Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Riding the Tiger

"He who rides the tiger finds it difficult to dismount" (騎虎難下).

--Chinese Proverb

One hopes Chinese leaders are happy enough with their country’s prosperity to keep moving away from war and totalitarianism, as the previous blog implies they may be.

But ever since Deng Xiaoping opted in 1979 for free market incentives to grow China’s economy, its leadership has been riding a tiger. The authoritarian regime, run through the Chinese Communist Party, gambles that by continuing to generate and spread wealth, they’ll retain popular support. The party hopes the people who are China will refrain from overthrowing and devouring the leadership that rides its back.

One party rule. Under pressure, dictatorships usually fall back on force, and must be overthrown through assassination or bloody revolution. The Chinese democracy movement of 1989, inspired by that year’s spread of freedom through the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, found itself crushed by the Tiananmen Massacre. While 21 years later, the Chinese Communist Party is still successfully riding the tiger, leaders know that, as Shakespere said, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (Henry IV, Part II). We saw leadership “unease” on China’s last National Day (October 1), when the nation’s most important parade marched by in front of leaders, TV cameras, and zero people.

Democracy, the peaceful transition of power from one leadership to another, is the most advanced form of political rule. Ultimately, power rests with the people, not some elite subset. Allow the people to choose their leaders freely, and when one group loses power, they will live to fight another day. Democracy has expanded worldwide over the last century because 1) the people want it, and 2) elites sooner or later see the benefits of transitioning power peacefully.

In the long run, China will—like Taiwan today—be a democracy. We just don’t know how long its “long run” will be. Until that day, not just China but the whole world will be “riding the tiger.”

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