Democracy and human rights in China: Lessons from Singapore

April 15, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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Uriah Kriegel
The Washington Dispatch
March 3, 2003

This week, the National Peoples Congress is convening in Beijing to complete the latest rearrangement of Chinas power structure. Yet little is expected to change under the leadership of Hu Jintao and the new politburo. The communist party will continue to keep its tight noose on the besieged Chinese nation with utter disregard for human rights.

Some in Washington consider China to have been a good partner in the War on Terror. In reality, the Chinese have done little to support the US since 9/11. Throughout the standoff with North Korea, they have remained remarkably passive, apparently in the hope that the crisis will result in the US withdrawing its troops from the Korean peninsula and leaving China to dominate East Asia completely. During the recent debates at the UN, it has generally opposed the American initiative on Iraq. At the same time, the Chinese have used the War on Terror as a pretext for striking down on legitimate independence movements in Tibet and East Turkestan.

Beside the continued oppression of Tibetans and Uighurs, the Chinese government has returned many refugees to North Korea, where their safety could not be guaranteed. According to the Falungong, 513 of its members have died in custody as of mid-November, presumably tortured to death by Chinese officials. To prevent knowledge of such events, the government attempts to control information flow on the internet, blocking access to search engines, redirecting traffic to approved websites, and clamping on internet cafes. On the official list of sensitive topics, published by the eerily named Ministry of Propaganda, one finds Taiwan, Tibet, and East Turkestan; religious extremism and the Falungong; social stratification; the south-north water diversion project; student loans; lawsuits against the government; Confucian moral education in primary schools; major accidents; and much more.

Human Rights abuses in China deserve special attention not only because of the intensity of the repression, but also because of its scope. More than a fifth of the worlds population is held hostage by this dictatorial regime. This makes the commigangsters of Beijing the single most oppressive organization in the history of the modern world.

There is a line of thought that finds it morally wrong to pressure the Chinese government on human rights and democracy. Democracy and human rights are Western constructs, the argument goes, and imposing them on China would represent a subtle form of cultural imperialism. The government in Beijing has jumped all over this argument. The Asian way is inherently authoritarian, we are told, and so the social and political order that befits the Asians is the sort of repressive totalitarianism practiced by Beijing.

In response to this line of argument, the proponents of Chinese democratization often cite the case of Taiwan, a country which is ethnically predominantly Chinese, but has undergone a long and marvelous process of democratization over the past 40 years.

In 1949, Chiang Kai-Shek and his Kuomintang fled mainland China and took over Taiwan, where they instituted Martial Law instantaneously. But Chiangs dictatorial hold on Taiwan gradually eroded. In 1979, the first Human Rights Day in Taiwan erupted into a massive pro-democracy rally (the so-called Kaohsiung Incident); in 1986, the pro-democracy Democratic Progressive Party was formed; in 1987, the Martial Law gave way to the less stringent National Security Law, which was lifted in turn in 1991; and in 1996 the first free elections for the presidency took place.

The Taiwanese experiment shows that there is nothing inherently anti-democratic in the Chinese spirit or culture. The Chinese in Taiwan are much happier and better off today than they were under Chiang Kai-Sheks ruthless rule.

However, even more interesting may be the case of the third predominantly Chinese country Singapore. The Chinese account for over 75% of Singapores 4 million citizens. Since its independence in 1965, Singapore has held free and never rigged elections every five years, for both parliament the Prime Minister post.

The interesting fact is how these free elections have turned out. The Peoples Action Party (PAP) has won every single elections overwhelmingly. Currently, the PAP holds 82 of the 84 elected seats in parliament. The founding father of the PAP, Lee Kuan Yew, was reelected as prime minister continuously since independence, until he voluntarily stepped down in 1990. Ever since, his designated successor, Goh Chok Tong, won easily every contest. Mr. Lee is still senior minister in todays cabinet, and his son is the deputy prime minister.

In other words, the people of Singapore have freely elected to live under the control of Mr. Lee until he decided to bequeath it, and they entrust unopposed power in his partys hands. They freely choose to live under virtual totalitarianism.

With such power in its hands, the PAP has been passing draconian legislation unchallenged. Free speech is scarce and censorship ubiquitous in Singapore; the media are government-owned. Its illegal to sell gum or spit in public, and drug trafficking carries a mandatory death sentence (mandatory!). Life in Singapore must feel quite unfree but this is the wish of the people.

The lesson to take from the Singaporean case is that democracy nowise stands in the way of implementing an authoritarian regime, if this is what the people choose to do.

If the people of China are likewise fond of the authoritarian lifestyle, they should be allowed to express this in free elections. Chinas communist party is welcome to run for office on a platform of continued crackdown on unauthorized religious practices, torture and murder of political prisoners, tight censorship of the internet, systematic harassment of academic foreign nationals, etc. and try to get the peoples mandate to implement it.

The argument that exporting democracy to China would constitute a form of cultural imperialism is bogus, then. It is perfectly possible to freely elect an authoritarian government. The truth is, of course, that the Chinese communist party is opposed to the very idea of governing with the consent of the governed.