Thu, Sep 22, 2005 - Page 8 News List

China's role in global democracy

By Arthur Waldron

Here let me tell a story against myself, to show how deeply rooted is the false idea that China cannot be democratic. During the democracy movement of 1989 I spoke regularly with the then Wall Street Journal correspondent, then in Beijing, the great US journalist Claudia Rosett. One day, as the crowds in Beijing grew bigger and bigger, she asked me a typically blunt question. "So what should they do, Arthur? Should they hold elections?" My answer was instinctive. "No, they should not hold elections. That would be deeply destabilizing." Then I caught myself. I had always considered myself to favor freedom and democracy in China. Yet here I was, sounding just like a China pundit from the Washington stable, mouthing the usual lame analysis finding that China was not ready for elections; she still needed dictatorship. It was an acutely painful moment of unwitting self-revelation and self-discovery. I was set straight, and I thank Claudia for it.

The right answer is that of course China should have elections. And if she did, what would they yield? Opponents conjure up howling mobs of illiterate and violent poor, ready to destroy everything China has achieved. But this is a chimera designed to frighten us. The correct answer is that free elections would produce a parliament overwhelmingly dominated by farmers, for that is what most Chinese are. What do farmers want? Bright urban skylines? Limousines? Aircraft carriers? Maxim's French restaurant? Taiwan? Designer shoes? The Olympics? Nuclear war? I think none of these. China's farmers are poor and I think they would like more money for rural infrastructure, for rural schools, for transport, for health care, and so forth. They want laws and justice, fairness, opportunity. Just imagine how different a China ruled by such a parliament would be.

History has a way of surprising people. Until very recently, the consensus about China after 1989 has been that her government had succeeded in restoring its dictatorship. The favorite word was "resilience": China's dictatorship had proved resilient. Aspirations for freedom had been forgotten: things would stay as they were. But at the beginning of this month, we learned that Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) had decided that the Party would officially mark the anniversary of the birth of someone who has been a non-person, not to be mentioned, for 16 years: the liberally inclined Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦). We had also an article in a leading Beijing newspaper saying that the Party and the central authorities had too much power. What is going on? It seems that the Chinese people have not, after all, forgotten the aspirations voiced (though never remotely honored) by Mao Zedong, and by Sun Yat-sen before him. The current rulers are feeling pressure for political change. They may or may not genuinely believe in change; they may well seek to manipulate appearances simply to consolidate power. But they would certainly not have made these moves unless they thought that pressure was growing very strong and that it needed either to be somehow contained or co-opted. For to embark even on talk of reform is dangerous. As Tocqueville put it in The Old Regime and the Revolution: "the most perilous moment for a bad government is one when it seeks to mend its ways."

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