16/07/2009 - 00:00

Reform a long way off in China

16/07/2009 - 00:00


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Stern Hu’s detention is a timely reminder for Australian businesses, and governments.

WHATEVER the fallout from the detention of Rio Tinto Iron Ore executive, Stern Hu, the case reaffirms the difficulties Australia faces in forming a special relationship with China.

It seems our having a Mandarin-speaking prime minister, selling China huge tonnages of iron ore, or hosting thousands of students at our tertiary institutions are unlikely to change the ways of China's ruling elite.

Despite 30 years of sustained economic growth and ongoing contact with Australia and other parliamentary democracies, that has included regular visits by parliamentary delegations, those with a grip on power in Beijing dogmatically believe only they should rule.

Any suggestions to the contrary by foreigners or citizens brave enough to advocate rights for all fellow countrymen are sternly rebuked, and sometimes worse can follow.

All media and other references to the June 4 1989 Tiananmen Square massacres have now, in awesome Orwellian style, been removed in China, with angry denials whenever anyone says there were mass killings that June night.

What's amazing is that brave individuals continue to emerge and place their lives and liberty on the line by confronting China's rulers and their totalitarian intransigence.

Last month, for instance, Liu Xiaobo, was charged with subverting the power of the state and now faces up to 15 years imprisonment.

Even more amazingly 52 scholars and writers, including historian Qin Hui, philosopher, Xu Youyu, and economist, Mao Yushi, signed a petition calling for his release. According to Fan Yafeng, a researcher with the Law Institute of China's Academy of Social Sciences: "Liu is a great example of a Chinese intellectual whose imprisonment, his purgatory, has given him added strength and underlined his status.

"Our intellectuals have had our backbones bent but Liu pulls us upright again."

Before his detention, Mr Liu told The Australian: "No matter how rich a society is, as long as it is ruled by a privileged class that gains its wealth from an unbalanced and opaque system, there will be strong discontent.

"And any defence of this group's economic interests will evolve into a defence of its political rights."

Those words should be read and re-read.

It's important to know China's ruling elite isn't just an ideological power hungry fraternity that controls secret police, the armed forces, people's armed police, media, and judicial system.

What China's 88-year-old Communist Party did when paramount leader Deng Xiao Ping sanctioned, in 1979, the opening of China's ramshackle economy was to simultaneously give birth to an increasingly privileged business class made up primarily of the sons, daughters, clan and other relatives and close friends of party members.

China therefore has tens of millions toiling for a tiny but enormously wealthy and powerful crony capitalist class.

China isn't an open society.

Whenever the party moves against real or imagined critics of crony capitalism and totalitarianism it is, in fact, defending the wealth and privileged status of party members, their families and relatives.

China-style capitalism includes secret and informal wheeling and dealing, kickbacks, favouritism, backhanders, well-remunerated winks and nods, and other forms of tribute.

All these are undertaken in the absence of a system of commercial law instituted to be fair and just to all.

Although Australia joined the US and European Union in calling for Mr Liu's release, that was weakened by the Rudd government's subsequent secret invitation to Canberra of one of China's most notorious enforcers.

I refer to the clandestine visit by China's media and propaganda chief, Liu Changchun, earlier this year.

That sojourn was preceded in November - a month before Mr Liu's arrest - with the secret visit by Zhou Yongkang, head of the Political and Judiciary Committee, a party organ that controls the Ministry of Public Security, the Supreme People's Court, and the Ministries of Justice and State Security.

It's Zhou's people who would have arrested Rio's China-based representative, Mr Hu.

Why did Mr Rudd and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith resort to such a two-bob each way ploy?

Among other things, that manoeuvre could have only confounded the Chinese who would understandably have concluded all the huffing and puffing about releasing Mr Liu was simply tokenism.

Firstly, Australia joined the US and EU by criticising China.

Then it followed up by secretly inviting to Australia a top enforcer.

Such a double game was even more myopic because Mr Liu wasn't alone in seeking reform and the democratisation of China.

He's only one of a far larger group urging such reforms be instituted.

A historic document was issued last December, Charter 08, signed by 303 Chinese intellectuals and human rights advocates who want to see instituted political reforms so that China can be transformed into a liberal parliamentary democracy.

"This year is the 100th anniversary of China's Constitution, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 30th anniversary of the birth of the Democracy Wall, and the 10th year since China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," it says.

"After experiencing a prolonged period of human rights disasters and a tortuous struggle and resistance, the awakening Chinese citizens are increasingly and more clearly recognising that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal common values shared by all humankind, and that democracy, a republic, and constitutionalism constitute the basic structural framework of modern governance.

"A 'modernisation' bereft of these universal values and this basic political framework is a disastrous process that deprives humans of their rights, corrodes human nature, and destroys human dignity. Where will China head in the 21st century?

"Continue a 'modernisation' under this kind of authoritarian rule?

"Or recognise universal values, assimilate into the mainstream civilisation, and build a democratic political system?

"This is a major decision that cannot be avoided."

Since Charter 08 - modelled on the Czech Charter 77 that helped rally people to topple communism in Prague - was released, more than 8,000 people inside and outside China have signed it.

The Charter calls for 19 fundamental reforms to institute human rights, the adoption of an independent legal system, freedom of association and the elimination of one-party rule.

It also seeks an independent judiciary, election of public officials, freedoms of association, assembly, expression and religion, financial and tax reform and public control of public servants.

"All kinds of social conflicts have constantly accumulated and feelings of discontent have risen consistently," it says.

"The current system has become backward to the point that change cannot be avoided.

"This situation must change! Political democratic reforms cannot be delayed any longer!"

China is the only large world power to have retained an authoritarian system that infringes human rights, it points out.

How could Australia assist China's freedom-seeking reformers? Easily.

By ceasing to snuggle up to its party tormenters; its wealthy party hacks.

The smartest way of doing this is to lobby the governmemnts in the US and EU to deal only with Chinese government, never party, officials.

China, like the Soviet Union, has a parallel administrative structure - government and party wings.

If all the word's parliamentary democracies dealt only with the former, that would underline to the latter that they won't be accorded the same treatment as genuine representatives of the people, since they're something else.



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