Tiananmen 2.0? Freedom is coming to China – one way or another.
China's fierce crackdown of sporadic protests in recent weeks shows that Communist leaders there are watching the Arab uprisings with great anxiety. China would be wise to stay ahead of events by rolling out political reforms.
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As for the possibility of copycat protests in China, the Obama administration, struggling to cope with the rapid developments in the Mideast, may well feel compelled to discourage them. That attitude would be understandable, and consistent with the first Bush administration’s cautious response to tumultuous events in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and Tiananmen two decades ago. US officials were aghast then at the threat to what seemed their highest diplomatic value: stability.Skip to next paragraph
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Such inhibition would also track with this administration’s tepid response to the 2009 protests in Iran. But, as was true in that instance, a hands-off or even hostile approach toward freedom-seeking protesters would be strategically shortsighted as well as morally deficient.
In recent speeches, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have stated that “the arc of history” bends ultimately to a democratic future for all peoples. They have warned that governments that continue to deny those universal human rights are merely postponing the inevitable. Almost everything they have said in condemning regime violence against the peoples of the Mideast apply equally to China’s rulers.
The Taiwan model
The president has advised that gradual and planned transitions to democracy are needed precisely to preclude more painful and costly sudden upheavals. Perhaps the best model for China’s evolution to political reform is the Republic of China on Taiwan, which started out with the same kind of one-party dictatorship as mainland China, albeit with an anti-communist ideology. With US encouragement, the Nationalists laid out a decades-long roadmap to democracy through successive local, regional, and national elections.
Today’s leader of that now-democratic Nationalist Party is President Ma-Ying-jeou who has called on Beijing to start down the same path as his Chinese compatriots. Commenting on the aborted Chinese “jasmine” protests, he urged Chinese authorities to adopt “new concepts” and “accelerate efforts on democratic political reform to safeguard human rights.”
Beijing has good reason to heed Mr. Ma’s good-faith advice. It openly favored his election after eight years of rule by the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party led by President Chen Shui-bian, whom it despised. Presenting himself as the non-confrontational, anti-Chen, Ma has pleased Chinese leaders by acting as the most pro-China president in Taiwan’s history.
But, while Ma has been willing to relax cross-Strait travel restrictions and reach trade agreements with China, the Harvard-educated lawyer has staked out democracy as his bottom line in any future relationship with China. Noting Chinese citizens’ “jasmine” stirrings, he appealed to Beijing: “Let democracy and human rights be the eternal common language of the people across the strait.”
Chinese and American leaders would do well to recognize the wisdom in Ma’s appeal and get ahead of events, as none of the Mideast’s dictators bothered to do. The alternative, somewhere down the road, could well be Tiananmen revisited, but on a much wider scale and with broader international implications.
Joseph A. Bosco served in the office of the secretary of Defense as China country desk officer and previously taught graduate seminars on China-US relations at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is now a national security consultant.