Critics See Hypocrisy in China’s Support for Baghdad Elections

Times Staff Writer

China has contributed $1 million to help organize Sunday’s election in Iraq, raising questions at home and abroad about how a country that supports balloting in another land can deny its citizens a chance to vote for their leaders.

As China gains a growing role on the global political and economic stage, it increasingly faces such twists of logic. So far, Chinese officials seem undeterred by the apparent contradiction.

“They behave as a normal power on the international scene, but keep a lid on everything at home at the same time, blocking websites and preventing free expression,” said Jean-Philippe Beja, a China specialist at the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris. “Elections are all right in other countries, as long as they’re not done at home. And it works. That’s what’s incredible. It’s very cynical.”


China is providing supplies to the Iraqi election effort through the United Nations in large part because it’s an effective way to win recognition as a respected and responsible global player.

“We hope that this election will be helpful in safeguarding Iraq’s sovereignty and integrity and independence,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said Thursday at a news briefing. “We also hope it will help Iraq form a widely based government that has great representation.”

Elections bolster political legitimacy. By embracing this trend, China apparently hopes to better position itself in the mainstream of international discourse, advancing its bid to become a regional power with global influence.

A second part of Beijing’s calculation is that this relatively small investment will score points with Washington.

China’s own economic growth, a prerequisite for domestic stability, increasingly is dependant on U.S. markets and even on the stability that U.S. military forces bring to the region. Along the way, particularly after the Sept. 11 attacks, China also has been able to recast its measures to quash some domestic irritants, including a separatist movement in the western region of Xinjiang, as part of the Bush administration’s war on international terrorism.

But even as China turns more to the West, its communist ideology admits of no direct link between elections and legitimacy.

Elections won’t work in China because the masses aren’t wealthy or well-educated enough to understand the issues, Chinese officials often argue. Elections are at odds with 5,000 years of Chinese history and, anyway, the country already has a democracy with socialist characteristics, they say.

It’s becoming more difficult, however, to argue that the people lack the necessary income and education when the nation’s performance is rising on both counts. Meanwhile, more impoverished Indonesia recently pulled off an impressive peaceful transfer of power; and India, with its lower literacy rate, remains the world’s largest democracy.

“Two years ago I went to Cambodia, which is poorer than China, and watched a very good election,” said Li Fan, director of the World and China Institute, a Beijing think tank focused on rural democracy. “It’s a silly argument.”

The idea that Chinese are precluded from voting by their history tends to buckle with a glance 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait. Beijing often cites Taiwan’s bumpy electoral ride since 2000 to bolster its case, but the island’s citizens chalk this up to inexperience, not some cultural predisposition to authoritarian rule.

“China is still under a Communist regime, so they focus on Taiwan’s negatives for their propaganda,” said Lin Wen-Cheng, a professor with Zhongshan University’s Mainland Research Institute in Taipei. “Our democracy is not yet mature, but we’re confident we’ll overcome that. With Taiwan maturing as a democracy, they have no argument.”

China’s last refuge is often in the argument that it already is a democracy with socialist characteristics and that the Communist Party enjoys widespread support that makes elections unnecessary.

Even insiders acknowledge, however, that party corruption and arrogance are an enormous source of popular resentment. In addition, the system of one person, one vote is carefully restricted to sectors of the political process where no real decision-making power exists, namely villages and a few towns in the countryside and neighborhoods in the cities.

Critics say the real reason China lacks elections is that the Communist Party doesn’t want to be voted out and, after decades of absolute rule, is distrustful of any process it can’t control.

Some analysts, however, believe Beijing is ultimately in a losing battle as its ability to control its population steadily erodes.

Internationally, China will face continued pressure to fall in line with other more pluralistic societies as it seeks a “peaceful rise” as a regional power, more closely integrates with the outside world and pursues a greater leadership role.

And at home, freer information is opening more Chinese eyes to how outsiders live and operate, raising expectations. Even as the government seeks new ways to control the Internet, it is forced to disclose more, even on many of its own conventional media outlets, or risk losing credibility with a public that has more sources.

State television recently started its own 24-hour news channel in response to channels such as CNN and BBC. In October, state-run television broadcaster CCTV 9 showed a U.S. presidential debate live for the first time.

“Many Chinese people said, ‘They can debate each other, how open-minded of those foreigners,’ ” said Wang Yiwei, an analyst with Fudan University’s Center for American Studies in Shanghai.

Few deny that China has a lot on its hands as it tries to juggle a growing income gap, increasing ethnic tension, a flawed political system and a huge population. And even critics concede that China’s weak democratic and human rights traditions can’t be turned around overnight. Still, many hope China will keep its eye on the ball.

“We can understand the top leaders thinking they could lose control if things move too fast,” said Li of the World and China Institute. “Step by step is fine. But it must be step by step forward, not step by step backward.”