Wed, Jul 09, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Is Beijing limping toward democracy?

By Liu Kuan-teh 劉冠德

When it comes to the question of China's future, two approaches have been developed, namely, the liberal and the realist. The question of whether economic development will make Chinese foreign policy more peaceful or more assertive also divides into these two theoretical camps. The liberal notion argues that the wealthier China becomes, the more its people will embrace democracy and demand change. Incorporating China into the world economy, therefore, will not only lead to inevitable change in China but will also do more to keep the world peaceful, stable and -- eventually -- democratic than any action by other nations could possibly do.

The liberal assumption may never be put to the test. The establishment of a liberal democracy in China is unlikely in the foreseeable future. The new leadership, led by President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), is driven by the old generation.

At a ceremony for the Chinese Communist Party's anniversary on July 1, Hu did not initiate any discussion on democratic reform as some optimists expected. Instead, he reiterated the importance of abiding by his predecessor Jiang Zemin's (江澤民) "Three Represents." The move displayed no determination on Hu's part to bring about political reforms in China and he showed no concrete intent to pursue political liberalization.

Scholars have suggested that a "political incrementalism" might constitute the possible path of China's democratization. Nevertheless, gradual political reforms will face a great challenge if it does not come with more economic openness. As China becomes more incorporated into the world trade regime, economic interdependence may heighten rather than defuse political tensions between Beijing and the outside world. But dependence means vulnerability.

As a country that suffers from the "century of national humiliation" and is eager to regain its national pride of being a great nation, the Chinese leaders are naturally inclined to "control what they depend on [from abroad] or to lessen the extent of their dependency."

Today's rising China has to suffer the vulnerabilities of interdependence, but tomorrow's strong China will not. The more powerful China grows, the less it needs the aid and approval of the other major powers to get what it needs.

Realists would not expect prosperity to make China more peace-oriented. If the international behavior of states is strongly influenced by threats and opportunities that governments perceive in the international system, then China's growth from a weak, developing state to a stronger, more prosperous state should result in a more assertive foreign policy.

A growing economic base will increase chances for China to establish greater control over its environment. An economically stronger China will begin to act like a major power: bolder, more demanding, and less inclined to cooperate with the other major powers in the region.

Given that Beijing is already expanding its own political, military and economic influence, it is worth asking whether China understands all the responsibilities of being a "great power." The status of a "great power" is not determined by active expansion of military capability or in military threats against smaller countries.

Covering up the the spread of SARS and suppressing Taiwan's international presence are not what a mature democracy would do. Therefore, a continued clash of ideology and strategy between China and the rest of the world is expected when the world tries to accommodate China. A joint effort must be made by the international community to educate China to become a responsible power, instead of being an irrational power.

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