»  The Spectator

May 27, 1989

  From Dumplings to Democracy


The Chinese Democratic Party presented itself to the world on the afternoon of 8 May at a restaurant in New York's Chinatown. The world was represented by: a Japanese reporter somewhat the worse for drink, who kept falling asleep, two people from the New York Tribune (one of the Revd Mr Moon's enterprises), someone from a Hong Kong news agency, and your correspondent. While two waitresses at the next table counted money into a biscuit tin — this was the slack period after lunch — Zheng Weimin, the acting CDP Chairman, read a spirited declaration, appealing to all Chinese patriots to struggle for reform and an end to the present dictatorship. "Long live democracy!" he concluded. "Long live freedom!"

There were some speeches in Chinese and English, a few desultory questions were taken from the press, then communist China's first opposition party treated us all to steamed dumplings. Harry Flashman would have dismissed the affair as a "frost," but the party now exists and is taken seriously by the Chinese government. A certain Mr Xu from the Chinese consulate in New York has already declared it "a criminal Organisation," precisely as the Manchus denounced Sun Yatsen's party, as Chiang Kaishek denounced Mao's. Chinese politics is full of echoes.

The moving spirit behind the CDP is Dr Wang Bingzhang, the senior figure in Chinese exile politics. Dr Wang has been ploughing his lonely furrow since 1982, when he founded the China Spring organisation, also in New York. China Spring became the Chinese Alliance for Democracy, which now has more than 1,000 members in 50 chapters around the world. Almost all these members are Chinese students at Western universities, most of them postgraduates. Indeed, the general educational level in the CAD and CDP is quite intimidating. If these were Germans, our restaurant press conference would have been ringing with Herr Doktors. Being Chinese, it was all Old Wang and Old Zheng.

Dr Wang is actually a medical doctor (like Sun Yatsen, comes the echo), and one cannot help thinking that he would, in fact, make rather a good family practitioner. Forty years old, dapper, mild and well-spoken, he is an attentive listener and carries with him a kind of calm assurance which, while it falls somewhat short of charisma, seems to inspire great loyalty in his followers. On the evidence of his career so far, he can certainly be credited with courage. The week before the press conference he and a colleague attempted to enter China to participate in the 4 May demonstrations. They had valid air tickets to Peking and got as far as Tokyo, but were then refused boarding passes by every airline they tried, apparently at the request of the Chinese government. "They fear us," said Dr Wang with a chuckle, when I asked him about this.

I had interviewed Dr Wang a few days before the press conference, in a seedy basement office in Queens, New York, where his wife runs a small business. When had the idea for a dissident movement in exile first come to him? I asked.

"After the arrest of Wei Jingsheng [in 1979]. I was a student in Peking then. That was the time of the 'Peking Spring,' you know. There were all sorts of discussion groups among students. I belonged to one myself. When it became clear that I would be able go abroad, my group urged me to start a movement in America. Deng Xiaoping was actually our model. You know, when he was in Paris in the 1920s he founded a communist group among Chinese students there. We decided to follow that example."

What was the present state of the movement?

"Oh, much better than in 1982. At that time it was difficult to get students interested. People were so relieved that the Maoists had gone, you see. They thought that Deng would soon put the country to rights. Now, nobody believes that any more. Now, I think 90 per cent of Chinese students in the West support us."

When did he expect to see a democratically elected government in China?

"Hard to say. So far as the Communist Party is concerned, I expect them to last no more than another 15 years. But democracy may not follow immediately. There may be a period of disorder — though of course, we all hope that can be avoided."

Fifteen years? Wasn't that a bit optimistic? After all, the Communist Party still controls the army, police and civil service. Why shouldn't they go on indefinitely, like the Roman emperors, saying oderint dum metuant?

"Because they have no moral authority. In a Western country that might not matter, but in China it's crucial. Right now China is in an ideological vacuum. The Marxists destroyed Confucianism, then Mao himself destroyed Marxism. Now nobody in China believes anything. That can't continue. China must have an ideology. Any political system is held together partly by laws, partly by moral authority. In the West, law is the most important ingredient. In China, the moral authority of the state is the main thing."

Some years ago an academic colleague in China remarked to me: "We Chinese don't need complicated laws such as you have in England. Here, everybody knows what's right and what's wrong!" I repeated this little nugget of Confucianism to Dr Wang. He laughed.

"Yes, that's our traditional view. Of course, it needs modifying. We must have laws. To say the least of it, we couldn't function as a trading nation without laws. But for us Chinese there must first be an ideological foundation."

Did he have any ideas for an ideology suitable to modern China?

"Why, our traditional ideology, Confucianism — modified as necessary."

Could that be made to work in the 20th century?

"It has been. Look at Japan: a Confucian society, operating successfully, very successfully, in the modern world."

I expressed some doubt that Japan was really Confucian.

"Do you know the proportion of engineers to lawyers in Japan? Seven to one. And in America? One to seven — just the opposite. That's the difference between a modern, civilised Oriental society and a modern, civilised Western society. China should naturally belong to the first group."

What about the old Imperial possessions — Tibet, Eastern Turkestan and Inner Mongolia. Would they be part of democratic China?

"I discussed this issue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, on one of his visits to America. We found ourselves in general agreement that a federal solution should be attempted. A loose federation of different nationalities — that's what we hope for."

Well, nothing is impossible when History means business. The Turks passed from a very "pure" form of oriental despotism to republican liberty, or a fair approximation of it, in 20 years. No one should think that the Chinese, with their great resources of national pride and historical consciousness, cannot pull off the same trick. (Though it is worth remembering that the Turks had to lose their empire first.) In 1900 most Chinese students abroad were republicans; twelve years later China became a republic. In 1930 most were communists; China went communist. Now they all want parliamentary democracy.