Re-strategising democracy promotion in China

James Gomez | Aug 19, 08 11:27am


The different China-related democracy issues need to be integrated through a broad overarching theme and coordinated from closer in Asia. This was the latent international strategy that emerged from the 3rd International Conference on Global Support for Democratisation in China and Asia (GSDCA) which was held on Aug 4 and 5, 2008 in Japan.

The GSDCA brought together some 100 China pro-democracy activists from across the world, literally on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, for a two day meeting in Tokyo. The conference, the third in a series, hosted participants from Asian autocratic nations, as well as dignitaries, experts, and scholars from all over the globe, including Europe, North America, and Asia-Pacific.

Internationalised China-related democracy issues

Presently internationalised 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 (Eastern Turkestan), 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 Falun Gong members. It also includes specific human rights incidents such as the 1988 Tiananmen Square massacre, issues surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympics and discrimination of minority communities such as Uyghurs.

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

While most of these elements see their 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. Thereby making democracy-building in China seem weak, scattered and uncoordinated.

Clarifying democracy in China

The urgent contemporary challenge is clarifying what democracy-building for China means. The various elements of China-related democracy elements point to the need for a regime change 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 that is 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 that requires further clarification in terms of changes in the constitution, the legalisation of multiparty democracy, strengthening the civil society support base, approaches to be taken, etc.

In order for this clarification to take place there is a need to bring the internal aspects of China democratisation efforts to the fore in the global arena. To date, democratic issues within China evolve around civil liberty restriction. 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. A regime change will have an impact on policy issues such as territorial sovereignty, self-government and observing international human rights and democracy norms.

China’s democratisation movement also needs experienced people to provide leadership and be its international spokespersons. While it may not throw up a prominent figures like the Dalai Lama, several key leaders who can inspire confidence across a series of issues may 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 organise several global meetings on the need for democratisation 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 Burma, 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 such as Singapore. Hence, the democratisation of Singapore, for example, should also be seen as equally important in the move to ensure that China does not have a model on which to construct its authoritarian self.

Thus, enlisting support for China’s democratization through as an integrated multi-level regional approach is more desirable. The democratisation of China and other countries in Asia should be intrinsically linked to each other, without first waiting for China to become democratic.

Thus, 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 democratisation efforts to Asia

The push for democratisation in China currently lies in the hands of activists residing in North America and Europe where 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, 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 3rd International Conference on Global Support for Democratization in China and Asia on 4 and 5 August 2008 in Tokyo. 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. It is important the international lobby for China’s democratisation is connected and has partners within China.

Reviewing international democracy assistance

This then leads to the programme content of international democracy assistance organisations. Existing programmes need to be critically reviewed. Most international democracy assistance agencies do not have an Asian programme. If they do, it is often a small programme that focuses on other parts of Asia except China. They do not run “democratisation” programmes for China. If there is a China programme, 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 organised international “China” elements, but the Tibetan movement does not focus on the internal democratisation of China unless with special reference for Tibetan autonomy.

Hence attempts should be made to lobby international agencies to do more for democracy promotion in China as a whole and Asia, in particular by facilitating more Asia-based advocacy programmes. This is, off course, going to be a challenge as many governments in the region would be reluctant to support that kind of activity on their home soil because of China.

In lobbying to move China’s democratisation efforts closer to Asia, one has to be wary of Beijing’s ability to mobilise pro-China forces in Asian countries against such efforts. Democracy promotion professionals in Asia are only too well 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, government 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 democratisation 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.

One Response

  1. […] is a need to re-strategize democracy assistance in China, according to a recent gathering of democracy and human rights activists. “There is a need to […]

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: