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WATCH: Global China into the 21st Century

There is no doubt that China is a modern superpower and a hub of globalization, under the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party. But what does that actually mean for the Chinese people? Do they celebrate their new economic wealth? Or do they suffer under the weight of state surveillance and tight control? In this video, with the help of Dr. Crystal Chang, we explore the successes, and costs, of China’s great social contract.

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Video transcript

Say an alien came to Earth today and wanted to  learn more about humans. Say this alien decided to meet with a hundred people, everyday, average  randomly selected people, to find out more about our lives and experiences. Statistically, four or  five of those people would likely be Americans. A few other big countries like Brazil, India,  and Indonesia would likely have multiple people selected. Most countries would have one or none,  but about 20 of those people would be Chinese. That's right. One in every five people in  the world, about 1.4 billion human beings, lives in China. That's more than four times as  many as the United States. Hi, I'm Francesca Hodges, and I'm here to talk about China's  increasingly global presence in the 21st century. In many ways, China's story is at the center  of global change over the past two decades. A hundred years ago, China was a country divided  among warlords, occupied by foreign powers, and with much of its population living in poverty. But  in the century that followed, it has become the biggest manufacturer in the world, now producing  many of the goods used by people everywhere. Have a look at this chart showing the rise  of China's gross domestic product per capita, a measure of its economic output per person.  This measure of rising production demonstrates China's growth as probably one of the  biggest success stories of globalization. Arguably, this growing wealth has had a big impact  on the lives of the Chinese people. Here's another   pretty revealing chart. It shows the decline  in the percentage of China's population living in extreme poverty between 1990 and 2015.  That decline from above 60 percent of the population to about three percent represents millions of people  raised out of poverty in that 25-year period. But what does all of this change feel like to the Chinese? Has this intense economic growth improved their lives? These are the questions we ask in  this video, and for answers I turn to Dr. Crystal Chang. She is a professor in the Global Studies  department at UC Berkeley where I happen to be a student. Professor Chang, who governs China today?  Today, China is governed by the Chinese Communist Party. Would you describe this governmental system  as democratic, authoritarian, or neither? I would describe the Chinese political system as  authoritarian. When the CCP took control in 1949, they established the People's Republic of  China, and it is authoritarian. The party retains full control over all aspects of Chinese political  life, considerable influence over the economy, and very close surveillance over China's 1.4  billion people. Why do the Chinese people support or allow the party to govern? So let's  start with what life was like in the 1970s. This was the Cultural Revolution. This was a  time when the country was ravaged by political chaos and social chaos, and at that time the  country was very poor, and after the reforms China's middle class grew, incomes grew, and  people's lives materially got much better. And so I tell you that story because there's  sort of an implicit social contract between the Chinese people and the government which  works like this. As long as the government continues to improve people's material  livelihoods and provide social stability,   the people allow the government to continue  to be ruled by the Communist Party, and so as long as that relationship holds, the people  are fine with Communist Party rule. Considering China's massive economic expansion, would you say that China has benefited from globalization? I would say China has benefited greatly from  globalization. At first, it attracted a lot of foreign direct investment because China offered  cheap labor and a lot of favorable policies, so a lot of companies from around the world went to  produce goods in China. Then as the country became richer, it became a desirable market, right. There  were many jokes about how what would it be like to sell every Chinese consumer a pencil, and then  it was like what would it be like to sell them a   phone, and then what would it be like to sell them  a car, right. So China has the largest automobile market in the world today. You might be surprised  to learn that General Motors, an American company, sells more cars in China than it does in the  United States. So yes, China has been a huge benefactor of globalization, and according  to a lot of big surveys, like the Pew Global Attitude Survey, Chinese people are  much more-they look on globalization much more favorably than Americans do today. How does  the party maintain unity and popular support? Good question. So the Chinese government  uses old-fashioned propaganda actually to maintain a very coherent message, and as a result  they also censor the news, and they try to focus in on a very consistent narrative, which is  everything good in your life is because of the party. That's through the education system,  through what people watch on television,   what they consume on the internet. And there  is a lot of censorship on the Chinese internet for any dissent or any opinions that do not fit  within that narrative. You just mentioned that there was dissenting opinion against the Chinese Communist Party. Where does this opposition lie? Well, Francesca, that's a great question.  There really isn't significant opposition, and every time there's a small social movement,  it is quashed by the party. We saw this in 1989 with the Tiananmen protest led by students  and then workers. We've seen this with other small movements like the Falun Gong, which  is a spiritual, quasi-religious movement. We've seen this with small Tibetan uprisings  and uprisings in Xinjiang. Every time there seems to be a small movement growing, the  government quells it pretty substantially. Referring to one of those social movements,  what is happening in Hong Kong as of June 2019? Yeah, so in Hong Kong, you get a pretty good idea  of what happens when citizens challenge the state. Over the last several years actually there have  been a series of protest. Way back when Hong Kong was returned to China, the original agreement  between the British government and the Chinese government was that Hong Kong people would at  some point be able to have an election of their chief executive, but unfortunately the Chinese  government has really not honored that decision. And they have implemented now  a new national security law which basically prohibits all people in Hong Kong  and in China and even in the rest of the world, the language of it, from getting involved in  Hong Kong politics or commenting on Hong Kong politics at all. And they've used this new law  to put several of the young leaders in jail. It's really quite sad to see from the outside.  Speaking about a different social movement in a different geographic location, what have Uyghurs  Muslims been experiencing in recent years? Yeah, so going back quite a few years now, there have  been a few incidents of more radicalized Uyghurs who've acted out against Han Chinese, which is  the ethnic majority in China, and it did lead to a few deaths. And in reaction to those isolated  incidents, the Chinese government has instituted a very broad campaign to basically, what the  Chinese would call, re-educate Uyghurs Muslims, and we know now that over a million Uyghurs  Muslims have been put into labor camps, including women and children. Dr. Chang seemed to paint  two different pictures of the Chinese state, as a force that had improved people's lives but also as  an autocratic interfering government that forced people to conform. I couldn't figure out whether  overall life had improved for the Chinese people over the last century, so I asked Dr. Chang a  few more questions to get her overall assessment. Professor Chang, would you say that life  has improved for the average Chinese citizen over the past few decades? I would say without  a doubt for almost all Chinese people life has improved dramatically over the last century. If  we think back to 1911, China was in a tatters, right. The central government had essentially  lost control over many parts of the country. Economically, people were not doing well.  China's political system was being infringed upon by foreign countries, including the United  States. It was soon to be invaded by Japan. So if we compare today's China with that time,  most people's lives have dramatically improved. Not only that, but parents today feel confident  that the lives of their children will be better than their own lives. That's huge,  right? I think in the developed world that is no longer true in many countries. However, it's still important to note that the government's control and surveillance over  society is intensifying, and it is infringing on the lives of people who have dissenting opinions  whether that's in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or some of China's leading universities.  In those places, people are worried about their future. At least they're worried about the ability  of Chinese people to speak their minds or to give feedback to how their country is governed. That  window is closing. So there's no such thing as free speech or freedom to organize in China.  For most Chinese, they're okay with that, but for those who want to speak out, things are only  going to get more restrictive. Dr. Chang's answer suggested that in her analysis life had improved  for the majority of Chinese people under the rule of the Communist Party. The social contract she  mentioned earlier that the people would support the government as long as it improved their lives  was working for most people, but not for everyone. Those who wanted more political freedoms or to  continue their cultural or religious practices were forced to conform. It's a different system  than from the United States and from most European countries, but because of China's  huge population and economic significance, it's an important part of the global picture  now in this era of intense globalization.