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China's Best Hope

By Ian Buruma | Project Syndicate | January 16, 2009

CREDIT: Nancy Pelosi (CC).

2008 will not be remembered chiefly for noble or heroic acts. Yet, amidst the news reports over the past few months of financial fraud, bloodshed in India and Gaza, and global economic disasters, one item stood out for its bravery and nobility. On December 10, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, more than 300 Chinese citizens, ranging from law professors to businessmen, farmers, and even some government officials, put their names to a remarkable document, entitled Charter 08.

The signatories, later joined by thousands more, asked where China was heading in the twenty-first century: "Will it continue with 'modernization' under authoritarian rule, or will it embrace universal human values, join the mainstream of civilized nations, and build a democratic system?"

There is nothing incendiary about Charter 08, no call for violent rebellion, no thirst for revenge or retribution. It merely asks for what citizens of all liberal democracies take for granted: the right to question government policies, protection of human rights, an independent judiciary, and multi-party elections.

The model for Charter 08 was Czechoslovakia's Charter 77. In 1977, several prominent signatories, such as Václav Havel, were arrested as a result. Likewise, one of the bravest, most lucid Chinese intellectuals, Liu Xiaobo, was arrested in December for signing Charter 08, and has yet to be released. Other signers have been interrogated and harassed.

Charter 08 has not received the attention it deserves, perhaps because most people have other, more pressing concerns. But there is also a tendency, not only in China, to dismiss such calls for democracy as irrelevant, even misguided. Recent American policies have given the promotion of democracy a bad name. In China, and other remaining areas of Asian authoritarianism, it has become customary, even among some self-professed "liberals," to argue that democracy may be fine for Europeans and Americans, but is unsuited to Asian conditions. China is too big, its culture too different, and its population still too poor and uneducated to support a democratic system.

An alternative to this line of argument is to claim that China has its own kind of democracy, based on a Confucian idea of government benevolence and the Chinese people's cultural propensity to sacrifice individual rights to collective goods. To those who take this view—and on this point many Western businessmen are in complete agreement with the Chinese Communist Party—the signatories of Charter 08 are simply out of touch with their own culture.

In terms of its immediate impact, it is true that Charter 08 will hardly make a ripple in the pond of Chinese politics. The government will not even discuss the Charter's ideas, let alone do anything to implement them. But this is no reason to call it irrelevant. In 1977, few people would have predicted that Havel would one day preside over a Czech democracy. He and his fellow dissidents were a tiny minority, too. A liberal-democratic China may not come soon, but after Charter 08 no one can deny that many Chinese desperately want it.

The expression of this desire is especially important now that the world is gripped by a terrifying economic crisis. Widespread economic distress is never without political consequences. Xenophobic populism is on the rise in Europe. President Barack Obama will have a difficult time curbing resentful protectionism in the United States. Japanese might revert to angry nationalism. Nowhere, however, are the political and social consequences of an economic slump more potentially destabilizing than in China.

This is because the Chinese Communist Party's monopoly on power can be justified only by continued rapid economic growth, without which workers and farmers will lose their jobs, and the urban middle classes their chance of increasing prosperity. The economic boom is the only source of legitimacy that the one-party state has left. Few people, even Party members, still believe in Marxism-Leninism, let alone Maoism. And the general discontent with official corruption and political oppression was amply demonstrated in all regions of China in 1989.

The Communist government managed to stay in power after Tiananmen not just through brute force. A semblance of political legitimacy, especially among the educated middle class, was purchased with the promise of greater wealth. As long as people felt that they were getting richer, demands for more freedom of speech, better protection of human rights, and the right to vote could be postponed.

But if this arrangement collapses, and increasing material prosperity can no longer be taken for granted, many things could happen—few of them pleasant. Rural areas and industrial cities might explode in massive riots. While the government might be able to crush such disturbances with force, a loss of confidence among the middle class would be more serious. Militant nationalism, partly encouraged by nervous rulers, might be one consequence. Attempts by the military to stem unrest by taking control of government might be another.

If there were no alternative ideas to one-party authoritarianism, military rule, or nationwide chaos, the future of China would be very bleak indeed. But there is an alternative. It has been set out eloquently and persuasively in Charter 08. If China manages one day to follow the example of South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, and join the "mainstream of civilized nations" by establishing a liberal democracy, then December 10, 2008, will go down in history as one of the key dates of its conception.

© 2009 Project Syndicate. Republished with kind permission.

Read More: Culture, Democracy, Economy, Ethics, Governance, Human Rights, China, Asia

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