China Daily, the largest English-language newspaper in China, carried a front-page headline last week: “Village Gratitude Shows Integrity of Task.”

Not clear what that’s about, and the opening sentence isn’t much help: “On a hot afternoon, Zhou Yi picked up a bag of freshly boiled eggs that had been left on the doorstep of the committee office in Chaqulak village in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.” I figured this must be some feel-good story (of the sort that even U.S. papers sometimes cannot resist) about the noble, uncorrupted country folk quietly taking care of the less fortunate in their midst.

But read on. It turns out that Zhou Yi is not a local homeless man dependent on the generosity of his fellow peasants who have little enough for themselves, et cetera. He is one of a group of “regional-level officials sent to live in Chaqulak as part of an initiative to provide officials with first-hand experience of working at the grassroots.” The officials were grateful for the eggs. Apparently they don’t get a per diem.

A program to send bureaucrats out into the countryside to see what real work is like? It’s possible the story is not so simple, and maybe the China Daily has an agenda here. But it sure sounds like the sort of thing that went on during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, doesn’t it? The founding editor of China Daily himself spent nine years doing menial work on a farm somewhere before he was allowed to return to Beijing.

The Capitalist Road

I thought that stuff didn’t happen anymore. In 1979, just three years after the Cultural Revolution collapsed, Deng Xiaoping reversed course. China started down the Capitalist Road, with stunning results that any visitor can see: small towns converted to huge cities with millions of people living in high-rises, driving cars (or taking the new subways) instead of riding bikes, and choking on pollution, but nevertheless happy to be enjoying the fruits of a free-market economy.

Yet the Communist Party retains absolute political power (although there are now real elections at the village level, with multiple candidates and all the fixin’s). In fact, the party takes credit for reforming the economy -- and may even deserve it.

So how do all these pieces fit together? How free is the average Chinese citizen now? How much communism is left in the Communist party? Will free-market capitalism inevitably lead to democracy? Or have the Chinese discovered some new Confucian synthesis of free markets and authoritarian rule?

These are the kind of questions that an American visitor to China will naturally have. After eight days there (in a small group of journalists whose way was paid by a foundation funded by a Hong Kong billionaire), I now have all the answers.

Actually, whatever insights I may have gained during my visit to China came mostly from reading James Fallows’s new book, “China Airborne,” on the plane coming home. Fallows spent several years in China with the explicit and full-time purpose of trying to understand it. He writes that to talk about “China” (population 1.3 billion) as a single entity is absurd:

“When acting on the international stage, or when imposing some internal political rules, the central government can operate as a coordinated entity. But most of the time, visitors -- and Chinese people too -- see vividly and exclusively the little patch of ‘China’ that is in front of them, with only a guess as to how representative it might be of happenings anywhere else.”

Fortunately, while Fallows was learning about China first hand, I was back in Washington taking an advanced course in guesswork at the National Punditry Institute. So here is my best guess about China: Twenty-three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s pretty well established that freedom and democracy really are universal appetites. Everybody wants them, with no special exemption for Asian cultures.

The Capitalism Dash

But would you give up your right to vote in exchange for a job in the city, indoor plumbing, a TV, a car? That’s what many Chinese people believe their country is doing: moving slowly to introduce democracy in order not to interfere with the mad dash to capitalism.

The Chinese are still ruled by a regime that killed millions in defense of a philosophy it no longer believes in. But now it rules with a lighter and somewhat whimsical touch.

An older dissident type told us that young adults didn’t even know about the events 23 years ago in Tiananmen Square. We asked a bunch of college students. They giggled and snorted: Of course they knew about Tiananmen Square. Would they write about it in the school paper? More snorting: Of course not. They seemed perfectly comfortable with the anomaly, maybe because they think it won’t last.

Even more comfortable was a huge manufacturing company that had set up a series of inspirational posters near the front door. Most of them were filled with familiar business school babble about corporate culture. In this environment, one poster about the important role of the Communist Party stood out. And in fact the Party had supplied funds to get this company started. In every other respect, it seemed just like a big company anywhere in the capitalist world. (And I was there for more than 45 minutes, listening to a discussion in a foreign language, so I know.)

The best known bit of totalitarian-style repression in China is the notorious “one child” policy. One child per married couple is still the rule, but it is enforced somewhat sporadically. Exceptions are sprouting: If you are an only child of your parents, you yourself may have more than one. Some people who can afford it just pay the fine as a cost of having children. Meanwhile, China faces a shortage of working-age people to support a growing number of old folks. So even putting ethical issues aside, the whole thing looks like a mistake. It won’t last.

Yes, the Chinese Communist Party continues to do terrible things -- as the case of Chen Guangcheng demonstrates. But the Party also seems to function as sort of a Rotary Club that you join if you want to get ahead in China’s raucous, utterly non-Communist economy.

(Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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