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.

For the second time in just over two decades, China’s Communist leaders watch anxiously as a series of popular revolutions in another critical area of the world sweep out entrenched dictators and threaten to reverberate in the People’s Republic.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was fellow Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that toppled under people power. Now it is Arab and Persian tyrants who face the wrath of the people they have oppressed for generations. Events have seemed to reach the critical tipping-point when the regime’s fear of the people exceeds the people’s fear of the regime.

Chinese bloggers have been quick to raise the obvious question – could it happen in China? – and to begin testing the waters. Internet postings have called for silent protests in several Chinese cities to emulate Tunisia’s “jasmine revolution.” They have spawned a few sporadic gatherings that the authorities quickly snuffed out before they could grow – but it was a surprisingly early indication that the spark of hope for freedom in China is not extinguished.

Libya’s violent and indiscriminate crackdown against the protesters posed a dilemma for Beijing because it endangered thousands of Chinese working there. Compelled to defend its own citizens against mistreatment by a foreign government, China for the first time openly criticized a Mideast dictator’s repression of its people.

Dangerous inspiration

But Muammar Qaddafi’s brutal actions evoke an image the Chinese government would prefer forgotten – its own crushing of the peaceful protest of students and workers on Tiananmen Square in 1989. After Tunisia and Egypt, a collapse of the Libyan regime despite its bloody response could provide Chinese citizens with even more dangerous inspiration.

With Chinese workers now out of harm’s way in Libya, Beijing may have reason to hope the Tripoli regime survives the popular revolt. Though Beijing did vote to suspend Libya from the UN Human rights council, China would only agree to a Security Council resolution that did not authorize the use of force against Libya, and it has not joined the US and other governments in calling for Qaddafi to resign.

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.

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.”

Countries in the Middle East where the 'winds of change' are blowing

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.

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