This Fourth, light a sparkler for China's future

As China's Communist Party celebrates its founding, it is stuck in an internal debate on whether to admit that values such as human rights are universal or merely Western. Aren't all good ideas universal?

If you ask Americans this Fourth of July weekend if so-called “American values” are really universal, they’d probably say “of course.”


Ask a high official in China, however, if civic values such as freedom and rule of law are universal and you’d likely ignite a firecracker of a debate. (If you were Chinese, you might be tossed in jail.)


China’s ruling Communist Party, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this month, is clearly divided over whether democratic ideals with Western origins are applicable to all. It’s an internal debate that affects not only the dissidents who champion universal values (pushi jiazhi), but also the selection of new party leaders in 2012 and the direction of Beijing’s halting political reforms.


The danger for the party in this debate? Embracing civic values as universal would undercut its claim as the sole authority over what is China’s correct path.


Party hard-liners speak instead of the “China model” or “Beijing consensus,” based on what the party says those are. At the very least, they acknowledge a need to Sinicize outside ideas – Marxism, mainly, or what is called “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”


In the West, this notion that ideas can’t find fertile ground in all corners of humanity seems absurd. Civilization has soared on the wings of ideas that were always ready to be discovered by any willing thinker – not just those in the West – and that have stood the test of time.


As in math and physics, the best ideas on how to run a society can be anchored on all-inclusive, bedrock truths, such as the worth of each individual.


This firm reliance on the inevitable spread of timeless values lies behind the West’s longstanding policy of patience and tolerance toward Beijing – despite its regular crackdown on dissent and military belligerence toward its neighbors. Last January, for example, President Obama stood beside his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, at a press conference and pointedly said that Americans “have some core views as Americans about the universality of certain rights: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly.”


In its external ties, China has signed onto international agreements on human rights. But since 2008, liberals within China have demanded the practice of those rights. A large group of dissidents, for instance, issued a manifesto called Charter 08 that said China faces a choice of either forcibly keeping its authoritarian system or “recognizing universal values, joining the mainstream of civilization and setting up a democracy.”


In response, the party revived interest in the ideals of Confucius, such as social harmony and ethical standards. But even that effort has faltered in recent months. And with the Arab world suddenly aflame with demands for democracy, China’s leaders are suppressing liberals even more harshly and resorting to the usual calls for “nationalism” and “stability.”


Some party leaders do sometimes admit a need to adopt ideals of the West. During his trip to Europe this week, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told one audience: “We must create the conditions in which the people can supervise and criticize the government ... so as to prevent corruption from developing.”


And he added: “The more people get involved in the running of society and public affairs, the greater will be the impetus for social advancement.”


Such words are far from reality in China, however. Beset by internal corruption and rising popular protests, the party for now is only having a healthy internal debate. That alone shows that universal ideas, like a lit sparkler at a Fourth of July party, can’t be put out very easily.

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