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Chances of Chinese democracy: an analysis
John Kusumi
6/4/2004

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Fifteen years after Tiananmen
 
Out in public, it looks like nothing has changed. Tiananmen Square student leaders are gathering to mark the 15th anniversary of the bloody massacre in China. Isn't that what they do every year? Yes. Aren't they powerless protestors, relegated to obscurity, raising appeals that the Chinese government will never answer? It has appeared so during the past 15 years. But, appearances can be deceiving.

The top tier leading Chinese dissidents can rightly lay claim to being more than powerless protestors. They are political leaders, and they know it. Americans have sometimes objected to fundraising appeals in this cause, saying "Why should we send money to the Chinese dissidents? They're rich." It suggests that ordinary Americans perceive the Chinese dissidents as special and powerful. (Many times though, they have been activists running out of money. American television leads Americans to believe that everyone there is rich. It is a conditioned perception, not true for all Chinese dissidents, and it has worked against some truly very indicated fundraising appeals.)

Special and powerful are the best adjectives that can apply to this group, and on a good day, they will live up to that billing. The article here is an assessment of the chances for Chinese democracy, and we can ask here, "Are they having a good day or a bad day?" The true answer is, both. But, I began by saying that out in public, it looks like nothing has changed. Everyone in this cause, in related causes (e.g., Tibetans), and well wishers to the cause have felt frustrated by no apparent progress; no change in Chinese political reform or in China's human rights practices; and, the slow pace of the movement itself. From onlookers, frustration if not anger is understandable. Chinese democracy is a volatile, hot button issue, and we should be sensitive to levels of rage and frustration that are scarcely imaginable to complacent Americans.

No less, there is such thing as "behind the scenes" at the Chinese democracy movement, as well as growth and evolution in the scene. I am going to offer an analogy to help understand the Chinese democracy movement.

Imagine that this movement is a car or a pickup truck with faulty brakes. Imagine further, that the engine is running. And, I call your attention to three things: the gas pedal, the brake pedal, and the clutch pedal. All three pedals are being held down at the same time.

The gas pedal is being held down by Tibetans, by Harry Wu, and by the China Support Network.

The brake pedal is being held down by the U.S. establishment, meaning the White House and opinion leaders of the U.S. news media.

The clutch pedal is being held down by Wei Jingsheng and Lian Shengde.

Those of us who are on the gas pedal have been arguing that the others should get off of their respective pedals. If we got off the brake and popped the clutch, that would make the democracy movement move faster.

The people on the brake pedal have received urgings and blandishments to respond to the democracy movement with more attention, and to heed their urgings. These people of the U.S. establishment have their own reasons -- American interest -- why they ought to let up on the brake. The U.S. economy and national security are powerful reasons why it is in America's best interest to let up on the brake.

Yet, even if the gas is down and the brake is let up, there would be no movement for the other reason -- Wei and Lian are keeping their foot on the clutch. What would movement look like? Movement would entail actual economic pressure brought to bear against China for the purpose of encouraging reform or regime change.

Intellectually, Wei and Lian have spoken on the side of more pressure. True pressure would reduce the trade deficit and also impact business. From China, American business ekes out the last incremental dollar of marginal cost savings. I refer to that as "blood soaked profits," because money is made off the exploited backs of the oppressed Chinese people. True pressure could come from either or both of two directions: government (tariffs), or consumers (boycott). Wei and Lian both opposed the trade deal, passed in 2000, for unconditional PNTR in Sino-U.S. relations.

But, I say they are on the clutch because they have not, as yet, endorsed the consumer boycott, that would accomplish similar pressure even without the government. Tibetans resolved in 2002 to launch the Boycott Made in China coalition, and did so at the end of that year. They do have a global coalition that continues to approach consumers, from a Tibetan angle, and urges the boycott of Made in China products. For Tibetans, this is their ultimate boycott. They achieved very wide, and indeed global, participation among an array of leading Tibetan groups. In their cause, the boycott is an idea whose time has come.

In 2002, as the occasion arose, Harry Wu and his Laogai Research Foundation endorsed the boycott, as did the China Support Network. Tibetans could be happy that we, too, would punch their ticket. But, we could not announce endorsements from the Wei Jingsheng Foundation, the Overseas Chinese Democracy Coalition, or the Free China Movement, where Lian Shengde is the Executive Director. If and when they do endorse it in the future, that would be the ultimate "ticket punching" and would indicate two very well aligned causes, both promoting the same message.

By withholding those endorsements, it leads me to say that Wei and Lian are "holding down the clutch" in this vehicle, the Chinese pro-democracy movement.

Somebody could ask the question, how ready are they to lead China, in the event of a regime change? Are there reasons why they have not "popped the clutch?" I can name two reasons: the steering, and the faulty brakes. My article is silent about who is on the steering wheel. It is a movement with no clear lines of authority, but we are reminded regularly that Wei is "China's most famous dissident." Many people have said that Chinese dissidents should get together and elect their leaders -- that idea is so obvious, it was true in 1989, and now after 15 years, Chinese dissidents have not taken that step -- and they should do so.

The China Support Network stands with some discomfort, because our idea in 1989 was that a deliberative, reasonable body of Chinese should be in charge of this movement, and we would be supportive of that leadership. After 15 years, there is still no deliberative body that has the political buy-in of everybody, movement-wide. If there were true movement officers elected, then we would have clear lines of authority and we would know who has got the steering wheel.

The other reason why one might hold the clutch relates to the faulty brakes. Chinese dissidents can always get the ball rolling on new initiatives, but the movement would not stop if they left the group. The progress goes only forward here; any dissident who turned around and advocated Communism would not be accepted by the movement, and it would go on without the dissenter. By that view, there are no brakes on this movement, except the natural behavior of human nature, or the considered good sense of others. There is no "Movement Action Veto Committee," and some actions would be better vetoed.

However, if there were clear lines of authority, as suggested in the elections idea (also in the Road Map To Democracy), then there would be brakes included. A movement executive would, logically, have that executive power of veto. So, if we solve the steering problem, then we also solve the brake problem at the same time.

The foregoing are good reasons to suggest why the movement should adopt the Road Map To Democracy, as promulgated by the China Support Network, or any similar proposal that is functionally equivalent.

Even while the China Support Network is a hard line organization and is "on the gas pedal," I share in concerns about "raising the clutch." It means economic pressure and perhaps business disruption -- the bogeyman that business leaders want to avoid. In mid-March, I sent a message to Lian Shengde, and said--

For stability and to be responsible, it is better if the provisional government is ready first. That is why the Road Map is so important. (What if there were a regime change, and no new regime ready? You don't want a civil war, you want a clear road map to democracy!)

Here in late May, I can continue to stand by my statements as made earlier. When the clutch is popped, I would far prefer that it is done so responsibly, and it would be the better for China and the world if we can avoid business disruption all together. (Without co-operative Communists, the disruption will in fact be necessary as this movement proceeds forward towards its objectives. This indicates a reason why the Communists would be wiser to blink and to become more accommodating.)

One more thought for my readership is that movement can happen even while all those pedals are held down in the metaphorical car. The boycott could catch on through the coalition efforts, resulting in movement and making the car appear to be irrelevant. The Tibetans have moved the situation somewhat, and that indicates just what I said -- that the brakes are faulty. That can make the U.S. establishment appear irrelevant, as they hold down a brake pedal that doesn't work.

***

Published by the China Support Network (CSN). Begun as the American response group in 1989, CSN represents Americans who are "on the side" of the students in Tiananmen Square -- standing for democratic reform, human rights, and freedom in China. For dissident news; to support a stronger China policy; or get more information, see http://www.chinasupport.net.

This article appears on AFAR with permission from CSN.

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