China’s Communist leaders and the Bush family have always been close. When daddy Bush, functioning as ambassador to China, was cavorting around Beijing with his secretary/mistress, China’s security apparatus was discrete about the rather brazen affair and the leadership kept its mouth shut right through the course of Bush’s political career. Indeed, the elder Bush is often referred to fondly in Beijing as a “friend of China”-an appellation that has also been applied to Henry Kissinger, and that is money in the pocket of anyone who can claim it.
But as cordial as China has been towards the elder Bush, there seems to be a truly unseemly simpatico between the current Chinese leadership, under Premier Wen Jiabao, and the younger Bush. China’s leaders have loved his War on Terrorism, which has given Beijing the ability to claim that its crackdowns in Tibet and Xinjiang, and indeed on democracy and labor rights activists in general, are part of that same “war”. They have also enjoyed the Bush administration’s thorough disinterest in human rights issues.
But nowhere do the two regimes line up so smartly as in their dismissive attitude towards the democratic aspirations of subject people. In that respect, there is little difference between the stance of Beijing towards the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, and that of the Bush administration towards the occupied territory of Iraq. In both cases, the ruling powers and their leaders are dead set against permitting genuine democracy to exist.
In Hong Kong, a city of 6.8 million that was returned to China in 1997 after being a colony of Great Britain for over a century, the citizens had been promised a “high degree of autonomy” within the Chinese system,. More specifically, they were promised that in 2007 they would be allowed to elect their chief executive (read Governor) and that in 2011, they’d be able to elect all 60 members of their Legislative Council (at present a majority of the legislators are appointed, many of them by various business associations, in an arcane system devised by British colonial rulers to thwart local democracy activists). But as that date approaches, and as democracy forces have grown stronger, Beijing has begun to backtrack vigorously, with authorities now saying that democracy may have to wait another 30-50 years.
Hong Kongers are not yet ready for democracy, they say.
The line, and the policy, might as well have been lifted from the statements made by the Pentagon, State Department and L Paul Bremer with respect to Iraqis, who likewise are being said to be unready for the ballot box.
Of course in both cases, the truth is something else.
Democracy is not all that complicated, so to say anyone, particularly in lands which boast a relatively high degree of literacy, is “not ready” for such a political system is an insult. (Indeed, if anyone is unready for democracy these days, it is probably the American public, which, judging by voter participation rates and general ignorance regarding issues and candidates, not to mention the ease with which large segments of the electorate can be manipulated, is truly unprepared to vote.) In Hong Kong last year, a million people, one seventh of the total population and probably about a third of the electorate, demonstrated peacefully in the streets to demand democracy. If that’s not being ready, I don’t know what is. In Iraq, meanwhile, tens of thousands of people have also demonstrated to demand democracy, and under much more dangerous circumstances, i.e.: the threat of attack by American occupation forces and various Iraqi groups. Thousands more have been waging a courageous insurrection against heavily armed U.S. occupation forces and their quisling supporters, risking, and often suffering death and injury in the process.
The reality is that neither Beijing nor the Bush administration is really concerned about the “readiness” of the people in these subjugated territories for democracy. What they’re both worried about is what those all too ready people-Hong Kongers and Iraqis-would do if they had the power to elect the leaders they really wanted. Beijing fears that Hong Kong people would elect democratic movement leaders who would wrest control of the local government from the business interests that have ruled Hong Kong like a private bank for decades, that they would institute genuine social welfare programs, like a graduated income tax, unemployment compensation, a welfare and social security system, better public education funding, and all the other things that virtually every other modern society in the world has come to expect. And they are right. They are also worried that democracy, if permitted in Hong Kong, would lead to inexorable demands for the same thing inside the rest of China. And they are right to worry about that too.
As for the Bush administration, it worries that permitting real democracy in Iraq, instead of a carefully stage-managed “caucus” process for choosing leaders, would lead to a government that would tell the U.S. to get out of Iraq-and they’re right to worry about that. They are probably also worried-despite their protestations of wanting to light a democratic fire across the Middle East-that democracy in Iraq would spread and undermine pro-U.S. kleptcracies and sheikdoms from Morocco to Saudi Arabia. And they are probably right to worry about that happening too.
Even on the matter of Taiwan, Bush and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao seem to have found common ground: neither leader wants to see Taiwan voters reelect their current president-pro-independence President Chen Shui-bian. China, by threats and by working through Taiwanese businessmen with interests in China, is supporting old-guard Kuomintang candidate Lien Chan, who favors a much more conciliatory relationship with the mainland. The U.S. too, is hoping for Chen’s defeat at the polls, so that the Taiwan issue can gradually fade away, leaving American companies free to pursue cheap labor and profits in China.
This symbiotic relationship between America’s Bush and China’s Wen might seem bizarre, but then one has to remember there is a reason for their fundamental shared distrust of democracy. After all, neither leader was elected.
Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. He is now in Taiwan on a Fulbright scholarship.
A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here: http://www.nwuphilly.org