China must become a democracy

By Michael Danby  / 

Sun, Jul 02, 2006 - Page 8

Democracy is not the private property of Europe, North America and Australasia. The people of Asia, Latin America and Africa have embraced democracy with enthusiasm and made it work for them. Of course they have all done so in their own different ways. But the essentials of modern democracy -- a constitution, an elected president or parliament, the removal of the army from politics, an independent judiciary, a free press, civil liberties for all citizens, religious freedom, equal rights for women -- these are the pattern everywhere.

There is no reason why the Chinese people should not share in this progress towards democracy. We can see in another Chinese republic, Taiwan, that Chinese people desire freedom and democracy as much as anyone else, and that they can make democracy work as well as any other people.

Indeed given the Chinese people's centuries-long traditions of patriotism and civic duty, China ought to find the transition to democracy far easier than some other societies. If such a heterogeneous society as Indonesia can make a successful transition to democracy, there is no reason why China cannot.

So what is holding China back? The answer is of course the monopoly of power exercised by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) whose leadership believe that the continuation of their rule is necessary to secure the country's unity and prosperity. China has the world's largest population and has the potential to be a great power, in every sense of the word "great," so it is one of the tragedies of our time that China's leaders have chosen to cling to an outmoded European model of authoritarian rule. As a result 1.2 billion people are denied the right to govern themselves.

This was not an inevitable outcome. The Chinese leadership, once the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) had jettisoned the irrationality of communism and laid the foundations of China's prosperity, could have decided to begin a gradual transition to constitutional and democratic government.

This would not have been without risk, but given the wisdom and civic spirit of the Chinese people and given assistance from the democratic world, it could have been achieved. Instead CCP leaders have tried to contain the energies and aspirations of the Chinese people in a straitjacket of continuing totalitarian rule.

This is a very short-sighted policy. The longer the CCP leadership delays the beginning of this transition, the greater the risk of an explosion of social unrest. China faces huge economic and social challenges. Democratic governments, resting on consent, are better equipped to deal with these challenges than authoritarian governments. China will not thank the Communist leaders if their stubbornness results in social disorder and political breakdown in China.

This would put at risk the country's quest to regain great power status. China has seen the terrible consequences of political breakdown twice in the past century, in the 1920s and again in the 1960s. It would be a great and quite unnecessary tragedy if that were to happen again.

Let me now say something about Australia and China. My political party, the Australian Labor Party, while in government established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic in 1972 and greatly expanded Australia's economic relations with China.

Those were both correct decisions. Reform in China will not be brought about by trying to isolate China or by refusing to trade with it. China is entitled to be treated with diplomatic respect, and must be allowed to trade like any other country. Experience elsewhere shows that the more prosperous a country becomes through trade, the greater will be the pressure for further economic reform and then for political reform. China and Australia have a strong and mutually beneficial economic relationship, and that is a natural and positive development.

We must be careful, however, not to allow a desire to maintain and develop good economic relations with China to lead to a policy of appeasement. If you appease dictators, they only demand more. If you stand up to dictators on matters of principle, they retreat.

My fear is that the current Australian government has gone too far in the direction of appeasement of China, and has adopted what I call a policy of "pre-emptive kow tow." We have seen this in the repeated hints by the Foreign Minister that if there is a confrontation between the US and China in the Taiwan Straits, Australia will not come to the assistance of the US and Taiwan. We have seen it also in the refusal of the government to take a stand for persecuted Chinese dissidents, editors and writers, substituting instead a "human rights dialogue" designed to empty the issue of human rights in China of all real meaning and urgency.

Why is the Australian government behaving in this way? Apparently they believe that the best way to preserve our economic relationship with China is to go to any lengths to avoid offending its government. The current government apparently believes that if they offend China by criticizing its human rights record China will stop buying our raw materials and the huge inflow of Chinese money will dry up, with dire consequences for Australia.

This is, of course, nonsense. It is perfectly possible for democratic countries to have a "two-track" policy with China. On the one hand, a healthy economic relationship based on mutual self-interest. On the other hand, a political relationship based on courteous but frank statements of difference when this is necessary.

To suggest that China will risk damaging its own vital economic interests by seeking to withdraw from its economic relationships with Western countries and other democracies is highly unrealistic.

This is an edited version of a speech given by Australian Labor MP Michael Danby at the recent International Conference for China and Asia Democracy in Berlin.