The Short March

Thursday, January 30, 1997

There are two reasons for this forecast: One is positive changes there; the other is the effect of economic growth on freedoms throughout the world.

Freedom House gives China a political freedom rating of zero: It is a one-party state, there are many "counterrevolutionaries" in prison, people are detained without trial, and there were more than two thousand summary executions in 1994. Nevertheless, China has come far since the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, notably in three important areas.


The dissolution of the communes left no local governments and thus led to village elections. By the early 1990s, 90 percent of village committees had been elected.

Progress has been ragged. Local cadres resist losing privileges, and nonparty members often experience discrimination. Some assemblies require party membership for candidacy. There is some probable ballot fraud, and officials decide if voters can choose more than one candidate. Nevertheless, the principle of competitive elections has been established. Those who oppose party members are no longer "enemies of the people." The concept of rule by law is accepted, with peasants learning about legal procedures and how to protect their rights.


Under communism, law is an instrument of politics. Many Chinese now, however, hold that government should observe its own rules. Values consistent with Western ideals of equality, justice, and legality-and also with ancient Chinese ideals-are expressed widely, and some are now embodied in legislation. Officials recognize that a market economy and foreign investment need stable and fair rules.

Contributing to the demand for law is the weakness of the state, with massive corruption, illegal businesses run by government agencies, and theft of government assets. Most basic is the party being outside the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts. Other problems are enforcing decisions in civil proceedings, the immunity of military enterprises, and bribery of judges.

The People's Congress is rewriting the criminal laws. Defendants are not to be presumed guilty and will have their own lawyers. The police no longer will be able to hold people without charge. Doubtless these laws will often be violated, but their passage is significant.


Economic liberalizing had the unintended effect of liberalizing the mass media. Financial losses led to publications being forced into the market, first books and then newspapers. In Xinhau's bookstores in 1979, the huge state media empire had 95 percent of the market; by 1988, its share had shrunk to 33 percent. Nonparty newspapers gained at the expense of party ones.

The government once controlled the electronic and film media, but falling demand led to unprofitable operations being privatized and to some government stations adopting live coverage of stories, talk shows, call-in programs, twenty-four-hour broadcasting, and celebrity interviews of once-silenced liberal intellectuals.

Television sets, radios, cassette players, and VCRs became widely owned. By the early 1990s, eighty thousand institutions had faxes, there were sixteen thousand satellite ground stations, and, despite legal prohibition, 4.5 million home satellite dishes were operating.

Once a totalitarian regime opts for market reforms, it loses much of its control of information. Today there is self-censorship, as well as government censorship, but there have not been criminal proceedings against journalists-with the exception of some accused of selling state secrets to Hong Kong newspapers-for several years.

Doubtless there will be more cycles of liberalization and repression, but the level of information freedom is rising inexorably.


When Taiwan was at China's current economic level, there were local elections, bosses became more responsible, and non-Kuomintang people became active in politics. In 1973, its Freedom House democracy score was twenty-five (on a scale of zero to one hundred). This opening process then moved up the political ladder to where Taiwan has had its first, and free, presidential election.

The path in South Korea was different, but the endpoint was the same. Elections were held under Park Chung Hee, but the ruling party determined outcomes. South Korea's 1974 freedom rating was thirty-three-but by 1995 it was eighty-four.

South Korea and Taiwan are two examples of a worldwide-and Asian-norm. By and large, the richer the country, the freer (oil riches aside). If China keeps growing rapidly, its per capita gross domestic product will be seven thousand dollars in 2015, the level at which democracy everywhere has become stabilized. China's freedom rating then is likely to be similar to Taiwan's in 1984 (thirty-three) and on the verge of becoming much higher.

Of course, sustained growth is not guaranteed: the regime might crack down again or conflict with Taiwan or others could become an obstacle. Or China might just be different.


The key inference for everyone is patience. Only twenty-odd years separate us from 2015, and the advent of Chinese democracy promises abatement of several current problems. For the people of Taiwan, to be a province of a prospering China-or perhaps a member of a Chinese confederation in which governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are popularly elected and the rights of their citizens are protected by law-should be a far more attractive prospect than joining today's China. But the period between now and 2015 (or whatever the precise year) will be volatile because Beijing will not give up on the goal of unification. And it will become militarily more powerful as time passes. Taiwan needs to keep its powder dry and behave prudently.


For the United States there are two main implications. The first is that it is a good thing that China become rich, for it will benefit the American economy in the process and a richer China will become more democratic. This will not necessarily make it easier to deal with, but experience has shown that democracies are less-dangerous interlocutors for other democracies than are dictatorships. Washington should therefore stop holding trade relations hostage to an array of current political disputes. The United States should instead make most-favored-nation status for China permanent and impose no extra obstacles to its admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Our economic interests need to be pressed on the many trade issues in contention, but it is much better to address them in the WTO forum than in the current, highly politicized, bilateral tit-for-tat manner in which we have been engaged in recent years.

If trade sanctions are ruled out-of-bounds in dealing with nontrade matters, how are we to dissuade China from exporting weapons and delivery systems capable of mass destruction? This is a question the Clinton administration has failed to address adequately, and it is a failure that is likely to encourage similar transfers in the future. One answer lies in our taking actions in the security domain rather than in economics. There is much in the way of arms for defense that we have not provided to Taiwan, or to other countries in the region that worry about China, that we might supply.

The second main policy implication for us is to defend strongly Taiwan's de facto independence. We have an interest in a peaceful East Asia, and we share more values with a democratic Taiwan today than we did with the authoritarian one of days gone by. If Beijing resumes military pressures against the island, we should not only supply more advanced arms to Taiwan but make it clear to China that it will confront American military power if it crosses our redline. We need also to make it clear to Taipei that a condition of our support is that it give up on de jure independence, for that would escalate the confrontation with Beijing, something that we and the Taiwanese should both want to avoid. This merely restates the long-standing American policy that there is only one China but that we resist any attempt to unify it by force. The difference now is that political evolution in China can be expected to ease the problem.

It follows from this analysis that we should not assume that China will inevitably become a threat to U.S. interests. We have a common interest with China in seeing its people prosper and at peace, in dealing with environmental problems, and in coping with the dangers associated with the spread of weapons capable of mass destruction. This common agenda would be better advanced if China were a member of the various organizations that make the rules on such matters. Nonetheless, American criticism of China's human rights violations should and will continue, but it should not be linked to trade issues. Our criticisms will have increasing resonance inside a China with a better-educated and informed population that has access to greatly improved telecommunications, a China that is growing freer year by year.


Put another way, the deal-better left tacit than made explicit-is this: Beijing bets on the many benefits of getting rich, including military power and a peaceful reconciliation with Taipei. Taipei bets that a democratic China will emerge and holds off declaring itself independent. Washington bets that a rich China will become democratic and that the Taiwan issue will be peacefully settled in the context of a moderated Chinese foreign policy.

Americans sustained the cold war with the Soviet Union for forty-five years until victory came. The prospect of a twenty-year (more or less) effort to help the Chinese people become free-while helping Taiwan retain its freedoms-is much less daunting. There may be trouble with China during its passage to democracy-or even after-but the odds should go down as it becomes more prosperous. We should do nothing to interfere with that process.