Politics & Policy

Hey, Let’s Oppose Freedom in China

A writer implausibly maintains that Chinese democracy would be bad for the U.S.

Over at The National Interest, Jan Hornat makes the radically anti-freedom argument that “Chinese Democracy Is No Goal.” Hornat, a researcher in the department of American studies at Charles University in Prague, concludes that democracy in China is likely to be neither feasible nor desirable.

Hornat’s thesis is especially appalling given that he uses the word “democracy” not just to denote the existence of elections but as an abbreviation for political liberalization — i.e., guarantees of natural and political rights and the rule of law. He comes closest to offering an explicit definition when he says that “as with other peoples, the Chinese want to live in a free society and choose their own government.”

Hornat might have had a debatable point if he were talking about “democracy” in the literal sense, meaning simply the rule of the many — as opposed to an aristocracy, oligarchy, monarchy, or tyranny. After all, for all the examples of popular government going well, there are also cases where it has gone awry, from revolutionary France to increasingly theocratic Egypt. Popular rule is not necessarily a guarantor of individual rights and has sometimes been an enemy of them. Hornat invokes some of its weaknesses, saying that “a democratic Chinese government would face significant obstacles, some unforeseen, that have toppled regimes or caused civil wars in the past.”

However, even that argument is flawed. Taiwan has already proven that democracy is not incompatible with Chinese culture. And while it’s true that many countries flounder as they attempt a transition to democracy, leadership is often the deciding factor. China is already home to highly educated dissident leaders, especially lawyers, who have risked everything to fight for the rights and freedom of their fellow citizens. China has many potential George Washingtons (or Václav Havels, if you prefer) — Liu Xiaobo, Chen Guangcheng, Gao Zhisheng, and Ai Weiwei, to name a few.

The structure of Hornat’s article is quite haphazard, but eventually he addresses the potential consequences of democracy in China:

New problems, which could destabilize democracy, might appear. For example, would Tibet and Xinjiang attempt to breakaway? How would privatization of state firms and redistribution of land proceed? What would North Korea do in the midst of losing its only ally? If Chinese democracy could not meet the growth rates of authoritarian China, how would the Chinese public react?

To be sure, those are all tricky issues. But first of all, today’s oppressed Tibetans and Uighur Muslims might be more inclined to remain a part of China if they had a political voice. Second, the Chinese property market and the state-run firms are notoriously corrupt because the authoritarian government is a closed, crony-riddled system. The details of how to dismantle this would be complicated, but it’s difficult to imagine the result being worse than what China has now, especially in a democracy with well-enforced legal guarantees for individual property rights. Third, North Korea would likely be less confident without Chinese support. That might hasten the fall of Pyongyang’s authoritarian regime, and it would almost certainly make international sanctions more effective. And finally, China’s economic growth has been the product of more liberty, not less.

Hornat’s skepticism about Chinese democracy is not well grounded. I get the sense it derives not from experience with China but rather from a bizarre way of assessing America’s national interest. He lists several objectives the United States might hope to achieve if China democratized, including better rule of law, the release of dissidents, a higher valuation of the yuan, better trade relations, and a less militaristic foreign policy. Yet he’s skeptical that regime change would make a difference: “Unfortunately, democracy is not a panacea. In fact, a democratic China may not be much different from today’s China.”

Perhaps Hornat thinks that because democracy is messy, tidy authoritarianism is preferable. But what follows immediately is less a statement on what Chinese democracy might look like than an excuse to criticize the United States:

Democracies are not always exemplary international actors — take for example the United States. It failed to ratify international agreements such as the Statute of the International Criminal Court or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In fact, Washington has also manipulated with the value of the dollar, though in a more opaque manner than China: the 1985 Plaza Accord was arguably intended to limit growing Japanese imports to the United States. Furthermore, as an assertive actor in world affairs, the United States often circumvents international organizations such as the United Nation [sic] when in pursuit of national interests.

(All of this is tangential, but I’ll comment briefly: U.S. opposition to United Nations actions has to do with the very definition of democracy — there’s no reason unelected, non-citizen international officials should be making decisions on behalf of the American people.)

Hornat goes on to say that “like Western-style democracies, a democratic China may repudiate its non-interventionist doctrine and be more assertive in pursuit of its interests.” It’s a mystery what he is talking about here. China as an authoritarian state has been extremely interventionist, from its alliance with the pariah state of North Korea to its ever-more-aggressive territorial claims encroaching on its neighbors. Nevertheless, Hornat continues:

How would the United States react to a Chinese “coalition of the willing”? Democratic or not, China would still depend on a growing amount of natural resources and territorial disputes in the South China Sea would continue to disrupt regional security.

That’s a fair point — China has presided over environmentally damaging economic growth, and there was a lot of populist rage directed against Japan over territorial issues this past summer. But neither of these points persuasively makes the case that Chinese democracy would be worse for American interests than Chinese authoritarianism; at most, they just show that it might be no better.

What does all this add up to? Hornat ends his piece by stating that “Chinese democracy may not bring the effects everyone hopes for.” It’s a weak conclusion, and it obscures his real thesis:

Before accepting a democratic China into the international system, it would behoove Washington to soften its superpower mindset toward Beijing. A democratically governed China would likely still have great power ambitions and Beijing could legitimately claim the role of the “second superpower” in the next decade.

Democratization would upgrade China’s political power and credibility in the international community. The United States and the European Union would forego the leverage of confronting China about its policies, as China’s laws would be the result of a popularly elected government.

That’s a sinister perspective. I gather that Hornat believes the United States might not be able to control events or remain competitive against a democratic China (never mind that we haven’t been able to control an authoritarian China either). Are we to conclude that he’d sacrifice the liberty of millions of people across the Pacific Ocean for America’s national interest?

If so, that’s gruesome realpolitik. It also contradicts Hornat’s insistence that America should subject its national interest to global governance under the United Nations. And even if he were a staunch advocate of the pursuit of American national interests at all costs, he apparently despairs at the prospect of a democratic China pursuing its own national interests.

In the end, Hornat has hardly made a case against Chinese democracy. Instead, he ends up pushing for the worst kind of American exceptionalism.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.


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