Our media tend to be preoccupied with China’s skyrocketing economic growth and the demand by China’s steel-mills for Australian coal and iron ore.
However, these things should not distract our attention from other even more momentous developments taking place across China.
There are signs of possible dramatic political upheavals surfacing over coming years.
Whether the outcome is a reformed, more tolerant and accommodating political order cannot be guaranteed.
What is apparent, however, is the emergence of a powerful reform movement in China confronting formidable wealthy interests that are defending the status quo.
How, for instance, does one explain the continued publicity given to two-star General Liu Yazhou who has publicly told his hardline Communist bosses to “either embrace US-style democracy or accept Soviet-style collapse”?
Moreover, Liu’s plea came as some of his brother generals were ranting against American naval exercises in the Yellow and South China Seas.
Liu has just had a provocative article of his published by the Hong Kong magazine, Phoenix Weekly, which is readily accessible to people in mainland China via the internet.
General Liu wrote: “If a system fails to let its citizens breathe freely and release their creativity to the maximum extent, and fails to place those who best represent the system and its people into leadership positions, it is certain to perish.
“The secret of US success is neither Wall Street nor Silicon Valley, but its long-surviving rule of law and the system behind it. The American system is said to be ‘designed by genius and for the operation of the stupid’.
“A bad system makes a good person behave badly while a good system makes a bad person behave well. Democracy is the most urgent thing; without it there can be no sustainable rise.
“A nation that is mindful only of the power of money is a backward and stupid nation. What we could believe in is the power of the truth. The truth is knowledge and knowledge is power.
“In the coming 10 years, a transformation from power politics to democracy will inevitably take place.”
The Australian Fairfax media’s Beijing correspondent, John Garnaut, has written: “Last year Hong Kong’s Open magazine published a leaked report of one of General Liu’s internal speeches which raised the taboo topic of how some generals refused to lead troops into Tiananmen Square in 1989.
“General Liu returned to the subject of Tiananmen in his Phoenix article, saying ‘a nationwide riot was caused by the incompatibility of traditional power structures with reform’.” (Sydney Morning Herald, August 12, 2010).
All this becomes more puzzling when one recalls that another Liu, Professor Liu Xioabo, a Beijing-based human rights activist, has said much the same thing as General Liu, but was sentenced by the Chinese authorities on Christmas Day 2009 to 11 years’ imprisonment plus two years’ deprivation of political rights.
Professor Liu is one of more than 300 Chinese human rights activists and intellectuals who signed Charter 08, a manifesto inspired by Charter 77, a manifesto launched in January 1977 by Czech and Slovak intellectuals calling for freedom of expression, free multi-party elections and respect for human rights in Czechoslovakia when it was a one-party Communist dictatorship.
China’s Charter 08 was launched in 2008, the 60th anniversary of the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
However, Chinese-born retired New Zealand academic, Professor Dong Li, a long-time advocate for human rights in China, has cautioned against Westerners reading too much into General Liu’s declarations.
He said the fact that General Liu has managed to get away with saying things that have earned Professor Liu a hefty jail term requires careful assessment.
Professor Li said: “Behind their arrogance and gloating, the Communist leaders are undergoing a gnawing anxiety at China’s weak soft power, lacklustre international image, and sustainability of their model.
“Now more and more people worldwide have come to realise that China’s breakneck economic development has been achieved at the cost of political stagnation, social injustice and environmental degradation.
“Even in purely economic terms, China’s development is fuelled by massive investments – increasing loans from government banks, much of which is sure to be dead debts – and wasteful energy consumption. China burns three-to-four times more energy than the world average to produce the same quantity of goods.
“The more liberal faction within the Communist leadership is having growing doubts as to whether their corrupt, repressive and polluting regime can survive much longer. Zhu Houze, the party’s propaganda chief in the liberal 1980s, who died in May, openly asked if China’s rise would bring fortune or disaster to the rest of the world.
“General Liu, a well-established writer of several books before joining the PLA, is a powerful spokesman for like-minded leaders.”
Professor Li said that General Liu’s Phoenix Weekly article should certainly be viewed as a wake-up call for his more complacent colleagues. He said Liu’s claim that “a great nation must not have blind faith in the transient power of money” suggested he wished to see the introduction of liberal policies in order to fully civilise Chinese society.
Professor Li added: “Liu probably sees political democratisation as the only way to make China a really great country.
“Why has he had such comments published now? The answer is because the all-important 18th party congress is due in 2012. That congress will see a new generation of party leaders emerge and, with it, possibly, a new policy orientation. Different factions within the leadership have been jockeying for position.
“But – and it’s a very big but – liberals like General Liu are fighting an up-hill battle. Their opponents are formidable, as most party officials don’t wish to share power with the common people or give up their privileges.
“Even though they are uncertain about what the future holds, they’re fearful of the consequences of their own actions.
“That’s why there’s such a massive emigration of Chinese to the United States, Canada and Australia.”
Professor Li said that, consequently, overseas Chinese were not over-optimistic about General Liu’s declarations.
He said that if those outside China became over-confident of the likelihood of the Communist Party’s opting for a democratic path, there was a danger of the West becoming “too accommodating” towards Beijing.
He said: “This may, in fact, be why Liu’s article has been allowed to be published. Propaganda officials are learning fast.
“From time to time they attempt to create a false impression of the extent of freedom of speech within China by allowing both hawkish and appealingly-worded liberal comments to be published.
“Publication of General Liu’s comments certainly makes China appear to outsiders to be full of promise for the future, thereby defusing international tension and slackening the vigilance of China’s adversaries.
“Let’s hope the Liu dream comes true. Meanwhile, let’s keep a cool head.”
Garnaut has reported that China’s leadership had been steadily tightening the political screws since 2008 to stifle dissent.
“Many Chinese are concerned that reforms have been blocked by powerful military, security, corporate and family groups that benefit from the status quo,” he said.
Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based historian and freelance writer.
John Garnaut, “China must reform or die”, Sydney Morning Herald, August 12, 2010.
“Charter 08”, translated from the Chinese by Perry Link.
“China Liu Xiabo”, PEN American Center (New York).