't have any choice about where to go," adds his colleague, Li Keqi. "Now though, there are so many private clinics, they have to attract more clients."

"Our job is to help the customer make up their minds."

And, like in many other countries, not everyone finds that easy, says psychologist, Lin Zi.

Lin Zi "The array of choices facing us adds stress to our lives. Lots of people are realising they don't know what kind of life they want to lead and they don't know how to measure success. I have a client who graduated from university three years ago. He was an excellent student, but he's already changed his job six times. He was confused about what to do with his life."Lin Zi, who runs one of a growing number of counselling services, points to a huge generation gap between today's young and their parents, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution. "This generation is unprecedented in Chinese history. They don't have a map to guide them."

And television journalist and media executive, Yang Lan worries this generation may not have as many choices as they think. This she attributes to a government policy which has, in turn, restricted their parents options - the policy that allowed just one child per family.

Yan Lang "If you only have one child, parents give all the resources, energy and time to this one child. Many kids can't handle the love and the pressure. Their parents just have too many expectations. Sometimes they have to live up to the dreams of six adults, including the grandparents."

"It always looks like we have many possibilities but in reality we don't have many choices," says 20 year-old Elyn, Emma's shopping guide. "We don't have choices in our [political] leadership, our party."

The state may have loosened control of the economy, but there is little sign of the Communist Party giving up political control of the Chinese political scene.

"Because China is a large country, we cannot take the risk of political instability," says Arkson Lu of Shanghai Foreign Affairs Office. "Political reform is being carried out in a gradual manner."

So, the Big Question now is will China's next generation be demanding more political choice in the future?

Professor Shen Dingli at Fudan University believes one day Chinese people will get the vote. He says there is a mismatch between the speed of China's economic reform and the political framework within which it has taken place. "The government has to find the correct fix to accelerate the advancement of political reform to keep pace with the economic development." Experiments in local democracy, with local elections have begun, but the government has been too cautious, he thinks. "We are paying certain costs by not reforming more appropriately or more timely."

This edition of The Big Question was first broadcast on 5th March 2005

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