Mon, May 24, 2004 - Page 8 News List

China's possible rethink on Taiwan

By Sushil Seth

The biggest nightmare for China's oligarchy is the fear of losing power. Fifteen years ago, in June 1989, the party felt so threatened that it let loose its army on an ill-organized student movement agitating for a measure of democracy in the country's governance.

This was the Tiananmen massacre. Its reverberations still resound, keeping the ruling Communist Party on edge.

So much so that one of their own, the deposed party general secretary Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), now in his eighties and ailing, is still kept under virtual house arrest because he had advocated moderation in dealing with students. If a frail Zhao can be regarded as a threat, it is obvious that the party leadership suffers from a severe case of paranoia.

The ruling junta has also come down hard on the Falun Gong movement, declaring it an evil cult and putting scores of its adherents into the country's fathomless dungeons. The party seeks to control religious revival in China for fear of creating alternative centers of power.

It is in this context that one would need to understand the party's hysteria over the democracy movement in Hong Kong; a reminder of how things nearly got out of control in 1989. Since the former British colony's reversion to China's sovereignty in mid-1997, it has been governed under a 50-year "one country, two systems" formula, which allows it a fair degree of autonomy with the promise of greater democratization. But Beijing is backing out of this promise. The ruling junta believes that it alone has the power to interpret and decide Hong Kong's future without reference to its people or anybody else. And has severely criticized the US and UK for their unwarranted criticism and interference in its internal affairs. Surprisingly, it has succeeded in warding off sustained international criticism on this score.

Why is this so? An important factor is China's economic and political clout -- not so much the reality of it (though that too is important) but the perception of it.

There is a sense that China is an emerging superpower. Most countries would like to keep their relations with it at a friendly level to maximize real and anticipated economic opportunities.

The case in point is the Chinese premier's recent visits to France and Germany, where he received extravagant treatment and his hosts scrupulously avoided mentioning human rights. Even in the US he was accorded elevated status befitting a head of state. China has acquired a larger-than-life stature as a global power.

This perception is further accentuated because of the US' Iraq quagmire. The US is over-stretched and its global strategy has become hostage to developments in Iraq. It therefore doesn't have much time and resources for other issues, like China's emergence as a strategic rival. Indeed, it looks to China for political support, particularly on the North Korean nuclear proliferation issue. At the same time, the publicity about the maltreatment of Iraqi prisoners has compromised its high moral ground on human rights. The timing is, therefore, right for China.

But China's oligarchy is still worried. And it better be, because it lacks domestic political legitimacy. Hong Kong is a reminder that a measure of autonomy and relative economic prosperity aren't enough to win over people in the absence of democratization.

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