»  The Weekly Standard

February 14, 2000

  The Chinese, Too, Deserve to be Free


Macao, Portugal's 400-year-old colony across the Pearl River estuary from Hong Hong, returned to Chinese sovereignty at midnight on December 19th-20th last. Considering that the place is tiny — eight miles from end to end, pop. 450,000 — and has no discernible economy — gambling and prostitution are the staples — and that the Portuguese have been trying unsuccessfully to give it back to China since they got out of the colonial business 20 years ago, you might suppose that this was no big deal. Wrong: for China, it was a very big deal indeed.

President Jiang Zemin, making a speech on the occasion, got right to the point: "I am sure that our compatriots in Taiwan will share the joyful sentiments of the people in Macao … To achieve a complete national reunification is the shared aspiration of all the Chinese people including the Taiwan compatriots, and an inevitable historical trend which no force on earth can ever resist …" In short, it's about Taiwan. With Hong Kong and Macao safely back in the warm bosom of the Motherland, the "recovery" of Taiwan is now Project Number One for the rulers of China.

Well, I should like to suggest a counter-project for the West. Our project — I suppose I shall have to call it our "Millennium Project," though I think a determined effort could see it through in 10 years — is to bring constitutional government to China. Not for moralistic reasons, though there would be great moral satisfaction in accomplishing such a thing, but from simple prudence and the desire for peace.

I have just been reading historian Spencer Weart's 1998 book Never At War. Subtitled "Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another," Weart's book is a long exploration of Kant's notion that free peoples are inherently peaceful. Much of it is devoted to developing good working definitions of "democracy" and "war." All the counterexamples that naturally occur to you — Athens vs. Thebes, the War of 1812, the Anglo-Dutch War of 1652, etc. — are scrutinized in the light of these definitions. Weart's conclusion is the one implied in his subtitle, and I found the book perfectly convincing. Democracies — sufficiently inclusive, well-established democracies — do not fight each other.

This alone is sufficient cause for us to rack our brains seeking ways to help China democratize. A war with China would be a dreadful catastrophe. If we can do anything to help bring forward a state of affairs in which such a war is unthinkable — as unthinkable as war between the U.S. and Canada — we should surely do it. At present war is all too thinkable, for reasons which derive from the nature of the Chinese communist regime. Spencer Weart points out what political scientists from Aristotle onward have noticed: that a nation's dealings with other nations tend to the same style as its internal practices. A regime that tolerates no internal dissent will be intolerant of other nations' concerns. A regime that considers disagreement with its policies to be treason will register even the mildest foreign criticism as belligerent hostility. A regime whose leaders have never experienced the give and take of democratic politics will be inept at, and temperamentally hostile to, the give and take of international diplomacy.

Weart describes a number of historical instances in which, because of the mindset formed in internal conflicts, fatal misunderstandings arose between a democracy and an oligarchy. Oriented toward negotiation and compromise, the democracy makes a concession. Oriented toward coercion and deceit, the oligarchs take the compromise as weakness and assume that the democracy will never take a stand. Thus emboldened, they strike — and are astonished when the democracy strikes back. Reading these accounts, it seems that conflicts like the First World War arise not so much because one side or the other has lost the diplomatic game, as because the two sides are not actually playing the same game. Current U.S.-China relations conform rather uncomfortably to this pattern, with our Administration speaking breezily to us of "strategic partnership with China" while China's government-controlled press snarls that the U.S. is "aspiring to world hegemony."

These considerations dispose of one of the main objections to our project, the one from Kissingerian realpolitik. How is it any business of ours (asks this point of view) what sort of government China has? We should deal with what we find, accommodating ourselves to their interests when prudent, encouraging them to do the same in respect of our interests. But if Weart's arguments are sound, the skill set required to rise to the top in a Leninist oligarchy is, in and of itself, a danger to international peace and order.

Another line of objection is the appeal to the Law of Unintended Consequences. According to this reasoning, a loud and persistent campaign to push China in any direction will generate resentment not only among the Chinese leadership but amongst their people, who have been indoctrinated for a hundred years to believe that all their problems arise from the efforts of foreign countries to meddle in China's affairs. Action on our part will generate reaction, and the current odious system will only be strengthened by our efforts to reform it.

This seems to me a more potent argument. It is indeed true that foreigners' prescriptions for China meet loud scorn from Chinese people. The notion that only the Chinese understand China is dear to their hearts. "Meddling in our internal affairs" is not just a useful slogan for the ruling gang to use when brushing off foreign criticism — though it is, of course, that — it is also an appeal to one of the fundamental principles of Chineseness. Yet the argument misses the ambivalent quality that Chinese attitudes to the outside world have had ever since that world gatecrashed their consciousness 150 years ago. The twentieth century's most percipient observer of the Chinese soul, the writer Lu Xun, noted that: "We Chinese are for ever either looking down on foreigners as uncultured savages, or else gazing up admiringly at them as paragons of science and democracy. We can never look them in the eye as equals." Chinese officials who have to deal with foreigners are instructed that the proper attitude is bu kang bu bei — neither arrogant nor servile. The notion that foreign suggestions will always be rebuffed, and its often-heard corollary that nothing foreigners do makes any difference in China, both miss this tension in Chinese thinking. While the Chinese and their leaders may scoff and sneer at foreign prescriptions for their country, at the back of each Chinese head is a little voice whispering that perhaps, after all, the foreigners might be on to something.

Certainly there is a widespread understanding among Chinese people — at any rate those with some education — that the current political system of the mainland will not do. Another fundamental principle of Chineseness in the present age is the aching desire to be up-to-date, to be modern. From this point of view, the Chinese Communist Party is laboring under a terrible disadvantage with its own people: they perceive it to be old-fashioned. Forty years ago, when it was still possible to believe that state socialism was the way of the future, the CCP could tap into this desire for modernity. Socialism was sleek, shiny and efficient, it was scientific. After the calamities of the Mao period, nobody any longer believes that. In recent years a number of memoirs and exposés of the early decades of communist rule have been available to those Chinese who cared to seek them — perhaps most famously the book by Mao's doctor (The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Zhisui Li), which every Chinese person seems to be familiar with. When reading these accounts, Chinese people who know their nation's history cannot but be reminded of the intrigues of the Imperial court and the follies of that older autocracy. Their reaction is not pride at the continuity of their nation's political culture, but shame that they are stuck with methods of statecraft long since abandoned elsewhere.

There is therefore, I believe, a widespread hunger among educated Chinese people for a more modern form of government — "to be a normal country like the others," as one expressed herself to me. A Western campaign for democracy in China, if conducted with some tact and good sense, could harness this yearning.


Supposing the West could be convinced of the desirablity of this project, what steps can we actually take to help China towards democracy? I propose the following.

Shame them. China, like Japan, has a "shame" culture rather than a "guilt" culture. Doing wrong and getting away with it disturbs a Chinese person's peace of mind much less than it does an Anglo-Saxon's; being laughed at for making an honest mistake is correspondingly more distressing. This is a lever which, if skilfully pulled, can advance the great project I am proposing. Loud foreign complaints about human rights abuses are answered with blustering defensiveness from Chinese officials; down among the people themselves such complaints can, if properly pitched, generate shame. "A bunch of middle-aged people want to practice a meditation cult, and you think this is a threat to your nation? What a primitive attitude! A confident modern nation can tolerate any number of peaceful cults!" Behind the outward show of indignation with which Chinese spokesmen greet such remarks there is much blushing and squirming amongst ordinary Chinese. I therefore believe that we — both we the people through our news media and private contacts, and also our representatives and diplomatic operatives — should complain loud and long about human rights abuses in China. Never mind the self-righteous bluster we get in return. Never mind warnings from the State Department's China desk that such complaints are "unhelpful." How have U.S. policies this past decade helped China become a normal country with whom we can have friendly relations? All of them — every word and deed — has had the effect of reinforcing the power of the Communist Party. Never mind Chinese accusations of "interfering in our internal affairs." Never mind the clumsy attempts at tu quoque rebuttals. (As part of their training, Chinese officials are equipped with prefabricated arguments rather like those that used to be supplied to pupils in Catholic schools for the confounding of Protestants and atheists. They are, for example, trained to riposte with remarks about race segregation in the Old South any time an American raises issues of human rights in China. Most recently they have been countering queries about the suppression of Falun Gong with references to the Branch Davidians.) Never mind: some of what we say will sink in, inducing shame — a potent force for changing Chinese behavior.

Expose their lies. The diplomatic arsenal of the current Chinese regime — as of any authoritarian regime — is stocked mainly with lies, threats and insults. The insults should be ignored and the threats met with calm, clear declarations of firmness. The lies, however, should be exposed. If the Chinese ambassador to the U.N. declares that "Tibet has always been a part of China," the U.S. ambassador should stand up at the first opportunity and point out that this is untrue, giving historical chapter and verse. When Jiang Zemin says, as he did in the speech I have quoted, that the people of Taiwan long to be reunited with the Motherland, someone of authority in the Free World should be heard to say that this is not so — that the people of Taiwan have no desire to surrender their current freedoms to a clique of Leninists with Swiss bank accounts. One of the depressing things you discover if you live in a dictatorship is that after decades of indoctrination, most people — including even dissidents — end up believing at least some of the official lies. In a completely closed society they hear nothing else. Today's China, however, is not so hermetically closed and challenges to the CCP's lies can filter through to at least some Chinese citizens. Since the Party rests its constitutional legitimacy on lies and on long-exploded pseudoscientific theories about "inevitable historical trends," simple repetition of the truth undermines that legitimacy.

Recognize Governments-in-Exile for Tibet and Eastern Turkestan. Twentieth-century history — in Spain, Turkey, Austria, Portugal and Russia — suggests rather strongly that for an imperial-despotic power to fully democratize it must first shed its colonial possessions and withdraw to its metropolitan core state. The current territory of the People's Republic includes three vast regions whose base populations are not Chinese: Tibet (including "Qinghai Province," which is actually Tibet's Amdo Province, birthplace of the current Dalai Lama), Eastern Turkestan ("Xinjiang"), and Inner Mongolia. The last of these is probably a lost cause, as Manchuria has been for a hundred years. Being too close to the Chinese heartland, it has been swamped with Chinese immigrants, and the Mongolians are now a minority. Tibet and Eastern Turkestan, however, are outlying Imperial possessions held by brute military force. Their cultures have nothing in common with China's — not even an alphabet. In Tibet, one person in twelve is a Chinese soldier — a much higher proportion than the Wehrmacht required to hold occupied France in WW2. Continued Chinese occupation of these nations is a disgrace, an international scandal. Their people have suffered horribly under Chinese rule. Most to the point, no democratization of China will be possible until they are freed; for democratization of China within its current borders would lead to prompt secession by these regions, as the Communists surely know. We must extend official recognition to governments-in-exile for the Tibetans and Eastern Turkestanis, with ambassadorial residences in our capital and proper accreditation of diplomats. True, there will be a rather melancholy comic-opera aspect to these missions for a few years. So there was to the missions of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia as recently as the 1980s; but those Baltic states are now free, their missions issuing visas and organizing cultural exchanges. So it must be with Tibet and Eastern Turkestan one day, if we are ever to have democracy in China. Unlike the Baltic states, which had a higher standard of living than Soviet Russia, Tibet and Eastern Turkestan are poorer than metropolitan China. Their Chinese settler populations would have little incentive to stay on after independence and most would drift back to China proper.

Recognize Taiwan. From the point of view of the project I am proposing, the case of Taiwan presents some ambiguity. It may very well be — though personally I would not bet on it — that if China were a democratic nation, the people of Taiwan would wish to join it. Having recognized Taiwan, therefore, we may, a few years further on, if our project is successful, find ourselves de-recognizing it. I believe this is an embarrassment we should be willing to endure with equanimity. The present case for recognizing Taiwan was put very ably by John Bolton in The Weekly Standard (8/9/99), and I cannot improve on his arguments except to say that I believe a major jolt of this sort would, after the initial firestorm of blustering indignation had died down, contribute to the de-legitimization of the Chinese Communist Party among its own people.


The project I have sketched out above is not, of course, risk-free. The state ideology of the current Chinese regime is based on doctrines which are in part irrational, indeed anti-rational. The regime might react in irrational ways to some of the steps I have proposed. Those steps must therefore be complemented with clear, consistent declarations of intent and with as much support as we can gather from democratic allies in Asia. Whatever the risks, indefinite perpetuation of the current system is even riskier — much, much riskier. As Spencer Weart has shown in the book mentioned above — and as Demosthenes noted 23 centuries ago — relations between democracies and oligarchies are always unstable; and the different styles, rooted in different ways of confronting internal challenges, that democracies and oligarchies bring to the diplomatic arena offer endless possibilities for misunderstanding and miscalculation.

We are not helpless. The West is at the apogee of its wealth, power and influence. We do not have to sit by passively, in the vague hope that once China's living standards reach a certain point the Maoists will step graciously aside. The world is a much smaller place than it was even 20 years ago, and what is said at one end of it can be heard at the other. Let us say what we stand for — loud, clear and repetitively. Let us make it clear to the Chinese that while we respect them and their civilization, with its glittering achievements in art, literature and technology, we deplore their current political arrangements and think them a danger to ourselves and to the whole world. Let them know that we long for a free and democratic China, "a normal country," with whom we can compete in friendship to our mutual benefit. They will be listening, enough of them. Their leaders, too: take a look at the gifts that came into your house over the recent holiday season and count those MADE IN CHINA. They need us far, far more than we need them. By being firm, and loud, and principled, we can accomplish a great and wonderful thing: we can help a mighty nation find a path to constitutional government and ensure peace for ourselves and our children. We can help bring to an end the long night of imperial despotism in China and watch with joy and satisfaction as Freedom's morning breaks at last over that proud, beautiful, long-suffering land.