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China: Analysis From Washington -- Measuring Freedom

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 29 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton's visit to China has become an occasion for some to resuscitate the old argument that authoritarian systems which maintain stability and increase personal incomes are somehow superior to democratic ones which sometimes do neither.

Beijing's communist leaders have advanced this claim again and again. They have pointed out that the Chinese people now have a higher standard of living than ever before and that the Chinese growth rate is far higher than in many countries with established or new democratic institutions.

They have argued that their authoritarian political system has made this possible by providing the kind of stability that allows its own citizens and foreign firms to invest with confidence.

And they have claimed that this progress in the economic welfare of their population not only should serve as the proper measure of freedom but also serve as a guarantee that the Chinese people will gain greater political freedom at some unspecified future point.

That officials in Beijing have made such an argument is hardly surprising. It has been and remains the chief justification authoritarian regimes now advance for denying the population a political voice.

But this argument has been picked up and advanced by some officials and analysts in long-established democracies, a development that is somewhat more surprising although hardly unprecedented.

In articles published this week in leading American and West European newspapers, these commentators have made exactly the same arguments. Moreover, they have extended these Chinese claims by making reference both to their own national histories and to difficulties in Russia and the other post-communist states.

These writers have called attention to just how difficult it was for their countries to develop the cultural supports necessary for democratic political life. And they have suggested that China will require an equally long period of preparation.

Indeed, one prominent commentator wrote that China would have not done nearly as well as it has had the Tiananmen demonstrators succeeded nine years ago and forced the Chinese government to become more democratic.

Instead, according to this view, a democratic victory then and by implicit extension now would entail political chaos and economic collapse because the Chinese people are supposedly unprepared for democratic political life and thus benefit from continued authoritarian rule.

And in an effort to buttress their point of view, these democratic supporters of authoritarianism draw a comparison between what has happened in China and what has happened in Russia and the other post-communist states.

They note that the population of authoritarian China has prospered while those of Russia and many other countries seeking to make a transition to democracy have not. They point out that China has been stable and a safe haven for foreign investors while many post-communist countries have not.

And they imply that public support for communists and nationalists in these countries demonstrate that their citizens just like those of China are somehow not ready for democracy and might be better off with an authoritarian system.

But if such arguments are superficially attractive and likely to be accepted by those seeking short term gains or the avoidance of responsibility, they are fundamentally wrong morally, politically and even economically.

The arguments in favor of authoritarianism are wrong morally because they confuse economic well-being with personal and political freedom. In modern times, dictators have had to argue that their rule is justified because they provide stability and an improved standard of living. But however much stability they ensure and however high the incomes they provide, such rulers do not provide the freedoms to which every human being is entitled.

The arguments for authoritarianism are wrong politically because they assume that the problems that countries undergoing the transition from communism to democracy are the problems of democracy rather than hangovers from the communist past.

Neither Russia nor many of the other post-communist states have entirely succeeded in escaping the communist past. But in these countries as elsewhere, the cure for the problems of democracy, as some of their leaders now recognize, is more democracy not less.

Unfortunately, many in these post-communist countries as well as many in Western democracies have opened the door to the authoritarian argument by proclaiming the triumph of democracy in these states rather than by acknowledging just how far these countries have yet to travel on that road.

And the arguments for authoritarianism are wrong economically because the authoritarianism that today brings short term economic gains almost certainly will make economic progress less likely in the future.

Throughout modern history, authoritarian governments from Stalin's Soviet Union to Suharto's Indonesia have often succeeded in promoting far more rapid growth than their democratic rivals but only for a very limited time.

Without democratic and personal freedoms, these regimes and others like them have seen their economic miracles collapse under the weight of oppression, corruption, and social decay.

Jiang Zemin's China will not be an exception, whatever the defenders of authoritarianism in Beijing or elsewhere may want to believe.