Last week, without it being on his public schedule, President Barack Obama met with four people interested in promoting humans rights and democracy in China. Ahead of Hu Jintao's state visit, the White House wanted to get the word out, but not make a big splash.
And the message the president heard included the thinking of some that China is already on a slow journey to more personal freedoms.
The guests included 51-year-old Zha Jianying, a writer who lives in New York. She was the author of 1996's "China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids and Bestsellers are Transforming a Culture."
Able to travel between the U.S. and China, Zha has studied the cultural changes wrought by greater contact with the West. Still, she has a brother who was imprisoned for helping found the China Democracy Party.
Zha told Obama that below the state-controlled media, there is significant debate over human rights in China and how the nation can stay on a path toward more personal freedoms.
There's "debate and anxiety in China about not just human rights, but a whole range of issues like equality, corruption, inflation - people are really more worried about housing prices, inflation and how they suffer" from China's rapid economic expansion, Zha said.
Chairman Mao was still running China when Zha was born. By the time she came to the United States¬†for university, major economic changes had started, along with a push for individual freedoms, led by her generation right into the 1989¬†Tiananmen Square uprising and subsequent deadly government crackdown.
"Afterward, we really matured into a more moderate, gradualist reform vision," said¬†Zha, who¬†describes herself as "cautiously optimistic" that eventually as more of her generation take the reins of power in China, their influence will bring greater openness.
"It's just a matter of time and pace," she said.
To make her point, Zha notes her brother was not summarily executed, as he might have been decades ago.
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