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    Greater China
     Aug 21, 2008
New strategies for 'democratizing' China
By James Gomez

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Various China-related democracy issues need to be integrated through a broad and overarching theme and coordinated from closer locations in Asia. This was the latent international strategy that emerged from the Third International Conference on Global Support for Democratization in China and Asia (GSDCA) which was held last week in Tokyo.

The GSDCA brought together some 100 pro-democracy activists from across the world, literally on the eve of the 2008 Beijing


Summer Olympic Games, for a two-day meeting in Tokyo beginning August 4. The conference hosted participants from autocratic Asian nations, as well as dignitaries, experts, and scholars from all over the globe, including Europe, North America, and the Asia-Pacific.

China-related democracy issues Presently internationalized China-related democracy issues are a range of disparate elements that fall into three broad categories. The first address issues of territorial sovereignty, autonomy and self-determination. They include chief executive elections in Hong Kong, autonomy for Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, self-government for Tibet and independence for Taiwan.

The second concerns civil liberties restrictions within China, such as religious freedom, media freedoms, the detention of political prisoners and the persecution of Falungong members. It also includes specific human rights incidents such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, issues surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympics and discrimination of minority communities such as Uyghurs.

The third is the Chinese government's international role in providing military aid to authoritarian regimes such as Myanmar, North Korea and Sudan. Connected to this is China's use of its position on the United Nations Security Council, for example, to obstruct international efforts to stop the alleged genocide in Darfur.

While most of these elements see a common connection with China, overall they remain separate. International advocacy for each component has evolved differently and varies in strength. For instance, the lobby for Tibetan self-government with the Dalai Lama as its spiritual leader is well organized with global and regional representative offices.

But a broader democracy theme that holds these different elements together internationally is currently missing. Therefore, democracy-building in China seems weak, scattered and uncoordinated.

Clarifying democracy in China
The urgent contemporary challenge is clarifying what democracy-building in China means. The various elements of China-related democracy building point to the need for a change of regime in order to set in place a range of policy options that will satisfy the requests of the different China-related democracy struggles.

This then takes us to the heart of the matter: the hegemony of the Chinese Communist Party in China's political system. Democracy-building in China suggests a need for the establishment of multi-party democracy in the People's Republic.

However, regime change in the China context remains a mammoth task. It requires further clarification in terms of changes on a number of levels, including in the constitution, the legalization of multi-party democracy, strengthening the civil society support base, and in approaches to be taken.

For this clarification to take place, there is a need to bring the internal aspects of China democratization efforts to the fore in the global arena. To date, democratic issues within China evolve around civil liberty restrictions. However, political or regime change is seldom, if ever, discussed.

But a change in China's domestic political structure and the policy position its government adopts are important concerns. Any change of regime will have an impact on policy issues such as territorial sovereignty, self-government and observing international human rights and democracy norms.

China's democratization movement also needs experienced people to provide leadership and serve as its international spokespersons. While a single figure as prominent as the Dalai Lama might not emerge, several key leaders who can inspire confidence across a series of issues would provide the crucial leadership the movement is currently lacking.

Linear versus the integrated approach One attempt to consolidate and pull support for all these elements into a single Chinese focus has been a series of attempts to organize several global meetings on the need for democratization in China. In these meetings China activists try to position promoting democracy in China as a linear project.

China democracy activists try to entice international support by arguing that a democratic China will lead to a "democracy spillover" effect onto other parts of Asia. The argument is based on the fact that China supports other non-democratic countries such as Myanmar, North Korea and Sudan.

However, this argument fails to take note that China's authoritarian "success" is seen to be based on other authoritarian models, particularly within the Asian context, and to a certain extent it relies on them for ideological legitimation. For example, the democratization of Singapore should also be seen as equally important, since it would ensure that China does not have a model on which to construct its vision of economic prosperity without democracy.

Thus, enlisting support for China's democratization through an integrated multi-level regional approach is more desirable. The democratization of China and other countries in Asia should be intrinsically linked to each other, without first waiting for China to become democratic. Democracy promotion in China and Asia needs to be undertaken in an interlinked and integrated way, rather than adopting a linear approach.

Moving China's democratization efforts to Asia The main impetus for democratization in China currently lies in the hands of activists who are concentrated in North America and Europe, where most ex-China dissidents live. Through the years they have tried to build a support base of sympathizers from these countries. While this is helpful, there is a need to move the activist energy and support closer to Asia.

One option is to strengthen connections and relationships with the democratic efforts in Taiwan and Hong Kong, in addition to strengthening the autonomy movements for Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang. The other option is to find "friendly" countries in Asia, such as Japan, to host a representative office.

Japan has hosted and supported a number of China-related democracy activities, most recently, the GSDCA. The meeting was widely reported in the Japanese press. This conference follows on from two earlier conferences that took place in Berlin and Brussels in 2006 and 2007.

More effort is needed to carry out China-related democracy promotion efforts in other parts of Asia. Apart from Japan, representative offices, liaison bases or coordinating focal points in other parts of Asia, such as in Australia, and in the NGO hubs of Bangkok and Manila should be considered. The large presence of overseas Chinese community in these parts of Asia can provide a support base.

When such bases are set up in the region, partnerships with other democratic movements in Asia can also be established. For instance, it is important to take note that the Tibetan self-government movement is headquartered in Dharamsala, India.

But ultimately, the move closer to Asia needs to be connected to the various initiatives currently taking place within China, notably the early stirrings of genuine civil society. As we look toward the next stage, it is increasingly important that the international lobby for China's democratization develops connections and partners within China.

Reviewing international democracy assistance This then leads to the program content of international democracy assistance organizations that often mirror their governments' position on China. Thus, existing programs need to be critically reviewed. Most international democracy assistance agencies do not have an Asian program. If they do, it is often a small program that focuses on other parts of Asia except China. They do not run "democratization" programs for China. If there is a China program, they are limited to non-political civil society support.

Otherwise the work of international democracy assistance agencies is limited to issuing various human rights reports and calling into question China's human rights record. There is substantial support for the Tibetan self-government issue which is one of the better organized international "China" elements, but the Tibetan movement does not focus on the internal democratization of China beyond the special reference to Tibetan autonomy.

Hence attempts should be made to lobby international agencies to do more for democracy promotion in China and Asia as a whole, in particular by facilitating more Asia-based advocacy programmes. This is, of course, going to be a challenge, not least because many governments in the region would be reluctant to support that kind of activity on their home soil.

In lobbying to move China's democratization efforts closer to Asia, one has to be wary of Beijing's ability to mobilize pro-China forces in Asian countries against such efforts. Democracy-promotion professionals in Asia are only too aware of the active and aggressive behind-the-scenes pressures applied by Chinese embassy officials in all Asian countries when it comes to any China-related democracy activities. Chinese officials try to prevent and block pro-democracy activities aimed at China or try to stop pro-democracy China activists from attending such meetings.

As a result, much of the current "support" for China-related democracy activities comes from sympathetic individuals in NGOs, governments and parliaments. Such tensions will exist and will have to be managed. However, there is a need to broaden this support by expanding from individuals to institutions. But efforts to promote democracy in China or, for that matter, in any other part of Asia, need to have a base in the region to be effective, and international democracy assistance agencies have a role in facilitating this.

The democratization of China is important for Asia. Hence, it is all the more reason that a new international strategy is set in place for democracy promotion in China. An integrated approach that is based closer in the region seems to be the way forward to bring democracy to China as well as to other parts of Asia.

Dr James Gomez is visiting scholar, Department of Political Science, Law Faculty, Keio University, Japan. He is serving as Taiwan Foundation for Democracy's democracy and human rights service fellow from August-September 2008.

(Copyright 2008 Dr James Gomez.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

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