The Magazine

Bush's String of Firecrackers

From the March 28, 2005 issue: Time for some democratic noise in East Asia.

Mar 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 26 • By ROSS TERRILL
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Success in Iraq, Bush's victory on November 2, Arafat's demise, and the ongoing appeal of economic and political freedom to ordinary folk, all triggered political changes across the globe that lessen the need for massive U.S. military intervention again soon. It's easier to integrate idealistic rhetoric with policy if the world knows you're serious about the use of military power; that's the difference between Clinton and Bush.

It is true that Iraq has distracted Bush from East Asia, but Afghanistan and Iraq have also been felt in East Asia, to America's benefit. The United States has become a big player on China's western doorstep in Uzbekistan and other Central Asia republics. Japan has shed some of its self-imposed reticence in security matters. Bush's message that anti-terrorism is ultimately pro-democracy is not lost on Southeast Asians, who face terror threats close to home.

Most poignant, the fall of a Middle East dictator embarrassed East Asia dictators. The toppling of Saddam Hussein furrowed brows in Beijing, Pyongyang, and other authoritarian capitals. Kim Jong Il suddenly wanted to do a deal over his nukes--until he detected the chance of a Kerry victory and got tough again until November 2. The surviving Leninist regimes were so aware of the string-of-firecrackers effect on tinder-dry dictatorships that their TV dared not show one picture of Saddam Hussein's statue biting the dust in Baghdad.

THE RISE OF CHINA is not necessarily a problem for the world except that China remains authoritarian. It is no accident that the two most antidemocratic regimes in Asia, North Korea and Burma, are its chief troublemakers (weapons and illicit drugs) and China's only quasi-allies in the world. The nature of Kim Jong Il's Stalinism precludes trust, effective inspections, or meaningful transmission of aid to the starving masses of North Korea. It becomes clearer with each lie from Pyongyang that only regime change there will free the Korean peninsula from nukes and grievous tension. Rangoon, for its part, has for 15 years rejected the result of a national election and kept the leader of the victorious party under house arrest.

A major liberalization--even short of democracy--in China would rock the shabby dictatorships in Pyongyang and Rangoon. A tide of democracy in all three would do more for peace, human rights, and, yes, stability in East Asia than a decade of "six country talks" or a hundred sessions of the Asian Regional Forum of ASEAN.

Vice President Cheney spoke of democracy in East Asia's future in a speech in Shanghai last April: "The desire for freedom is universal; it is not unique to one country, or culture, or region." Cheney also said: "We hear it said by skeptics that the greater Middle East is a hopeless cause for democratic values. . . . Not so long ago, the very same things were said about the people of Asia. Yet . . . today across this region we see entire nations . . . building strong, modern economies, and becoming stable, peaceful, and open societies of free peoples, governed under laws set by representatives chosen in free elections."

The official Chinese news agency published a "full text" of the vice president's speech that omitted every single word I have quoted here. It makes you wonder: If democracy is not alluring to China's 1.3 billion people, why would the Chinese party-state--in breach of a promise to the vice president of the United States to broadcast live and publish his text--cut those words?

To speak of democracy as Bush did at his inauguration on January 20, is not, of course, to stipulate the methods to be used in encouraging it. But when the vision exists, the handles to be grasped come into view. So it was in the years after Reagan's speech to the British parliament in 1982. So it is proving as Bush's pre-Iraq predictions come true before our eyes. Both presidents saw with a piercing eye the shaky foundations beneath houses of tyranny. In East Asia, Chinese voices will be the ones to set the rafters shaking.

Democracy in Taiwan and timid shoots of democracy in Hong Kong have cast a fresh light on China's future. Beijing was shocked at the fall of the Soviet Union and the rest of the Communist gang in Europe. But it is driven crazy by the appearance of democracy within Chinese civilization. The Chinese Communist leaders know that if Taiwan goes its own way successfully and indefinitely--the fear that prompted Beijing to enact last week an "Anti-Secession Law" aimed at Taiwan--the virus of democracy will spread this "disaster" to the "motherland of China." After all, in Taiwan it is a series of free elections that has crystallized a sense of Taiwanese sovereignty.