Taiwan and South Korea made the transition from authoritarianism to democracy because their American protector maintained the pressure for political reform. China has been able to defy modern history because the West, without the same leverage over Beijing, has refrained from holding it accountable for its lack of political progress.
The shock of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre has long faded, and the broken promises of democratic progress that were prerequisites to awarding Beijing the 2008 Olympics are forgotten. While Western countries sporadically decry China’s terrible human rights record, they never allow the criticism to interfere with business as usual.
But Western reticence does not mean the ultimate, unstated, goal of a democratic China has disappeared. Washington’s appeals for Beijing to move toward the rule of law, religious liberty, and freedom of expression are inherently subversive for one-party dictatorship. A Chinese government that makes those changes could no longer be called communist. America has more in common with the aspirations of the Chinese people than it does with the interests of China’s present rulers. Beijing understands, and resents, that fact.
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 now writes on national security issues.