[Viewpoint]What the Chinese deserveThe 2008 Olympics are only a few months away. Like the 1988 Games were for Seoul, these festivities are Beijing’s “coming-of-age” party for the People’s Republic of China. Hotel construction, infrastructure overhauls, and at least some environmental improvements have been made to accommodate the officials, athletes, and spectators. In the immediate prelude (Tibet, Darfur) and aftermath of this year’s Olympiad, there are and will be clues as to whether China successfully continues with modernization and reform, or descends into further violence and possibly secession. So far, signs of hope, as well as danger, are present.
China’s transformation over the past 30 years since Mao’s death has been nothing short of astonishing. Although state intervention in the economy remains rather extensive, private enterprise and market rules now dominate throughout the nation.
Every year, thousands of Chinese are involved in educational and cultural exchanges abroad. Higher levels of education and income (especially with the one-child policy), a contributor to Chinese and world stability, have created a sizeable middle-class. This new cosmopolitan generation is setting the stage for a civil society with nongovernmental organizations, rule-of-law-based norms, with implications for real freedom.
In addition to greater religious tolerance and individual entrepreneurial initiative, there has been some political progress as well. Communist Party members and independents do compete in some elections on the local level. Regular terms of office are now standard for most elective offices, with term limits for many of them. Nevertheless, further progress should not be automatically assumed. Russia has sustained economic improvements since 2000, yet regressed politically since Putin took over from Yeltsin eight years ago.
Up to this point, the changes made have been generally beneficial, but not adequate by any means. Far more remains to be done and signs of continuing strife and tension make that abundantly clear. Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong are all classified as Autonomous Regions. Hong Kong lives up to that label pretty well, but the others don’t even come close. All major decisions regarding those two western areas of China are the sole prerogative of the top party officials in Beijing, almost all Han Chinese, I might add.
In the March 19 edition of the International Herald Tribune, the party chief in Tibet, Zhang Qingli, was quoted as saying, “The Communist Party is like a parent to the Tibetan people, and it is always considerate about what the children need.” This rather patronizing attitude is based on assumptions of obedience and exclusion, doubly so in light of recent violence. Such statements from China’s officials show they still have a system incompatible with modern democratic institutions. President Hu Jin-tao’s relentlessly-stated goal of a “harmonious society” cannot be forced; it must be predicated upon mutual respect, cooperation and compromise. Furthermore, constant references to the Dalai Lama as a “splitist” and to any criticism of the party as “gross interference in China’s internal affairs” are getting quite tiresome and simplistic. If speeches, written comments and peaceful protests are interference, then let’s interfere. China can do the same with other nations and governments.
Readers probably accept that most criticism or disagreement put forward is meant to help China, not to insult or threaten it. In the interest of world stability, China should mature into a democratic federal republic that is engaged with other nations and regions of the world. The 2008 Olympic Games are a big step in that direction. Accepting responsibility for its foreign affairs blunders in Africa and its domestic policy failures in Tibet and Xinjiang would be another step and will go a long way toward resolving these and other issues.
Given the right pace and a broad range of further reforms, Tibet, Xinjiang and even Taiwan would eventually be content as areas under the jurisdiction of the People’s Republic of China.
What would some of those reforms include? I propose the following: (1) Allow the eight legal political parties to abandon their merely advisory roles and to compete with the Communist Party in free elections. (2) Permit most, if not all, non-violent currently underground political movements to legally register as partisan entities. (3) Let a neutral, independent body be formed, which conducts and monitors elections. (4) Issue a written pledge of pluralism that will contain an explicit promise to accept whatever results come out of elections. (5) Revoke laws that obstruct the peaceful exercise of religion, press, assembly, speech and petition. (6) Stop trying to overwhelm Xinjiang and Tibet with Han Chinese. (7) Strengthen and fully fund existing social welfare and environmental agencies and put their objectives and standards on par with economic growth. (8) Acknowledge local differences and regional variations rather than expect all provinces to simply fall in line every time with Beijing. (9) Finally, free all political prisoners, including Hu Jia, recently sentenced for simply writing honest articles.
China is the only country of its size that officially has a single time zone, an absurd practice. That means when it’s 4 p.m. in the capital city, it’s also 4 p.m. in Lhasa (akin to New York City and Los Angeles being set to the exact same hour).
A unitary state with extreme nationalism, political over-centralization and unwillingness to listen to critical voices is unworthy of superpower status in the contemporary age. Olympic torch protests aside, the 2008 Games this year will probably come through without too many glitches, with goodwill toward and from China. To the political leaders in Beijing: Use that goodwill and success to usher in at least some of the desperately needed changes your fellow citizens deserve.
*The writer is a professor at the Graduate School of International Studies, Hanyang University.
By Joseph Schouweiler