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The Amazing Hopkins

Written by Brian Hicks
Posted November 17, 2005

Yep, I call 'em right. My subjective radar was right on the nose, and I scooped the leader of our very own Hyperpower on his big Asia policy speech.

I also recently recommended that you check out microprocessor maker AMD, which is making a torrid run for Intel's seat at the top of the industry. I hit the nail on the head with that one, and in my next column I'll provide you with an AMD update that will have you licking your chops, if you haven't already bought in.

But first things first: Bush is heading to China this weekend. What message does he carry to the Middle Kingdom?

President Bush arrived in Japan this week to address Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), where he is juggling the concerns of his restive Conservative base with those of liberal international economics.

We would love for China to quit jailing priests like Cai Zhuohua for illegally distributing Bibles, but we won't put our trade where our mouth is because the benefits of manufacturing and importing at Chinese rates have pleased us for decades.

President Bush spoke this week of the need for China to become a free nation, saying, "As the people of China grow in prosperity, their demands for political freedom will grow as well."

He also praised Taiwan for being a Chinese entity that has made progress from its days of martial law towards modern political freedom.

Size Does Matter

As I have said and will continue to say ad nauseam because it remains a powerful statistic, the People's Republic of China (Big China) is home to 1.3 billion people. Taiwan (Li'l China) has 23 million. That's 56 times as much freedom to dish out and corral, including 55 ethnic minorities who are not all thrilled by their role in China's boom.

Of course, as President Bush and I have both pointed out, Taiwan's leadership demonstrated a tremendous amount of political will in order to transition from martial law to democratic rule in the late 80s. Does China have the same courage?

The answer will be found in the Chinese government's gestures toward opening and whether those moves put the brakes on China's economic progress.

Perhaps China's greatest stride in the direction of democratic society is the extent to which its government equivocates on questions of national commitment, just like ours.

Democrats Are A-OK! (as long as they're dead)

In 1989, the world's collective jaw dropped at the sight of pro-democracy Chinese students being overrun by tanks in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Since the incident was atrocious in its own right, many have forgotten that the recipe for Tiananmen was in the wok for decades.

This week, China honors the man whose death sparked the Tiananmen gathering: liberal Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang.

Hu Yaobang was notable for his attempts to heal the wounds of the Cultural Revolution, 10 years during which "class enemies" were targeted across China and forced to inform on friends and family, with many lives destroyed practically if not physically.

This was the polar opposite of the McCarthy Era in the U.S. Those who displayed any hint of democratic ideology were charged with treason and excommunicated from the Party and society in general. Hu Yaobang was one of the loudest voices to condemn the 10 years of terror after Mao was safely in the ground.

For his part in advancing freedom's cause, Hu was removed from his power in 1987. He died two years later, and this November he would have celebrated his 90th birthday.

Instead, the sitting communist government will celebrate the occasion in a move that must be considered as a hopeful, if not confusing, recognition of China's legacy of reform.

The Cowboy Likes His Prod

Dubya probably doesn't know much about Hu Yaobang or the movement that adopted him. He also doesn't know much about Taiwan's relationship to China, other than the One-China policy that has kept the United States from acknowledging Taiwan's complete sovereignty while still supporting the "renegade province" militarily.

What Bush said this week holds China up to Taiwan without recognizing the significant differences in the scope of the democratic enterprise in each place.

Our fair democracy began as 13 feuding colonies, uniting not so much under idealism but pragmatism (keep in mind the motto of the American Revolution, "Unite or Die").

China is a bit larger than the continental U.S., and 268 times Taiwan's size. It is doubtful whether the Founding Fathers would ever have tried to democratize such a gargantuan land holding except in a piecemeal fashion.

If Bush knows about China's slow but encouraging progress like the ceremony honoring Hu Yaobang, does he really think it helps to embarrass the Chinese by holding them to a Taiwanese standard? The president made no substantive suggestions, and if the Chinese completely ignore his statement we are not likely to censure them in any way, given our desire to maintain the heavy (though often unfavorable) trade relationship with China and our hopes that China will bring North Korea back to the anti-proliferation table.

Cheers for City-States!

The president spoke of Taiwan as a "free and democratic Chinese society." Indeed, I read the Taiwanese newspapers online and they are full of the same kind of bickering and democratic buzz that exists in our own press.

About a year ago, there was a food fight in the Taiwanese parliament. Yes! I wish our democracy were that vibrant. "Would the distinguished gentleman from Nevada quit throwing jelly beans at me?" I can only dream.

The thing is, Taiwan runs a lot more like an American state than like the United States. If we look at the other models for "free and democratic Chinese society," including those that have now been incorporated into China, we see Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore.

These are the modern equivalents of Athens, Troy, Thrace, and other Greek municipalities where democracy was hatched and led to prosperous, sea-faring societies. Does this extend to China, one of the world's largest countries?

We are finding with Iraq (and we should already have known from watching Yugoslavia disintegrate) that authoritarianism is pretty strong glue. Being constantly reminded that the Sword of Damocles hangs above you tends to make even the most bitter racist "get along" with his neighbors, as long as they all share a common leader to fear.

The direction of the Chinese economy is a sign that things are opening up to the West, for sure. Hu Yaobang was stripped of his power because of his "bourgeois tendencies" and commitment to "spreading western values." These crimes are generally considered facts of life in China today, but the Chinese want to put their own stamp on democracy if indeed they choose it.

If the transition moves too quickly, though Bush meant only to nudge things along, we may face a China whose current strength will be a future nightmare of disarray. We can encourage native voices of democracy to push their own country forward by using our economic ties to exert influence, by handling the cultural nuances very seriously and carefully, and by striving to limit our own double-talk so that if China does turn to democracy, it will be truly representative and not a confederacy of talking heads like America today.

- Sam Hopkins


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