THE NEXT GREAT LEAP: China and Democracy

with William McGurn, Orville Schell
Thursday, July 15, 2004

It has been more than fifteen years since the People's Liberation Army crushed the prodemocracy rallies in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, killing hundreds of students and workers and wounding thousands more. Since then, although stifling political dissent, China has continued to liberalize its economy and is rapidly becoming an economic superpower. Will the explosion of new wealth in China lead to new pressures for democratic reform? And just what is the legacy of Tiananmen? Peter Robinson speaks with William McGurn and Orville Schell.

Recorded on Thursday, July 15, 2004

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: Get out the China?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: the future of democracy in China. It's been fifteen years now since the People's Liberation Army crushed the pro democracy rally in Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds of students and workers and wounding thousands more. In the years since, the Communist leadership of China has continued to stifle dissent while at the same time permitting market reforms under which China is rapidly becoming an economic superpower. Will this explosion of wealth in China lead to democratic reforms or is it possible for the most populous nation on earth to be both rich and repressive?

Joining us today, two guests. William McGurn is chief editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal. Orville Schell is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of nine books on China.

Title: The Next Great Leap

Peter Robinson: Henry Kissinger, quote, "China has growth rates approaching ten percent, a strong sense of national cohesion and an evermore muscular military. China is on the road to superpower status." True?

Orville Schell: In a way.

Peter Robinson: Oh, oh very nice. We'll come--we'll let you flesh that one out. True?

William McGurn: Well it's true but it doesn't say where on the road you are. I suspect it's probably a little lower down than Mr. Kissinger would.

Peter Robinson: Oh really? All right. Tiananmen, early May 1989, 100,000 students and workers march into Beijing to demand democratic reforms. In early June, the PLA, the People's Liberation Army, crushes the pro democracy movement. They kill hundreds. They wound some 10,000 and they arrest untold numbers, both in Beijing and out in the provinces. Now you have written about--let me quote the phrase you use, "the tectonic events of 1989." On the other hand, we have Chinese dissident Wang Dan writing in your publication, the Wall Street Journal, "Far from easing its iron grip on all forms of political dissent, the new leadership now seems intent on extending it." What is the meaning of Tiananmen? Orville?

Orville Schell: The meaning is very large. At this present time of Chinese history, there is a very profound tendency to forget history, to try to forget history. But, in fact…

Peter Robinson: To forget Tiananmen or farther back--to forget Mao?

Orville Schell: Well there's many, many things to be forgotten while people are concentrating on accumulating wealth. But, in fact, China traditionally speaking, is a very historically conscious place. It's interesting to note that in May 4, 1919, the first big student demonstration--one person got killed. And in this one, many more got killed. And yet that May 4th movement looms very large in Chinese history. So it will come back. And I think it will find its angle of repose and I think it will be viewed as quite a significant moment in that last century.

Peter Robinson: Bill, you've written, I'm quoting you to yourself, I hope you're flattered, "China has graduated from a totalitarian to an authoritarian state." What do you mean?

William McGurn: I mean that the--I think they do want to keep power and they are not giving up power but the process of modernization by opening up some aspects of the economy which they still patrol has created other forces in Chinese society that effectively makes their control more difficult. And they're scared. So I don't think that…

Peter Robinson: They're scared--you mean the leadership is scared?

William McGurn: Yeah, I think they're scared. They don't know what's--they're afraid of the churches. They're afraid of anything.

Peter Robinson: Bill says that the communist leadership in China is scared of everything. Do they believe in anything?

Title: Failing Marx

Peter Robinson: The men running China now came of age when communism could plausibly be described as the wave of the future. Now however, I'm quoting Nick Kristof, New York Times journalist, "Ideology in China is dead and I," Nick Kristof, "don't know of a single communist party member who believes in Marx." What does the leadership believe now? What do they want to do? What's in their minds? What are…

William McGurn: Well, I think most communist leaderships never really believed too much in Marx, it's Lenin and it's the--it's power. And I think that they believe in sort of a long Asian alliance of maintaining themselves in power. Post-Tiananmen, I think they lost any claim to moral legitimacy. And the only thing they have to offer people now is say you're going to be better off materially which is why they're also vulnerable if there's a business downturn.

Peter Robinson: Deng Xiaoping, correct my pronunciation at any point men here, 1978 is a fairly decisive repudiation of Mao as I understand it and Deng introduces the four reforms or the four modernisms in agriculture and this, that the oth--and he begins opening up--what's he thinking? What's he doing there? That's merely and--he's attempting a kind of Gorbachev, reform the country just enough to permit his own people to remain in power? Or is there kind of idealistic impulse that he wants China to be great in some undefined way once again?

Orville Schell: Well, I think there was that impulse. And I think Deng Xiaoping was truly a reformer but somebody who was reforming economically rather than politically. And there's a very strong tradition throughout the last century and indeed even toward the end of the nineteenth century of reform to create not democracy, not to highlight individualism, individual rights, but to help create China as a unified state, to re-dignify it after its period of disunity. So I think that's sort of what he was doing. He wanted to make China economically great. There's this term in Chinese of fuchun (sic), wealth and power. And this is what reformers have always sought. They've been much less eager on the political front when it comes to reform.

Peter Robinson: So what we have here is not a communist dream of creating a new man and then eventually the New World Order. That's gone. To whatever extent Mao may have believed in it, it's gone now. Now we're reverting back to a distinctively Chinese dream of Chinese wealth and Chinese power. It's nationalism. That's something we can understand. Is that roughly correct?

William McGurn: I think there's a lot of nationalism. And it's interesting--I think Orville's right about that--the models they look at are sort of Japan and Korea and this kind of these big companies and state owned enterprises.

Orville Schell: Singapore.

William McGurn: Singapore. Singapore politically I think for this. But economically--but, you know, having lived in Hong Kong for ten years--Hong Kong to me which is the most successful of the Asian economies--it's never considered because Hong Kong is much freer. And one of the legacies…

Peter Robinson: Politically freer?

William McGurn: Politically just in terms of speech--it's not a democracy in terms--we just had, you know, nearly a half a million people march for freedom in a place that when I lived there everyone said was apathetic. So one of the consequences of Tiananmen at least from the Hong Kong point of view, was to galvanize a Chinese identity. I mean, they've been told they were Chinese and all this and they say yes we are but we just--we want to be freer. And Tiananmen looms very large there. One of the problems in China is we don't know what role it's going to play because you can't really discuss it out in the open.

Peter Robinson: Next, the relationship between wealth and democracy.

Title: (Political) Economies of Scale

Peter Robinson: Let me quote Henry Rowen, scholar at the Hoover Institution, "Without exception, rich countries are democracies more or less, and the Asian nations are no exception." So the argument here is Taiwan and South Korea become wealthy but soon afterwards, they become democracies. I'll quote Henry again, "By 2015," on current trends, "By 2015, China will have a per capita GDP of about $7,000, the level at which all previous countries have become at least partly free." Wealth creation in and of itself tends to create pressures for political freedom and so China sooner or later is going to have to get its arms around this notion of democracy. Do you buy the argument? Do you buy that progression?

Orville Schell: Well, I think in the long run, yes. But I do not believe that, you know, open markets, ipso facto, equal open societies. And I think there are examples where Leninist capitalism works quite well and where indeed the middle class that you might expect to be lobbying for greater freedom and democracy is happy enough as long as the economics cohere to just let things be the way they are.

Peter Robinson: And can you name an example or two of…

Orville Schell: Italy and Germany during the war would be two…

Peter Robinson: I see.

Orville Schell: Spain under Franco. I mean, it is a model that is in actuality being tested in China right now.

Peter Robinson: Is it fair to suppose that in the inner councils in Beijing the communist--well we call them communists--I don't know what else--the leadership is having this kind of discussion, that one thing that's going on is they don't know.

William McGurn: Yes, I think the dilemma that they're caught between--I'm much more optimistic, not in an economic determinist sense that opening your market leads to democracy but opening your market, if you really open it, leads to middle class which gets more education, which is not going to be treated as cavalierly as say people that are really desperate. I mean, even Lee Kwan Yew admits that.

Peter Robinson: Lee Kuan Yew is?

William McGurn: Of Singapore. And I think Singapore is a model that they do have in their heads but Singapore is a city/state. It's a tiny place. Whether you could do that in China is difficult. Their dilemma on the economic side is that--and all these countries have it--if you open up, you risk a South Korea where people get affluent and start demanding things…

Peter Robinson: They want a democracy.

William McGurn: And if you don't open up, you get a North Korea where you can't afford your missiles and you get poor and desperate and things get hard. So if you--if you--if you're the leadership and you're primarily worried about your job, what you do, you have to--you're caught. You have to continue that prosperity, especially in China there's nothing else they can offer the people. And there might be consequences.

Peter Robinson: We're all presupposing continued economic growth. James Miles writing in the Economist, "Where once China was able to boost the economy by releasing the pent up power of sectors restrained by Maoist folly, agriculture, small private and mixed ownership enterprises, it has now run out of easy sources of new growth." In other words, part of what's been going on with this very rapid growth rate of the last couple decades is they just stopped being stupid about running their economy. And it may not be so easy from now on. Is that--do you buy that or do you both assume very, very high rates of growth off into 2015 say…

Orville Schell: I don't think you can assume that about any country as we learned in Japan and Southeast Asia. I think actually what you say has some truth to it, that the easy steps are simply releasing control. They've been taken and they've had a very dramatic effect. I think now we're beginning to get into the really difficult structural problems which do pale off into questions of political reform. And what I mean by that are financial markets, you know, the banking system, where do you get the capital to develop your country? Is it all going to be foreign investment? In China now, the banks basically contribute very little to the growth of China because it's all going into, you know, loans to stay on enterprises, to keep them from just going belly up. So these are the kinds of problems they're going to confront. And finally not too far away from those structural, economic problems are structural, political problems. What is the conception of this country? Where is it going? What does it want to be like? And where is the discussion, you know, about that future?

Peter Robinson: And nobody knows the answers to these...You're optimistic.

William McGurn: I'm more optimistic about high growth rates, not because there aren't new challenges. I mean, Deng Xiaoping opened up easy things and he gave a lot of the government a stake in it to these state enterprises. Now…

Peter Robinson: He bought off people and it worked.

William McGurn: Now those people that have sort of quasi monopolies or something, further growth will depend on harder reforms. However, there's still huge parts of China where the growth isn't there so they're starting from such a low base…

Peter Robinson: …they can keep it up.

William McGurn: …that they can keep--for a while they can keep--but they also have contractions that they have to worry about. There are things that are starting to come to a head. And again, they're damned if they do, damned if they don't. If they open up, they can get in, you know, get some more economic growth but it creates political problems for them. And we already see sort of little worker problems and tax problems. It's, you know, there's a lot more…

Orville Schell: Peasant problems.

William McGurn: Yeah, peasant pro--there's a lot more other probl--and we don't know about of them. You know, they're not all in Beijing. They're scattered around.

Peter Robinson: Let's turn to Hong Kong and the pressure for political reform.

Title: Yangtze Go Home

Peter Robinson: This summer, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong joined leaders of the democracy movement in the march for universal suffrage, quite a specific demand. Votes for everybody. And the march attracted half a million people, which is quite a gathering in a…

William McGurn: Hundred degree heat.

Peter Robinson: …in hundred--really, in hundred degree heat and then obt--city, very small space. Your comment, Bill, "The more China resists Hong Kong public sentiment favoring normal politics and the direct election of their chief executive, the more politicized Hong Kong becomes. Explain that.

William McGurn: The promise of the Chinese when they were opposing Governor Patton's efforts to democratize, which was not…

Peter Robinson: Patton's the last…

William McGurn: …last British governor.

Peter Robinson: …colonial governor and Hong Kong reverts to China in 1997.

William McGurn: Right. And he was under huge pressure from the Chinese and from some of the business community in Hong Kong. The promise was you know what, Hong Kong can't afford to be--to have politics. We're going to just--the business of Hong Kong is business and we're going to continue what the British did. The problem is the British were much freer in practice and allowed more independent institutions. And to me…

Peter Robinson: When you say what the British did--the British had…

William McGurn: …had no democracy.

Peter Robinson: …foreign pol--there was no--it was run from London and so Beijing…

William McGurn: Well it was run locally. I mean, it was run lo--I think they paid a lot more attention to local opinion in the poor state, property rights…

Peter Robinson: Oh I see.

William McGurn: …they have freedom of the press. What's--to me as a newsman, what worries me about the way China does things is that in some senses an authoritarian law would be better. If you know the line is here, you can go up to the line and not get in trouble. In these places, there's all this whispering. There are boycotts. I talk to people now say you can't write this, you can't say this. We had one member threatened, you know, there. It's all of these little things.

Peter Robinson: One member of the Journal's staff?

William McGurn: No, one member of Hong Kong, Allen Lee who was a popular radio host and was considered pro Beijing but he was not a firebrand. And he had a call by someone saying, you know, gee your daughter looks nice and so forth. And he left. Said I don't need that. And you have all these little things. And so what you've got is not the free wheeling economy. You have a very highly politicized economy now. And I think that's the problem because you're denying people's aspirations.

Orville Schell: It's important to remember that the legacy of the revolution in China--there are many legacies. And…

Peter Robinson: The Communist Revolution…

Orville Schell: …the Communist Revolution…

Peter Robinson: …which succeeds in 1949.

Orville Schell: The Communist Rebels. People forget that they had a revolution that lasted for four decades and that deep within the system of China, there are many residues left over. One of them--not only from the Communist Revolution but from traditional society--is that China is a polity of control. They have done everything that they have done by Leninist means of control. And this is their dynamic with Hong Kong. And this is--may be a fatal dynamic but it is the only way they seem to know how to deport themselves.

Peter Robinson: They are incapable of reaching back into four thousand years of history and finding models of what we would recognize as political freedom.

Orville Schell: Well, you know, there are actually some very interesting models in neo-Confucianism and also during the May 4th movement in the twentieth century…

Peter Robinson: All right.

Orville Schell: …of a humanistic, liberalistic, maybe an individualistic sort of tradition of political actors.

Peter Robinson: That's a brief flowering of thought rather than actual political--it never becomes concretized in institutions.

Orville Schell: Well it does in the sense that the idea of remonstrating with your government, the upright moral official, is very Confucian but it's not one alas that the Communist Party has adopted.

William McGurn: We talk about models, clearly the Chinese look at models. There are Chinese societies--there's Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong outside of China. I think they incline to Singapore, hope that they can have the wealth and still retain the control. I think that they don't understand Hong Kong and the contribution. Hong Kong provides this capital and this know-how. It is a bridge to the West. It is understanding of law and of contracts that doesn't exist. If I were China, I'd be looking at Hong Kong and Taiwan. The best thing Taiwan had going for it was that it didn't have a lot of foreign experts like us telling them what to do. They had a security umbrella provided by the U.S. They had access to markets and they grew this democracy in a very messy, well almost incoherent way but it's real. It's a Chinese society and it's real.

Peter Robinson: Let's explore this relationship between Taiwan and mainland China in more depth.

Title: Taipei Personalities

Peter Robinson: 1949, the communists under Mao seize power on the mainland and the nationalists under Chang flee to Taiwan, take control of the island and their political party, the Guomindang more or less instantly introduces a regime of economic growth, free markets, freer and freer markets and Taiwan is one of the huge success stories, not just in the post-war period but really of human history. And then they become democratic with the election of President Chen--Shen--Chen--how is that pronounced?

Orville Schell: Chen Shui-bian.

Peter Robinson: Oh you show-off you. And he's first elected in…

Orville Schell: You mean the present President…

Peter Robinson: Present President, he's first…

Orville Schell: He's now in his second term.

Peter Robinson: He's now in his second term. All right. So we now have not only wealth and immense capital accumulation and manufacturing know-how and so forth but a working democracy in Taiwan. All right. If mainland China grows fast enough and opens markets fast enough, the problem of Chi--mainland China versus Taiwan gradually fades away.

Orville Schell: It will.

Peter Robinson: …and we don't face our. It will…

Orville Schell: It will but you have to allow a sufficient period of time to elapse for that gradual coalescing…

Peter Robinson: One decade, two decades? This is a problem we have to manage for a couple decades. Is that the kind of thing you…

Orville Schell: Mao said let's not worry about Taiwan. If it takes a hundred years, it's all right. But the problem now is that I think the Chinese Communist Party has canceled so many parts of their original platform that one of the few that still justifies their unilateral rule is the unity of the motherland. And that's Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan.

William McGurn: And this is a Catch-22 for them because they wanted Hong Kong and now they're terrified of Hong Kong. Being there, one of the things you find is that their people in Hong Kong--they're reporting that Hong Kong wants independence and all these crazy things. They don't--I think they have not a good read on Taiwan and not a good read on Hong Kong. And the British knew they were foreigners that they didn't have a read on Hong Kong. So they had a lot of mechanisms to accommodate public opinion, not democracy but public opinion. And I think China's view is well we're all Chinese so we don't really need to go through those motions. And they have a terrible misunderstanding of what Hong Kong wants. Hong Kong's very easy to rule if they ruled lightly and in both these cases, you have China pushing and people resisting. And sometimes they're pushing where they don't need to push.

Peter Robinson: You're almost sympathetic with the leaders in China which is not the--I mean, you…

William McGurn: I wouldn't think I'm…

Peter Robinson: They don't know what they're doing, they're fumbling, they've got terrible problems.

William McGurn: No, I actually think it's a gross indictment. I mean, one of the things we were saying about the leader of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa--they're so terrified of letting a democratic leader in Hong Kong because it would be the first democratic leader on, you know, on the mainland within China. And the moral credibility that he would have would be great.

Peter Robinson: I see. I see.

William McGurn: And they're terrified of that and they don't trust people. When you--when I was there at the handover, one of the most telling things was…

Peter Robinson: Hand-over of…

William McGurn: …of Hong Kong, 1997, Chris Patton walked--the governor--walked all around, had his ceremony. The Chinese leaders had these bodyguards. You know, it looked like the Sopranos, like they're afraid of Hong Kong. Hong Kong people are the most docile, middle class people. And what I said in my piece, the danger of denying them is that they're going to make radicals out of liberals. And the quid pro quo was Hong Kong--China won't interfere in Hong Kong's internal affairs and Hong Kong won't interfere with China. But so Hong Kong people wouldn't be calling for democracy in China. But now the danger is if you say well we're going to rule you from Beijing and we don't care what you want, well people are going to say, you know what, the only answer is get rid of these guys in Beijing and work for them. And I think that they drive people underground and create bitterness. So…

Orville Schell: And moreover, I think it's worth pointing out that the bad chemistry between Hong Kong and Beijing creates doubly bad chemistry between Beijing and Taipei.

Peter Robinson: Last topic on China: advice for Americans.

Title: The Paradox View

Peter Robinson: You're advising John Kerry and you're advising George W. Bush. Give me a very brief--because alas it's television--give me a very brief summary on what advice you would give each of these figures on policy toward China.

Orville Schell: Well, actually I think Bush has done pretty well with China. I think…

Peter Robinson: That's not the way you'd open with John Kerry though, Orville.

Orville Schell: Well I think I would. Yes, I mean, I think of all the areas of the world where we have problems, the United States is deporting itself as well as any in regard to China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Peter Robinson: Bush made a point during the campaign of 2000 of referring to China as a strategic adversary. By contrast with Clinton who had used the phrase "strategic partner."

Orville Schell: Yes but Clinton started out with a adversarial notion too.

Peter Robinson: I see.

Orville Schell: And I think you'll have to understand China through the prism of a contradiction. Yes it could be an enemy. Yes it could be a friend. Yes it could collapse. Yes it could go onward and upward. I mean, it's the only way--it's the only country of consequence that has sort of in--in--in--insipiently equal and opposite scenarios that might happen. And this is the way you have to look at it. And you can't prognosticate easily about this place. And thus it's very hard to give policy advice except I think tough love is the best policy.

Peter Robinson: How do you advise Bush?

William McGurn: We have to take--I agree. We have to take China as it is and hopefully nudge it in the direction of how we would be. I would say look at Hong Kong and Taiwan not as additions to China policy but almost look at them first. If you get Taiwan right and try to keep peace in the straits, you solve a lot of other problem. A lot of times I think people look at China policy as China and these other things are irritants. And I think--my suspicion is that if you had a policy that looked at Taiwan and Hong Kong and had a way of working that, that a lot of the other China policy would fall…

Peter Robinson: And the way of working it, we have to be brief--but the way of working Hong Kong…

William McGurn: Firm and clear but not hectoring. I don't think public hectoring works.

Orville Schell: And I think perhaps offering to--to--to--to play some intermediary role between Taiwan and the mainland. I think this would become the United States.

William McGurn: And bring China into WTO--all these outside pressures…

Peter Robinson: World Trade Organization.

William McGurn: …I would not have been for giving China the Olympics but having covered the Olympics in Korea, I don't think they know what they're getting into with all these people coming in. I think the more dealings Chinese people have with the outside world…

Peter Robinson: …the better.

William McGurn: …the better.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Last question. By the year 2015, will China be a democracy as Henry Rowen predicts? Give me a probability distribution. What do you think?

Orville Schell: I don't foresee…

Peter Robinson: One chance in ten or…

Orville Schell: Well, you know, democracy's not going to spring forth from the head of Zeus like Athena and democracy in China any time soon.

Peter Robinson: That's just much too soon.

Orville Schell: …painfully slow process.

Peter Robinson: Bill?

William McGurn: I agree but I--partly because I have a tougher definition of democracy. If it's getting rid of the leadership this way or something, that could conceivably happen if there's a problem but replacing it with a working government of buy-in for the people, I think is difficult. I think many so-called democracies don't have that either. What I'd look for is something more representative and freer. And I think that's the continuum we have to sort of push along.

Peter Robinson: Orville Schell, Bill McGurn, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.