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Democratic Vistas?


In August 1980 Deng Xiaoping laid down the Communist Party’s view of democracy. It continues to cripple China and is used both inside the country and by its apologists abroad to avoid the issue of repression. Deng said:

Democracy without socialist legality, without the Party’s leadership and without discipline and order is definitely not socialist democracy. On the contrary, that sort of democracy would only plunge our country once again into anarchy and make it harder to truly democratize the life of the country, develop the economy and raise the people’s standard of living.

This observation, resting on the widespread Chinese fear of luan, disorder, is a big lie: it was issued in response to the Cultural Revolution in which, according to then-Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, whose death in 1989 set off the Tiananmen uprising, 100 million people suffered persecution. Deng wanted to portray the Cultural Revolution as the wrong kind of democracy. By his definition, Mao was a democrat—the same Mao who in a Party resolution of 1981, approved by Deng, was held responsible for the Cultural Revolution, which the document described as the greatest catastrophe to befall China since 1949.

But Deng’s warning may have fallen on many receptive ears. According to Andrew Nathan in his deeply perceptive and eloquent collection of essays, most Chinese, including intellectuals, are far more intolerant of “deviant viewpoints” than people in the US, Italy, Germany, Australia, Britain, and Austria. This is a telling conclusion. As Mr. Nathan, a political scientist at Columbia, points out, “Some students of democracy consider tolerance the essential ingredient of democratic politics.”

Although Mr. Nathan’s long interest in Chinese democracy extends to sheltering democrats like Wei Jingsheng at Columbia’s East Asian Institute (Nathan is banned from China), he is a realist about what China’s democrats want. Most of the leading democrats, he observes, are now in American exile. In 1989 he wrote that Chinese democracy in practice “may turn out to be a mixture of democratic and authoritarian elements, openness and secrecy, idealism and selfishness, turbulence and stability,…moral and symbolic posturing, stress on person-al loyalty in politics, frequent betrayals, extreme rhetoric, emotional in-tensity…and consequent difficulty in pragmatic compromise.”1

Of course, the big question is: Can democracy be tried in China and, if it is, can it work? Many foreigners who want good relations with Beijing say no to both questions. President Clinton’s public defense of democracy during his recent visit to China, and more particularly his condemnation of the Tiananmen killings in 1989, marked a reversion to his earlier attitude toward Beijing. That the President could be heard live and nationwide, moreover, may indicate that some basic taboos imposed by the Chinese Communists have begun to erode. What seems clear is that if the US president is willing to be outspoken about human rights, the Chinese leaders, contrary to many predictions, will back away from open conflict with him. How they will actually behave toward dissidents is another matter.

Whether Mr. Clinton would publicly condemn the regime’s killings and repression at Tiananmen was the biggest question hanging over the entire nine-day trip. He did so during his debate with President Jiang Zemin, recalling that “nine years ago Chinese citizens of all ages raised their voices for democracy,” and saying, “I believe, and the American people believe, that the use of force and the tragic loss of life was wrong.”

This observation of the President’s, like other contentious ones, was not reported by most of the mainland press, but any Chinese watching the live television broadcast could have heard it. “The impact is very big,” said Ren Wanding, a dissident who was released in 1996 after seven years in prison for taking part in the 1989 demonstrations. “Since the presidents of the two countries can publicly discuss June 4 on television, ordinary people throughout the country can also publicly discuss it in future.”

By saying what he did about Tiananmen, Mr. Clinton reverted to the promise he made six years ago, when he accepted the nomination for president, that there would be no more “coddling” of Chinese “tyrants.” He soon abandoned this promise in favor of “constructive engagement” which meant no further public attacks would be made on China’s human rights record. Perhaps Mr. Clinton’s decision to condemn the Tiananmen events and his other remarks in a similar vein were a politician’s reaction to the attacks on him in the press and in Congress as being soft on China, not to mention the charges that the Democrats have received illegal contributions from China.

Nonetheless, he made other points that directly challenged Party policy, particularly the official view that human rights in China mainly concern food, shelter, and clothing and are different from human rights in the West. At Peking University the president said, “I believe that everywhere people aspire to be treated with dignity, to give voice to their opinions, to choose their own leaders, to associate with whom they wish, to worship how, when, and where they want. These are not American rights or European rights or developed-world rights. They are the birthrights of people everywhere.”

Except, apparently, in Taiwan. Mr. Clinton kowtowed to his Beijing hosts by stating, “We don’t support independence for Taiwan.” This is a big step away from the official language of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, in which the US “acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” The word “acknowledge” was deliberately ambiguous. Mr. Clinton’s phrase “We don’t support” is only too plain. Yet Taiwan is the only democracy ever to emerge on Chinese soil, with a president popularly elected in 1996. When that election was challenged by Mainland missiles aimed into the Strait, Mr. Clinton ordered a show of force. The United States need not commit itself to defend the island’s independence if Taipei’s 21 million people want it, perilous though independence would be for the peace of East Asia. Far better for the president simply to have repeated the formula of 1979.

Nonetheless, by declaring that political liberty is a universal human right, Mr. Clinton rejected one of the basic assumptions of the “Asian values” to which some leaders in East Asia, and their Western supporters, refer when they insist that “stability” requires a degree of repression. During a public discussion in Shanghai Mr. Clinton said, “I believe…that high levels of personal freedom are quite important to the success of a society in the information age…. This will add to the stability of the society by enriching it….” With almost no exceptions, members of the chambers of commerce in both Hong Kong and China reject Mr. Clinton’s position. They despised Governor Patten during his five years in Hong Kong because his proposals for a form of “modest democracy”—which, as he acknowledged, would be derided as inadequate in any Western community—were highly popular with Hong Kong citizens. The proposals gave more people the right to vote in elections for the Legislative Council (LegCo); the post-handover regime immediately repealed them in favor of laws for the election this June.

Despite polls this spring indicating that in a fair election democrats would easily win a majority of the Legislative Council’s seats, the post-Patten system of proportional representation ensured a majority for pro-Beijing candidates in the June elections—even though those candidates received a minority of the votes for the twenty directly elected seats in the Council, out of a total of sixty. The democrats now have a minority in LegCo although they won a majority of the votes.

Still, the big fact about the large majority vote for democrats in June, even though it did not result in their receiving a fair number of seats, is that for the first time in history a legal opposition exists on the Chinese mainland. Whether it can make its voice heard in the rest of China will now be a central question. But Chris Patten was proved right in his conviction that Hong Kong people had been longing for at least what he called “modest democracy.”

The voting returns were decisive and would be regarded as an electoral triumph anywhere. In a howling rainstorm 1.49 million people, over 53 percent of the electorate, turned out (most experts predicted no more than 30 percent would do so), and over 60 percent of them voted for either the Democrats Party or its democratic allies. In fact, if the election had been a truly fair one, with voting allowed for the post of Chief Executive, Martin Lee would now hold that position instead of C.H. Tung, the unpopular chief executive who was Beijing’s favorite at the handover. Under the law allowing only twenty out of sixty seats to be directly elected, the Democrats and their allies will occupy fifteen of the directly elected seats.

There were also elections for thirty candidates from “functional constituencies,” which are drawn from such professions and occupations as insurance, the law, social work, and accountancy. These too had been manipulated by the Beijing-appointed government; only 139,000 voters were declared eligible to vote for such candidates, as opposed to the 1.15 million in the 1995 election in Mr. Patten’s time. In the 1995 election most Hong Kong people had two votes, one for their “functional” candidate and one for their directly elected one, who represented a particular district, like American congressmen.

Here too the results were a scandal: the democratic opposition was allotted only five seats of the thirty seats for functional constituencies—although they received almost seventy percent of the eighty thousand ballots. One elected professional, a favorite of Beijing’s, representing a tiny professional constituency, received exactly twenty-six votes.

The last ten members of LegCo were chosen by a Beijing-appointed eight-hundred-member election committee, which did not pretend to consider democrats. Fundamentally, Hong Kong’s elite, like the rulers in Beijing, did not want to lose or even share political power.

In one way or another the essays in China’s Transition analyze the nature of modern Chinese society, particularly its cruelty, its failed movements for political reform, and the martyrdom of the few heroes who tried to buck the system. What distinguishes Mr. Nathan’s approach is that he takes up the political question of how to negotiate with Beijing about human rights. The current dogma in Washington, London, Paris, and Bonn is that China’s leaders must no longer be publicly confronted on human rights issues because Chinese traditionally recoil from public humiliation. Western diplomats now insist that working “behind the screen,” as the Chinese say, gets results, even if only modest ones. (In March, when Wei Jingsheng asked Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to give him a single example of such an achievement, Mr. Cook admitted he didn’t have one.2 ) Mr. Nathan shows that, on the contrary, when Beijing comes under international pressure, as it did after Tiananmen, it can act fast, releasing many political prisoners and hastening its compliance with nuclear nonproliferation regimes.

  1. 1

    China’s Crisis: Dilemmas of Reform and Prospects for Democracy (Columbia University Press, 1990), pp. 208-209.

  2. 2

    Mr. Cook also asked Mr. Wei to offer his opinion on a list of ten political prisoners about whose circumstances Britain intended to enquire. Mr. Wei pointed out that his own name was on the list, and he had been free since November.

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