Monday, August 04, 2008

The Reform Fantasy

August 5, 2008

For decades, as the Chinese economy has advanced, Western presidents and prime ministers have been putting forward one version or another of the "China fantasy" -- the notion that with advancing prosperity, the world's largest country will move toward political liberalization and democracy. Unfortunately, the events leading up to the Beijing Olympics have represented a cold dose of reality. China's actions over the past year -- its tight controls on dissent, the detentions of dissidents, restrictions on entry into China, crackdowns in Tibet and Xinjiang, the obsession with staging a protest-free Olympics -- have shown that China's authoritarian political system is not opening up.

[The Reform Fantasy]
David G. Klein

On the surface, this may sound like an old story: China's Communist Party leadership didn't tolerate political opposition 10 or 20 years ago, and it still doesn't today. What's new here? Yet the run-up to the Olympics does mark a milestone in China's relations with the rest of the world: China has reached the point where it no longer seeks to mollify or accommodate the international community's expressions of concern about human rights. Instead, China can now repress political dissent while virtually ignoring what the rest of the world may think.

To see the change, consider how the underlying dynamics have shifted over the past 10 years.

Almost exactly a decade ago, Bill Clinton traveled to China, the first visit by an American president since the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989. The trip was of considerable importance to the Chinese leadership, which viewed it, accurately, as a major step in its efforts to show the world it had regained its international standing. Before Mr. Clinton decided to come, and in the weeks leading up to his arrival, the Chinese leadership went out of its way to hold out to the world the prospect of political change. There was a "Beijing spring," a new opening for dissent.

That opening proved to be evanescent; after Mr. Clinton returned home, the regime launched a crackdown and dissidents were jailed. However, in retrospect, what stands out is that back then, the Chinese regime at least felt compelled to give the appearance it was opening up. Now, it does not bother. In the run-up to the Olympics, there has been no Beijing spring, no attempt to show political liberalization -- in fact, quite the opposite.

Perhaps this is because while China has become tougher, international leaders have become considerably less willing to condemn its repression of dissent or to use political leverage in pursuit of human-rights goals. During the 1990s, the United States often bargained for specific political concessions before taking actions that Beijing sought, such as a presidential visit. In the months before Mr. Clinton's trip to Beijing, for example, China was persuaded to release a prominent dissident, Wang Dan, and to announce it would sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (A decade later, China still has not ratified this covenant.)

At the time, opponents of this quid-pro-quo approach argued that the Chinese leadership does not respond to pressure or to condemnation. Rather (so the argument went), if the international community stopped making a public issue of Chinese repression and merely let trade and economic advancement proceed, then China would gradually move towards greater political freedom. "Trade freely with China and time is on our side," said President George W. Bush a few years ago. The spirit of liberty is coming to China "just as, inevitably, the Berlin Wall fell," asserted Mr. Clinton a few years before that. There is an "unstoppable momentum" toward democracy in China, declared Tony Blair.

This was the spirit in which the International Olympic Committee awarded the Olympics to Beijing in 2001. And it is the same thinking that underlies Mr. Bush's agreement to come to the Olympics, and to its opening ceremonies, without trying to use leverage beforehand to seek an easing of the human-rights climate in China.

The problem with the "just-let-China-evolve" approach is that it isn't leading to the political change that was envisioned. Instead of producing political reform or liberalization, the result seems to be a Chinese regime that is more emboldened in forestalling political opposition or dissent.

Some claim that it is unwise for outsiders to criticize or draw attention to China's continuing arrests and detentions, because doing so will lead to a nationalistic backlash inside China. Yet this argument is wrong-headed. Chinese nationalism is a fact of life, and not in itself bad. Chinese nationalism imbued the movement for political liberalization in the 1980s and the Tiananmen protests, not just the anti-American, anti-Japanese and anti-French outbursts of the past few years.

The question is not whether China will be nationalistic, but what sort of nationalism it will have. Will it be an open, tolerant and progressive nationalism, or a repressive nationalism? Right now, China seems to be headed for the latter. The results can be felt not just inside China, but around the world, for example in the Chinese block of United Nations Security Council action against Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

It's time for the international community to abandon the China fantasy. Trade, investment and growing prosperity do not automatically lead to political liberalization. China will have its desperately "harmonious" games. But the Olympics should prompt the rest of the world to start thinking about the implications of a China that is not opening up in the way that was hoped.

Mr. Mann is author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. His most recent book is "The China Fantasy" (Viking, 2007). This is the first of a two-part series.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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