Now that we are all safely home, let's talk about political discussion in China, such as it is.
Discussing politics in China is a weird experience. Even with the very westernized people we were hanging out with, and with whom you could discuss things like Taiwan and Tiananmen Square, there was an overriding sense of not understanding the world's fuss about free speech and free thought. Most people will not admit to feeling like they can't say or do what they want, simply because in many cases they feel that they can. The practice of religion is allowed, nominal dissent is allowed, western culture is more or less allowed. The key is, to my eyes, that they are allowed only up until the point where they begin to have power or to generate a significant following, e.g., falun gong. It's almost like the government has found the perfect way to give a little leeway on the things that make people feel like they have freedom while keeping a tight lid on any that get out of hand. In this way, the people I spoke with felt quite genuinely that they had all the freedom they could ask for, and that "troublemakers" like Taiwan independence groups are the real threat to the social order. Another example is the Buddhist lamasery in Beijing where Buddhists go to worship; the site, however, is presented as a "historical" offering, ie, because Buddhism is part of China's rich history, the People's Government has preserved and protected it for future generations to also come and worship. The government has quite skillfully made it okay to be Buddhist and even a Tibetan Buddhist. Just as long as you don't generate a vocal and powerful following that could upset the social order of China. The government has done a masterful job of allowing just enough freedom to keep any restlessness at bay, while branding those who would want more freedom as troublemakers.
The US doesn't currently have any credibility regarding Freedom and Democracy with nations like China. The people I spoke with see a nation full of guns and death and pornography and violence and prurience--and wonder why on earth they would want to have any of it.
Being in China made me think of our efforts in Iraq, as much of a non-sequitur as that may sound, simply because my conversations with Chinese people (albeit a non-representative sample) left me with the sense that, above all things, for good or for bad, the Chinese culture values social order. Any effort to sway Chinese people toward any ideology would have to honor and address that societal value if it would be successful. Do any of us know what tenets the Iraqi culture values and what elements of our work there would need to be modified or scrapped in order to achieve success? I'm not sure we understood, going into Iraq, what we were getting ourselves into, simply because we didn't attempt to understand what the Iraqi people would require--on a purely values level--of a new system.
What I'm saying is that it's not as simple as just exporting American Democracy to other nations. It's creating a culture, a movement, an underlying social ethos that explains why democracy is good or even necessary, and furthermore, ensuring that the message and the messengers understand the foundational values of the society to which it is being promoted. It stands to reason that if the people upon whom you are bestowing Democracy are ambivalent about its consequences (ie, free speech must allow for pornography, freedom of worship must allow for Benny Hinn), you are pretty much fighting a losing battle before you fire a single shot.