Ma Jian, commenting on the world’s silence toward China’s abuses:
China’s economy needs world markets as much as world markets need China, if not more. Moreover, the West’s inclination to appease China will gradually cause ordinary Chinese to lose confidence that economic modernization will ever set them free. So continued silence when poets, writers, or lawyers – people like Shi Tao, Yang Tianshui, and Tan Zuoren – are treated like criminals will only assure that China’s markets are eventually lost alongside Chinese freedoms. A closed society will eventually return to a closed economy.
The real criminal in the Liu Xiaobo affair is, of course, the Chinese state. But those who think that China’s mutant political authoritarianism and mighty economy can long prevail are guilty as well. Such a system is as unsuited to the future as Mao’s system was to the past.
He’s right, of course. The CCP, like all dynasties of China’s past, has quieted the people’s discontent with economic growth.
You can’t discuss “sensitive” political issues (e.g., the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet, Falun Gong) in public for fear of being arrested, much less in Tiananmen Square itself, which is crawling with police, soldiers, video cameras and microphones. You can’t search or discuss them online.
Anything that is inconvenient to the government is cleansed and hidden, discussion forbade. The government wants the people to stay in an economically-induced stupor, so the CCP can stay in control. As long as the economy keeps growing, they believe, criticism will be muted.
The West has enabled this by respecting China’s “sovereignty” and not criticizing their actions as forcefully as we should. Ma cites Obama’s visit to China, where he more or less bent to every wish of the regime. This gives legitimacy to the government’s repressive policies, which deserve none. This doesn’t mean the West should cut off all trade and connection with China; rather, I think that more connection with the country — political, economic, and cultural — is necessary to help China to a liberal government. But what it does mean, is that while we trade with China, we should be honest: the PRC is a terribly-repressive government. No lecturing, just honesty.
So that’s our role: form a solid and genuine connection with the Chinese people, but be honest about the PRC’s abuses.
The CCP is right, too, at least for a while. As long as their economy continues to grow at such a magnificent rate, and the people benefit from it, then the people will hold off in their criticism. But whether they like it or not, the CCP will face public discord sometime in the near future. 7-10% GDP growth is in no way sustainable. Usually in Chinese history, when the public is unhappy with the ruling government, they funnel their displeasure into rebellion. They topple the government, and someone rises to take full control again and replace it. This cycle is as old as China.
But unlike the past, the CCP now has a choice. They can retain full control of the country, and thus receive the full brunt of public anger, or they can allow that anger to vent in a more productive manner: into a democratic process. If the CCP allows other political parties to exist and run for election, making it one party among many, it could very well survive. Rather than topple the government (the system) itself, the people could merely elect another party to power, and when they fall out of favor, the CCP is waiting in the wings.
This has precedence in Taiwan. Taiwan, after being taken over by Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT when they fled mainland China in 1949, was a one-party state until Chiang’s son began instituting democratic reforms in the 1980s. While the Democratic Progressive Party won many elections during the 1990s and 2000s, the KMT took a majority in their legislature and won the presidency in 2008. One party opening up control to a multi-party system doesn’t necessarily mean a permanent loss of power.
Indeed, that’s the only long-term way I can see the CCP remaining in power in China. Ironically, it may be the CCP’s desire to remain in control that ultimately opens China to democracy.
That doesn’t mean the West can sit back and let it happen, however. Ma’s fear that the lack of political liberalization as a result of economic liberalization, and the West’s silence on it, may resign the Chinese public to the cynical belief that they will never see political liberalization is valid and frightening. If that becomes the case, we may doom the PRC to China’s historical rhythm: public discontent, rebellion and anarchy, and finally a strong-willed leader who takes absolute control. And if that happens, China will have no hope of political and liberalization.