Thu, Sep 22, 2005 - Page 8 News List

China's role in global democracy

By Arthur Waldron

China's lack of democracy and freedom is increasingly ignored or glossed over in nearly all international dealings. Today, international leaders dare not speak out against human-rights abuses lest they lose valuable contracts. It has become, in effect, a matter of etiquette. When French President Jacques Chirac visited China last year, Le Monde, one of France's leading newspapers, printed on its front page a cartoon of Chirac meeting his Chinese counterparts. Said Chirac, "My dictionary does not include the words `freedom' or `democracy.'" Responded the hosts: "You speak Chinese perfectly!"

Even worse, many have begun to rationalize China's continuing dictatorship as being somehow rooted in Chinese culture. Its people do not understand freedom, they need firm leadership, they argue; the alternative to Communism is chaos. All this said of the civilization that has excelled in every area of human endeavor from poetry to mathematics, and produced those classics of humane respect for the individual and of virtuous rule: Confucius and Mencius; not to mention an inspiring series of democratic leaders in the past century and this, from 1898 to the late Qing constitutionalists, to Sun Yat-sen (孫中山) and Liang Qichao (梁啟超), to Hu Shih (胡適) and his colleagues, right down to the leaders of the 1989 movement and today's democrats. As will be seen, even Mao Zedong (毛澤東) endorsed democracy.

Furthermore, China's economic development has gone some distance toward reviving the idea that an autocratic state is better at economic development than a democracy. Consider the common comparison between China, which allegedly got it right by concentrating on economics, and India, which it was long said, lagged behind, precisely because of its seemingly unmanageable democracy. Recent experience has shown how wrong this is, but the idea is still very common.

China's apparent economic success combined with dictatorship has given new life and hope to the world's dictatorships and their apologists, while harming the movement for world democracy. It has slowed its momentum, sapped its morale, placed obstacles in its path, and turned former democrats into apologists for dictatorship. Indeed the free world colludes with China by trading unconditionally, thus transfusing every year the hundreds of billions of dollars that give the appearance of health to her sick and moribund political system.

We were told that our engagement with China would change her. This it has by and large failed to do. Instead we are being corrupted and our values eroded.

Even here in Taiwan I sense the harmful effects [...]. In the 1990s this country's democratization was a source of pride domestically and of admiration abroad. Former presidents Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) and Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) were hailed for helping to create the first ever democratic and constitutional state in the "Chinese" world. But more recently some here have gone quiet about freedom and democracy, as they have in my own country.

So let me say something to every citizen of this great country, wherever you were born and whatever your political sympathies. You should swell with pride at what your nation has accomplished, not only economically, educationally and culturally, but also politically. In the 1980s, at the moment of greatest peril for your country, when Washington had abruptly discarded its long-time ally and when nearly everyone, Washington included, expected you to collapse or join China, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) of former president Chiang Ching-kuo and the opposition worked together to refuse the expected surrender, and instead began the process that would free political prisoners, free the press, allow multiparty elections and so forth. This stunned the world -- which I should say remains stunned. Twenty years later the international community, including the US, still cannot decide how to deal with this reality.

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