Wen's elusive message on liberty

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 December, 2003, 12:00am

Premier Wen Jiabao's warning to the Taiwan authorities that 'the Chinese people will pay any price to safeguard the unity of the motherland' made people sit up.

In his interview with The Washington Post on November 21, the first with western journalists since becoming premier last spring, Mr Wen twice quoted Abraham Lincoln to show that Beijing's resolve to keep Taiwan a part of China is on a par with president Lincoln's efforts to prevent the United States from breaking apart in the mid-19th century.

Mr Wen also defended China's trade and currency policies, important issues which he is expected to tackle during his forthcoming trip to the US - his first official visit - which begins on Sunday.

But what has gone largely unnoticed in this wide-ranging interview is Mr Wen's discussion of Chinese domestic politics.

A closer look at what he said (and did not say) about the future of democracy in China, and how he treated some of the sensitive issues, reveal a great deal about how the new Chinese leadership is treading the turbulent waters of political reform in the world's fastest-growing economy.

Responding to the question of whether Beijing will accelerate political reform to keep pace with economic reform, Mr Wen conceded that 'without political reform, economic reform will not be successful'.

Then, he emphasised what should be done: develop democracy, improve the legal system, promote the rule of law and put the government 'under the supervision of the people'. These are indeed ambitious goals in a society that lacks all of them.

Will the Chinese leaders expand democratic election as a means to carry out these reform measures? No. Mr Wen confirmed that Beijing has no plans to implement direct elections beyond the village level, or suffrage beyond townships, counties and small cities.

Only 'indirect elections' can be held at higher levels. That is the status quo. Why, Mr Wen asked, rhetorically, before reasoning: because China is too big, too populous, still underdeveloped, unevenly developed and people's education level is inadequate.

I only wish the interviewer had followed this up by asking what he thought of India's experience with democracy.

Yet Mr Wen wanted to make the case that Beijing is promoting freedom and human rights under the current political system. In comparison with 25 years ago, he said, 'people have the freedom to choose their jobs, to obtain information and to travel'.

Mr Wen also took the initiative to talk about freedom of religion in China, and even went to the lengths of naming all five religious establishments which are neighbours of the Zhongnanhai compound, where top Chinese leaders and institutions reside. Evidently, Mr Wen was prepared for the possible question regarding the outlawed Falun Gong group that once surrounded Zhongnanhai several years ago, demanding official recognition.

Again, what Mr Wen omitted is more telling - he did not assert that people in the mainland enjoy freedom of the press, freedom of expression, or freedom of organising political groups that challenge the communist party's monopoly.

His dilemma was further reflected in how he handled the following question on the events of 1989 in Tiananmen Square: 'You went to visit the students there during that time ... Were they counter-revolutionaries or were they patriots?'

Instead of giving a clear-cut answer, and after a long pause, Mr Wen chose to talk about how the government's measures at the time maintained social stability and ensured continued reform.

So, Mr Wen is obviously unwilling to label the students in the 1989 democracy movement counter-revolutionaries. Has the new Chinese leadership taken a moderate first step in reviewing the verdict of Tiananmen? Not quite, if you read other parts of the interview. Mr Wen made two important points, again by delving into the events of American history. First, the development of a liberal democracy is a long process. It may take decades, and even centuries, to accomplish.

Second, he lectured his American guests on how to properly understand the meaning of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as inalienable rights, as written in their own Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson.

'For the Chinese people's human rights, the right to life and development is most important,' Mr Wen said. Jefferson, he stressed, 'put the right to life before every other right'. The message? There will be no rush to political reform. Nor is there a schedule to revisit the Tiananmen record of 1989. Beijing still puts the right to life ahead of, and often at the expense of, liberty, while treating such a tradeoff as a necessary stage of its modernisation process.

But it is unclear if Mr Wen will impress his American hosts during his trip to Washington. After all, he concluded that 'the understanding of China by some Americans is not as good as our understanding of the United States'.

Wenran Jiang is a political science professor at the University of Alberta, Canada