The idea that a democratic China might be significantly more war-like and unstable is not a new one. For years commentators have noted with concern a rising tide of populist nationalism in China, with Taiwan and Japan especially the targets of periodic protests, riots and boycotts. Should universal franchise come into effect tomorrow, the thinking goes, the probable winners would be those willing to shout loudest to prejudice, fear and loathing.
A report published by an Australian think-tank last week warned that, should China democratise, the region could become gravely destabilised, and cites risks such as economic collapse, nationalism and war. These rumblings of concern are likely to become louder over the next few years, as the failure of the neo-conservative project to 'promote democracy' and thereby establish moderate and western-friendly regimes becomes more and more evident. In the middle east, the increasingly truculent Iranian regime, its potential Shi’ite twin in Iraq and Hamas in Palestine look set to dominate the discourse of democracy for the foreseeable future. In Latin America, the popular vote has elected a wave of leftist regimes - mischievously described by Hugo Chavez as the 'Axis of Good' – that are resisting their subservient role in America's ‘backyard’.
Sceptics might point out that the US never actually 'promoted democracy' in Latin America, Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere, and point (for example) at the US-backed coup to topple the democratically elected Chavez in 2002. They would be right, but the rhetoric of democracy promotion still clearly matters, and in the case of China, that rhetoric is currently non-existent. As her economic and political might has burgeoned, world leaders have become increasingly hesitant to call China out on human rights violations like the suppression and imprisonment of pro-democracy activists.
Which is a shame, because the apocalyptic scenarios painted for a democratic China seem as far off base as the hazy-eyed idealism that viewed Iraq’s purple-fingered revolution as a natural harbinger of peace. Whilst it’s true that popular feelings against Japan run high in China – mass protests and economic boycotting have accompanied issues like the visits to the Yasukuni shrine by the Japanese premier and the downplaying of Japanese war crimes in text books – these sentiments have been tacitly condoned if not encouraged by the current Chinese leadership. In China, demonstrating against Japan is a relatively safe occupation; demonstrating against corruption, environmental destruction or human rights violations is not.
Diverting popular anger outside of the country is a useful tool for the leadership, and easily done given their complete control of the media. The historical resentments, militarism and jingoism that are supposed to make China unsafe for democracy have been deliberately cultivated by its decidedly undemocratic government. With a free press and the other trappings of a modern democracy, it’s more likely that internal fault lines would open – such as that between the urban and rural areas, or that between the growth-at-all-costs and the environmental lobbies – but it’s far from obvious that a majority of Chinese people would desire armed conflict with their neighbours.
Ultimately, China would face the same problem of any other democratic nation, which is how to avoid the tyranny of the majority, and how to practice popular rule without succumbing to the worst and most universal human instincts. The question shouldn’t be whether Chinese democracy would be good for the world at large: it’s impossible to say, just as it’s impossible to say whether the current regime would really prove less volatile in the long run. The particular form of democracy, and the scope of institutional changes (such as a free and investigative press) would determine the nature of Chinese civil society far more than the simple introduction of elections.
That is why it’s a particular shame that the pro-democracy voices in the west are currently so muted. If the world fails to apply pressure on the Chinese leadership to become more open, transparent and free now, then in ten or fifteen years China might democratise in the worst possible way. Unfortunately, it’s likely that the Australian report will be joined by many voices in the coming years preaching a kid-gloves approach to China, for fear of what democracy might wreak (as distinct from the fear of offending an economically powerful China). The idealistic rhetoric of American neo-conservatism already sounds archaic, and it will likely be replaced by a fallback to Kissinger-style pragmatism in the articulation of foreign policy goals. But if democratisation continues to be seen in all-or-nothing terms, and Chinese democracy as a threat, then the ASPI predictions of doom could prove self-fulfilling.