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China: The Democracy Question

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China is not a democracy; at least not in the sense to which our western sensibility is acclimated. Starting in the 1980s (the period of opening up and reform), the government organized village elections in which several candidates would run. They labelled this “the New Democracy” or “Democracy with Chinese characteristics”.

Nevertheless, in practice each of the candidates was chosen or in the least “approved” by the single dominant Communist Party of China. Higher levels within the echelons of government are indirectly elected; with candidates, in essence, being vetted by high-rankers within government. Only the former British and Portuguese colonies of Hong Kong and Macau have been given the vote. But, as in the village elections, those who run for election are strictly and closely selected by the leadership of the Communist Party. It is for these reasons, and not unfairly, that China is deemed undemocratic. And there is little effort by the Party to deny this allegation. Quick to express scepticism over democracy in China, critics of this notion nominally tout the idea that China is better off because positions are assumed by people who are qualified by due merit as opposed to popularity, not to mention that traditional Chinese values are often said to be not in line with the idea and practice of liberal democracy (though in fairness, liberal democratic Taiwan, whom they claim is a part of China may serve as a rebuttal to this claim).

Following the death of Mao, Deng Xiaoping who was much less economically (not so much politically) conservative and much more pragmatic than Chairman Mao and his comrades, rolled out a number of reforms that were calculated to stimulate and modernise the Chinese economy. A privatisation scheme was unfolded and people were paid in differentiated amounts and according to how much they produced for the first time in the 1970s and special economic zones were created in some coastal cities where government involvement was not as pronounced as it had been under Chairman Mao. Soon a middle class (claimed to be the nominal force behind democratisation in the other wealthy countries in the region such as South Korea and Taiwan) began to take form – and this was greatly encouraged as it was a signpost that China was growing. But these reforms only went so far where political life was concerned – here there was to be no free market of values and ideas; the Communist Party was still in charge. It is indeed true that, unlike before, the people could disagree with the leader and could (though in a decidedly Chinese and respectful manner in which one could not go “too far”), criticise the government’s policies. This was a long way since the Hundred Flowers campaign in which dissenters were baited into voicing their opinions and then purged for doing so. But it still had its limits wedded into it. And there is no stauncher reminder of this than the infamous Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 1986 and subsequent demotion of reformist elements in the Party, most notably Hu Yaobang. The subsequent declaration of martial law and crackdown on people who seemingly were only guilty of wanting their state to politically open up and be more democratic was only more proof that the Chinese state, just three years before the Soviet Union and much of communist Eastern Europe would undergo their own largely successful conversions to democracy, was not willing to transform itself overnight into a democracy.

And in fact one could argue that the reforms necessitated an even less democratic China in that they reverted, in rhetoric and in ends at least, to the China of the Great Leap Forward. Consider the extent to which the planning is done from above and, necessarily, popular participation is seen as potentially opening a window for dissent and therefore a path towards distraction from the task at hand. So much of what China has achieved and hopes to achieve in the wake of the reforms and opening up is pinned to a particularly anti-democratic, anti-populist notion of the state and its constituent citizens.

This speaks to another reason as to why China will not democratise anytime soon. That of the outside world which China has been increasingly trading with since Deng took to opening up the republic and made it the ‘world’s factory’. While it would appear that in rhetoric at least, the United States and other ‘standard-bearers’ of liberal democracy are at odds with China over the country’s anti-democratic stance and its poor human rights record, in actual fact the outside world benefits greatly from a non-democratic China. These outside forces have been able to harness the fact that China’s citizens have tenuous standing and codified human rights and have used this to optimise their own costs of production. Knowing that the government wants more and more of the world to outsource manufacturing to it so that it may grow its economy by the close to 10% figure it desires and that it is willing and able to clampdown significant protests by the workers, many western multinational corporations have greatly outsourced their production to China in full confidence that the regime will remain stable and that the labour will remain cheap to compensate and with very few requirements to provide (air-conditioning, working hours cut off and even age restrictions). This essentially means then that outside “pressure” for China to democratise will be limited to Nobel Prize giving to the country’s would-be reformers, speeches at the United Nations, Amnesty International reports and little else. Indeed, many cower to even allow an aged religious leader a visa into its borders in fears that it might offend the hardliners in the Chinese government and therefore compromise its investments and manufacturing.

In any case, the Communist Party has very little actual opposition. The strongest challenge it has faced in way of democratisation may be said to be the Democracy Party of China which was established by former Tiananmen Square student protestors. In just 24 hours after the founders tried to unsuccessfully register the party, the central government cracked down on the organisation’s leaders. C Wong Donghai was quickly sentenced on December 21, 1998 to 11 years of imprisonment and three years of deprivation of political rights “for subversion of the tranquillity of the republic.” And on the very same day, another prominent member, Xu Wenli was sentenced to 13 years “for attempting to overthrow the Communist Party.” Many more were to suffer similar or close to similar fates. The only legally permitted pro-democracy party in China is the meagre, powerless 250,000-member China Democratic League which was founded in 1941 and quickly became absorbed into the United Front coalition led by the CCP.

The 2014 Yellow Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, the most recent episode in attempts by the citizens of that region to achieve concessions from Beijing achieved very little and in fact caused even more reaction on the part of the CCP – there were no changes in the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress which the 100,000 protestors were calling for and the grip over entertainment, media and the press was tightened even more. The timing could not have been worse, for this movement coincided with President Xi Jinping’s policy of a crackdown on dissenters and factionalists. The incumbent President and Paramount Leader, touted by British leftist news magazine The NewStatesman as ‘Mini-Mao’ for supposedly being the most consolidated and powerful President of China since Mao, has launched a campaign under the banner of anti-corruption with the aim of purging elements that show themselves poised to threaten the status quo.

Furthermore, there is also the controversial notion that the people of China would not benefit from transparency. The Chinese practice of ‘guangxi’ which is characterised by usage of one’s connections for self-advancement in dealings is widely used by hundreds of millions of Chinese people from social settings to business and government transactions; from small villages to megacities. Instilling democracy with its appendage of total transparency would uproot the way of life for a vast majority of China’s population and would likely meet opposition no matter how minimal. And while it is difficult to generalise, China is after all home to over a billion people, it has been suggested that a large number of citizens are abject to revolutions which tend to be costly and bring their lives to a grinding halt. For not only would democracy be a change in the way of government, but also the character of social life to which the people of China have become acclimated.

When the officials of China look at the democratic world, there is not much that indicates to them that democracy breeds national unity – much the opposite. In England there is the Scottish question, in Spain there is Catalonia, in Belgium there is Wallonia, in Canada there is Quebec, and close to home in India there is Kashmir (over whom in any case, the Chinese seek to assert their claim). To them, therefore, and not at all without reason, the creation of a democratic system would only serve to stoke and fuel the flames of secessionism. Already, they are constantly having to show a firm hand and cold prison cells for those who wish to carve out of China a series of separate, independent states. Not only are there disputes with neighbours over island territories, and Taiwan over its sovereignty, but China is already having to deal with these elements in its mainland provinces. There is, most famously, the issue of Tibet and then there is that of the province of Xinjiang. The province is mostly populated by a Muslim Uygur population which sees itself as more Turkic than (Han) Chinese and who seek independence along the lines of Mongolia or even a union with one of the adjoining majority Muslim, Turkic states of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. And this has been in spite of constant intimidation and express firmness by the Chinese state. How much more of the likelihood that they would seek independence if China becomes a democracy? How much more so when the instrument of the referendum is at the disposal? Would they attempt to use it for the purposes of breaking away from the government of Beijing which, it is at least alleged, mistreats and violates their rights on account of their linguistic idiosyncrasies, ethnicity and Muslim faith which they stridently cling on to despite incentives to the contrary by the overwhelmingly atheist, Marxist government? Handing them the referendum would only be a blank cheque for them to rip from China the one-and-a-half-million square-kilometre, oil-laden and natural gas haven (the province being the largest producer of the substance in China). Democracy would stand to be a setback therefore to not only China’s territorial integrity but, ultimately, to its economic prospects and explicit aims. An article by Horowitz in Quartz in 2016 detailed the extent to which China may have actually been further less incentivised towards democracy by the recent results of Brexit for the removal of Britain from the European Union.

The manner in which China’s government is run also makes it unlikely that the state will, voluntarily at least, become democratic. First of all, the Paramount leader wears the three hats of President of the People’s Republic of China, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Committee. This makes dissent from either structures very unlikely – and this is by design. In addition to this, the Politburo is garnered from a selection process by the current Politburo membership who closely vet and select their successors and colleagues accordingly those whom they deem to be most likely continue the party’s line of tight control over the Chinese society. In addition to this, the party has well over 80 million card-carrying members (making it the largest political party in the world) – and has a tight grip over China’s other “major” political force, the eight-party coalition, the United Front (allowed to exist, in any case, for the lack of political threat it poses).

So, will China become a democracy? It depends. As historians and Communist Party leadership alike will recall (and they most certainly do recall) the simultaneous coalition of factors, and little else, was the deciding force which made it possible to answer to the affirmative, for the most part in any case, when the question was posed on whether “could China become a one-party, communist people’s republic?” We should not anticipate a democratic overhaul in China anytime soon, but likewise we should not be too surprised if it occurs.

Bhaso Ndzendze is the Research Director at the University of Johannesburg-Nanjing Tech University Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS). His research interests include international economics, security studies, and International Relations methodology and he has taught and written on Africa-China relations, the politics of the Middle East, soft power, and the war on terror among other topics at the University of the Witwatersrand. His work has appeared in numerous journals and in the popular press including Business Day, Mail and Guardian, The Sunday Independent and The Mercury among others. His most recent publication is the Beginner’s Dictionary of Contemporary International Relations.

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East Asia

The West, Sinophobia and Cooperation

Irfan Khan

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Interestingly, populace they are inhabitant of whether West or East pole share having almost common issues like weak productivity growth, proliferation of sophisticated war weapons and climate dangers; however, except for a few issues which, in particular, people of West considers most panic and hazardous. Policy-makers of the West are indulging themselves with a narrative that China’s rise would threaten capitalist economic model and the very survival of the West liberal democracy. Is it so?

Not at all. What must be ponder here is the fact that international capitalists model has stopped functioning, which have witnessed 2008 financial crisis. The leading investors and tycoons, unfortunately, have not been maintaining a steady balance between profitability and investments: profits are becoming increasing while no apparent increase in investments has been recording. Its consequential effects are lowering trends in productivity across the globe; which, in response, has been adversely affecting the prosperity of people across the globe. Establishment and corporate-based politics put the nations in a competition with each-other, that affect masses; as it is underpinned by observing myriad portion of budgets are going into military weapons.

British colonial hegemony culture, and US-led conflicts since last few decades, morphed world into most devastating state, perhaps. In this scenario, China’s rise seeds a hope to the indigent and penurious economies, which the West is fury of.

The current dispute between the US and China in terms of trade and technology, and if European take side, would morphed to a more dramatic state; where the health of the global economy will likely to be damaged. It is safe to say and notwithstanding predictable that this  trade would be converted to a new hottest-cold war, which may force the emerging multipolar world to split into financial bipolar form.

How long will this bubble not burst? It will be likely to head the world towards a global conflict.

However, here’s one good news or perhaps token. West-Policy makers, instead of spreading Sinophobia, should assure that they can be living comfortably with China. It is because, so far so good, China has been depicting a cooperation and advancement, irrespective of humanity, ethnicity and religion. What’s more the West propaganda that China is appearing as geopolitical actor is equivocal; because it never influences and impose their culture on any nation.

Embracing a different economic model, China, is plausibly on a runner-up position to the US and experts claimed it will surpass the USin the next decade. Whether it’s 5G tech. Or leading status of green energy, or ultra-scales exports or its leading developments for the nations having indigent economies are hallmark achievements in recent history. The US and the West should, I propose, consider China’s rise a piece of cake, and welcome its come out while securing its interests under the umbrella of cooperation. This logic, while posing no threat, seems to be long term functional.

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Beyond China-U.S. trade and where is its outlet?

Wang Li

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Since China-U.S. trade war started in the Mid-2018, it has lasted for more than 14 months. From the beginning, the World Bank and the IMF have taken the position that the trade conflict America has trigged will serve no country’s economic progress and their action is patently wrong. Since then, China has at several occasions showed its good-will and sincerity including purchase of the products from the U.S. and the consensus reached between the two heads of state at the summits in Argentina and Japan, during which both parties agreed to move towards dropping all of the additional tariffs introduced during the dispute, and reach a comprehensive agreement that is fair and beneficial to the two sides. Yet, there is still no insurance of the end of trade war between the two largest economies of the world.

Now comes a new possibility that from October 10-11, a senior trade delegation from China, headed by Vice Premier Liu He, is scheduled to meet their American counterparts in Washington DC, led by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. Yet, the trade talks also come at a precarious time in Trump’s decision to reduce the number of U.S. forces in the Syrian border areas with Turkey and amid a spiraling impeachment inquiry into his interactions with Ukraine. More than that, the White House has repeatedly used national security as a reason to sanction Chinese companies, and this has been a talking point in U.S. presidential campaign speeches.

As a matter of fact, the Sino-American rivalry, like the German-Britain rivalry one century ago, is as much a clash of two major powers as it is of two systems: the authoritarian and state-protected development of a rising power vs. the liberal, free-market constitutionalism of a ruling power. Therefore, differences in economic system inevitably amplified the salience of the narrowing economic gap, leading the ruling power to feel cheated and the rising power to feel unsatisfied and threatened. By taking the current China-U.S. trade war into consideration, several factors are complicating the upcoming round of talks.

First, the American resentments against the Chinese economy have grown and seemed to be systematic steps to decouple the world’s two largest economies. As American scholar James Rae argued that with a series of steps, ranging from the tariff rollout to restrictions on dealings with major Chinese technology firms and “ordering” American companies to move production out of China, the U.S. has signaled that this is a trade war, indeed a confrontation over the fundamentals of two rival economic models involving at least four economic tools—standard-setting, technology acquisition, financial power, and infrastructure investment.

Second, the U.S. argues that the Chinese story historically resembles the German one in an overall sense and these parallels are not entirely coincidental. China has long admired the German export-led growth model and is skeptical of laissez faire capitalism. The founding statesman of unified Germany has been consistently seen as an icon of a modernized and powerful country since China has taken its own modernization in the later 19th century. Even it is held, though groundless, that after China emerged from the civil turbulence in 1979, it supposedly structured its development banks on the German model, though it supplemented their loans with Western capital. Under state-directed development, China eventually emerged as the world’s largest exporter with enormous market share in the United States, similarly creating economic interdependence while inadvertently laying the foundation for political competition. This is one of the sources of the Thucydides trap” occurred in the United States but rejected by China and in particular President Xi Jin-ping.

In addition, as a result of these strategies, the speed of the catchup is equally alarming to American elites now. For instance, China’s GDP was only 25% of U.S. GDP in 1990 after a decade of reforms, but has since approached American GDP in 2018. On the one hand, China, like previous Germany, is perceived to have undergone a radical and alarming economic modernization that catapulted it into the rank of first-rate power in mere decades. On the other hand, the United States, following the British mentality of the day, holds that the Chinese developmental model is a form of cheating, forced technology transfer and manipulation in finance. In light of this, China has paten reasons to be concerned that the United States has sought to halt its peaceful rise and undermine its economics by restricting trade, technology and capital flows—whether through economic means or direct subversion.

Yet, Trump’s instinct to do something is not entirely unwelcome, and some of his administration’s policies may prove promising. For example, bipartisan legislation like the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act presents an instrument to deal with China’s state-backed purchases of Western intellectual property that is somewhat more surgical than blunt U.S. tariffs. Other challenges, including China’s forced technology transfers, non-tariff barriers, and subsidies to state champions remain, and although they violate WTO rules. It seems to testify some people’s growing concerns that the economic escalation is now moving the trade dispute into the political realm, from where it had formerly been immune. First, the U.S. has already used the dubious frame of national security to make rhetorical demands as well as launch new policy initiatives to punish the Chinese firms. Second, even the issue of human rights has been inserted into the equation as the U.S. has released an export blacklist of companies with business in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Also while President Trump has been quiet enough on the riots in Hong Kong, a commentary on the topic by the Houston NBA franchise has ironically started a new row that could have major implications for the broader relationship. As Rae observed, the consequence is that debating social issues is easily a slippery slope and the intrusion of trade into China’s domestic affairs even crosses highly sensitive issues related to China’s core national interests and sovereignty. It is true that once those red lines are crossed, unraveling a pathway back will be enormously complicated.

It is understandable that China appears more optimistic or even confident in resolving the current trade war. It declared to purchase huge amount of soybeans, pork and other agricultural products from the United States, signaling that such deals will be exempt from additional tariffs imposed on U.S. goods. This is another gesture of goodwill from the Chinese side to further demonstrate its sincerity in ending the trade issues between the two sides. In the span of two days, China and the United States are supposedly to take a series of positive steps in preparation for a new round of trade talks scheduled for this talks in Washington D.C. Although China resolutely opposes any escalation in the trade war, it admits that there are no winners in a trade war, and therefore a constant escalation of tariffs is not the road to a solution. Only by adhering to the principles of equality and mutual respect, and by negotiating with a calm and rational attitude, can the dispute be defused and differences resolved. To that end, it argues for sincerity, patience and practical action needed. On the eve of the new round of talks, the two sides did have taken actions and created favorable conditions for making substantive progress, in line with the expectations of the international community.

True, as a cliché goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way. China has expected a positive result from this round of talks, but the issue is that the United States has already perceived or misperceived China exactly following the path of rising Imperial Germany one century ago. Some observers even hold that Trump’s trade approach is emotionally satisfying but diplomatically disastrous, therefore they fear his confrontational strategy and support a more cooperative economic relationship with China. Yet, in an overall sense, China has been described frequently as a rising power with patent ambition to take advantage of having a state-directed system competing in technology standards, innovation, financial politics, and geo-economics, which force the United States to seek a coordinated response. Given this, that American response should neither be blindly confrontational nor naively cooperative; instead it should be competitive. Sure competition remains the theme of the China-United States relations in the next decades. It is unclear if it takes the scenario of the cold war or the cold peace, but it is clear that the approach America will adopt would be to work with its allies to strengthen rules, set standards, punish Chinese industrial policy and technology theft, invest in research, welcome the world’s best and brightest, and create alternatives to its geo-economic statecraft. It is truly hard to predicate who might be able to play a better hand in this globalized chessboard.

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Five demands, not one less: China’s test of Leadership

Irfan Khan

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There were students, doctors, lawyers, activists; in short people belong to every faction of society, who came out on the streets in a number of tens of thousands in Taipei, Taiwan, marched against “totalitarianism” what they consider China holds in the regime. Yes, it was the recent September 29, Taiwanese citizens packed to the streets for upholding solidarity with Hongkongers.

Plebeian in Hong Kong (HK)—a former British colony—is protesting for the last four months against China authority. The key reason that forced them to do so was China’s authority intervention in the city internal affairs. The episode started since March this year, following an extradition bill issued by the Chief executive of HK on the edict of China. This, however, seems a little to the people outside to HK, but it instead has grim historical facts for Hongkongers. HK-plebeian considered Chief executive of HK—Lam—pro-Beijing, while Mr Xi’s regime as despotic, who has been dreaming unified China. The current legal status of HK is linked to its special status enacted by China-British declaration, 1985. It was this, according to which the city was allotted the status of semi-autonomy with a mini-constitution. While in 1997, HK was taken to handover to China, the administration of China pledged to not intervene in HK internal affairs at least until 1947.

However, China’ s demand from HK’s administration to issue extradition bill for a HK-man who has murdered his girlfriend during visit to Taiwan. HK-plebeian considered it an example of attack by China on its internal system and has now been protesting. At a rally, protestestors contended five demands: the withdrawal of extradition bill, relabeling them as rioters, assurance of universal suffrage to choose chief executive and legislature for the city, and lastly patently investigation for police violence against the demonstrators and activists.

Are there atrocities?

Yes: Various televised recordings shows what has been going on there: They have brutally been shelled, thrown gas, and fired.

China’s view

From the day first, China viewed it the CIA’s plot aiming to stir up people against China Cumminst Party’s rule or a  foreign-led campaign against the regime.

Mark Pinkstone, an Australian journalist with 50 years of experience in Hong Kong, said, “The Basic Law, the constitutional document that supports ‘one country, two systems,’ provides freedoms of expression, speech and religion. Not one of them has been eroded since the handover in 1997. The current demonstrations are living proof of that.”

According to the Human Freedom Index monitored by the Cato Institute, based in Washington  Hong Kong is ranked No 3, trailing only New Zealand and Switzerland. The index ranks 162 countries and autonomous regions based on 79 measures of personal and economic freedom. The US is ranked 17 as measured by the same indicators.

The World Economic Forum published a survey of people from 25 nations who were asked if they thought their own government was heading in the right direction or not. The survey was conducted between October and November of 2016.

China emerged leading the pack, with 90% of its citizens responding that their government was on the right track while only 10% thought not. The US was squarely in the middle, ranked at 13, with 35% of its citizens thinking their government was going in the right direction and 65% disagreeing.

China’s leadership

Once an ideological and internationally solitary state China is now transformed to a most advanced one under the rule of communist party. It made its intriguing appearance on the chessboard of international power, however, still enduring some domestic challenges–HK is one of them. While it claims to work towards various connectivity and cooperation based projects, yet do not have efficacy to let the World its way of leaderships. Its think-tanks are either  do not want to lead or they believe in pragmatic steps rather than bolstering theoretical ideas. Even its media can not counter the west propaganda and what the consequential effects are people around the globe hear much about it from the west. The current HK’s issue is amid the problems which matter more and are the real  tests of China’s leadership.   

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