As an academic, writer, and diplomat, Dimon Liu has championed democracy in China for nearly 30 years. She delivered the following speech at the Oxford Union Society Debate on June 4, 1992, after successfully organizing an unprecedented U.N. reprimand against China on human rights abuse. With Captive Nations Week 2016 now behind us, and China no freer today than it was when Ms. Liu delivered this speech, democracy in China may seem like a hopeless cause. Worse still, some may say that China’s recent economic development proves that democracy in China is unnecessary. VOC revisits Dimon Liu’s words today to reiterate our commitment to freeing the captive Chinese nation from its communist oppressors.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me submit to you three ideas that are the basis of good government which made traditional China the most prosperous land on earth for over a thousand years, and I believe will form the basis for a good liberal democratic government in the future.
The first is the Confucian concept of human nature as essentially good. In a rhymed primer which was written in Sung Dynasty, and which all school children read until it was abandoned by the Communists, has the opening lines;
In the beginning
Man’s nature is good,
and near to one another naturally.
Men are set apart by practice.
This idea goes back to Confucius himself, and particularly to Mencius. It has been the basis of Chinese education and has inculcated into people the sense of fundamental human equality. Confucius laid down the philosophy in these words:
“With education there is no class.”
This concept of the essential goodness of human nature, and the necessity of education to maintain it, is the most important philosophical idea which produced a fluid, and largely classless society, without hereditary nobility, and without slavery, in traditional China since before the birth of Christ. Two thousand years before China came into contact with democratic ideas of the West, Chinese children in all village schools were already humming ditties such as this:
Prime ministers & generals do not belong to any class
Youth should exert themselves
With education, there is no limit
The second idea is the scriptural justification of rebellion against tyrannical government. The story is told of Confucius passing by the foot of Mount Taishan and hearing a woman crying. He asked her what was the matter. She said, “My father was carried away by a tiger. Not too long ago my husband was killed by a tiger. Now my son has just been devoured by a tiger.” Confucius said, “Why don’t you run away from this place infested by ferocious tigers?” The woman said, “I don’t feel a need to run away, for we have no tyrannical government here.” Confucius returned to his disciples and said, “Remember this! Tyrannical government is more oppressive than ferocious tigers.”
Mencius in particular was the most outspoken advocate of the right of rebellion against tyrannical government. He said:
“When a ruler treats his subjects like grass and dirt, then the subjects should treat him as a bandit and an enemy.”
Mencius was very clear and adamant about the people’s “right to rebel”, and has characterized some of the historical rebellions not as revolts, but as justified revolutions against despots whose misrule and alienated the people. This fundamentally democratic doctrine of justifiable rebellion against tyranny and misrule has been popularly known as the “Mandate of Heaven”.
The third idea is that subordinates have a sacred duty to criticize and oppose the wrong doings of their superior. Confucius was very clear about the personal responsibility of the individual against such wrong doings, and the benefits such individuals would accrue to their communities. He said in the “Book of Filial Piety,”
“If an emperor has seven outspoken ministers who fight to oppose him, he could not lose his empire in spite of his misdeeds. If a feudal lord has five outspoken ministers, he could not lose his state in spite of his misdeeds. If a minister has three outspoken servants, he could not lose his family fortune in spite of his misdeeds. Therefore, in the face of a wrong or unrighteousness, it is the duty of the son to oppose his father, and it is the duty of the servant to oppose his ruler.”
This concept of actively encouraging outspoken advice and even opposition from one’s subordinates has been a most important political tradition which had made possible the development, not only of the institution of the government’s own independent review boards, but also the hundreds of great personalities abound in Chinese history who made their marks by fighting fearlessly against the misdeed of despotic rulers and powerful ministers.
These three philosophical and political ideas are not contradictory, but in fact are complimentary, to many modern liberal democratic ideas, including access to education, equality of opportunity, meritocracy, freedom of speech, the right of dissent, independent judiciary, and the right of the people to dismiss incompetent, corrupt, or tyrannical government representatives. I hereby submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, that Liberal Democracy is entirely possible in China, and compatible with main stream classical Chinese culture.
Some said that the Chinese are uncomfortable with democracy because they have long been accustomed to being ruled by the elites. Britain too, has long been ruled by aristocracy, with a mandarin system not unlike that of the Chinese. Is Liberal democracy not possible in Britain?
Some said that Communism is best for China because it has an authoritarian past. This is akin to saying that Nazism is good for Germany because the Germans are lousy democrats. However, we have seen that Nazism is not only bad for Germany, but also very bad indeed for the rest of the world.
Some said that it is proper to compare India with China since both are so big, so poor, and overpopulated. Why should China go the same route as India when clearly democracy hasn’t delivered India from poverty and underdevelopment?
Having the freedom to make choices, however, does not automatically granted one the wisdom of making the right choice. India, following the fashion of the time, has chosen command economy with central planning, a massive, suffocating and unresponsive state sector, and a negligible private sector. Consequently, Indian skills and energy are not put to the best use, and that’s why India is so poor. But, India, as a democracy, has avoided the serious succession problem which plagues Communist China. India has the freedom to vote out Mrs. Indira Gandhi peacefully, and later to vote her back in. India has also coped competently, and with dignity the two assassinations of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi without causing disruptive convulsions to society.
The succession problem in Communist China is implacable. Without democracy, the Chinese, and the rest of the world, are left to speculate when the old men are going to die, and which one of them is going to die first. The future of 1.2 billion people is not determined by their own hands, but is left in the hands of the Grim Reaper.
Democracy is not perfect, and no one should claim that it is. But democracy has better mechanism in correcting its own mistakes peacefully. Totalitarian China may be more efficient, but it is also more efficient in making colossal mistakes, for it lacks all the necessary means of self-correction. Indeed, democratic India has avoided descending into China’s many manmade catastrophic disasters, including millions butchered during land reform of 1952-3, hundreds of thousands of intellectuals imprisoned during the Anti Rightists campaign of 1957, at least 30 million peasants starved to death during the Great Leap Forward of 1958-61, and 100 million persecuted during the Cultural Revolution of 1965-76.
What about the peasants, they say, who will never accept a foreign idea like democracy? Without their support, China will never become democratic.
I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, that the Chinese peasants are some of the most maligned and abused people on earth. They are said to be happy with their lot when their land has been forcibly taken away from them within two years of the Communist land reform. They are said to be well fed when a sizable number were starving until the rural reforms in 1979. The Communist government, and many others in the West, even blame China’s underdevelopment on the peasants for having too many children; but a large family is their only means to security in old age, for surely the Chinese government and the opinion makers in the West, have not, and are not protecting them. Until the peasants can feel safe, they will have no choice but go on having large families despite the most draconian population policy being practiced on them.
Peasants are not only being maligned, but they are not even given credit when it is their due. Deng Xiaoping is lauded all over the world for the success of rural reform when in fact it was the peasants in Jinjiang and Sichuan provinces who risked their lives to force the communist government into giving back to them the management of their land in 1979. It is very much due to the peasants’ hard work and good sense, and not to Deng Xiaoping, cocooned in his web of power, that they have eked out a success from their tiny plots of private land.
Some say that peasants are unable to accept foreign ideas. I fail to see how anyone can say that when Marxist ideology, which was developed by a German living in England, formalized into a political system by a Russian living in Switzerland, and spread across the broad interior plains of China by disgruntled Chinese intellectuals, could have come to be accepted and adopted by the peasants.
Some say the peasants are unable to change. Take a look at the millions of peasants who have escaped from their harsh lot to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Philippines, Canada, the United States, Australia, Britain, and so on. How well they have adopted and prospered in different lands and cultures under less oppressive governments. Take a look at the peasants now, it is due very much to their entrepreneurial spirits, ingenuity, and hard work that with the gains from their fields they are turning many of their villages into thriving hubs of light manufacturing.
What about those who say without Communism, there will be chaos, and without Communism, reform will suffer?
Communism is in the midst of an intractable dilemma. Communist policies have failed. To continue, Communism must reform itself. Once reform begins, it generates its own momentum. Popular demand for more reform will only escalate, not decrease. If reform is followed to its own logical conclusion, then Communism will reform itself out of existence.
Communist leaders, therefore, put restraints on reform in order to save Communism and, more crucially, to save themselves. The Communist leaders simply cannot agree among themselves on what to do. They reform, and put on the brakes; reform, and depose a leader; reform, and carry out a crackdown; reform, and dense another leader; reform, and stage a massacre; reform, and return to central planning; reform, and arrest more democrats… All these, they have already done, and more; and they will continue to do them, back and forth. Why? Because the Communists who argue that there must be reform or they won’t survive are irrefutable correct; but so are the Communists who argue that they must hold the line on reform or they are finished.
Where is the vaunted stability? Where is the framework that can ensure long term, orderly development? And the Communist leaders actually be humored into being nicer to their own people when they are in the midst of a panic? How long can Communism maintain its prison-like equilibrium through oppression? Indeed, how long can Communism last in China? What are the dangers from the fall out? What will come after? These are the questions which China, and the world are facing now.
Communism is crumbling, and there is no way to get around this. Without a clear direction, China might succumb to fascism, fundamentalism, fanaticism, or even chaos. The point here is that Liberal Democracy is not only possible in China, it is desirable, for Liberal Democracy is a much better alternative for China, indeed for the world, than all the others possibilities.
One of the widely accepted and facile claims is that trade will inevitably lead to capitalism, and capitalism will inevitably lead to democracy. The fact is that trade had always thrived in ancient China, and the conditions for the creation of capitalism—private ownership, large and cosmopolitan urban centers, highly skilled craftsmen, the invention of paper currency—all that existed in China since 600 A.D. The reason that there is still neither modern capitalism more democracy points to the confluence and success of central bureaucracy and the monopolies in destroying any sustained efforts in creating the rule-of-law and an autonomous judiciary, which protect all those who participate in the market place from the capriciousness of the rules. Without the rule-of-law, capital will have to bribe and humor those who rule. The creation of wealth is hindered, and the market will remain primitive, fragile and distorted. Without the rule-of-law and independent judiciary, what China has is primitive capitalism of the 18th and 19th centuries with all the ills match and more. It is only with the creation of the rule-of-law and independent judiciary that China can reach modern capitalism.
The most successful societies in the world have adopted the Liberal Democratic structure of private ownership, free market, the rule of law, independent judiciary, the freedom of speech, association, and press, and multi-party democracy. Societies that have adopted these practices in parts, have been successful in those parts. India, for example, has benefitted from its political freedom. Asia’s four little dragons—Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea — have benefitted from their vigorous developments of private enterprises.
The four dragons are of course the examples which China has been used to emulate. One mustn’t overlook the fact, however, that the reason these little dragons can prosper is precisely because they can adopt the technological, scientific and cultural inventions of individuals in societies with well protected rights and freedoms. Indeed, the very progress of these little dragons is entirely dependent on the inventions of individuals in free societies, for the little dragons do not yet provide the needed protection where such inventions can occur. Societies without the rule of law and independent judiciary to protect these rights and freedom s will not only lag behind culturally and scientifically, but will always see that their best and brightest yearning, and attempting to migrate to lands that do. I can assure you, ladies and gentlemen, no Great Wall can ever stop them from leaving.
What about those who say China must be patient, for it took 600 years for Britain, and 200 years for the United States to develop the democracies they now have. Ladies and gentlemen, once an idea is invented, it is there for all. We do not need to go through the long and difficult process of discovering it again. Take a look at the examples of Germany and Japan, and more recently, Spain. All are distinct and varied, and none has much of a tradition in democracy and freedom, yet once they adopted the Liberal Democratic structure fully and vigorously, they have advanced in speed, areas, and quality well above all other societies that have not chosen to do so.
Ladies and gentlemen, it really isn’t important where an idea comes from, but more important whether it is a good idea. Indeed, once the wheel has been invented, we do not need to reinvent it; but if we chose not to use it, the only consequence is that it is us, and our children, who have to pay the price of backwardness. Let me offer you the example of the compass, a Chinese invention. With the compass, the Chinese once navigated the South Seas, and went as far as the Cape of Good Hope in Africa with fleets of 100 ships, with boat-length three times that of Columbus’s three ships that sailed to the Americas. When the Manchus conquered China, they destroyed the ship-building industry of China, and closed off China’s shores. Within one hundred years, no one in China knew how to build these magnificent seafaring ships anymore. Thus, it’s the Europeans who discovered the new continent, and it’s the Europeans who conducted the gun-boat diplomacy on China, both with the aid of the Chinese compass.
The old Communist leaders, now in their eighties, cannot admit to themselves, and to China, that in their haste to best the West, had chosen wrongly in their youth. However, it is the younger generations, the ordinary Chinese, who end up paying most dearly for the price of their tragic mistake.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I submit to you that when the good and patient Chinese decide that they have had enough, they will dismiss the Communists as decisively as they had dismissed previous governments which oppressed them. I further submit to you that if there is freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of press, the Chinese peasants will be as open to democracy as they had been to communism.
The fact is, there have been repeated attempts in the last on hundred years for democratic changes in China. Despite the non-discriminate worship of a brutal ideology by sizable numbers of Chinese intellectuals since 1920’s, and despite the wholesale destruction of traditional Chinese culture by the Communists in the last 40 years, every generation of Chinese have retained many of the ideals of classical Chinese culture. Aside from the period in the 1930’s and ’40 due to Japans’ brutal invasion and occupation of China, the Chinese have never stopped demanding for more democracy. Indeed, there has been democratic movements in China in 1908, 1911, 1917, 1919, 1957, 1968, 1976, 1980, and 1989. Every generation has failed, but a new generation always rises again. Despite the Chinese government’s intense repression, there are clear signs that the 1976, 1980, and 1989 generations are not giving up They continue to yearn for the rights and freedom that they are entitled by virtue of their humanity.
Ladies and gentleman, I submit to you that Liberal Democracy is not only possible, it will thrive in China.
Mr. President, I beg to oppose the motion.