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The prospect for China

April 21, 2001

Democracy or nationalism?


The anti-Western nationalism fanned by the Chinese authorities as a way of uniting the country at a time of difficult economic and social changes will not help to resolve social conflicts in the long run, argues Carl Gershman.





I remain convinced that China can and will become a democratic country where human rights are respected. Yet this is not an auspicious moment in the struggle for democracy in China. The crackdown continues against political dissidents, anti-corruption and environmental activists, labor organizers, church leaders and ethnic minorities.

The arbitrary detention by the Ministry of State Security of Gao Zhan, Li Shaomin and other scholars of Chinese descent who were visiting China is reminiscent of the Soviet Union in its darker days. The frantic campaign to repress the Falungong reveals a regime so afraid of its own people that it must demonize any group it cannot control.

It is now 10 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Determined to modernize the economy without losing political control as Gorbachev did, the Chinese leaders have pursued a policy of perestroika (restructuring) without glasnost (opening). But their policy contains the seeds of their own undoing. Their goal of building a competitive market economy, which is the only path to modernization in the global economy, is incompatible with maintaining a one-party communist system. The contradiction is inherent and inescapable.

For example, a precondition of China’s economic modernization is the dismantling of unprofitable state-owned enterprises, which employ 100 million workers. Some 30 million workers in this sector are redundant and must be laid off, even though no safety net has been constructed for them. According to a report by the AFL - CIO’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), 14 million workers were laid off in 1999 and 2000, and another five million will lose their jobs this year. These layoffs have led to mass labor protests, such as clash between 2,000 coal miners and police in Datong, Shanxi Province, in March and earlier protests in January in Jilin City.

The worker protests are only the tip of the iceberg. With China joining the World Trade Organization (WTO), the agricultural sector in the rural areas, where some 900 million people live and work, will also face stiff competition, with the result that millions of farmers will be forced off the land. Migrant workers from the rural areas are already pouring into the cities along the coast. They are the most exploited and desperate group in China, lacking protection and benefits and unable to provide for their children, who constitute a growing part of the workforce in toy factories and textile mills. They are also the victims of the hukou system, which relegates people from rural areas to an inferior status — a form of “legal apartheid” according to Professor Andrew Nathan.






The most explosive aspect of the economic restructuring taking place in China is the intersection between these layoffs and official corruption.

Bitter protests have erupted when corrupt company officials have illegally pocketed funds from the sale of the assets of failed enterprises, instead of using those funds to provide laid-off workers with a modest severance payment. When Cao Maobing, a spokesman for laid-off workers at a silk factory in Jiangsu Province, complained to the official All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) about management corruption, he was locked in a psychiatric hospital where he was given shock treatment and forced to take sedatives. This is yet another instance of the Chinese system aping the worst aspects of the old Soviet order.

The protests that are taking place in many parts of China today, and the confinement in prisons and psychiatric hospitals of labor organizers, could be a temporary phenomenon tied to the disruptions in the economy, but they could also presage more fundamental changes in the system. American unionists associated with ACILS see the upsurge of labor activism and the establishment of loose networks of workers as early signs of the emergence of a genuine trade union movement, a kind of Chinese version of the Solidarity movement that transformed Poland in the 1980s. The failure of the official unions, which are part of the party apparatus, to defend the interests of the workers during this period of extreme dislocation and hardship increases the likelihood of such a momentous development.

The problem of official corruption that fuels worker resentments pervades the system at every level. The Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) reports that in 1998, government officials pocketed almost four percent of China’s GDP from corrupt activities. An even more shocking estimate of corruption is contained in a study by Dr. Hu Angang, a prominent economist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. According to Dr. Hu, corruption — broadly defined to include smuggling, underpayment for the use of state assets, tax evasion and monopoly rents — amounts to 17 percent of GDP.

The regime recognizes that rampant official corruption threatens the legitimacy and ultimately the survival of the regime. Yet it can do no more than address some of the symptoms of the problem since the root cause is the nature of the system itself — the absence of political accountability, a free press and an independent judiciary; as well as the high degree of state intervention in the economy and the lack of transparency in decision-making and financial transactions.



The regime’s inability to conceal official abuse and corruption is compounded by the existence today of a shadow media which is spreading rapidly in China through the growth of the Internet. There are now some 22 million Internet users in China, a figure that is expected to rise to 100 million by 2004. The regime’s predicament was highlighted in March when, following the explosion at an elementary school that killed 38 children, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji was forced to admit that children had been manufacturing fireworks, although he had initially denied this. Reports circulating on the Internet forced him to take this step. Internet reports have also exposed other issues that the regime has tried to hide, from an AIDS epidemic in Henan Province to police torture and ecological disasters.

The regime has tried to control the Internet by passing harsh regulations, trying to block access to independent Web sites, making high-profile arrests to intimidate Internet users and encourage self-censorship and training cyber-police. But these efforts have been hampered by the ability of users to circumvent restrictions, by the regime’s fear that excessive controls might weaken the Internet as an instrument for economic growth and by the sheer volume of information.

Thus, the growth of the Internet, like the modernization of the economy, sharpens the contradictions in which the regime is trapped.

The Chinese government has sought to escape this trap and to deflect opposition to its repression by playing to — and often actually inciting — anti-Western nationalism. Autocracies frequently resort to this tactic to gain a semblance of popular legitimacy. But this stratagem offers at best short-term advantages. For a time, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic fanned the flames of Serbian nationalism to gain mass popular support and to keep his opposition off balance. In the end, however, the tactic only brought about immense suffering and hardship for Serbia and the entire region, and left Milosevic increasingly isolated. He is now under arrest in Belgrade and will probably be tried in the Hague for war crimes.

Ironically, it was the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the air-war in Yugoslavia in 1999 that aroused a similar kind of anti-Western nationalism in China. Like the Serbian ultra-nationalism incited by Milosevic, its Chinese counterpart is based on resentment, a condition that Isaiah Berlin once compared to “the bent twig” of Schiller’s poetry — a reactive nationalism that can snap back aggressively against a reputed enemy once pent-up emotions are released.

Both forms of nationalism are also alike in that they are intended to fill the post-communist ideological vacuum created in the Serbian case by the collapse of the old communist system and in China by the exhaustion of communist ideology as an instrument of regime legitimation.



But this kind of nationalism, even if it can be sustained for an extended period of time, offers nothing but a dead-end. It fosters negativism, not creativity. It encourages an attitude of victimization, not self-reliance. It leads to self-absorption and paralysis, not to a determination to meet challenges and find solutions to problems. Such attitudes are harmful under any circumstances, and they can often lead to self-destructive conflict with “the enemy.” In a global age, when success depends on becoming integrated into the world economy, it is a sure formula for failure.

There are those in China who would like to turn back the clock and retreat into a hostile isolationism. But I do not think they can succeed.

As the Marxists would say, the objective forces of history and technology are aligned against them. Still, these reactionaries (for that is what they are — they are reacting against the challenges of the new era) have the ability to do great harm and certainly to impede change. And they will be a formidable force so long as the people of China cannot see an alternative vision of the future that differs from the model of autocratic modernization proposed by the regime.

In this regard, the new democracy in Taiwan can have a powerful influence on political thinking in China because it offers an alternative model of democracy and economic growth that does not have to be seen through the filter of a foreign culture. Hong Kong, with its dynamic economy and relatively open society, also offers an alternative model, albeit one that is constrained by pressures from Beijing.

But I want to call special attention tonight to the role of the Chinese Diaspora, which offers a bridge to the West in much the same way that Polish, Russian and other exiles from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe found ways to connect their suppressed homelands to free societies. And that was before the Internet, which has unprecedented power to link people across borders and oceans, and to make information available to people in China on a scale that was never possible during the Cold War

The Chinese Diaspora is aiding the democracy movement in China in a number of critical ways. Some groups focus on governance issues, explaining how institutions that assure accountability, transparency and the rule of law can help China address the problem of systemic corruption. Others are devoting themselves to defending human rights; while still others, notably Harry Wu, work to bring to light the dark secrets of Chinese totalitarianism such as the Laogai system of prison camps and the profit-making business of selling the vital organs of executed prisoners.

China has reached a crossroads: It can either go forward in cooperation with the democratic world, a path that the Chinese Diaspora can encourage and facilitate; or it can retreat into a posture of nationalist confrontation. Taking the path of cooperation and democracy does not entail sacrificing Chinese values in favor of Western values. Chinese values are not inconsistent with freedom and democracy, which apply to all people everywhere. The people of China have every bit as much claim to these values as do the people of America, India, South Africa or any other country. What is needed is to build a new democracy with Chinese characteristics.

Nothing conveys this idea more powerfully than the Goddess of Democracy, which is a Chinese version of our own Statue of Liberty with Chinese features. When it stood aloft in Tiananmen Square, it embodied the aspiration of the people of China for democracy. It still embodies this aspiration, 12 years after it was demolished by the soldiers who invaded the square. It has even become a universal symbol of democracy because of the way it adapts a Western image to Chinese conditions.

The replica of the Goddess that stands in the park across the street [in San Francisco] signifies that the struggle for democracy in China is still very much alive. It also signifies the distinction that is made today between the people of China and the government, which is one of the enduring achievements of the democracy struggle. Very few people in the West made that distinction before 1989, when it was widely assumed that Chinese culture was inherently authoritarian and that the government was therefore a legitimate representative of the people. That is no longer the case.

Today, nobody confuses the government and the people or feels that criticism of the regime is a sign of disrespect toward the people. On the contrary, the legacy of Tiananmen Square is that the people of China are no longer invisible. One respects them by defending their rights.




There is also another important achievement of the movement of the 1980s which we need to understand. While it was defeated, it raised the struggle for democracy in China to a higher plateau, from which it is being waged today. The labor protests and shadow media I spoke of earlier could not have existed before the democracy movement of that period. I remember the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski telling me in 1987 about this phenomenon of “victory in defeat” as it occurred in Hungary in 1956 and in Poland in 1981. It was not simply a way to raise hopes and morale. He was saying that the struggle for democracy is a process that takes time and proceeds in stages. Defeats take place, but they raise consciousness and expectations and move the process to a higher level. The momentous events that transformed Central Europe in 1989 were the product of struggles that occurred much earlier.

I was struck by a comment made by Li Qiang, a 28-year-old worker from Sichuan Province, now in exile, who led some of the labor protests I have alluded to. “The June Fourth Movement of 1989,” he said, “enlightened me. It broadened my vision. It swept away the prestige of the government. I began to recognize the power of the masses. I also learned that we are not the subjects of the government; we are, in fact, the masters of the nation. We have the right to make demands, to protest and to demonstrate.”

This is a vivid example of how the struggle of 1989 changed the consciousness of countless individuals in China. Can anyone doubt that this transformed consciousness will eventually blossom into a new and more powerful movement for democracy?

We cannot know when the new opening will come. But we must prepare for it, to continue the struggle, because its coming is only a matter of time. And when it does come, the memory of Tiananmen Square and the lessons learned from that experience, along with the international solidarity that came about as a result of that movement, will help secure the success of the democracy struggle in China. At that moment, there will be a new birth of freedom that will resonate throughout the world.

This is an edited version of remarks made in San Francisco on May 5, 2001, by Carl Gershman, President of the US National Endowment for Democracy, on receiving the 15th annual Outstanding Contributor to Democracy Award from the Chinese Democratic Education Foundation.






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