May 24, 2000
by Constantine C. Menges
Seeking to persuade the United States Congress to grant China permanent normal trade relations, President Clinton recently repeated an argument he has made since 1994 - the result of China's expanding trade, economic growth and modernization will be movement toward political pluralism and ultimately political democracy. A democratic China would be peaceful.
Since 1978 China has made enormous progress in economic growth and technological modernization. But this has been accompanied by a successfully enforced decision of the communist regime to maintain its political dictatorship, to continue selling weapons of mass destruction to Iran, Iraq and other dangerous states and by a major strengthening of its air, naval, missile and nuclear military forces, mostly aimed at the United States.
In 1978 the pragmatists among the communist leadership succeeded in beginning the movement of China toward the modernization of agriculture, industry, science and the military. A Chinese proverb holds that "a rich country has a strong army" and that was a central purpose of the "four modernizations." When in 1979 Wei Jingsheng contended publicly that China needed a "fifth modernization," political democracy, the result was a 19-year prison sentence and the repression of those who agreed with him.
Nevertheless, during the 1980s as first the agricultural and later the industrial economic changes succeeded in raising living standards for much of the population and as the regime permitted tens of thousands of Chinese students and officials to travel to the United States and other democracies, while cooperating with the United States against the Soviet Union, there was a small movement toward political liberalization. This derived in part from the reduced regimentation of personal life, the end of the brutal persecution campaigns of the Mao years (which killed millions) and tacit permission for some "lifestyle" choices.
Hard-line elements of the Communist Party opposed the openness to Western cultural influences as "spiritual pollution" and the willingness of some communist leaders to consider various institutional means to limit the arbitrary power of the Communist Party as "bourgeois liberalization."
Elections for urban councils where only communist-government-approved candidates could compete were canceled after one round in 1980 (though they have continued in about 20 percent to 30 percent of villages), student demonstrations seeking political liberalization were repressed in 1983 and again in 1986. The hard-liners in 1987 persuaded the paramount leader, Deng Xiao-ping, to remove the reform-oriented general-secretary of the Communist Party, Hu Yaobang. It was his death in April 1989 that sparked the peaceful pro-democracy Tiananmen demonstrations by 1 million students, later joined by workers, which then spread to 23 cities in China.
This was the time when the Chinese Communist Party leadership went into hiding, prepared to wage a civil war against the pro-democratic groups if any elements of the military supported them, and even prepared for flight into exile. The regime then assembled military forces, these killed and wounded thousands of the peaceful students and workers, followed by a national pogrom against any suspected of supporting political democracy. This included executions and the imprisonment of about 40,000 persons.
The communist elite's experience of brief but intense fear strengthened their determination never to risk the loss of political power. That was further reinforced by the fact that right after the Tiananmen massacre, the Solidarity movement in Poland overwhelmingly won the June 4, 1989, first free elections permitted in communist Europe. This opened the way for the unraveling of the Central European communist regimes to be followed by the December 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The current president of China, Jiang Zemin, the head of the National People's Congress, Li Peng, and virtually the entire military leadership of present-day China all were leaders in the Tiananmen repression and the subsequent dual policy of economic-military modernization combined with more stringent political controls and religious-ethnic persecution. Communist hard-liners said the end of communism in Central Europe and Russia proved the point they had made in the 1980s - any degree of genuine political pluralism and citizen rights of political speech, assembly and association pose unacceptable risks to communist rule; they also said the United States caused the unraveling of communism in Europe through its strategy of "peaceful evolution," and intends the same for China.
The 1999 U.S. government's human-rights report concludes that political repression intensified during the 1990s. Estimates are that 6 million to 8 million persons are confined in forced labor camps, an additional 300,000 are imprisoned without charges, all are vulnerable to torture and degrading conditions, and executions continue in order to harvest and sell human organs. This even though China's successful policy of managed trade - in which it kept its markets mostly closed but obtained access to the democracies for its products made by unfree, very low-cost but often highly skilled labor - has produced a cumulative trade surplus for China in the 1990s of $592 billion ($342 billion with the United States alone). China also received more than $320 billion in foreign direct investment and about $50 billion in subsidized loans from the World Bank and other Western-financed development institutions.
In the 1990s, China has become more aggressive, occupying disputed territories by force, claiming the international South China Sea as its territory, firing ballistic missiles near Taiwan, modernizing its advanced weapons systems aimed at the U.S. presence in the Pacific and threatening nuclear attack with its 5 megaton warheads on United States cities, specifically naming New York and Los Angeles.
In 1993, the Chinese leadership explicitly defined the United States as its "main enemy," concluding that the United States sought to use "economic activities and trade . . . to change . . . China's ideology and make it incline toward the West." In 1999, President Jiang Zemin stated that the United States is pursuing a "new gunboat policy" and "economic neocolonialism" while the Chinese minister of defense said, "War with the United States is inevitable."
While economic modernization does sometimes lead to political liberalization and democracy, many dictatorships of the right and left have demonstrated the capacity to promote economic and technological growth using national and international private and public resources while at the same time maintaining their political rule for decades. Examples in addition to China include communist Yugoslavia (where the economic opening began in the 1960s), apartheid South Africa (1948-1994), Iraq (1959-present), affluent Singapore (to the present), and Taiwan (1949-87), Chile (1973-88), South Korea (1949-88), where the transitions to democracy occurred due to decisions of the ruling group as well as pressure from their own citizens and U.S. encouragement.
In March, President Clinton acknowledged that Permanent Normal Trade Relations and WTO membership for China "doesn't guarantee that it will choose political reform." China has chosen not liberalization but intensified political and religious repression and international aggressiveness. Therefore, the United States Congress should not approve PNTR for China. Instead, the United States should use access for Chinese products to our consumers (44 percent of China's exports are to the U.S. vs. 2 percent of U.S. exports to China) as an incentive for China t stop selling weapons of mass destruction; cease its aggressive actions and military threats; end its strategic nuclear buildup; and, implement the provisions of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights which China freely accepted.
This op-ed originally appeared in The Washington Times on May 24, 2000
Dr. Constantine Menges, a scholar, author, and university professor, was a Hudson Institute senior fellow until July, 2004.
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