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Rowen predicts democracy for China in 20 years

STANFORD -- China will become a democracy around the year 2015, Hoover Senior Fellow Henry Rowen predicts in the fall issue of The National Interest.

The former assistant secretary of defense in the Bush administration recounts the progress China has made toward democracy in recent years and says why he expects more progress toward the rule of law, liberalization of the media and grassroots democracy in villages and provinces, leading eventually to national democracy.

He urges U.S. politicians to "stop holding trade relations hostage to an array of current political disputes," both because trade with China is good for the American economy and because "a richer China will become more democratic."

Taiwan's elected government also needs to "keep its powder dry and behave prudently," Rowen counsels, because China will not give up its goal of unification. "For the people of Taiwan, to be a province of a prospering China ­ or perhaps a member of a Chinese confederation ­ in which governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are popularly elected and the rights of their citizens are protected by law, should be a far more attractive prospect than joining today's China."

China's grassroots progress toward democracy is comparable to that which took place in the early 1970s in Taiwan, when per capita income reached about $2,500, similar to China's income today, Rowen writes.

"The worldwide norm, first clearly established by [Stanford Professor Emeritus] Seymour Martin Lipset, is 'the richer the country, the freer,' '' Rowen writes, although he also notes that Saudi Arabia and Brunei, countries enriched through oil, have not followed that pattern.

"Growing wealth is accompanied by increased education, the building of business and government institutions with some autonomy, and the formation of attitudes that enable democratic governments to survive when they have a chance at power," he said. If China's economic growth continues at today's rates, it will reach mean incomes of $7,000 to $8,000 by 2015. "Spain, Portugal, Chile and Argentina, in addition to Taiwan and South Korea, all made the transition to democracy while they were within this income range."

Organized political opposition at the national level might be banned for a long time in China, but the principles of selecting village leaders by competitive election and for fixed terms of office is established, Rowen writes. More elections each year are being contested and election procedures are becoming more standardized and transparent.

China's legal professionals have increased twentyfold since 1980 and its courts now hear more than 3 million cases a year. While there has been little reform in criminal justice, Chinese officials acknowledge that the country needs a more developed civil legal system because a market economy must be governed by law. "Arguably, the Supreme People's Court has begun to make law through its interpretations and decisions, a role that is contrary to communist dogma, which allows no place for an independent institution. This process seems likely to continue," Rowen writes.

Rowen, who is also a professor emeritus of the Graduate School of Business, says China also has experienced substantial growth in freedom of information since liberalization of the economy in 1979. Political commentary is "still outside the zone of tolerance," he writes, but state publishing houses, which held 95 percent of the market in 1979, held only a third of it by 1988. By 1990, there were more than 16,000 satellite ground stations and more than 4.5 million home satellite dishes, making it hard for authorities to censor media.

"A great deal of what is published freely is commercial in character ­ instructions on how to get rich for example ­ and politically unthreatening," Rowen says. He predicts "waves of progress and regression," but says "the underlying tide is raising the overall level of freedom of information."

Lagging growth in the poor interior provinces might impede political evolution of the country, Rowen concedes, as could conflict with Taiwan. China might be different from most other countries, he writes, but "that is not the way to bet."



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