Sunday, February 03, 2008

China’s dangerous nobodies

by Guy Sorman

Daily Times: The regime’s true ambition is to invent an alternative to Western democracy: an enlightened despotism under the tutelage of a meritocratic Communist Party. The Olympic Games are being designed to promote this alternative model

Ever since their reinvention by Pierre de Coubertin, the Olympic Games have always been politicised. The first took place in 1896 in Athens in order to embarrass the Turks still occupying Northern Greece. The Berlin Games in 1936 celebrated the triumph of Nazi ideology. The Seoul Games in 1988 opened the door to South Korea’s democratisation.

This summer’s Olympics in Beijing will be no less political, but will it resemble Berlin or Seoul? Will it mark the apotheosis of an authoritarian regime or the beginning of its demise?

Many optimistic observers of China, often mollified by their close relations with the Communist regime, bet on a soft transition from despotism toward an open society, but recent events don’t support such a benign interpretation. Since the beginning of this year, repression of human rights activists, lawyers, and bloggers has been harsher than ever.

The exact number of democratic dissidents who have been incarcerated, or worse, is unknown. There is no way to account for ignored victims, or why some are condemned to death and shot. We don’t know how many are sent without trial to “re-education centres.” In the absence of reliable statistics, let us focus on two iconic figures of China’s pro-democracy movement: Hu Jia and Chen Guancheng.

Last December 27, 20 armed police officers used extreme physical violence to arrest Hu Jia in front of his wife and their two-month-old baby, acting as if he could offer real resistance. But Hu Jia is a diminutive young man of 34 who suffers from a severe liver ailment. Moreover, he is a committed believer in non-violence, an admirer of the Dalai Lama, a disciple of the Mahatma Gandhi, and a sincere Buddhist.

Why is the mighty Chinese Communist Party deploying all of its powers to kidnap — no word better describes what happened — such a tiny enemy? The Party accuses him of “subversion,” but he broke no laws, does not head a counter-revolutionary army, and was not on the verge of toppling the Party.

Hu Jia’s political actions are much more modest than that. In 2000, he abandoned his studies at Beijing University when he learned that thousands of Henan peasants were dying from AIDS after having sold their blood to local traffickers. Since the beginning of this epidemic, his main activity has been the distribution of medicine and moral comfort in the doomed villages of Henan.

Hu Jia’s charitable work is not facilitated by the local authorities, who bear some responsibility in this epidemic; moreover, with NGOs being forbidden in China, Hu Jia can act only by himself. Indeed, if he were to build any kind of organisation to support his charity, he would be violating the law.

But the eye-opening tragedy of the Henan victims caused Hu Jia to understand that it arose from the absence of human rights in China. So he started a Web site that acts as a chat room for Chinese scholars sharing his concern. This Web site, now closed by the government, has also reported on the fate of Chen Guangcheng.

Chen, a blind peasant and self-taught lawyer, had protested in 2005 against the kidnapping of some 3000 women in his hometown of Linyi. The women were sterilised or forced into having abortions in order to stabilise the population increase in the region. As this extreme violence violates Chinese law, Chen petitioned the central government — the only legally recognised form of protest in China. When carrying his petition to Beijing, escorted by a tiny group of lawyers, Chen was accused of disrupting traffic on the city’s clogged roads and condemned to four years in jail.

Why do such moderate actions, rooted in the Chinese moral tradition, provoke such dramatic repression? Hu and Chen clearly respect the law. They don’t call for revolution. True enough, they talk to foreign journalists who report their actions; however, such contact is not illegal.

But the Party is haunted by the Soviet precedent. No Chinese Sakharov or Solzhenitsyn will be allowed to tarnish the “success” of the Party. The incarceration of Hu Jia and Chen Guangcheng is a clear signal that no democratisation process will start in China outside of the Party’s control.

When the Chinese leaders mention democracy in official declarations, they mean “organised” democracy, from the top down. Any attempt at democratisation by civil society will thus be crushed in its infancy.

China is clearly not on the path toward a Western-style democracy, and economic growth will not be a prelude to a free society so long as the Party can prevent it. The regime’s true ambition is to invent an alternative to Western democracy: an enlightened despotism under the tutelage of a meritocratic Communist Party. The Olympic Games are being designed to promote this alternative model.

How legitimate is this model? The Party’s 60 million members, nearly all males and city dwellers, would probably approve, as might the 200 million Chinese who share the profits of rapid economic growth. But what do one billion people living in utter poverty (300 million on less than one dollar a day) and deprived of any rights think of this enlightened despotism? No one knows, because they cannot express their wishes.

Perhaps Hu Jia and Chen Guancheng represent this silent billion more than the Party does. That would explain why the Party has crushed them — and why any decent participant in this summer’s Olympics should demand their immediate release. — DT-PS

Guy Sorman is a French philosopher, economist, and the author of many books. His book about China, Empire of Lies will be published this year

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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