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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

New strategies for 'democratizing' China

August 21, 2008

By James Gomez
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
August 20, 2008

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest
writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in
contributing.

Various China-related democracy issues need to be integrated through
a broad and overarching theme and coordinated from closer locations
in Asia. This was the latent international strategy that emerged from
the Third International Conference on Global Support for
Democratization in China and Asia (GSDCA) which was held last week in Tokyo.

The GSDCA brought together some 100 pro-democracy activists from
across the world, literally on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Summer
Olympic Games, for a two-day meeting in Tokyo beginning August 4. The
conference hosted participants from autocratic Asian nations, as well
as dignitaries, experts, and scholars from all over the globe,
including Europe, North America, and the Asia-Pacific.

China-related democracy issues Presently internationalized
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, 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 Falungong members. It also includes
specific human rights incidents such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square
massacre, issues surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympics and
discrimination of minority communities such as Uyghurs.

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

While most of these elements see a 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. Therefore,
democracy-building in China seems weak, scattered and uncoordinated.

Clarifying democracy in China

The urgent contemporary challenge is clarifying what
democracy-building in China means. The various elements of
China-related democracy building point to the need for a change of
regime 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: 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.
It requires further clarification in terms of changes on a number of
levels, including in the constitution, the legalization of
multi-party democracy, strengthening the civil society support base,
and in approaches to be taken.

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

China's democratization movement also needs experienced people to
provide leadership and serve as its international spokespersons.
While a single figure as prominent as the Dalai Lama might not
emerge, several key leaders who can inspire confidence across a
series of issues would 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 organize several global meetings on the
need for democratization 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 Myanmar,
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,
particularly within the Asian context, and to a certain extent it
relies on them for ideological legitimation. For example, the
democratization of Singapore should also be seen as equally
important, since it would ensure that China does not have a model on
which to construct its vision of economic prosperity without democracy.

Thus, enlisting support for China's democratization through an
integrated multi-level regional approach is more desirable. The
democratization of China and other countries in Asia should be
intrinsically linked to each other, without first waiting for China
to become democratic. 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 democratization efforts to Asia The main impetus for
democratization in China currently lies in the hands of activists who
are concentrated in North America and Europe, where most 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 and 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 GSDCA. 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, notably the
early stirrings of genuine civil society. As we look toward the next
stage, it is increasingly important that the international lobby for
China's democratization develops connections and partners within China.

Reviewing international democracy assistance This then leads to the
program content of international democracy assistance organizations
that often mirror their governments' position on China. Thus,
existing programs need to be critically reviewed. Most international
democracy assistance agencies do not have an Asian program. If they
do, it is often a small program that focuses on other parts of Asia
except China. They do not run "democratization" programs for China.
If there is a China program, 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
organized international "China" elements, but the Tibetan movement
does not focus on the internal democratization of China beyond the
special reference to Tibetan autonomy.

Hence attempts should be made to lobby international agencies to do
more for democracy promotion in China and Asia as a whole, in
particular by facilitating more Asia-based advocacy programmes. This
is, of course, going to be a challenge, not least because many
governments in the region would be reluctant to support that kind of
activity on their home soil.

In lobbying to move China's democratization efforts closer to Asia,
one has to be wary of Beijing's ability to mobilize pro-China forces
in Asian countries against such efforts. Democracy-promotion
professionals in Asia are only too 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,
governments 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 democratization 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.

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