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China's Roles in World Democracy
Speech Delivered at the First Biennial Conference of the World Forum for Democratization in Asia, Taipei, Taiwan

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on October 17th, 2005

I am greatly honored by the invitation to deliver this third “keynote” speech, which, coming as it does almost at the end of three important days is really more of a retrospect or a coda.

Courtesy requires that I greet you. Let me do so in a perhaps unconventional way. Here am I talking to you. And what exactly have I ever done for freedom or democracy? The answer is effectively nothing, other than write things and say things from the security of the United States. Standing here I am aware that in this audience sit people who, because they would not bend the knee to tyranny, have faced death, loss of loved ones, torture, prison, economic ruin, exile, and a host of other tribulations. Permit me to say: “I salute you!” We all, I believe, salute you! Perhaps we could have a round of applause for the quiet heroes scattered among us. And let us not forget the heroes of democracy who, for reasons understand all too well, are not with us today.

Now allow me to turn yet again to China, which so many of our deliberations has already touched; rightly, because her future will powerfully affect the future of freedom.

When most people look at China’s course over the last decade or so, they are struck by four things. First is dramatic economic growth. Second is a huge increase in military power. Yet another is an ever more prominent role in diplomacy and international organizations. And fourth is the continuation, unmodified, of the Communist Party dictatorship.

These four characteristics add up not simply to China, but to the cliché, “a rising China.” I do not have time today to qualify that phrase, though I would like to. Thus, had I time I would say something about the hidden weaknesses of China’s current economic growth: its reliance on foreign rather than domestic entrepreneurs and markets, and on cheap labor rather than skills and creativity; its domination by the government rather than society, and the corruption and growing inequality associated with it. Let me suggest, however, that everyone read the chapters on Singapore’s economy in Dr. Chee Soon Juan’s Your Future My Faith Our Freedom (Singapore: Open Singapore Centre, 2001). They apply very well to China, except that China is incomparably more corrupt.

With respect to China’s headlong military buildup, I would develop the argument that it is the product not of any real external threat, but rather of an internal need to invoke security to justify autocratic rule. I would note how the buildup is increasing tension and distrust in the region, which harms China not least, and note that a democratic China would be a far better neighbor.

On the last point, dictatorship, I would stress the reality that in spite of economic and technical progress, the People’s Republic still remains dictatorial and repressive. Hopeful observers talk of more and more openness, of increased respect for law, greater institutionalization and transparency of government processes, and so forth. And while it is certainly true that the average urban Chinese today has a lot more personal space and many more options than a few decades ago, he or she is still a subject of Party rule, not a citizen having any say in governance. In certain ways repression is actually getting worse.

Consider for example the extent to which the internet in China has been turned from a liberating technology into a means of surveillance and oppression, and with the indispensable help of foreign companies.

As for political institutionalization, consider this.If we asked Mr. Hu Jintao just how he got his job, and when and how his successor was going to be chosen, he would not honestly be able to answer. Neither he nor any of his predecessors have been chosen by any rule-governed process, not even by Party rules, and unless something changes dramatically, that will the case for whoever follows him.       

I stress that China is a dictatorship because, as will be seen, a general reluctance exists to state this fact. If it remains such, Asia’s future will be blighted. If it changes, then all will benefit.

When analysts look at international behavior, some start on the outside, and some start on the inside. Those who start on the outside interpret a country’s actions as above all reactions to what others have done. Germany, for example, adopts the course of rearmament in the 1930s because of the intolerable terms of the Versailles treaty imposed by the victors. Similarly many observers argue that today China does this or that not by choice, but in unavoidable reaction to something someone else has done: a misstep by Washington, a provocation from Tokyo, etc.

Those who start on the inside look at how the regime is structured and how it attempts to use the outside world: for example at how the Kaiser’s Germany prevented a solution of the 1914 Balkan crisis because in fact it wanted a war, for reasons having everything to do with Germany and little with the Balkans. The Germans call this the study of innenpolitik or inner politics. It is the approach George Kennan took to in his famous 1947 “X Article” to explain why wartime ally Moscow had suddenly turned against the West. It was not, Kennan maintained, that Washington or London had somehow offended or threatened the Soviet Union. It was simply that Stalin needed an external enemy to justify his dictatorship, and once Hitler was gone, he chose the West for that role.

Let us use this second, inner politics approach, to look at “Rising China.” Like the Soviet government in the post-war period, the regime in Beijing is trying to maintain its hold on power at a time when it faces no enemies and could liberalize. But it has decided that its power is paramount. To do this it must create a sense of tension and threat to divert its people’s attention from their own pressing needs, not least for political reform. How does this choice affect the prospects for world democracy?

First, of course, it prevents the development of democracy in China, which would be a tremendous step forward. Second, it drives xenophobic propaganda and military buildup inside China.

Third, the policies Beijing adopts towards its own Chinese people as it attempts to stay in power greatly complicate her relations with other countries. Thus the detention of a New York Times reporter or the collaboration of Yahoo! with the Chinese secret police to jail a journalist deeply alienate foreign media and opinion. The persecution of religions upsets believers and non-believers outside of China. No matter how brightly Chinese leaders smile to foreigners, these domestic issues are a black cloud over their heads that follows them wherever they go.

Now consider the way that Beijing treats its own non-Chinese people. This links inner policy directly to the world. When Korean refugees or Korean minority people are mistreated, or when Beijing claims the ancient Korean state of Goguryo as in fact its own, this undermines her efforts to win over Korean public opinion. When Mongols inside of China see their population overwhelmed and their culture marginalized, with their sacred lamaseries turned into Disneyesque tourist sites, this alienates the neighboring, genuinely democratic, Mongolian Republic.

Mistreatment of minorities within China can bring real danger. Thus, as Beijing struggles, using violence, to keep the Muslim Turks of East Turkestan, or Xinjiang, under control, it sends a powerful anti-Islamic, anti-Turkish message to the restive Muslim Turkish populations of the five now-independent states of West Turkestan, formerly under Soviet control, as well as to the entire Muslim world.

When Beijing systematically destroys Tibetan civilization and keeps hostage the second most important incarnate Buddha, the Panchen Lama, that offends not only Buddhists but also India specifically, and world opinion in general.

In her own Hong Kong China has labored mightily to stop the freedom and democracy she promised in 1988. Or consider this country. Here Beijing’s attempts to stifle, isolate, and divide are tireless, resourceful, unending, and are, I regret to report, enjoying some success.

China’s current attempt to keep the lid on things at home, moreover, is not limited to domestic repression and pressure on close neighbors.      

 Here we can learn something by asking and answering the question, who are China’s friends? Hers is a great civilization and a proud history, so one might expect that her closest friends would be peers: other great states such as Japan, India, Germany, France, England, Canada, Australia, the United States, and so forth—the states that account overwhelmingly for global economic and intellectual progress, dynamic countries, and are in every case liberal democracies.

 But in fact China’s ties with all of these countries are strained in one way or another, and her closest friends turn out to be a rather different group.

 Thus we have seen, in May, Beijing accord a highest grade diplomatic welcome with red carpets, twenty one gun salute and pledges of undying friendship and alliance to the appalling dictator of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, only two weeks after he had brutally massacred anti-government demonstrators in Andijan.

 In June Hu Jintao reciprocated, with a state visit to Uzbekistan.

 In July the honored visitor was none other than Robert Mugabe, the oppressor of Zimbabwe, who has managed to bring starvation to a state that was once celebrated for its agriculture, and stayed in power only by rigging elections and brutally crushing his opposition.

 Closer to home we have North Korea, a place so horrible that its citizens flee to China, but one that Beijing supports with massive food and energy subsidies.

 Then there is Burma, a country whose people have traditionally harbored deep distrust toward the Chinese. Yet now Burma is becoming a Chinese client and military base aimed at India and Southeast Asia. Why? Because the generals who voided the election in which the democratizers of Aung Sang Suu Kyi were victorious, share a common interest with Beijing in keeping their own people down, and need military and financial assistance that most other states will not provide.

 Last July China’s foreign minister Li Zhaoxing skipped the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional forum to visit Rangoon as a show of solidarity with the regime there.

 In Sudan, China makes massive investments, and supports the regime, which is killing off its opposition, both directly with money, factories, and weapons, and indirectly at the UN by blocking Security Council attempts to take action.

 In the Western hemisphere, China cultivates close relations with the two of the least free states, Venezuela and Cuba.

China is close to the military and anti-democratic elements in Russia. She is deeply involved in nuclear proliferation, and in the provision of money and technical help to anti-democratic forces.

To sum up, ever since 1989, when Communism began to fall in the west, but was maintained in China by bloody crackdown, Beijing has felt isolated and sought to invigorate cooperation among the remaining dictatorships, of which she is of course by far the greatest.

 What has been the effect of this policy? I would like to be able to report that the free countries of the world, including my own, the United States, and this one, have stood up steadfastly for their values and insisted that China free her own people as she joins the international community. But that, to our shame, would be quite incorrect.  Making dictatorship accepted, if not respectable internationally, has been one of the most harmful effects on world democracy of China’s rise.

 China’s lack of democracy and freedom is increasingly ignored or glossed over in nearly all international dealings. Today, international leaders dare not speak out against human rights abuses lest they lose valuable contracts. It has become, in effect, a matter of etiquette. When Jacques Chirac visited China last year, Le Monde, “The World,” one of France’s leading newspapers, printed on its front page a cartoon of the president meeting his Chinese counterparts. Said Chirac, “my dictionary does not include the words ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’.” Responded the hosts: “you speak Chinese perfectly”!

Even worse, many have begun to rationalize China’s continuing dictatorship as being somehow rooted in Chinese culture. Its people do not understand freedom, they need firm leadership, they argue; the alternative to Communism is chaos. All this said of the civilization that has excelled in every area of human endeavor from poetry to mathematics, and produced those classics of humane respect for the individual and of virtuous rule: Confucius and Mencius—not to mention an inspiring series of democratic leaders in the past century and this, from 1898 to the late Qing constitutionalists, to Sun Yat-sen and Liang Qichao, to Hu Shih and his colleagues, right down to the leaders of the 1989 movement and today’s democrats. As will be seen, even Mao Zedong endorsed democracy.

  Furthermore, China’s economic development has gone some distance toward reviving the idea that an autocratic state is better at economic development than a democracy.  Consider the common comparison between China, which allegedly got it right by concentrating on economics, and India, which it was long said, lagged behind, precisely because of its seemingly unmanageable democracy. Recent experience has shown how wrong this is, but the idea is still very common.

China’s apparent economic success combined with dictatorship has given new life and hope to the world’s dictatorships and their apologists, while harming the movement for world democracy. It has slowed its momentum, sapped its morale, placed obstacles in its path, and turned former democrats into apologists for dictatorship. Indeed the free world colludes with China, by trading unconditionally, thus transfusing every year the hundreds of billions of dollars that give the appearance of health to her sick and moribund political system.

We were told that our engagement with China would change her. This it has by and large failed to do. Instead we are being corrupted and our values eroded.

 Even here in this country I sense the harmful effects. In the 1990s this country’s democratization was a source of pride domestically and admiration abroad. Presidents Chiang Ching-kuo and Lee Teng-hui were hailed for helping to create the first-ever democratic and constitutional state in the world of the hua ren. 

But more recently some here have gone quiet about freedom and democracy, as they have in my own country.

 So let me say something to every citizen of this great country, wherever you were born and whatever your political sympathies. You should swell with pride at what your nation has accomplished, not only economically, educationally, and culturally, but also politically.

In the 1980s, at the moment of greatest peril for your country, when Washington had abruptly discarded its long-time ally and when nearly everyone, Washington included, expected you to collapse or join China, the Kuomintang of President Chiang Ching-kuo—and I am so glad that President Lee mentioned him, for he played a decisive role in this story—that Kuomintang and the opposition worked together to refuse the expected surrender, and instead to begin the process that would free political prisoners, free the press, allow multiparty elections and so forth. This stunned the world—which I should say remains stunned. Twenty years later the international community, including the United States, still cannot decide how to deal with this reality.

So what, I wonder, would President Chiang Ching-kuo say today to those who criticize or underrate or abuse the democracy that he, his successors, and you this country’s people, have created? President Chiang Ching-kuo could, after all, have gone to China easily and received a welcome to end all welcomes. He had the power, and could easily have delivered this country--and all of you--to Beijing, while himself retiring to luxury and an exalted position.

But he did not. Chiang Ching-kuo, as we all know, was a complex man, who long controlled the secret police and had plenty of blood on his hands. But having been a prisoner in the Soviet Union, he knew the truth about Communism. Here he learned a great deal about Taiwan, growing wiser as he grew older. He once declared, “I am a Taiwanese.” So when Deng Xiaoping sent an ever-so-polite letter inviting him to talk, and the Americans waited expectantly for the solution of the long standing “Taiwan problem,” President Chiang Ching-kuo did not reply. He never bent. His defects were many, but in the end he set the rudder decisively toward freedom. Today he is buried here, as is meet and right.

As a foreigner, all I can say is, value, nay treasure, the freedom and democracy that you have created; take pride in it.

And defend it. I know that the parties here are deadlocked over arms purchases. Some argue that costs are too great or even suggest that the attempt to defend this country is futile. Yet what, I wonder, would President Chiang Ching-kuo have said if he had been given the opportunity to buy submarines and other advanced weapons from the United States? What would he have said of those who opposed doing so?

Let me speak once again to you. Above all be confident. China’s economy will not grow to the sky nor will her military gobble up Asia. Her people will not be silent forever. Your democratic values will prevail, in China, and in the other countries where you struggle today. Sooner or later, China and these other countries will change. 

 Remember that even Mao Zedong paid eloquent lip service to democracy. Who could forget his definitive statement on the topic, made on September 25, 1945, when he responded in writing to questions placed to him by the Reuters correspondent in Chongqing [Chungking, China's wartime capital].  One question had asked what was the "Communist Party's understanding of a free and democratic China." Mao's response read:

“A free and democratic China will have the following characteristics. Its governments at all levels, including even the central government, will all be chosen in universal, equal, and secret elections, and will be responsible to their electors. It will carry out Mr Sun Yatsen's Three People's Principles, Lincoln's principle of "of the people, by the people, and for the people," as well as Roosevelt's Atlantic Charter. It will guarantee the independence, solidarity, and unity of the country, and its cooperation with other democratic powers.” If even Mao Zedong could imagine democracy for China, can it really be impossible or inconceivable?

Here let me tell a story against myself, to show how deeply rooted is the false idea that China cannot be democratic. During the democracy movement of 1989 I spoke regularly with the then Wall Street Journal correspondent, then in Beijing, the great American journalist Claudia Rosett. One day, as the crowds in Beijing grew bigger and bigger, she asked me a typically blunt question. “So what should they do, Arthur? Should they hold elections?”

My answer was instinctive. “No, they should not hold elections. That would be deeply destabilizing.” Then I caught myself. I had always considered myself to favor freedom and democracy in China. Yet here I was, sounding just like a China pundit  from the Washington stable, mouthing the usual lame analysis finding that China was not ready for elections; she still needed dictatorship. It was an acutely painful moment of unwitting self revelation and self discovery. I was set straight, and I thank Claudia for it.

The right answer is that of course China should have elections. And if she did, what would they yield? Opponents conjure up howling mobs of illiterate and violent poor, ready to destroy everything China has achieved. But this is chimera designed to frighten us. The correct answer is that free elections would produce a parliament overwhelmingly dominated by farmers, for that is what most Chinese are. What do farmers want? Bright urban skylines? Limousines? Aircraft carriers? Maxim’s French restaurant? Taiwan? Designer shoes? The Olympics? Nuclear war? I think none of these. China’s farmers are poor and I think they would like more money for rural infrastructure, for rural schools, for transport, for health care, and so forth. They want laws and justice, fairness, opportunity. Just imagine how different a China ruled by such a parliament would be.

 History has a way of surprising people. Until very recently, the consensus about China after 1989 has been that her government had succeeded in restoring its dictatorship. The favorite word was “resilience”: China’s dictatorship had proved resilient. Aspirations for freedom had been forgotten: things would stay as they were.

But at the beginning of this month, we learned that Hu Jintao had decided that the Party would officially mark the anniversary of the birth of someone who has been a non person for sixteen years, not to be mentioned: the liberally inclined Hu Yaobang. We had also an article in a leading Beijing newspaper saying that the Party and the central authorities had too much power.

What is going on? It seems that the Chinese people have not, after all, forgotten the aspirations voiced (though never remotely honored) by Mao Zedong, and by Sun Yatsen before him. The current rulers are feeling pressure for political change. They may or may not genuinely believe in change; they may well seek to manipulate appearances simply to consolidate power. But they would certainly not have made these moves unless they thought that pressure was growing very strong and that it needed either to be somehow contained or co-opted.

For to embark even on talk of reform is dangerous. As Tocqueville  put it in The Old Regime and the Revolution: “the most perilous moment for a bad government is one when it seeks to mend its ways.”

The danger, of course, is that as the dictatorship attempts to remodel itself it will collapse, with nothing to take its place but chaos, internal struggle, and more dictatorship. That is a worrying possibility for China, and one that is made worse as the outside world colludes with the dictatorship instead of pressuring it to change, and fails to prepare for its end.

But causes exist for optimism. Democratic transition is now well-understood and thoroughly tested. This country provides an excellent example. Chinese are increasingly well educated. So China, which has hitherto provided a false model that suggested modernity and dictatorship could somehow be combined, may now consult that experience and show us, in the years and decades ahead, how her great civilization too can transform itself into a modern constitutional state. When the curtain rises again on the drama of China’s quest for freedom that was so abruptly halted in 1989, the whole atmosphere in Asia and the world will change. China’s example will lift freedom’s prestige and leave its current dictatorial friends isolated and contemplating where to flee.

I believe we will see this day, and soon. When it comes, China will redeem her honor, galvanize the forces for freedom globally, and more than recompense for the harm she has done and is doing to democracy today.

Thank you very much.

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