The Chinese conundrum

2010-10-26 00:00

CHINA’S economic and political power has increased enormously in the last two decades. The country still faces many challenges and problems — for example, many millions of its people are extremely poor — but in certain crucial respects it has got its act together, and, with its huge population, it has already become one of the major players on the world stage.

If we accept (as surely we must) that a politically mature society will be a truly democratic one, then China’s biggest and most dangerous shortcoming is that it is not democratic: the Communist Party is the only legal party, free elections do not take place, and firm political dissidents are not tolerated. It seems clear that in recent decades Chinese society has liberalised in various ways, and not merely economically, but the fact remains that it is certainly not a free country. On the recently published 2010 Index of Press Freedom, for example, in which the United States is 20th and South Africa 38th, the People’s Republic of China comes in at number 171.

This problem was highlighted recently when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese campaigner for democracy, who is in prison. The Chinese authorities were outraged and insulted by the award, but if they had studied the record of the Nobel committee they would have discovered that the prize has quite often been given to dissidents within authoritarian countries. Consider for example the awards to Albert Luthuli in 1960, the Russian Andrei Sakharov in 1975, the Polish union leader Lech Walesa in 1983, Desmond Tutu in 1984, the Dalai Lama in 1989 and Burmese Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991. The Nobel committee has allowed itself to become the conscience of the democratic world.

Clearly, then, China, like other authoritarian regimes, must prepare to learn its lesson and change its ways. But it isn’t as simple as that. A Chinese newspaper (needless to say pro-government) stated that, if Liu’s calls for a multi-party democracy had been followed, “China’s fate would perhaps be no better than the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and the country probably would have quickly collapsed”. Those words represent not just the desperate evasion of a tyrannical regime: they deserve to be taken seriously.

An important aspect of the history of China over the last 1 000 years has been the continuous alternations of unity and division and reunification. It is understandable that Chinese leaders should be afraid of division and possibly collapse. And the statement about the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Yugoslavia is accurate: in both those erstwhile nations democratic liberalisation led to an unravelling. Chinese leaders are certain that the unifying control of the Communist Party (which of course is communist in little more than name) lies behind the country’s rapid growth in economic and political power.

They are probably right. But what then is the way forward?

Should the democratic or partly democratic nations of the world accept China as the great exception, which is what they have in fact been doing for most of the time? Or should they press it towards democratisation, even if that leads to some degree of division and confusion? China will perhaps feel that the U.S. will urge democratic reforms on it in the hope that they will hobble its greatest trade rival. On the other hand, any degree of chaos in China might unbalance the world’s fragile trading arrangements.

It is a difficult situation. China may decide to move at its own speed, and with careful controls, towards democratisation. It may feel that, if the nation is strong enough, unravelling is unlikely to occur. On the other hand, it may not be willing to take that chance. It may decide that tight authoritarian control is safer.

That would be an unwise decision. Whatever the benefits over the next few years, perhaps over the next decades, in the end running a repressive society is doomed to failure. Young Chinese people, some of them educated in the West, are bound to yearn for the freedoms and the human rights that are taken for granted in many countries. As the history of the last 100 years shows clearly, authoritarian societies do not last. And in China unravelling is far more likely to occur after a rebellion against repression than after a gradual process of democratisation. Surely the leaders of the country are canny enough to recognise this?

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