Clinton's Chinese burn

Hillary Clinton's latest speech on democracy in Asia fails to address the growing sense of freedom in China and reveals her wishful thinking in regards the link between democracy and economy.

FT.com

This week Hillary Clinton pulled off a remarkable feat. She gave an entire speech about China without mentioning the C-word. Although the US secretary of state avoided explicit reference to China, she did use the D-word. By my count, she mentioned "democracy” 48 times.

The speech was given in Mongolia, a country on China’s doorstep (or should that be door-steppe), whose "pluralistic, democratic system”, Clinton said, set an example. She even talked about a "community of democracies”, which was a new one on me. Parliament of owls. Murder of crows. Community of democracies.

This is not to denigrate the contents of Clinton’s speech. She is right to stand up for individual liberties, freedom of expression and freedom from persecution for one’s beliefs. She is right, too, to stress the importance of women’s rights, sadly lacking in parts of Asia. One can only hope she makes the same speech next time she visits Riyadh.

Clinton was also correct in pointing to the progress towards democracy that some Asian countries have made. She quoted Freedom House, a US-based non-governmental advocacy group, which says Asia has come further over the past five years than any other region. A few veterans of Tahrir Square might quibble with that. But several Asian countries have undoubtedly taken important democratic steps. The most obvious is Myanmar, where political prisoners have been released, press restrictions relaxed and Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy allowed to contest – and win – parliamentary by-elections.

There are other examples. In its 2012 report, Freedom House singles out Singapore and Thailand. Singapore, it says, had loosened its "managed democracy” such that opposition candidates can now win elections, though "the system ensured that this did not translate into significantly increased representation in the parliament”. Thailand was praised for last year’s peaceful transfer of power to an opposition led by Yingluck Shinawatra – a verdict not all Thais would agree with. Bangladesh, although it slipped last year, is seen to have become significantly more democratic in the past five years. Freedom House might have added Malaysia, where there have been tentative signs of a political opening.

In its necessarily contentious rankings, it categorises Singapore and Thailand as "partly free”, along with Bangladesh, the Philippines, Malaysia, Nepal and Sri Lanka. According to criteria that measure both electoral and civil liberties, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mongolia, South Korea and Taiwan are "free”. Afghanistan, China, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam are deemed "not free”. Myanmar remains "not free” in spite of recent progress.

Clinton rightly took a swipe at the idea that democracy is somehow "antithetical to Asian values”. That is patent nonsense, as the robust democracies of South Korea and Taiwan attest. Only this week, Park Geun-hye, daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, declared her candidacy in now fully democratic presidential elections.

In some sections of Clinton’s speech, however, she was on mushier ground. Arguing that prosperity and political openness went hand in hand, she pointed to Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Taiwan as examples of "democratic societies that have delivered tremendous economic benefits”. Yet, with the exception of Japan, which had democracy imposed by US occupiers, those economies grew just as quickly under dictatorship as they have since becoming democracies. In the case of South Korea and Taiwan, which became pluralist after they became middle-income countries, one could just as well argue that economic benefits delivered democracy - not the other way around.

In seeking a causal effect, Clinton was guilty of wishful thinking. North Korea and Myanmar are examples of dictatorships with dreadful economies. China has an authoritarian government and among the world’s highest growth – though still only a middling standard of living. The Philippines has some of the trappings of a democracy but has disappointed economically. Singapore, merely "partly free”, according to Freedom House, has the highest per capita income in Asia, at $60,000 in purchasing power parity terms. Nor is it straightforward to correlate, as Clinton half-sought to do, democracy with women’s rights. With the (admittedly glaring) exception of reproductive rights, women in China can claim greater equality than those in most of Asia.

China wasn’t mentioned by name. But it was clear that Clinton had it in her sights when she talked of authoritarian regimes working to "restrict people’s access to ideas and information, to imprison them for expressing their views [and] to usurp the rights of citizens to choose their leaders”. China is guilty on all counts. For that it deserves to be condemned. Only this month, protesters in Sichuan were badly beaten, although authorities did give into their demands to halt a metals refinery. Last month, a woman in Shaanxi province was forced to abort a seven-month-old foetus because she lacked Rmb40,000 ($6,300) to pay a fine for having a second child.

But Clinton’s remarks failed to capture a real sense of widening freedom in China. In many ways – in access to information, freedom to travel, even freedom to protest on certain issues – China is a world away from where it was 20 or 30 years ago. Freedom House would give both Mao’s China and Hu Jintao’s China a "not free” rating. Clinton can – and should – be more nuanced. Dictatorships, as well as democracies, come in different shades. Next time, she should use the C-word and say more precisely what she means.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012