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Democracy is a disposable ornament for new Chinese empire

The world believed a 'peaceful evolution' toward democracy was underway but it never took place
This handout from The Chaser News taken on Oct. 16 shows a scuffle between a Hong Kong pro-democracy protester (center) and Chinese consulate staff, as a British police officer attempts to intervene, during a demonstration outside the consulate in Manchester, UK

This handout from The Chaser News taken on Oct. 16 shows a scuffle between a Hong Kong pro-democracy protester (center) and Chinese consulate staff, as a British police officer attempts to intervene, during a demonstration outside the consulate in Manchester, UK. (Photo: Matthew Leung/ The Chaser News/ AFP)

Published: October 18, 2022 03:58 AM GMT
Updated: October 18, 2022 10:25 AM GMT

The tribe of those who consider democracy as a disposable ornament seems to be increasing. While the shortcomings of democracy are not tolerated, strangely enough, people have words of justification, sympathy, and admiration for the narcissistic leaders of totalitarian and oppressive regimes.

On Nov. 17 last year, Hong Kong's Democratic leader Lee Cheuk-yan, then aged 64, wrote a 'letter to the judges' that stressed his dedication to freedom, democracy, and social justice inspired his Christian faith. He was part of the generation that witnessed the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which crushed the voice of Chinese students and citizens for democracy.

Lee collected donations from Hong Kong in support of the pro-democracy call and went to Beijing to hand over the donations. But he was arrested following the massacre in 1989 and was forced to sign a confession to allow him to return to Hong Kong. The determination to dedicate his life to democracy was born there.

On Nov. 29, 2019, Lee Cheuk-yan was in Milan talking about democracy protests in Hong Kong. I was at his side, to illustrate the commitment of Christians in that democratic movement. I can’t believe he is in prison now. It was only a few years ago: but it seems to me that two centuries have passed, and backward. We have entered another world, in which many do not like freedom, justice, and democracy.

Pope Francis' spoke about democracy in Athens (Dec 4, 2021) reaffirming the Church's thinking in favor of democracy and its promoters. Today the popes support democracy, while others, such as Pius IX, condemned it. As the social doctrine of the Church teaches, democracy, better than other political forms, sanctions the right of citizens to participate in public affairs and to be protagonists of their own destinies.

It is significant that Pope Francis mentioned social justice and Alcide de Gasperi, the father of Christian Democracy, who was ignominiously humiliated by Pius XII. It is rather incomprehensible that Lee Cheuk-yan and other credible and peaceful Catholic leaders, now in prison in Hong Kong for their commitment to democracy and social justice, have never been mentioned in the Vatican pronouncements.

"China today erects a new wall, of informatics and ideology, against democracy. But walls cannot stop the movements of history"

The Great Wall of China represents, throughout history, the country's attempts to isolate itself from the world. Yet the huge wall did not fulfill its mission: the northern populations, the Mongols and the Manchurians, invaded China twice and established the two 'foreign' dynasties, Yuan and Qing.

China today erects a new wall, of informatics and ideology, against democracy. But walls cannot stop the movements of history. The Chinese democratic tradition has strong roots in history and in the people. The student movement of May 4, 1919, also called the May Fourth Movement, called for the introduction to China of science and democracy as indispensable for the nation’s freedom from its imperialist rulers.

After the Cultural Revolution’s 10 tragic years ‘of disorder,' the 'wall of democracy' was built in Beijing between November 1978 and December 1979. It was the too-short 'Beijing Spring': Chinese citizens expressed, for the first time in 60 years, their desire for freedom and democracy.

Wei Jingsheng, a young man of 28, posted on that wall the manifesto for the 'fifth modernization' or democracy. The following year he was arrested and sent to prison for 18 years, becoming the best-known Chinese dissident, now in exile.

Ten years later, from April 15 to June 4, 1989, thousands of young students and citizens of Beijing, and other cities in China, peacefully asked for freedom and democracy. As sadly known, the army, under the command of Deng Xiaoping, crushed it causing an unknown number of victims. In the following months and years, brutal repression followed, continuing the imprisonment and exile of many young activists.

The massacre (sometimes referred to simply as the ‘incident’) of Tiananmen Square shook the world and showed the Chinese longing for freedom and democracy and their willingness to even die as martyrs for it.

Hong Kong, from 1989 to 2019, with the oceanic vigils at Victoria Park, kept the memory of Tiananmen alive. This is where the democratic conscience of Hong Kong lives.

Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping (their absolute power ranges from 1949 to 1976 for the former; and from 1978 to 1997 for the latter) are the highest depictions of power concentrated in one person. They had no office, neither of government nor of the party. But they had all the power, in an undisputed way and until their death. In short, they were emperors.

"As early as in the 90s, 'foreign forces' were accused of infiltration, including through religious and cultural propaganda"

Their successors Jiang Zemin and Wu Jintao, sequentially in office from 1989 to 2012, had concentrated all the offices on themselves: they had more power than any other, but not all of the power. And, they had to pass on the power when their mandate expired.

In the period of Jiang and Wu, the world, starting with the American administrations, applied the policy of engagement with China based on a belief that evolution toward democracy was underway in China. The economic reform, in the capitalist sense, that China was carrying out ('getting rich is glorious' was one of Deng's dogmas), was considered very smart.

Some data seemed to demonstrate the goodness of this prediction: a middle class was forming (which sooner or later would have demanded the right to speak); China was open to previously unthinkable cultural exchanges; there was some progress in the religious and judicial fields; some timid attempts towards elections at village level were made; 50 years of autonomy were promised to Hong Kong (and Macao); Taiwan was promised to be treated with respect, having Hong Kong as evidence of China’s sincerity.

Yet in the internal political documents, as early as in the 90s, 'foreign forces' were accused of infiltration, including through religious and cultural propaganda, of wanting to impose 'Western' models of democracy and human rights. And it was stated, in black and white, that China would not carry out any 'peaceful evolution.' But, indeed, no peaceful evolution ever took place!

The middle class is silent and harmless, while there grew a powerful and rich oligarchy linked to party cadres. Political reforms never took off. There are no elections, not even in the villages. The voices of human rights lawyers were smothered, with the arrest of its brave protagonists.

The situation of religious freedom has worsened, while the populations of the Uyghurs of Xinjiang and the Buddhists of Tibet are subjected to brutal repression that it would not be excessive to define as cultural genocide.

In the meantime, Hong Kong's democratic ambitions, even if allowed by the Basic Law, have been peremptorily destroyed. And Taiwan is increasingly the victim of threatening military attention and diplomatic isolation.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

(This is the first part of a two-part commentary on the situation in China in the backdrop of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th national congress that began in Beijing on Oct. 16.)

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