October 1, 2009
It may be one of the most politically incorrect hunches of the year, but I suspect the Chinese people are content with their government. If a referendum offered ''multi-party democracy'' or ''current arrangements'' the latter would romp home. After three centuries of upheaval, the Chinese are basically happy.
Ancient Chinese literature does not celebrate a democratic impulse. Chinese history is rich in characters and achievement - but there is no Athens, Magna Carta, 1776 or Eureka Stockade. It's good emperors and bad emperors - and the bad get chucked out. If a government delivers the goods then the people become uninterested in politics and preoccupied with learning and prosperity.
The single greatest influence on the temperament of the Chinese people is not communism but Confucius. Half a millennium before Jesus, he taught: ''To govern by virtue, let us compare it to the North Star: it stays in its place, while the myriad stars wait upon it.'' The state is stationary and permanent - the people are a constellation of sparkling activity. Another ancient Chinese saying echoes the same thought: ''The less the king does the more that gets done.'' It could be Milton Friedman.
The West thrives on political drama and entertainment. Our elections are ideally about finding a charismatic leader who inspires us to do good.
The Chinese are different - they want basic functionality and order from government. They understand that when the elephants dance, the mice get trampled. Of the 10 deadliest wars in history, six were Chinese. They have learnt by bitter experience that political upheaval is a prelude to catastrophe.
Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward brought Stalinism to the rice paddies, and up to 30 million Chinese died from famine. The ''Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution'' reduced China to a fragment of its true self, like a sick organism infected by a state-sanctioned madness. Life in China in the late 1960s was worse than North Korea today.
The thaw began the moment the American anti-communist crusader Richard Nixon arrived in China and embraced communism's most successful revolutionary. It was the geopolitical chess move of the 20th century. Without the consequent Nixon-inspired tilt to the West, it is quite possible Mao might have been replaced by Mao II - as happened with North Korea.
The Communist Party celebrates 60 years in power today, but there have been two regimes since 1949. The punctuation mark falls somewhere between the arrival of Air Force One in Beijing in 1972 and the death of Mao in 1976. Mao's anointed successor was quickly pushed aside and the free-enterprise, pro-West faction of Deng Xiaoping assumed control. The regime changed forever.
The Tiananmen Square massacre followed a popular uprising that sprang from genuine discontent. It was a reaction against the Maoist old guard, and it was crushed by the Maoist old guard. The heroism of the unknown dead in Beijing, however, was not in vain. While the immediate aftermath looked ominous, when the dust settled, protesters were quietly released from custody and the foreign press returned in greater numbers and, with time, greater freedoms.
In pragmatic Chinese tradition, the government listened, recognised a problem, accelerated engagement with the West, opened new markets, embraced technology and allowed new voices to be heard. With the benefit of 20 years' hindsight we can say the protesters won the ''Battle of Tiananmen Square''. It was the old guard's last stand and it disgraced them. Reformers who were seen to be sympathetic to the protesters now dominate China.
The only media in the 1960s were state propaganda. Today, without too much effort, you can watch CNN and procure a copy of Wild Swans. Media are government-owned but driven almost entirely by the profit motive.
In the 1960s Christians were killed smuggling Bibles, graduates of foreign universities were imprisoned and ideology ruled. Today, churches are thriving, students from the world's best universities are welcomed home with pride and ideology is out.
It is estimated there are 3000 political prisoners in China today. It is not Mao's gulags, but no prisoner of conscience is a statistic; one is heartbreaking. I suspect, however, that friendly and collaborative engagement with China will do more to secure the liberty of the wrongfully imprisoned than a perfunctory human rights lecture.
If our goal is respect for civil rights then there is no substitute, in any country, for the emergence of a large middle class with something to defend. As per capita gross domestic product continues its inexorable rise, the Chinese middle class will only grow and become more influential. ''Respect for human rights'' flows on the backswing. We should not insist that the Chinese Government jump through democratic hoops when it is delivering rapid human progress and its people are happy.
We need to know about atrocities (and humanitarian tragedies) wherever they occur, if only to help in the aftermath. We are now more likely to know because the Chinese media will tell us - as will the 500 million Chinese walking around with video cameras in their mobile phones.
Perhaps democracy will evolve in China. I hope it does, but I am not Chinese. Those who still pine for a democratic uprising should think carefully. The most likely prelude to democracy would be a decade of civil unrest, internal economic collapse (of Australia's biggest trading partner), a long-term global recession and tens of millions of boat people.
Napoleon said of China, ''That is a sleeping dragon. Let him sleep! If he wakes, he will shake the world.'' The dragon is awake.
The advent of agriculture was big. The Industrial Revolution was mega. But in raw numbers, in all of history, there has never been a greater humanitarian miracle than what we are now witnessing in China. More than 1 billion people have been lifted out of destitution and famine and hundreds of millions have entered a peaceful and secure middle class. This is China's true Great Leap Forward.
If you can give a billion-plus human beings a dignified and hopeful quality of life, from a standing start of peasant penury, in just 30 years - Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, you deserve a Nobel prize.
Ross Cameron, the former member for Parramatta, is now the chairman of Towncars.
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