Speaking in Kyoto, Japan, on the first stop of his November swing through Asia, President George W. Bush was hopeful about democracy in the world’s emerging superpower. “As China reforms its economy, its leaders are finding that once the door to freedom is opened even a crack, it cannot be closed.” Don’t be so sure, Mr. President.
The news from the People’s Republic is that the ruling Communist Party has of late been stifling its citizenry with vigorous repression. In March, the party asserted its authority over rural elections after locals’ attempts to replace the director of a village committee led to a police raid in which farmers were blasted with water hoses. Dissidents are being hounded like never before: Ding Zilin, a retired university professor who has fought for a government apology as one of the Tiananmen Mothers, said, “I can’t even go and get groceries without them following me and harassing me. Neither Deng Xiaoping nor Jiang Zemin treated me as badly;” closer monitoring of online news and commentary postings has led to the imprisonment of over 60 Chinese nationals and recently prodded Reporters Without Borders to dub China “The World Champion” of Internet censorship. And when Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao met in Beijing in November, Hu had resolved none of the twenty-five human rights cases on a list Bush had given him two months prior.
Bush’s tiptoeing around the white elephant of greater democratic reform at the Beijing summit—while Hu quarantined dissidents and gave lip service to concerns over intellectual property rights and currency revaluation—was indicative of the changing tenor of Sino-American relations. Combine China’s economic juggernaut with its recent crackdown on free speech and democratic freedoms, and the U.S. has reason for concern. Yet the problems don’t end there. Consider this rebuff from the opening lines of China’s first white paper on democracy, released in October:
“Democracy is an outcome of the development of political civilization of mankind. It is also the common desire of people all over the world. Democracy of a country is generated internally, not imposed by external forces.”
And then stir in the findings of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and George W. Downs, who in the September/October Foreign Affairs smartly detail how “economic growth, rather than being a force for democratic change in tyrannical states, can sometimes be used to strengthen oppressive regimes.” Finally, add Hu’s integrationist stance—he recently said that China’s rise “will only do good to peace, stability, and prosperity in the world”—and it is clear that the Bush administration faces a new policy paradigm in regards to the Big Red One.
The U.S. is partially to blame for China’s rapid maturity, with its long-explicit support of China’s integration into global markets and the World Trade Organization and an annual Chinese trade deficit approaching $200 billion. As continuing difficulties in Iraq and sinking domestic confidence whittle the pedestal of American diplomacy to a stump, the U.S. should rein in hope for a democratic China. In the short term, Bush would be wise to keep his freedom rhetoric buttoned up, curb his neo-conservative tendencies, and attend to putting his own democratic house in order.