Labour can help with Chinese democracy

by James Watkins

THE FEAR of China continues to dominate debate in Britain – from its portrayal as a fire-breathing dragon on the cover of this week’s Spectator to David Cameron’s bizarre claim during the election campaign that Britain may need nuclear weapons because of China. This is not the ideal backdrop for the prime minister’s forthcoming visit to Beijing.

The list of worries laid at China’s door is manifold: from human rights abuses to currency manipulation and from poor working conditions to obstructing climate change talks. At the heart of them all is the fear that a lack of political reform in China will make things even worse.

But if the British government were to take a new approach to China, the prime minister’s visit could be the start of a new direction for Chinese democracy.
At first glance, such a view may seem overly rosy. Since the dissident, Lin Xioabo, won the Nobel peace prize in October, a crackdown on dissidents has been reported. But there are also signs that the Chinese political elite now recognise that political reform is needed. In early October, prime minister Wen Jiabao told CNN that “the people’s will for, and need for, democracy and freedom is irresistible”.

While these comments were not reported in the official Chinese media, the up and coming leaders of China also seem to have a democratic bent. Vice president Xi Jinping has acted against corruption and reassured other nations of China’s goodwill. Li Keqiang has spoken of the need to boost domestic consumption to drive the economy.

There have been indications before that people within the political elite would push for democracy. Deng Xiaoping, who rose to power following the death of Mao in 1976, seemed to herald a more open approach until the 1989 Tiananman Square massacre. But China has changed since 1989. A growing middle class, a gradual increase in wages and the opening up of China to the global economy is changing attitudes.

Democracy had been seen by some in the elite as a pseudonym for chaos. For instance, president Hu Jintao had to weather the Mao-inspired attacks on parts of the government during the chaotic cultural revolution when he was a student in his 20s. But advocates for change have existed in the elite before. Zhao Ziyang was purged from the politburo in 1989 and Hu Yaobang, in the 1980s, was also an advocate for liberalisation. Further back, the 1919 May Fourth movement is still remembered for its calls for democracy.

The flip-flopping legacy of Mao – from the “hundred flowers blooming” to the cultural revolution – is clearly a factor in how democracy is seen by some. But concerns about democracy are also linked to the issue of keeping China together. Not only are China’s leaders sensitive about Tibet wanting to break away, but there has also been a harsh crackdown against the Muslim Uirghur community.

But while all this is going on, China’s provincial legislatures are developing their power – leading to a gradual move away from the centre and beginning to give local people more of a say in their local areas. This is still not the democracy many of us would recognise – as the arbitrary bulldozing of whole neighbourhoods for the 2008 Olympics showed.

But there are now two strands of activity in China that can lead to democracy and a more open approach on a range of issues. First, there are those in the political elite who see the link between democracy and a more prosperous economy – with decisions being made at a more local level ensuring a more efficient running of the economy. Combined with this is the influence of provincial legislatures which could lead to institutions that are the bedrock of a more democratic society.

The fear of a return to violence was made clear to me by one Chinese official several years ago who said a move to democracy is needed but that if it happens too quickly it could lead to “blood, blood, blood”. Looking back at twentieth century Chinese history, such attitudes are hardly surprising. But if the historical context is recognised and the recent changes that could lead to a democratic future are built upon, then the journey towards democracy can gather speed.

That is why the paranoia that David Cameron showed towards China in April must become a thing of the past. Britain can play a positive role in ensuring that democratic norms take hold – from the work of the British council and the BBC world service to dialogue that would build upon the trends in China that point towards democracy. The cuts to the British council and the potential cuts to the BBC world service – now that the foreign office has pulled out of its funding – are not helpful to achieve this aim.

The prime minister must use his visit to build upon these good signs for democracy and human rights in partnership with other countries – with Labour encouraging this approach. Then we may eventually see the world’s second biggest economy become the world’s largest democracy.

James Watkins is a member of the Unite national political committee and Labour housing group executive. He writes in a personal capacity.

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