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Contention not Confucian

A lot of people ask me what do we know about democracy, we live in a communist totalitarianism. We didn’t know much, but we did know democracy through a lack of democracy, lack of freedom.

— Wu’er Kaixi. a leader of the pro-democracy movement that occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing in May!June 1989 and was put down with armored tanks.

In July 2013, a Chinese government policy statement titled Document 9 began circulating among the general public. It was a point-by-point rejection of democratic practices, which it says are Western and at odds with Chinese values and interests. Accordingly, Document 9 prohibits the following “seven ills”:

  • 1 “Promoting Western Constitutional Democracy.”
  • 2 “Promoting ‘universal values’”
  • 3 “Promoting civil society.”
  • 4 “Promoting Neoliberalism.”
  • 5 “Promoting the West’s idea of journalism.”
  • 6 “Promoting historical nihilism.”
  • 7 “Questioning Reform.”

With one exception, these are reiterations of classical communist ideology. The exception, Prohibition #7, is a concession to advocates of reform. More pointedly, it is a warning to arch-conservatives who complained that the reforms were against the spirit of Mao Zedong’s Communist Revolution in 1949. The rest of the prohibitions are an affirmation of the revolution.

The first rejects multi-party democracy and the system of checks and balances. Advocacy of these, it states, is an attempt to undermine

China’s socialist order. The second rejects the argument that democratic values, such as individual liberty and the right to free expression, are universal principles. It sees such a position as an attempt to weaken the theoretical foundation of Chinese communism. Correspondingly, the third prohibition is on the grounds that the activities of civil society are an attempt to make individual rights paramount and, therefore, superior to the authority of the state.

Despite the economic liberalization that was underway in China at the time, the document still rejects promotion of “neoliberalism.” Thus, the fourth prohibition depicts it as an attempt to introduce unfettered capitalism, that is, complete privatization and marketization.

In Prohibition #5, the document returns to matters of freedom of expression, specifically journalism. It characterizes the practice of press freedom and independence as “the West’s idea of journalism.” The ideal press system, it suggests, is one that is subject to “Party discipline.” All advocacies to the contrary are an offense.

The prohibition of “historical nihilism” (Prohibition #6) is a final declaration of continued fidelity to Mao Zedong, the Communist Party’s founding chairman. Document 9 defines “historical nihilism” as any suggestion that Chinese communism was based on anything but sound scientific principles. In effect, any questioning of Chinese communist system was an offense.

Document 9 was apparently intended as a reiteration of ideological tenets for the benefit of top party and government officials. But somehow it was obtained by dissidents and circulated. This infuriated the authorities. Probably because of his activism, dissident journalist Gao Yu immediately became a suspect. He was arrested, “tried,” and sentenced to seven years imprisonment for leaking “state secret.”

That a policy statement that revealed nothing new about communist rule in China was a matter of secrecy is quite revealing. It says much about the collective psychology of the Communist Party. It apparently considered the document too stridently anti-democratic for public consumption. Like other autocratic governments, it wanted to have its cake and eat it. On the one hand, it was bent on enforcing communist doctrines. On the other hand, it wanted to allow itself the latitude to pay lip-service to freedom and liberty.

China’s recent history at the time also provides insight into the necessity for Document #9 and the caginess with which it was handled. To begin with, President Xi Jinping was just elected General Secretary of the Communist Party and President of China, respectively, the preceding months. Document #9 was his formal declaration of his leadership commitments.

Moreover, the specter of the Tiananmen Square uprising in June 1989 and its violent suppression still haunted the Chinese leadership. The student-led mass protests that called for political liberalization was the most potent internal threat the communist government had faced since it came to power in a violent revolution in 1949. The conservative elements of the party/government were so fearful of losing power that they deployed hundreds of armored tanks and thousands of soldiers to crush the protests. Though government officials put the death toll at less than 300, independent estimates put it at no fewer than 10,000.*

Chinese authorities have since seen to it that every evidence of the massacre was scrapped from the square and erased from official Chinese history. Today, Tiananmen Square is a tourist attraction that glistens with flowers. In a 30th anniversary story in June 2019, a CBS correspondent Elizabeth Palmer showed photos of the bloody images to a random selection of young Chinese visitors. None knew about the incident. Some even asked in what country it took placed.

But while the government has so successfully “erased” the history of the massacres, government officials are still haunted by the specter. They are still frightened by the prospects of a similar uprising. And just as he was becoming China’s supreme leader, events in some provinces reminded Xi that the possibility of a repeat of the Tiananmen uprising was not farfetched.

Just weeks before Document #9 was issued, a government censor had sparked protests at a weekly newspaper in the southern city of Guangzhou. The censor had watered down an article in the Southern Weekend that called for constitutionalism in government. The paper was also part of a campaign calling on officials to disclose the sources of their wealth. These were all a part of continuing internal pressure for political liberalization and transparency. When the protests spilled into the streets of Guangzhou, Xi, and his fellow hardliners were alarmed. The issuing of Document #9 was partly necessitated by that and similar protests.

Among other things, the document was apparently Xi’s way of letting fellow communist leaders know that he had no inclination toward political reform. But then, he didn’t want to spell that out too bluntly to internal and external crusaders for democratization. There was probably the fear of a pushback that could result in another Tiananmen Square-type of uprising.

As with that uprising, the Chinese officials blamed the United States for the Guangzhou protests. “Western anti-China forces led by the United States have joined in one after the other, and colluded with dissidents within the country to make slanderous attacks on us in the name of so-called press freedom and constitutional democracy,” the New York Times (August 19, 2013) quotes Zhang Guangdong, a government propagandist, as saying. “They are trying to break through our political system, and this was a classic example.”

Accordingly, issuance of the document was accompanied by a crackdown on dissent. Reform activists were detained, and access to domestic news on the web was constrained. Meanwhile, most state-owned media began a campaign against constitutionalism and “American influence.”

In May 2019, about six years after Document 9 was released, China was again faced with a mass demonstration for democracy. This time, it was in the semi-autonomous city-state of Hong Kong. Until July 1997, Hong Kong was under British sovereignty. That year the British bowed to Chinese pressure and relinquished the sovereignty. The transfer agreement stipulated, however, that Hong Kong would be “a special administrative unit of China” and retain its democratic character for at least 50 years. But even with 28 years before the expiration of the agreement, Hong Kong residents were concerned that the Chinese government was already—and increasingly—encroaching on their liberties. In effect, they wanted everything that Document 9 forbids.

But that was not to be. In June 2020, the Chinese parliament passed a sweeping law that criminalized pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and gave Chinese law enforcement direct police power to quail the protests. The law was quickly implemented early in July, and the crackdown began.

Again, Chinese officials blamed the West for instigating and encouraging the protesters. Usually, China singled out the United States, but this time it was Britain. Ironically, the Western press’s characterization of democracy as Western lends credence to China’s finger-pointing.

Western press coverage of the Hong Kong and similar protests invariably state explicitly or implicitly that the protesters are pushing for Western values. Even coverage of Document 9 and the related repression says as much. For example, a New York Times story on August 19, 2013, carries the headline, “China Takes Aim at Western Ideas.” In the story, the paper refers to the reformists as advocates of “Western-style economic changes” and “Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation.”

It all harkens back to Doug Sanders’ point that the notion of Western values is a double-edged sword. As he wrote in Toronto’s Globe and Mail of August 23,2014, “If you want to identify the most harmful idea in the world, it would be hard to avoid the phrase ‘Western values.’” Sanders noted that democracy is not anymore Western than is communism. After all, he argued, communism is based on the political ideology propounded by two German philosophers, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Wu’er Kaixi, one of the leaders of the Tiananmen Square rebellion, concurs with Saunders. In an interview during the 30th anniversary of the rebellion, he suggested that the democratic impulse is innate in everyone. “A lot of people ask me what do we know about democracy, we live in a communist totalitarianism,” said Kaixi, who was still in exile in Taiwan. “We didn’t know much, but we did know democracy through a lack of democracy, lack of freedom.”

That may well be the reason that even Xi’s government wanted to keep Document 9 secret. It certainly explains why monarchies such as Jordan and theocracies such as Iran claim to be democratic, but in their own way. And they bristle when their democratic credentials are questioned by the West. Sometimes they complain that the West wants to impose its own coloration of democracy on them. Other times they fault the West for its own deficiencies and accuse Westerners of hypocrisy.

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