I was lucky enough to be studying politics, in particular Communist Political Systems, during the period 1988-91 when things were changing so fast that textbooks were becoming redundant and referencing an article in the morning newspaper won you points on your exam papers that afternoon.
One of the last seminars I ever attended as a student was with a guest lecturer, a Thatcherite British economist, who came to talk to us about Perestroika and Glasnost in the USSR, just at the time when things were starting to really fall to pieces in Moscow.
His argument was that Gorbachev’s mistake was to have introduced political freedoms (glasnost) at the same time as bringing in economic reforms (perestroika).
The ‘tiger economies’ which had combined aggressive privitisation and market reforms while maintaining a tightly controlled political system with little room for dissent, were a far more suitable model for development he argued. Democracy, his logic seemed to say, just got in the way of making money.
I found this view deeply disturbing based as it is upon the notion that democratic freedoms are an irritant which can only be permitted when the capitalists’ powers are so entrenched that their profit-making cannot be challenged by any effective opposition or by organised labour.
But this is exactly the model that China has chosen to take – with little in the way of dissent from the ‘international community’. The elite are getting rich quick in the economic sphere while the Party ensures that irritants such as free trade unions, a democratic opposition or a free press are kept at bay. It is capitalism without a human face.
When I studied Chinese politics there was much talk about the conflict between modernising reformists and the leftists who were still inspired by Maoist revolutionary ideas, but the economic changes have led to the domination of the authoritarian technocrats whose sole ambition is to create a profit-making environment in which the party act as the defenders of order.
But reading Johann Hari’s article on Hong Kong offers some hope for those of us who would like to see China develop in another direction.
The Chinese Communists have insisted since they seized power in 1949 that no amount of public pressure could sway them; the party is the sole custodian of Chinese interests, and any protesters were simply refusing to see the wisdom of the party leaders. Remember Tiananmen.
The experience in Hong Kong reverses all that. Half a million people took to the streets to protest against the decision to impose a Draconian internal security bill that would have repressed them almost as fiercely as their cousins in mainland China. The Chinese government has withdrawn the bill. It has been forced by its people, for the first time, to lose face.
There are no easy, quick-fix liberation solutions for China but given the size and importance of the country there is no doubt that the situation there is of vital global interest.
Hari says: “The only available moral option for Western governments — and it is an imperfect one — is to encourage reformers within the Chinese system and dissidents without.
One of the most shameful moments in Prime Minister Tony Blair’s premiership was when pro-democracy demonstrators were hidden from view during President Jiang Zemin’s visit to Britain in 1998.
He has a chance to right that wrong now. When he visits China later this summer, he should make a point of calling for democracy, and he should go one step further and meet up with Chinese dissidents in London before he goes.
Too right, he should.