by YVONNE CHIU|
In response to: China Since Tiananmen: Not a Dream but a Nightmare
Beijing's Tiananmen Square (image: Ablakat / shutterstock.com)
Thirty years on from the ill-fated student protests for greater democratic participation and government accountability in Tiananmen Square, it is appropriate to sound the alarm about China’s foreseeable future, as the serious tensions there will be difficult to reconcile peaceably. Teng Biao is right that without the tightening of authoritarian rule, there would have been no Chinese economic miracle. The picture is even bleaker, however, because not only is the tradeoff substantial, but the payoff is not as great as it seems.
First, the cost of this economic prosperity in human rights, basic civil liberties and protections, and the rule of law is enormous, as Teng Biao notes in his Liberty Forum essay. More disturbingly, much of that cost is being paid voluntarily, as the Chinese Communist Party has grown very clever in how it combines its use of the stick and the carrot.
The gulags are still alive and well in the form of political imprisonment and “reeducation” camps, and China has dramatically increased its recent spending on internal security, which includes not just combating terrorism but also spying on journalists and dissidents and censoring online communications, such that every year in this decade, it has spent more on domestic “stability maintenance” than on the military. (Domestic security budgets for the legislature, the National People’s Congress, have since 2013 excluded spending by provincial and regional governments—the effect of which is a likely underreporting of total spending by at least 75 percent.)
At the same time, much of the population also gladly participates in its own oppression. Chinese self-censor and comply with all sorts of restrictions as they chase after the higher scores and accompanying prizes of the new social credit system.
One might argue that this is just a stage of development—that, after solidifying their economic gains, the growing middle class will eventually clamor for liberties and protections such as property rights and the rule of law, thus forcing party higher-ups to yield to growing democratic aspirations. This developmental notion is attractive but grossly incomplete. While economic advances play a role, the transformation of potentially comparable countries such as Taiwan and South Korea were driven by a number of other factors, including geopolitical pressures, idiosyncratic leadership (for example, Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui), and religious influences (such as Methodism and Presbyterianism in South Korea), and there is no sign that China’s middle class will propel this liberalizing metamorphosis. The CCP intends this trade-off to be permanent, and the population understands this.
The Price of Progress
Perhaps it is a small price to pay for the massive enrichment of ordinary Chinese people since the late 1980s, which has yielded unquestionable improvements in well-being. One should not read too much into this economic miracle, however. After the upheavals and persecutions of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the country’s economy started from an extremely low base, to say the least, which helped make such rapid growth possible. Not to mention that the growth numbers themselves are suspect, and often invented.
This is not to say that the economic miracle is not real. Millions of ordinary people have been lifted out of poverty, which has conferred tangible benefits in the form of extended life expectancy, expanded education, and improved quality of life for many Chinese—but the “miracle” and China’s status must be put into the proper context.
The biggest factor in China’s present position as an economic powerhouse is its sheer size. Its overall GDP is about the same as that of the Eurozone, but that is achieved with four times the population. Much of China’s newly acquired status as a global economic and military superpower is an inadvertent projection of what it might become, say, 50 years from now if it sustained its astounding rate of growth (averaging 9.63 percent per year from 1989 through 2017). That is scarcely possible, however. And even if it were, China cannot maintain this pace much longer; in fact, as Teng Biao noted, its growth rate has already slowed in recent years. As the economy’s structure changes, as all the easy gains are achieved, its capacity for astounding expansion diminishes. The hard work on China’s economy still remains, and the reality is that the verdict on whether the “Beijing model” can deliver is still a long way away.
What Should the International Community Do?
Given the bleak outlook on China’s present and future, what should be done about this massive human rights debacle? As Teng Biao warns, opportunities for meaningful resistance are rapidly fading. To add to our pessimism, the reality of human history says that successful reforming forces must and should come primarily from within. External shocks such as a sharp global economic downtown or losing an unintended war can spur domestic agitation or revolution, but there are severe limits to what the outside world can do.
This does not, however, necessitate accepting as fact China’s regional dominance, future superpower status, or domestic oppression. First, we should first recognize the nature of China and the CCP: not only the economic reality on the ground but all the state oppression that goes into making the Chinese market so attractive to foreign companies desperate to tap into it. We should also recognize the extent to which the CCP’s foreign policy is driven by domestic developments—not by concern for its people, but rather by the internal stability required to maintain its monopoly on power. Chinese rulers’ freedom from the constraints of political accountability (having to please voters) is not a stage in a theory of liberalizing development; it is meant to be a permanent condition.
Second, all liberal democratic societies (or aspiring ones) should prioritize a foreign policy that is consistent with their domestic values. As I have observed elsewhere, values and principles, including self-interest, do not end at one’s border, and acquiescing to another country’s internal oppression damages one’s own domestic interests.
International accommodation of the CCP is driven by the geopolitical goal of taming a potential adversary and preventing war as much as by the desire to access China’s market and resources. But accommodation will not incentivize the CCP to cooperate. In fact, maintaining the status quo or offering concessions—for example some kind of “grand bargain” involving Taiwan—do the opposite. When the international community sacrifices its own values for the sake of regional and international stability and economic growth, it only tells the CCP that it need not cooperate or reform, as it already gets what it wants by pursuing its current course.
Even as countries prioritize their own self-interest, they must still distinguish between more or less trustworthy partners, between short-term coalitions of convenience and long-term alliances of like-mindedness. In this area, a country’s domestic values and practices are the most telling. While scruples may seem superfluous, even a handicap, in the anarchic world of geopolitics, shared values are not in fact an ethical luxury. Shared values are strategically prudent because there are necessarily few guarantees of reliability in the international realm, and grave dangers in failing to judge one’s partners accurately.
This means calibrating one’s foreign policy to assist the liberal democracies in China’s vicinity—South Korea, Japan, and also Taiwan, which is an existing model of the kind of Confucian democracy that people hope China might one day become. Promoting one’s values abroad is not required in a Westphalian-based system of sovereign states, but the strength of a country’s domestic principles is called into question when they are blatantly disregarded by the same country in its foreign policy. It is the burden of universalistic theories and those aspiring to them to be held to a higher standard.