Arts & Culture 
 Human Rights 
 U.S. Asian Policy 

Home > East Asia > 

HED: Don’t Ignore China …
Hu Ping, Asian Wall Street Journal

U.S. President George W. Bush declared war on tyranny last week, and Condoleeza Rice branded six countries as “outposts of tyranny.” But missing from this list was China.

That’s probably because it’s difficult to pinhole today’s China into any clear category. Of course, China remains a Communist autocracy, but it’s also one undergoing sweeping reforms. That’s doubtless why Ms. Rice omitted China from the list of tyrannies. It’s widely believed that China’s current reforms are moving it along the road to freedom and democracy and the best thing Western countries can do is support these reforms, while continuing to apply pressure over human rights. The assumption is that China’s reforms are proceeding on a path that, with the passage of time, will bring China closer to genuine freedom and democracy. That’s why the West continues to nurture hopes in each new Chinese leader who takes power.

But recent events pose serious challenges to such assumptions about China’s way forward. Former Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang’s death while still under the house arrest imposed on him more than 15 years ago, for objecting to the June 4, 1989 military crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, is just the latest example of the darker side of today’s leadership. The fact that Chinese authorities never restored Zhao’s personal freedom, even when he was elderly and near death, signifies the relentlessness of the authoritarian machinery in a country that is now positioning itself for a dominant position on the world stage.

It comes in the wake of other recent disturbing developments. Authorities have banned books, closed Web sites and renewed their campaign against independent thinkers. Some have been detained and put on trial, others dismissed from their jobs, or blacklisted from being mentioned in the official media. The vast majority of the targets of this latest crackdown were not involved in establishing opposition parties or any kind of political groups. They were simply ordinary writers, scholars and journalists who in many cases were not even directly criticizing the authorities, but instead commenting on issues such as China’s income disparity and social injustice, or providing legal assistance to disadvantaged groups. As a result, many of the high hopes of a more enlightened leadership, that were raised when Hu Jintao succeeded Jiang Zemin as China’s top leader, have been dashed.

But that’s precisely what Mr. Hu wants. Chinese leaders learned from the events of June 4 that they need to take a hard line to nip any so-called “ferment” in the bud. They understand they can only remain in power as long as ordinary people fear to challenge them. If the Chinese public begin to nurture hopes of a more enlightened leadership, they will only be emboldened to speak up and press issues such as democracy and justice. That will leave the authorities with no choice but to use greater force to suppress these demands and stay in power. That’s why Mr. Hu has presented such a stern image since taking power. It’s in his interest to suppress expectations of a more enlightened leadership and maintain fear in the authoritarian government’s ability to “shock and awe.”

Since assuming power, Mr. Hu has repeatedly expressed his concern for disadvantaged groups. It follows that he should tolerate efforts by these groups to protect their rights, but this is not in fact the case. For example, a Beijing-based legal scholar, Li Boguang, has for some time been offering legal assistance to protect the rights of peasants, but recently he was detained by the local government as a criminal suspect. This demonstrates that while the Hu Jintao government would like to improve the conditions of the disadvantaged by ameliorating China’s enormous income disparity and reining in corruption, it still cannot tolerate ordinary people gaining the ability to take independent collective action to defend their own rights.

The Mao Zedong era is long past, and even the ruling elite has no desire to return to it. But what should raise the greatest concern about today’s China is a form of oppression that is less rigid but possibly more persistent and pervasive than in the Mao era: that is a government that adheres to no ideology but wields enormous power, and is determined to use any means necessary to maintain that power.

In the past 20 years, China’s economy has grown at an astonishing rate, and it has emerged onto the world stage. The Hu leadership, like his predecessors, has used this to justify the 1989 massacre and the iron grip it continues to exercise over dissent, while dismissing out of hand any idea of “western-style” freedom and democracy. The danger is that the West will fail to perceive the full extent of the threat posed by these “Chinese characteristics.”
President Bush’s declaration of a war on tyranny is welcome--but it cannot ignore the struggle for freedom and democracy in China.

Mr. Hu is a prominent Chinese political commentator based in New York. He is chief editor of the monthly magazine Beijing Spring, and a member of the board of directors of Human Rights in China.

© Copyright 2002-2007 AFAR