Sublime and Beautiful

Chinese Communist Party: Change is for Democracies

Posted in Uncategorized by chaoren on September 17, 2009

These days, communist China is beginning to look a lot more like its imperial predecessor. The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) awesome wealth and power have transformed its once formidable foes like Taiwan and Japan into cowed tributaries of yore. Now, it is no longer considered shrewd to speak of changing the Middle Kingdom. Scholars and politicians who used to pontificate about slowly molding China in the image of western liberal democracy have learned a harsh lesson: you don’t change China—China changes you.

Hall of the People

During the early years of China’s economic reforms, the country was seen as a humble backwater. Its plucky ambition attracted only benign curiosity from the West, akin to the curiosity adults bestow upon a child playing by himself. In time, this mild curiosity gave way to amusement and ultimately to intense interest and concern.

Today, Eastern and Western states alike shift their eyes from the United States to China, trying to decide with which power to cast their fate, asking: which is the true Rock of Gibraltar?

Judging from recent political developments in Taiwan and Japan, East Asia may well have already chosen its favorite: China. In March 2008, Taiwanese voters elected Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Ma Ying-jeou President of the Republic of China. Ma’s victory and his party’s overwhelming success in the 2008 legislative elections were pleasant news to the ears of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials. The KMT, once the archenemy of Communist China, had morphed over the years into a more tolerant, less Red Scare-crazed political organization. By 2008, it had become a veritable pussycat compared to Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The KMT promoted engagement and eventual reunification with mainland China, while DPP firebrand and two-term President Chen Shui-bian spearheaded his party’s provocative pro-Taiwanese independence stance. Evident by the outcome of the 2008 elections, the people of Taiwan were prepared to bridge the Taiwan Strait and strengthen ties with a government they once sought to eradicate. It wasn’t Beijing’s charm that drove the Taiwanese towards its colossal neighbor. It was a mixture of economic opportunism and political fatalism.

When trying to instill a sense of responsibility in others people often recite the adage: no one can make you do anything. The saying is true enough and does a superb job of emphasizing freewill and self-control but it fails to address the fundamental problem of coercion. Granted, theoretically speaking, no one can force another to do something; however, one can do everything in one’s power to make a person’s life extremely difficult if they refuse one’s wishes. China has for years been squeezing Taiwan in such a way. It hasn’t forced Taiwan into its fold per se. However, communist China has worked tirelessly to preclude the Taiwanese people from choosing independence. At its crudest the PRC has resorted to harassing and intimidating Taiwan.

Beijing has been especially crafty in its political marginalization of Taiwan. Through a series of cunning Cold War political maneuvers, in 1971, Beijing succeeded in stripping Taiwan of its United Nations membership and replaced the island nation as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. How, you might ask, did the CCP execute such an astounding feat? The answer is quite simple: it waited patiently. No, the PRC didn’t undergo a rapid liberal-democratic makeover. The CCP didn’t moderate its politics or lessen its human rights abuses. Chairman Mao’s party only needed to bid its time until the world was willing to give it what it wanted.

By 1971, the political milieu in which the CCP operated had changed greatly. During the 1960s, numerous newly independent third world countries were admitted to the UN General Assembly. China courted these countries and cultivated them into a support base for its UN membership bid. Thus, the PRC gained the votes it needed to wage its coup. Plenty objected to allowing Chairman Mao’s mad experiment in communist statecraft into the ranks of the UN’s supreme governing body. But what could be done? The PRC had the numbers it needed to impose its will; so the opposition stood by impotently as they were defeated by their own beloved democratic process.
Ironically, the PRC’s UN victory took place in the midst of Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution, one of the darkest periods in modern Chinese history. Unfortunately, irony is lost on those blinded by the fog of war. The Nixon administration, caught up in Cold War power politics and struggling to extricate its country from a sticky situation in Vietnam, looked to its new Security Council colleague and saw a potential partner—what it should have seen was a cold opportunist.

In the years after the Second World War, Sino-Soviet relations soured to such an extent that the two communist powers ended up in a series of brief but bloody border conflicts in 1969. Aware that its two great Cold War foes had turned on one-another, U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and others in the Nixon administration, being the realists that they were, thought that they could win the allegiance of China and thereby shift the Cold War balance of power in the United States’ favor. Of course, as history has been written: the Nixon administration’s China diplomacy was an indubitable success—it helped to isolate the Soviet Union even further, and it delivered China from the dark recesses of the communist underworld to the light of liberal democracy. Even today, to say that 1970’s U.S.-China rapprochement was a resounding victory for U.S diplomacy is to speak the gospel truth. In actuality, the U.S. sold itself too cheaply and set U.S.-China relations on a dangerous course.

The Nixon administration’s dealings with China were the beginning of a deeply flawed negotiating pattern with the PRC that has seriously undermined the interests of democratic states the world over. The pattern has been one of give and take: the rest of the world gives and Beijing happily takes. U.S.-China trade, the foundation of U.S.-China relations, has been skewed horribly to benefit the PRC at the expense of average Americans. The U.S. trade deficit with China has ballooned over the past decade without U.S. officials taking any serious actions to rectify the matter. All the while, the PRC has utilized unfair trade practices including currency manipulation, investment restrictions, and appallingly lax labor and environmental regulations to suck money from foreign coffers. Of course, U.S. officials won’t admit that they have been steadily losing ground to a Mandarin-styled oligopoly; they won’t even acknowledge that China has made a mockery of its World Trade Organization membership—which China was able to gain with the support of the United States. Rather, U.S. officials have tended to argue that China is a backward country that can benefit enormously from Western tutelage. But China should not be mistaken for postwar Japan; South Korea; or Taiwan. The PRC is not eager to emulate foreign populist political systems nor is it in a position to have such systems imposed on it. On the contrary, the CCP has fashioned its own quasi-democratic one-party political system that cannot realistically support true democratic reform. Therefore, real catalysts for change will have to come from outside, not inside, China’s current political system. This means that efforts by the U.S. and other democratic countries to change China by working with the CCP are futile at best and extremely counterproductive at worst.

By no longer questioning the legitimacy of the CCP as a governing power, the world community obviates any leverage it might exert on the PRC. The Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 was a missed opportunity for democratic states to band together and demand democratic reforms in China. Likewise, the weak response of the world community to the 2008 Tibet unrest heartens the CCP in its claim that the strife of China’s minorities is an “internal issue” and only concerns the Chinese government. It is blatantly obvious by now that China’s economic strength is making it less and less susceptible to foreign influence and, conversely, more influential with other states. The supposed win-win trade relationships China has been developing with other countries may well be the CCP’s underhanded means of subjugating its adversaries. Currently, states are too preoccupied with economic issues to consider China as anything but a trade partner. But China is more than—a market—a lender—a supplier—it is an economic and a political actor. So, when China signs trade pacts with Taiwan and ASEAN there is more than money at stake.

Taro Aso and Yukio Hatoyama

The recent general election in Japan is a perfect example of how China has used trade to gain political power. For decades, Japan’s center right Liberal Democratic Party produced prime ministers that have for the most part either outraged or mildly offended Beijing. But, this summer’s elections brought a new party and a new kind of prime minister to power. The victorious Democratic Party of Japan and its president the new prime minister of Japan, Yukio Hatoyama, appear ready not only to support strengthening ties with China (as did previous Japan’s previous prime minister, Taro Aso) but to reduce Japan’s military cooperation with the United States. Prime Minister Hatoyama and his party are committed to reorienting Japan towards Asia which some have equated with turning Japan’s back on the United States, its greatest ally. This may seem an abrupt shift in policy but it has been a long time in the making. Japan’s trade relationship with China has been growing for years. China has supplanted the U.S. as Japan’s largest trade partner and the political consequences are now becoming manifest.

In essence, the United States’ flawed China strategy can be described as all carrots and no sticks. The danger for the U.S. and other countries is that the CCP has gained so much economic and political clout that it now holds most of the cards. Before when the U.S. had relatively more power than it does today, U.S. officials made too many concessions to China. They were content to believe that they could tolerate the PRC’s human rights violations, bad trade practices, unwarranted arms build-up, and general bad neighborliness in the international community because trade, they thought, was the panacea for all of China’s ills. First wealth then freedom became the mantra in Beijing and Washington. Unfortunately, wealth and freedom are not inextricably linked.

The China of today must be a rude surprise to the naïve scholars and government officials who once claimed that the CCP’s authoritarian rule would be demolished by China’s growing middle class. Karl Mark famously called religion the opiate of the masses; however, in China, money is the drug of choice. China’s middle class is more interested in accumulating wealth than accumulating civil liberties. Powerless peasants and remote ethnic minorities are the only people left that persistently challenge their illegitimate authoritarian government. Foreign powers like the United States now tread lightly when nearing the PRC’s turf. At present, the U.S. is carefully trying to decide whether honoring its commitment to protect Taiwan by selling it more than $6 billion worth of military hardware is worth incurring China’s wrath. The prospects of the dealing going through don’t look good especially considering that President Obama is scheduled to visit Beijing in November and a cooperative China seems to be vital to the United States’ economic recovery. So the CCP’s intransigence wins again. China’s influence in East Asia grows stronger, its economic ties tighten, and freedom—once a major issue, and then an afterthought—becomes an after-afterthought.