the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 May 8


China can change. China will change. In time it will be a liberal democracy, with respect for individual rights, where individual Chinese will decide for themselves the nature of their own participation in society. All the lies of China’s rulers, all the myths of Asian values and Confucian culture, all the arguments of the apologists, will be proven wrong. Liberalism is not a Western idea and trend, it is a human idea and trend, and the Chinese state will not escape the cognitive liberation of the masses that has forced, or will force, political change on all the tyrannies of the world. Perhaps the Chinese dictatorship will be the next to fall. Perhaps it will be the last. But it will fall; that is certain.

There are two arguments against this, neither entirely without merit. The first holds that the power of the Chinese state is too formidable. The second holds that Chinese are by nature illiberal, that their culture is communitarian and authoritarian. But while the Chinese state is powerful, so have been others which have nonetheless been brought down. While the Chinese are illiberal, so have been others who have nonetheless cast off tyrannies. Indeed, there is sufficient evidence from Western democracies of illiberalism to suppose that all societies should be following the Singapore model. Reality says otherwise.

It would be harder to imagine a state more powerful and pervasive within its borders than Stalinist Russia. And yet for all of the terror and intimidation, for all of the purges, an internal opposition, even somewhat organized, existed before, during, and after Stalin’s reign. It was poised to shift the state away from Stalinism soon after Stalin’s death; and the denunciation of the terror by Khrushchev during the 20th Party Congress in 1956 literally rejuvenated the opposition, inspiring the generation, including Mikhail Gorbachev and Aleksandr Yakovlev, that would eventually shepherd the system to an end. It was not instantaneous; nor would be any change in China. But the Cold War mentality of the eternal power of totalitarianism has proven not to be a realistic pessimism, but a mistaken one. And beyond that, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, the various Russian satellite governments in eastern Europe, and the apartheid regime in South Africa were all taken down essentially by peaceful protest and a degree of international pressure. While there is no guarantee for China’s future, there is no such thing as permanence in politics.

The rulers of China justify their continued oppression by positing that China is inherently totalitarian, that Confucian culture teaches all Chinese to respect, indeed demand, authority and order, and to place society’s “rights” above the rights of the individual. Liberal democracy is a Western-culture system that cannot work among, and is not wanted by, the Chinese. And yet there are quite a number of counterexamples. To take the most curious example first, the Chinese Communist Party itself disproves its own rhetoric. The original communists in China were adopting an idea that had first been articulated (in the form adopted, anyway) in Europe. Not only was it ostensibly a Western ideology, it was also, decidedly, a liberal ideology. It called for the end of traditional power hierarchies, economic and social. It was accompanied, perhaps necessarily, by a strict rationalism that rejected other elements of tradition as well. Most specifically, it was anti-superstitious, working to free the mind, even the uneducated peasant mind, of subservience to unconsidered social-control ideologies.

It needn’t be pointed out that the CCP became one of the most illiberal regimes of the century. But it was untraditionally so. It did subvert the power hierarchies and engage in a (moderately) successful assault on superstition. And over the course of its reign, in many ways as a device in its own rule, the CCP adopted two other elements of European modernity, industrialization and capitalism. And within current Western thought, at least, industrialization is considered progress and capitalism is considered liberal.1

The early Kuomintang of Sun Yat Sen was largely a Western-inspired movement for contemporary liberal democracy. While it resulted in few, if any, lasting liberal changes, it did demonstrate that real and genuine Chinese will embrace democratic ideals. And the CCP claims the republican legacy of Sun and of the overthrow of the monarchy, which embodied in a person all of the reactionary ideals the CCP was formed to fight against.

The protests for democracy in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were neither the earliest nor the latest internal calls for liberal reform under CCP rule. A notable earlier movement was that of the Democracy Wall, in which brave intellectuals posted their dissatisfaction with totalitarian rule and corruption in public. Among those intellectuals is the one who has perhaps the highest prestige among China’s dissidents, Wei Jingsheng. In recent years, attempts have been made to organize an independent political party within the mainland itself, and to officially register it as the China Democracy Party. These efforts have led to the arrest and imprisonment of numerous activists, including Xu Wenli (also a veteran of Democracy Wall) and Wang Youcai (also a veteran of 1989). Both Xu and Wei have been released from prison on condition of exile.

The Chinese diaspora has maintained and nurtured its Chinese culture, and yet in many places has a long history of participating in genuine democracy, most notably in the United States. It also has a participatory role in new democracies in Asia, such as the Philippines and Indonesia. In Malaysia, which is not a democracy, one of the leading opposition groups is a product of the Chinese community, the Democratic Action Party of Lim Kit Siang.

Hong Kong is not democratic. It is a colonial fiefdom, just as it was under Britain, with Tung Chee Hwa substituted for Chris Patten, Beijing for London. But it has a pair of very important features. The first is that it has a political culture that is reasonably liberal ― civil society, an independent press, and even a technocratic civil service deriving from British policy of indirect rule. The second is the Hong Kong Legislative Council, which has the form if not the power of genuine democracy.2 Some members of the council have even come to view themselves as apostles of democracy within China, as the part that will show the whole how democratic debate is done.

And finally, there exists an example of self-contained Chinese democracy, not merely in form but in an actual sovereign state ― Taiwan. Taiwan was judged to be running a free democracy after the 1996 election of Li Teng Hui, and was demonstrably running one after the 2000 election of Chen Shui Bian, bringing an end to the one-party rule of the Kuomintang. The people of Taiwan are in fact quite protective of their vibrant, even boisterous democracy, and democracy on the mainland is now viewed as sine qua non to any reunification.

Michael Elliot has proposed that Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome may be for China what Chernobyl was for Russia and what the Mexico City earthquake was for Mexico. It is difficult to see that these examples have any validity, though. By 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev was already in power, as the result of a decades-long power struggle between Stalinists and anti-Stalinists which had begun before Lenin’s death. The alternation, then, between Stalin and Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev, demonstrated the real dynamic in Russian politics. No outside force had a significant impact on this struggle other than Hitler’s invasion. To state that Ronald Reagan, taking office in 1981, or Chernobyl, taking place in 1986, determined the outcome of this long process is to be ignorant of it. The 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, if it did indeed set off political as well as physical shockwaves, took a full fifteen years to accomplish anything, by Elliot’s own admission. Only then did the eternally-dominant Partido de Revolución Institucional concede a presidential election defeat, to Vicente Fox. It is worth noting that opposition candidate Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas won the first presidential election subsequent to the earthquake, in 1988, but the PRI claimed the victory anyway. This was three years after the earthquake. The public may have responded to the earthquake and the PRI’s response; and yet it would be a mistake to suppose that discontent with totalitarian rule did not predate the earthquake, and clearly the impetus to fraud survived it.

And yet small things do add up. Chernobyl and the Mexico City earthquake did contribute to the environment in which the battle between rule and reform took place. SARS could do the same in China. It has the potential to kill thousands and thousands of people ― though there is little reason but panic to suppose at this point that it will.3 It has further demonstrated the dishonesty inherent in a totalitarian system ― if any further demonstration was in any way necessary.

In considering how democratization might come to China, it is important to emphasize that genuine democracy, not merely its simulacrum, is under consideration. Some of the post-Gorbachev states of the Russian empire, particularly the Turkic states, have not, in fact, undergone a transition from totalitarian rule. Generally the last apparatchik who had been running the state under Gorbachev leapt on the independence bandwagon, recast himself as a nationalist, and created a new one-party, oppressive state with sham elections and other shallow appearances of democracy.

The two personnel models for an actual transition to democracy are those where a reformed apparatchik created something like genuine popularity, or at least fear of the unknown, and held power; and where the leading opposition to totalitarianism was swept into office at the first available election. The first pattern, in which, for instance, Boris Yeltsin’s early break from the system in Russia allowed him to work against the system from a position of relative prominence, was also followed loosely in România and, after a stormy interregnum, in Georgia.4 The second model, in which usually the most celebrated political opponent became the focus of the transition, was followed in such diverse places as South Africa, Czechoslovakia, the Philippines, Perú, and Indonesia.5

Poland offers an important sub-model. When Solidarity arranged with the regime to take power6, a compromise candidate was selected to be the first democratic prime minister, presumably to prevent one of Lech Walesa’s rivals from strengthening his own challenge. And yet this built the new prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, into the liberal candidate who eventually challenged Walesa in presidential elections, on the fear that Walesa was too autocratic.

A common feature of democratic transitions in national empires has been devolution. This happened in Indonesia in a limited and painful way, in Yugoslavia in an extensive and painful way, in Czechoslovakia in a limited and peaceful way, and in Russia itself, miraculously, in an extensive and peaceful way.7 The one certain commonality in these examples is that devolution followed internal political lines. There has been no rationalization of boundaries; there has been no reversion to any boundaries that might have been redrawn by the center.8 International recognition or its lack have proven important, noting that in the case of East Timor and the Baltics, their absorption was never internationally recognized, and in the case of Belarus and Ukraine, a strange compromise had seen them seated in the United Nations throughout its existence. And, of course, in each case there has been an agitant minority calling for independence, and the greater its international sympathy, the greater its chance of success.

Solely based on recent precedent, then, Tibet will absolutely become independent under a democratic China, though only within its new borders (devoid, that is, of eastern territories lost to other provinces). Tibet has strong international sympathy, a small Han minority, limited resources, and a distinct culture. In fact, based on history it is more a question of whether Tibet can afford to declare independence than whether a democratic China will let it go; but East Timor may provide a comparison there. The most likely scenario would see the Dharmsala exiles return to Tibet at some point during the transition, the dalai lama officially renounce a right to rule, and negotiations take place not with the CCP, but with the incoming democrats.

Xinjiang is a more complicated matter, considering its resources and its large Han minority. International sympathy is difficult to find at this point. At present, with Central Asia torn between Stalinist apparatchiki and Islamic fundamentalists, and strong stereotypes of September 11, there is no call for an independent Eastern Turkestan9. For that to change between now and China’s democratization, Han colonization will have to slow or cease, and the Turks, especially the Uyghurs, will have to develop an organized, peaceful front to present a claim to the world and to the nationalist democrats who will make the final decision. The decision will be between national chauvinism and territorialism on the one hand, and humanitarian concerns and the desire for peace on the other.

Historical precedent also suggests that, should the Tibetans and Turks participate in the democratization, if they are full partners in pressing for and winning democracy in China, they will be in a strong position to demand their own independence from their partners. This dynamic led to the independence of the Baltics and other republics in Russia, the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia, and the division of Czechoslovakia.

Inner Mongolia is at this point too heavily colonized to demand independence through self-determination. There is ample counterprecedent for a partial change of borders; the most likely outcome is the establishment of cross-border ties, as now exist between Hungary and Hungarian minorities in România and Serbia. And no other minorities, the Zhuang, the Hmong, or others, have internal boundaries to which they can refer10, to say nothing of anything approaching international recognition.

But there is a clear weakness to all precedents and all present models. They exist in the world of the present. If China takes so little as twenty years to democratize, it will do so in a significantly-different international atmosphere. Global and regional integration will make the idea of outright independence almost laughable in twenty years. There are no states that exist in isolation, and the concept of the state is itself under assault. Certainly regional trading blocs and the overarching reality of the global economy will define the extent of independence available to any future states. Security will likewise be a concern.

Following history, the most likely scenario for democratization in China will begin with a shift in the power struggle within the CCP, possibly contingent upon the death of the paramount leader. The Politburo Standing Committee will be reweighted in favor of the reformist faction. This, by protocol, may happen during a party congress, or it may happen, as in 1989, after a crisis. A gradual thaw will begin, with a loosening of controls on expression and communication. Civil society and political organizations will begin to take shape, particularly coalescing around established democratic leaders. Some of these may be drawn from Hong Kong, but it is likely that the thaw will also involve an expansion of democracy at the local and perhaps provincial level, and a limited amount of genuine democracy within the CCP itself. The greatest internal forces for change will be located in the intelligentsia; though the ability to reach out to the working class and the growing middle class, which proved so successful in 1989, will be crucial. Beijing will be one center, Shanghai a second, but the third and perhaps most important will be the Pearl River Delta region, with its bustling economic centers and the semi-protected societies of Hong Kong and Macau. Emerging from these centers will be a pro-democracy coalition, whose success will depend on its ability to unite disparate factions in and out of China. For this reason, it will most likely be led by the most experienced organizers, those in Hong Kong, either the Democratic Party or its successor. Acting on behalf of independent democracy and labor groups in the various cities, prominent exiles, the Dharmsala administration (whose dalai lama may or may not at that point be old enough to contribute), internal religious groups presumably including the independent Catholic Church and Falun Gong, and possibly an Islamic or Turkic pressure group from the northwest, this coalition’s leaders will open negotiations with the CCP for national free elections and the transfer of power. The CCP will contest those elections; but the opposition will, at least for the first election, be united, and dominate. The southern leader of the coalition will become head of government, a prominent Mandarin speaker will become the figurehead president, and Tibet will be granted its independence, as will Eastern Turkestan if, and only if, it is at that point sufficiently well organized to participate meaningfully in the demonstration of strength that will persuade the CCP to hand over power.

For this to happen any time soon, with the present cast of characters, certain things will be required. Most importantly, current paramount leader Jiang Zemin will have to die, and Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao will have to be revealed as bona fide members of the reformist faction, rather than merely technocrats. Jiang’s faction on the Politburo Standing Committee will have to be decisively weakened, possibly even displaced, with Zeng Qinghong especially removed or counterbalanced by a larger presence of reformers on the Standing Committee; and that will either require a significant crisis, or at least the five years to the next party congress, more likely ten. Hu Jintao will have to designate an open reformist as successor, and demonstrate the ability to effect the succession. And the leading democrats ― Martin Lee, Wei Jingsheng, Xu Wenli, Liu Binyan, Fang Lizhi, Wang Bingzhang, Wang Dan, Harry Wu and Wang Youcai ― will have to organize themselves effectively and decisively the moment an opening emerges, particularly one that allows Wei, Xu, Liu, Wu, Fang, and Wang Dan, all in exile, to return. Wang Youcai and Wang Bingzhang are presently in China, in prison. Martin Lee, as the leader (though not chair) of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, would be likely to play a central role, as outlined in the general scenario.

There may also be a role to play by ousted leaders of the CCP, either Zhao Ziyang and Li Ruihuan, or, more likely, younger leaders of the future who are purged by the conservative faction. They may reemerge, as did Alexander Dubcek, as sentimental figureheads, or they may, as did Yeltsin, take part in lower level elections preceding the national transfer of power.

Between now and the establishment of democracy in China, the economic integration of the world and of East Asia will continue. It is in that context that the independence of Tibet and the reintegration of Taiwan will take place. Taiwan’s primary economic affiliation will be, certainly, with East Asia; and China, before and after democracy, will be the center of that. Tibet may choose to make its primary affiliation with India; though it is more likely that, given what has already been many decades of integration, it will maintain its ties with China as well. If the Central Asian states and Mongolia are pulled into the Chinese orbit economically, the issue of independence for Eastern Turkestan or even Inner Mongolia can be finessed as a part of a negotiated regional accommodation.11 The confederal solution to the Taiwan issue has been proposed by Annette Lu, for instance; but while she was leaning towards its nominal value, economic integration, as it continues, will make this a practical confederation as well. Globalization is, indeed, slowly changing the meaning of sovereignty and independence, to the point where few states even now can be said to have such freedom of action.

Nothing in this analysis suggests that the CCP or its leadership as a whole will be required to surrender their desire to rule China in perpetuity. It is simply a fact that a minority cannot rule a much-larger majority forever. In the case of China, some of the minority will eventually lose its will to impose rule on the majority by force. And as the myth of a right to rule ― the mandate of heaven ― breaks down even further, the masses will only be ruled by force. Clearly elements of the Chinese power structure have a willingness to use force, and the conservative faction is well-tied to those who, in 1989, crushed a mass movement through the violent deaths of thousands of its members. But at some point the numbers and the resolve of mass discontent will exceed the ability of even the People’s Liberation Army to quell it. There is a constant calculation, among those whose rule rests on force, about the likely need for its use, and its likely success. If, in that last moment, the rulers judge that they will not be successful, they will negotiate their own escape. If they extend their rule past the point of mass tolerance, they will meet the end of Mussolini and Ceausescu. But history also suggests that China’s rulers will prove shrewd enough to step down before that moment arrives. In an optimistic future, though not an unrealistic one, they may also prove humane enough.



1. The disaster that was China’s industrialization, primarily in the Great Leap Forward, does not detract from the fact that China embraced Western material culture.

2. This refers to the two-fifths, or by next year half, of the Legislative Council that is actually elected, the so-called geographical constituencies.

3. The primary justification for any fear of SARS is that it is (still presumably at this point) an airborne pathogen, and viral, and therefore highly communicable and resistant to antibiotics. And yet even with China’s cover-up of cases, it clearly has not spread uncontrollably or caused the sorts of deaths that would warrant such media hype.

4. Georgia is not unquestionably democratic under Eduard Shevardnadze, as elections are conducted with a fair amount of fraud, and Shevardnadze’s predecessor, dissident nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was ousted by a coup.

5. Megawati Sukarnoputri was a more prominent leader of the masses than Gus Dur (Abdurrahman Wahid), who preceded her as president, but he had certainly been a noted critic of the Suharto administration.

6. An election had previously been held in which Solidarity dominated the freely-elected seats, and the Stalinists had held a parliamentary majority through reserved seats. But some of these seats were in fact reserved for parties affiliated to the main ruling party; when that ruling party (the ‘Polish United Workers’ Party’) agreed to allow those affiliated parties to vote with genuine independence, Solidarity was able to form a parliamentary majority without new elections.

7. This refers, of course, to the break-up of the larger Russian empire, the ‘Soviet Union’, and not the smaller (but still considerable) Russian empire, the ‘Russian Federation’, which has fought any remaining devolution through the example of repeated bloody interventions in Chechnya.

8. The boundary between independent Ukraine and Moldova has not reverted to that originally between Russia and România, nor has Poland reclaimed land lost to Belarus and Ukraine, and the land issues between Armenia and Azerbaijan are still, as far as the international community recognizes, fixed at their last points under the Russian empire, despite earlier shifts. The new international boundaries of Yugoslavia are nothing but the old internal boundaries, even though wars were fought with the intention of rationalizing them, and with a good deal of justification.

9. The likely name of Xinjiang should it attain independence, both in keeping with historical precedent, and to distinguish the territory as a whole from Uyghuristan. The name ‘Eastern Turkestan’ would include, among others, the Kazaks and Kyrgyz.

10. A curious possible exception is the Han muslims of Ning Xia province.

11. This was essentially the solution offered by some Israelis with regard to a Palestinian Arab state, that it would take place in the context of a confederation of Israel, Arab Palestine, and Jordan. It was held by Arabs to be, and probably was, an attempt to deny true sovereignty to the Palestinian Arabs, and has thus far been rejected by them.


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Kenneth Lieberthal, ‘Governing China’. 1995, W.W. Norton.
Annette Lu, ‘Shattering the “One China” cocoon’. Harvard International Review, 2001 Winter.
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