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Why China's leaders fear full democracy

By Terence Tan, The Straits Times, 17 September 2000

Beijing thinks democracy will lead to the break-up of the country and threaten eventual reunification with Taiwan, says a Chinese scholar

CHINA'S leaders are delaying full-scale democracy not because they are afraid of giving the Chinese more freedom but due to their fear that the process will lead to a total break-up of the country, a visiting scholar has noted.

Influenced by the experiences of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the Chinese government opposes democratisation which they see as threatening its control of minority regions such as Tibet, Xinjiang and Mongolia, and more importantly, China's eventual reunification with Taiwan.

This is perhaps the single most important reason why establishing democracy is so difficult in China currently, argued Dr He Baogang, a senior visiting research fellow of the East Asian Institute (EAI), as the impact of democratisation on secession and unification is asymmetric, or at direct opposites to each other.

Explaining what he meant by the asymmetric effect at an EAI seminar on Friday attended by nearly 50 participants, the academic said one of the arguments was that it is the political autonomy of "the people' rather than the reunification of "peoples' that is presupposed by the notion of democracy.

In other words, inherent in the idea of democracy is a greater likelihood that it will facilitate independence or secession rather than unification.

Dr He, who is also an Associate Professor of the Department of Government at the University of Tasmania, said this could be seen in the case of Taiwan, where democratisation has resulted in a virtual abandonment of the project of reunification with China, and thus de facto independence in the island.

People tend to use democracy to support their independence rather than unification because democratisation creates favourable conditions for the construction of new national identities, he explained.

Democratisation programmes, he added, have also empowered ethno-nationalism and contributed greatly to the cause of independence and secession, as could be witnessed from the example of the former USSR, which broke up shortly after its former leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced economic and democratic reforms in the 1980s.

China's fear of the disintegrating effects of democratisation has therefore resulted in resistance to democratic procedures in handling the issue of Tibet, he said.

Naturally, Beijing also considers a democratic solution to the Taiwan issue unfeasible and undesirable. The government's rationale, he said, was that Taiwan was an inalienable part of China, thus any self-determination process that might result in permanent separation was totally unacceptable.

Thus, when Beijing realises that, in effect, the logic of democratisation favours Taiwan's independence, it will choose to push for unification at the cost of democracy.

Because of these factors, he noted that state nationalism in China had been anti-democratic and refused to take a democratic path.

This is due partly to the fact that nationalists believe that democratisation is likely to empower ethno-nationalism and thus undermine state nationalism, he said.