Sun, May 07, 2000 - Page 9 News List

Trade, prosperity and democratic change in China: a reality check?

It has been said that engaging China will eventually bring about reform in human rights. But trade and investment have thus far paid few dividends to political prisoners

By Christopher Lingle

China's authoritarian government regularly and systematically ignores universally recognized rights. It is beyond dispute that the Communist Party detains individuals for expressing political opinions and for practicing religious beliefs that are viewed to be subversive to the control of the central authorities.

Apologists for Beijing often try to raise an argument based upon moral relativism or a suggestion that China's underdeveloped economy is a mitigating factor. However, violations of human rights cannot be dismissed on grounds of cultural differences or of stages of economic development.

Ironically, it can be argued that overseas Chinese are responsible for the limited outcry over Beijing's abuses. Although ethnic Chinese around the world exhibit pride in their heritage, they avoid critical assessments of what that culture has brought the country of their origin. It would appear that individuals of Chinese descent are less moved by persecution of their ethnic brethren than were African Americans who spearheaded the anti-apartheid movement.

Instead, there are assertions that the best way to improve human rights in China is through trade and investment. Multinational corporations are portrayed as an important engine of change that will generate a "multiplier" effect to improve the lot of Chinese citizens. It is partially true that foreign trade and investment in China can contribute to prosperity for some people in a few parts of China. However, the impact of external economic influences cannot raise the standard of living of most Chinese in an extensive or substantial manner.

On the one hand, economists offer little evidence to identify or quantify multipliers of any sort that generate an appreciable impact. Even if multipliers had worked elsewhere, it is far-fetched to expect them to operate in China's economy.

First, there are large disparities of income in between urban and rural areas due to uneven economic development. Second, these gaps can be expected to widen until China develops the physical infrastructure needed for a unified, national economy. As it is, the poor communication or transportation networks do not provide adequate links between the commercial centers of the hinterland.

On the other hand, after 20 years of economic reform and hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign investment, foreign-invested enterprises employ less than 1 percent of the Chinese labor force. Given the slowdown in foreign direct investment into China, this proportion is unlikely to rise significantly.

Another claim is that investments by multinational corporations in production facilities will hasten the move toward economic prosperity while introducing merit-based hiring practices as well as new models of leadership.

The belief that trade will democratize China is supported by political theorists ranging from Aristotle to Seymour Martin Lipset who argued that democracy is more sustainable only after a country reaches a threshold level of economic development. There is some evidence to support the belief. Taiwan's presidential election might be treated as a case where economic development encourages democratization.

However, the object is not merely about whether citizens have voting rights, itself a necessary and sufficient condition for a regime to call itself a democracy. Poor North Korea considers itself a democracy. Rich Singapore does as well despite its petty repressions and government-orchestrated attacks on political opposition figures. Many of the developed Asian economies have political systems that are paragons of "illiberal" democracy and lack the trappings of a civil society.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top