Tue, May 09, 2000 - Page 9 News List

Markets don't mean democracy

The relationship between free markets and democracy is not a given -- and US businesses and officials who argue that better business ties with China will bring about political liberalization shouldn't hold their breath waiting for change

BY Brian Shea

The critical step in Taiwan's democratization, reflected in the election results of March 18th, has heightened the attention paid by western analysts to democratization in China.

The inevitability of this "evolution" has been robotically repeated for over 10 years by everyone from Bill Clinton to CNN. Market economics in China, the mantra tells us, will increase the prosperity enjoyed by China's citizens and decrease their reliance on the state. The resulting "breathing room" between state and citizen will expand to demands for political freedoms. China will join the international community as a more cooperative, stable partner, and eight years of America's placa-ting China will be vindicated.

Despite the fact that this unscrutinized theory is little more than sophistry is largely ignored in western political and business circles, it remains the basis of US China policy. But as China's economic liberalization parallels its deteriorating human rights conditions, its aggression towards Taiwan and its intolerance of all who dare disagree with Beijing, some reflection is warranted on the assumptions Washington holds so dear.

The causal relationship between free markets and democracy is based on several false assumptions. One is America's conviction that the opportunity afforded to Chinese citizens to work in foreign companies, mostly factories, will give them a taste of the rights and equality US workers enjoy.

However, working conditions in foreign-owned factories in China are almost Dickensian and are some of the worst in all of Asia. Unscrupulous managers, often in cooperation with local authorities, cheat workers out of earned money and force them to work in unhealthy and dangerous conditions. Legal protection of their rights and safety is non-existent. Even if the central authorities in Beijing implemented measures to improve their lot, foreign owners would simply move their operations to other countries in Asia that care even less for worker's rights than Beijing.

While conditions in US-owned firms are relatively better, they represent a minority of foreign-owned factories in China. The majority are Taiwanese, Japanese and Korean-owned. Even if the American presence doubled, the argument that it could have a measurable effect on democratizing a country of one billion people is ludicrous.

The second and even more questionable assumption argues that the decreased reliance on the state resulting from market liberalization will translate to increased demands for matching political freedoms. The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is usually cited as evidence of this connection and the often-aired pictures of the student's Goddess of Liberty would seem to lend weight to the argument.

However, the real conditions behind the emotional images of 1989 are largely misunderstood. The students demanding democracy represented a tiny percentage of those in the square and were seen as dangerously radical by the majority of the protesters. Most were not advocating democracy or the overthrow of the Communist Party. The grievances ranged from corruption to poor food in university dining halls, not political revolution.

In its eternal quest for viewer ratings and bumper sticker slogans, however, CNN could not resist the dramatic imagery of a Chinese Statue of Liberty and dedicated its coverage to a group that had largely alienated itself from the majority of the protesters. And thus, the legend was born.

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