Yesterday I had an interesting chat with an earnest young man who belongs to the Falun Gong movement. As best as I can tell, Falun Gong is the most serious of the opponents of Communist rule in China. Whenever I meet people from China who passionately want change now, it rarely takes more than a couple minutes before they start telling me about how Falun Gong changed their lives.
As best as I can tell, Falun Gong started as a quasi-religious alternative medicine movement. They believe in the curative powers of meditation. During our chat, the Falun Gong member told me eagerly about how its special brand of meditation saved his mother's life. I know, it's got to be a placebo effect, but as Robin Hanson has told me, placebos are grossly under-used. If sugar pills or meditation make people feel better without dangerous side effects, why not embrace them?
The main problem Falun Gong seems to have run into is that it became very popular in China very quickly. This forced the Communist government to make a choice: Either tolerate a popular movement outside its control or crack down. They opted for the latter. It's tempting to see this as paranoia on the part of the government, but the Soviet bloc's collapse does suggest that dictatorship is fragile.
Before persecution began, Falun Gong does not seem to have been very political. But now they are staunch anti-communists, as their literature makes clear, and are working hard to expose the dark history of the Chinese Communist Party.
My visitor from Falun Gong is rather sure that Communism's days are numbered. He has quite a few arguments, but unfortunately none of them convince me:
1. Economic growth in China is an illusion. Either it's only in the cities, and the country is actually getting poorer, or it's based on one-time asset sales, or the products being sold are so adulterated that Chinese prosperity is an illusion.
I am very open to the possibility that China's economic statistics are exaggerated. Communist regimes have cooked the books before. But the idea that China does not have pretty high growth simply isn't credible. Unlike Stalin's Russia, foreigners can go to China and look around. A KGB-guided tour can show visitors a Potemkin village, but if visitors are free to wander off the beaten track, it's another matter.
2. China will quickly suffer from environmental disaster.
Again, I believe that China's pollution problem is getting worse. But the standard pattern is that industrialization aggravates some environmental problems at first, then mitigates them as income rises. I don't see any reason why China won't fit this pattern, even if it remains a dictatorship.
3. China will experience a Falun Gong-inspired spiritual revival. People will leave the Communist Party and the system will fall under its own weight.
In a sense, I think that China has already experienced a spiritual revolution. The collapse of Maoism in large part reflects revulsion against the Cultural Revolution and totalitarianism. But while the man from Falun Gong told me that massive defections from the CCP are already underway, I'm skeptical. Lately the Party has been recruiting businessmen, a sign that the leadership is more than willing to trade off ideology for longevity. Even if the membership of the Party does shrink substantially, I don't see why that would preclude 50 more years of dictatorship.
I wish I were wrong. It would be wonderful to see the picture of Mao in Tianamen Square come down today. But in reality I think the end of Communism in China is going to come about gradually, the joint result of economic growth, globalization, and the moral suasion of groups like Falun Gong.