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Society & Culture

The Pace of Democracy, to Each His Own

Apr 23, 2011

On April 6, 2011, the U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman gave an eloquent speech at the Barnett-Oksenberg Lecture in Shanghai. In his speech, Ambassador Huntsman recalled his service to President Reagan’s trip to China, demonstrated his knowledge of China’s modern history, and highlighted challenges that are faced by both China and the U.S.

However, he singled out human rights as the difference between the U.S. and China. He said, “the United States will continue to champion respect for universal human rights, which is a fundamental extension of the American experience and a bedrock of our world view.”  He reiterated that the U.S. will “continue to speak up in defense of social activists, like Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei.”

Mr. Liu is currently incarcerated and Mr. Ai is being detained. Their guilt or innocence will be judged by China’s judicial process and its fairness by history. Certainly Mr. Liu and Mr. Ai’s names are being mentioned quite frequently these days in the media. Maybe it is time to examine the difference between the U.S. and China’s progress and pace toward democracy.

The current government of China was only established 60 years ago. The first 30 years ended with a social movement called the Cultural Revolution, The Cultural Revolution damaged China on an enormous scale, both economically and socially. Millions of people were persecuted in the violent factional struggles across the country, and suffered a wide range of abuses including torture, imprisonment, and seizure of property. A large segment of the population was forcibly displaced, most notably the transfer of urban youth to rural regions. Historical relics and artifacts were destroyed. Cultural and religious sites were ransacked. People who experienced that period can never forget all the damages and suffering this so-called “revolution” once forced upon them and the nation. The last 30 years have seen China’s unprecedented economic growth, social stability, and continuously rising living standard for the people. However, China was once again brought to a halt by the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989.

While the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square Protests are a somewhat different state of affairs, they do share some common characters. They both started with postings of inciting statements, then rallies and demonstrations to arouse the public, and then occupation of public areas, followed by confrontations with local authorities, coupled with some form of rioting and looting. The end results were the same – heavy casualties including deaths, injuries, and damage to properties, transportations, and schools. Furthermore, both paralyzed the economy and the society. After the 1989 incident, Deng Xiaoping wisely shifted the whole nation onto the concentration of economic construction, which has proved beneficial to the nation; while the negative impact from the Cultural Revolution is still being felt today, and may take more years for the nation to fully recover.

The current and the next generation of Chinese leaders all lived through these two reprehensible disasters. Many of them were victims of the Cultural Revolution, and they also witnessed the turmoil on Tiananmen Square. Most of these leaders vowed never to let this happen again to the people of China. And the people of China have no desire to see this kind of chaos repeated in their life time. That is one of the reasons why the “Jasmine Revolution” has not happened in China as anticipated by some people in the West.

When Ambassador Huntsman projected “the fundamental extension of the American experience,” did he take into consideration the almost 90 years of slavery in the United States? Or the Civil War that claimed over 600,000 American lives? Did he take into consideration another 90 years of Jim Crow laws of “Separate but Equal”? Did Ambassador Huntsman remember the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation, and the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains for whites and blacks? Even the U.S. military was segregated while fighting the same war. How about the Sedition Act of 1918 and the McCarthyism in the 1940’s and 1950’s?

In the last 234 years, the U.S. has learned a lot from its past and created a system of its own that is suitable for the people of the United States. China is only a 60 year old country. It too has lived through many turbulent times. It too is learning from its own past lessons. It too has its own ideal to form a more perfect union and insure domestic tranquility.  And it too deserves to explore its own way for democratization and better protection of human rights.

For China, the number one priority is stability; this is a consensus among the government leaders and majority of the people. The Chinese people today are enjoying the greatest democracy, freedom, and human rights in their modern history, though their leaders also admit that China still has a lot to improve in these areas. China’s democracy and human rights should continue to advance, while keeping the stability of its society, at its own pace, and with its own system.

Democracy between China and the United States might be different in pace, progress, and context, but the direction remains the same.

Fred Teng is a senior media executive based in the United States. He is a regular speaker and writer on U.S. China policy issues, and also actively working with a number of policy institutions on the bilateral relationship.

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