China's 'D' word gets lost in translation

Tony Abbott is of the view that China will be fully democratic by 2050. But he doesn't seem to understand what that democracy will look like.

In his account of his time as foreign minister, Bob Carr recounts how relieved he was to make it through a presser while in China in May 2012.

“A great relief to get through my first China trip without one of those mistakes the media loves trapping foreign ministers in making. Verbal slip-ups. All those potentially neuralgic issues: Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, human rights, the consular cases,” he wrote in his memoir, Diary of a Foreign Minister.

Carr was seemingly chuffed at himself for making it through unscathed.

“Yes, the lines were watertight. I got Graeme Wedderburn and an embassy official to rehearse me. And I stuck to the script. Painstakingly”.

But when Trade Minister Andrew Robb visited Beijing last week, he wasn’t as adroit.

To say Robb was annoyed when I brought up the 'D' word would be an understatement. If you haven’t heard the interview yet, I recommend you have a listen.

I had asked Robb to expand on comments he and the Prime Minister had made about the prospects for democracy in China.

Among his terse responses to me was the legitimate question: “What relationship has that got to do with the free trade agreement that we've just struck?”

But it was the Trade Minister himself who drew the connection in a speech in the days following the signing of the free-trade agreement.

“They need democratic processes, they need very democratic processes, they need strong cultural sectors and of course open markets and rules-based trade and investment, which is pretty much a part of the agreement. The democratic processes, President Xi said on Monday in the Parliament, a very profound comment, that by 2050 you can expect China to be fully democratic,” he said.

Robb was careful to point out that it was still a ‘work in progress’ and if China were to become a democracy by 2050, it may not be the kind of democracy we in the West are used to.

The Trade Minister’s carefully couched statement followed a somewhat more breathless declaration by the Prime Minister two days earlier.

“I have never heard a Chinese leader declare that his country would be fully democratic by 2050. “I thank you, Mr President, for this historic, historic statement which I hope will echo right around the world,” Abbott said.

The comment was met with derision by China-watchers across the globe.

“I’m afraid Abbott has been a bit too optimistic … He seemed a bit overwhelmed having so many heavyweights around him,” Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong Baptist University, told The Guardian.

If it was the first time the Prime Minister had heard a Chinese leader make a comment like that, he clearly hasn’t been paying attention.

Even chairman Mao himself saw the initial stage of socialism taking 100 years to establish and that by 2049 China would be a democracy.

The only problem is what Chinese leaders regard as democracy doesn’t quite square with what most Westerners think.

Former premier Wen Jiabao used to be able to create a flurry of excitement among many in the Western media by mouthing platitudes about democracy.

But as Richard McGregor points out in The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, when the premier talked about democracy, he was leaving out a crucial caveat included in any official documents about the topic in China, including the Party’s 2005 White Paper on the topic.

‘Democratic government is the Chinese Communist Party governing on behalf of the people,’ the paper said.

A former senior official ousted after the 1989 crackdown reportedly joked to McGregor: “You need a new dictionary to understand what Chinese leaders mean when they talk about democracy”.

The Trade Minister tersely told China Spectator that asking about the 'D' word was merely a ‘gotcha question’.

But understanding whether China is genuinely on a path toward democracy goes to the heart of whether the Australian government really understands who it’s dealing with.

Since taking office in 2012, the Chinese government under Xi Jinping has arrested lawyers, activists, and journalists in a clear attempt to stifle dissent and curtail civil society.

At the same time, Xi has launched an anti-corruption campaign -- that at times has been brutal -- and has selectively targeted factional enemies.

Last week, US President Barack Obama said that Xi had “consolidated power faster and more comprehensively than probably anybody since Deng Xiaoping".

"And everybody's been impressed by his ... clout inside of China after only a year and a half or two years." 

But Obama said there were negative sides to Xi's rise. "There are dangers in that. On issues of human rights, on issues of clamping down on dissent. He taps into a nationalism that worries his neighbours,"

Obama’s candid view reflects a broader shift in policymaking circles in Washington in which the key precept of China policy is that, with further engagement, China will inexorably become more like us.

As Dr Christopher Ford, a former senior US State Department official in the George W. Bush Administration argues, this ‘liberal myth’ is starting to disintegrate due to “a cascade of provocations in the South China Sea and East China Sea, more draconian crackdowns on internal dissent by the CCP regime, and most recently the repudiation of earlier promises of democracy for Hong Kong”.

From Australia’s perspective, two competing themes are animating our attitude towards China on the 'D' word.

The most dominant strain places an emphasis on ‘economic diplomacy’: it’s the idea that increased trade lifts all boats and is preferable to dolling out foreign aid or navel-gazing about fuzzy notions like the ‘Asian Century’.

By increasing trade with our regional neighbours, our countries become more greatly entwined providing stability in the relationships.

Indeed, there are signs from Xi himself that increased trade, and specifically more FTAs in the region, will be used to promote reform at home.

But the other perspective takes what some may argue is a more principled position. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop put that forward when she said Australia would support liberal democratic values and freedom, and put her money where her mouth is when she urged China to ensure Hong Kongers have a genuine say in their elections.

But if the Australian government actually believes encouraging democracy in China is a worthwhile thing, it can’t just rely on trade and the business community. The past year has been replete with examples of foreign businesses showing just how willing they are to kowtow to an increasingly powerful China.

China Spectator has tried to shine a light on instances where the business community has done a disservice to Chinese citizens who are risking their lives for democracy, including in the following instances:

It’s unclear what motivated the Prime Minister to make the comments about Xi’s 'historic statement’. To view it uncharitably, it’s the kind of loose talk that he has demonstrated before – most memorably when he praised Japan's World War II military prowess in his welcome to Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. (China's fighting words are full of fury, July 15).

More charitably, the Prime Minister was simply throwing Xi’s double-speak back in his face. As Andrew Carr from ANU's School of International Political and Strategic Studies says, “double-speak words have powerful ways of rebounding on leaders. Many democracies began in name only".

At worst, it was jaw-droppingly naïve. At best, it was a way to throw Xi’s weasel words back at him. It’s my understanding that the Prime Minister does not regret the comments.

But now that the government has brought the topic up, we should be able to ask them questions about it. We do live in a democracy after all.