Here let me tell a story against myself, to show how deeply rooted is the false idea that China cannot be democratic. During the democracy movement of 1989 I spoke regularly with the then Wall Street Journal correspondent, then in Beijing, the great US journalist Claudia Rosett. One day, as the crowds in Beijing grew bigger and bigger, she asked me a typically blunt question. "So what should they do, Arthur? Should they hold elections?" My answer was instinctive. "No, they should not hold elections. That would be deeply destabilizing." Then I caught myself. I had always considered myself to favor freedom and democracy in China. Yet here I was, sounding just like a China pundit from the Washington stable, mouthing the usual lame analysis finding that China was not ready for elections; she still needed dictatorship. It was an acutely painful moment of unwitting self-revelation and self-discovery. I was set straight, and I thank Claudia for it.
The right answer is that of course China should have elections. And if she did, what would they yield? Opponents conjure up howling mobs of illiterate and violent poor, ready to destroy everything China has achieved. But this is a chimera designed to frighten us. The correct answer is that free elections would produce a parliament overwhelmingly dominated by farmers, for that is what most Chinese are. What do farmers want? Bright urban skylines? Limousines? Aircraft carriers? Maxim's French restaurant? Taiwan? Designer shoes? The Olympics? Nuclear war? I think none of these. China's farmers are poor and I think they would like more money for rural infrastructure, for rural schools, for transport, for health care, and so forth. They want laws and justice, fairness, opportunity. Just imagine how different a China ruled by such a parliament would be.
History has a way of surprising people. Until very recently, the consensus about China after 1989 has been that her government had succeeded in restoring its dictatorship. The favorite word was "resilience": China's dictatorship had proved resilient. Aspirations for freedom had been forgotten: things would stay as they were. But at the beginning of this month, we learned that Chinese President Hu Jintao (