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Single-Party Democracy in China.

Summary: IAEm bullish on China after a couple of weeks here and perhaps that sentiment begins with the little emperors and empresses.

In upscale city parks and rundown urban sprawls, I've seen China's children pampered by grandparents, coddled by fathers, cared for by extended families.

Scarcity may explain the doting: China's one-child policy makes children special. But there are deeper forces at work. The race for modernity has not blown apart the family unit, whatever the strains. After witnessing the atomisation of American society, where the old are often left to fend for themselves, China feels cohesive.

It's seeing that most natural of conspiracies -- between grandparents and children -- flourishing. It's listening to young women in coastal factories talking about sending half their salaries home to some village in Guangxi where perhaps it goes to build a second floor on a parental house. It's hearing young couples agonise over whether they can afford a child because "affording" means school, possible graduate education abroad, and a deposit on the C first apartment.

The family is at once emotional bedrock and social insurance. "My" money equals my family's money. All the parental investment reaps a return in the form of care later in life. "Children are a retirement fund," a Chinese-American friend living here told me. "If you don't have children, what do you do in old age?" The Chinese, in other words, might be lining up to play karaoke after long factory shifts, but they're not bowling alone American-style. They're not stressing because they're all alone. That's critical. There so much heaving change here -- China's planning to open 97 new airports and 83 subway systems in the next five years -- the family strikes me as the great stabiliser (even more than the regime's iron fist).

As Arthur Kroeber, an economist, said, "High-growth stories are not pretty. If you're growing at 10 per cent a year, a lot of stuff gets knocked down." It sure does: China looms through the dust. But the family has proved resilient, cushioning life for the have-nots, offering a moral compass for the haves (rampant corruption notwithstanding). After the emperors and empresses, in my bullish assessment, comes the undistracted forward focus. After a while in Asia, you notice the absence of a certain background noise. It's as if you've removed a negative drone from your life, like the slightly startled C relief you feel when the hum of an air conditioner ceases.

What's in that American drone? Oh, the wars of course, the cost of them, and debate around them, and the chatter surrounding terror and fear.

There's also the resentment-infused aftermath of the great financial meltdown, navigated by China with an adroitness that helped salvage the world economy from oblivion. In the place of all that Western angst, there's growth, growth, growth, which tends (through whatever ambivalence) to inspire awe rather than dread. The world's center of gravity is shifting with a seismic inevitability.

I know, China has kept its foot on the gas of its stimulus package too long and there are bubble signs in housing and labor is no longer limitless, with resultant inflationary pressure. I also know there are tensions between state economic direction and market forces, with resultant waste. But my third bullish element is nonetheless an economy entering a 15-year sweet spot where rising disposable income will drive the domestic market. Think of what Japan, Taiwan and South Korea went through decades ago, but with a population of 1.3 billion. Think of the 10 to 15 million new urban residents a year and the homes and infrastructure they will need. Think of all the stuff the world demands and can't get elsewhere with the same quality, quantity and price. Think underlying drivers. C They remain powerful.

Of course, political upheaval could unhinge all the above. Given that China's open-closed experiment is unique in history, nobody can say how this society will be governed in 2050. Immense tensions, not least between the rage that corruption inspires and the difficulty of tackling it without a free press, exist. Still, my fourth reason for running with the Chinese bulls is perhaps the most surprising: single- C party democracy.

It doesn't exist. It's an oxymoron (although a US primary is a vote within one party). It can easily be the semantic disguise for outrage and oppression. But it just may be the most important political idea of the 21 st century.

Rightful resistance is growing in China. Citizens are asserting their rights, not in organising against the state (dangerous) but in using laws to have a say. Nongovernmental organisations are multiplying to advance agendas from the environment to labor rights. This is happening with the acquiescence of smart rulers.

"They know they cannot manage in the old way," Ma Jun, a leading environmentalist, told me. "They cannot dam the water, but they can go with the flow and divert it to the places they want."

Whether that place will ever resemble one-party democracy, I don't know. But I no longer laugh at the idea. Harmonious discord is an old Chinese idea. The extended Chinese family is a daily exercise in just that.

Roger Cohen is Editor at Large of the International Herald Tribune. For comments write to

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Publication:Khaleej Times (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Feb 2, 2010
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