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RealClearPolitics - Articles - Ying Ma

Last Build Date: Tue, 13 Feb 2007 00:00:43 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

China's Stubborn Anti-Democracy

Tue, 13 Feb 2007 00:00:43 -0600

The "inevitability" of change Many china observers have long been predicting that China's encounter with market forces or liberal institutions and instruments from the West would spur inevitable democratic change. These observers have been right that China would become more pluralistic and multifaceted. But they have been delusional in thinking that Chinese leaders would simply roll over and relinquish power when presented with new challenges to their rule. On everything ranging from trade to the Internet, from village elections to the rule of law, Chinese rulers have consistently proven China optimists wrong. Economic engagement. The fundamental underpinning of American policy toward China today -- and U.S. democracy promotion in China -- is economic engagement. Since the U.S. Congress granted permanent normal trading relations (pntr) to China in 2000, an underlying assumption of economic engagement with China is that the market forces unleashed by international trade and investment will necessarily spur economic and political change in Chinese society. Washington's assumption is spurred in no small part by the successful democratic transitions undertaken by other authoritarian regimes -- such as those in Taiwan, South Korea, and Chile in the 1980s -- after they had embarked on economic liberalization. Indeed, two decades-plus of U.S.-China trade have drastically altered the face of Chinese society, resulting in an unprecedented expansion of economic, social, and personal freedoms for ordinary Chinese citizens. The links between economic liberalization and political reform, however, have turned out to be much more complicated and tenuous in the China case. More than six years after pntr, drastic improvements in Chinese society have not been translated into political liberalization. The Chinese Communist Party (ccp) shows no interest in meaningful political reforms and has continued to rely on repression and brutality to maintain its rule. Since 2000, the U.S. Department of State's Annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices have continued to declare the Chinese government's human rights record to be "poor" or "in deterioration." Similarly, Freedom House, a nonprofit, nonpartisan human rights organization, has repeatedly rated China "unfree" in its Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties. Certainly, the lack of political progress was not what successive Republican and Democratic administrations promised. In lobbying for continued trade with China, President Bill Clinton predicted in 2000, "We will be unleashing forces no totalitarian operation rooted in last century's industrial society can control." President George W. Bush reiterated Clinton's prediction in 2005: "I believe a whiff of freedom in the marketplace will cause there to be more demand for democracy." Just how China is to proceed from "a whiff of freedom" to democracy no one knows. Meanwhile, the ccp is determined to show otherwise: It continues to gobble up Western technology, know-how, and capital without relinquishing its monopoly on power. Institutions and instruments for change. Unfortunately, Washington has met the resilience of Chinese authoritarianism with grand delusions. Just as successive presidential administrations have subscribed to the overarching principle that economic engagement would lead inevitably to democratization in China, numerous policymakers, scholars, and pundits have touted various instruments and institutions as inevitable agents of democratic change. Such institutions and instruments, often evoking different elements of democratic society, range from village elections to rule-of-law collaboration to the Internet. In some ways, these instruments and institutions act as spokes of the wheel of economic engagement. But just as Chinese rulers have managed to compartmentalize economic modernization from political liberalization, they have also been determined to neutralize the democratizing powers of liberal institutions and instruments. To Washington, all good things go together. If China encountered some el[...]