Don't give up

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 March, 2010, 12:00am

The latest American report on human rights in China makes it clear that the country, while now an economic powerhouse, is not moving towards becoming a liberal democracy even though many had believed that economic development would inevitably lead to political liberalisation.

Beijing, especially in the past two years, has adopted an even harder line in its stance. David Shambaugh, a respected China scholar, wrote recently in the Financial Times that 'analysts who have argued that the country is moving inexorably towards greater openness and reform are beginning to re-examine long-held assumptions'. Going even further is James Mann, former Beijing correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, who wrote recently in The New Republic: 'China isn't opening up its political system to far-reaching reform in the way that outsiders have for years hoped and predicted', adding: 'China is on its way to becoming a durable authoritarian regime.'

When Richard Nixon sought detente with Beijing in the late 1960s, he wanted to bring China into the international community, not necessarily to change its political system. As he wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1967: 'There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation ... The world cannot be safe until China changes.'

And so Nixon set out to change China and, in the process, changed America as well. Washington made an about-turn in its policy of recognising the Nationalist government in Taiwan as the legitimate government of all China and, in 1979, shut down its embassy in Taipei and moved it to Beijing.

In the 43 years since the Nixon article, China has changed dramatically. The question is, is the world safer?

I would argue that it is. For one thing, China has changed from a supporter of world revolution during the Maoist era to a supporter of the status quo. While Mao Zedong felt that the more nuclear-armed countries the better, China today boasts a nuclear non-proliferation regime largely modelled on that of the United States. And while membership in the World Trade Organisation may not have resulted in political liberalisation, as both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had expected, no one is arguing that the world would be better off if China were not a member of this rules-based organisation.

In fact, despite the global economic crisis and current trade frictions, it is remarkable that the world trading system remains strong and each country is cognisant of its responsibilities within the WTO.

China has been playing by the rules of the WTO as well as those of the United Nations and other international bodies of which it is a member. Increasingly, no doubt, it will insist on being one of the rules-makers and not just a rules-observer, but there is nothing wrong with that.

The WTO was never meant to be an organisation that turned members from autocracies into democracies. What Clinton and Bush argued was that, in addition to economic benefits for the US, there would also be a political bonus. The fact that it has not occurred may simply mean that more time is needed.

Although China is now the world's third-largest economy, on a per capita basis it still ranked a lowly 127 as of last year. The country is still far from the point that it can be considered rich enough so that everyone can live in dignity. As the standard of living rises, inevitably people will demand a voice in the way they are governed. There is nothing wrong with the theory. It is just that the time has not yet arrived. One day there will be majority rule.

A report by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in January predicted that China would establish a 'democratic political civilisation' by about 2040, when per capita income would exceed US$20,000. By that time, when China would be within the ranks of the world's top 40 countries, 'a democratic, free, fair and effective political civilisation will be established'.

In China, people believe that economic development will lead to political reform. Why is the outside world giving up on this idea?

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator


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