By Yizhen Zheng
Gradual and evolutionary transition, which is vividly depicted as ¡°crossing the river by feeling the stones¡± by Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader credited for ¡°opening up¡± the country, is the main characteristic of China¡¯s reform, economically, politically and socially, over the past 31 years. After the devastating Cultural Revolution, the Chinese learned the lesson that citizens on a rampage only destroy infrastructure, enrage people and yield no prudent outcomes. However, gradual transition is the main critique Chinese scholars targeted at the U.S. foreign policy towards the Egypt protest.
In an official clip from February 8, 2011, the Obama administration uttered its support for ¡°the transition process announced by the Egyptian government.¡± The administration approved Vice President Omar Suleiman¡¯s legitimacy to conduct an ¡°orderly and gradual transition,¡± which, ironically, refused to meet rank-and-file members¡¯ democratic demands on the dismantling of the one-party political system and the immediate resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. As an American ally, Egypt has played a pivotal role in maintaining the existing order in the Middle East. Under such conditions, suggests Chinese blogger Ceng Biao, America¡¯s attitude regarding the Egyptian protests indicates the extent to which the country values democracy: is it more important to support Mohamed ElBaradei, the leader of opposition group, to help Egyptian democratize their political system or it is more urgent to support another autocrat Mr. Suleiman to maintain the America¡¯s control in Middle East. Simply put, it is the time to test whether America is the loyal democracy promoter it claims itself to be.
Onlookers in China are observing the way in which American politicians are urging the necessity to compromise. Responding to Suleiman¡¯s rebuff to lift the emergency law, Clinton stressed the dangers of holding elections without adequate preparation. ¡°Revolutions have overthrown dictators in the name of democracy, only to see the process hijacked by new autocrats who use violence, deception and rigged elections to stay in power,¡± she said. Clearly, the riots remind many in the U.S. government of the situation in Iran in 1979, when election rules were constructed to allow a certain group to win, leading to the rise to power of Iranian Islamists.
The restrained American response has resonated positively with some Chinese. In a recent article, political scholar Liu Xuewei offered high praise for the U.S. government¡¯s decision to endorse President Mubarak¡¯s executive role until this December, when new elections are scheduled to take place. In his opinion, vehement upheaval can only cause chaos and bring about another dictatorship, while effective political reform takes much longer, requiring a series of deliberative and prudent negotiations. Liu believes that it is a good sign that Mr. Mubarak spoke last week of amending two articles of the constitution covering presidential term limits and candidate qualifications, and that Mr. Suleiman has also promised outreach to the majority.
However, this gradual transition of ¡°trying to amend the system through the system,¡± as an NPR reporter points out, is ¡°running into a variety of roadblocks and booby traps.¡± According to the Constitution, if Mubarak resigned, there should be an immediate presidential election within 60 days. So far only one or two groups, one of which is the Muslim Brotherhood, have the ability to organize an effective campaign. Yet the Muslim Brotherhood is not the biggest concern here, as they are not really in a favorable position to win an election if one were to be held today. The real problem is that the Constitution is preventing Egyptians from transitioning into a democratic, pluralistic system. The constitution contains problems, particularly some unclearness concerning how the election should carried out and how much power should be assigned to the parliament. Also, the constitution does not provide Egyptians with any ability to challenge the ruling authority when the constitution is violated by the government itself. It is also infeasible to amend the constitution through the Parliament, which is now distrusted by the public. Some argue that since the government can violate the Constitution, the Egyptians should also be able to ignore it and hold an election immediately. But to write a new constitution from scratch is no less of a challenge than to overthrow Mr. Mubarak. It seems that the revolutionary road has its bumps as well.
While Egyptians are getting stuck with decisions between gradual transition and the revolutionary road, most Chinese are enjoying annual family-gatherings and bustling firecrackers during the spring festival. The government displays quite a positive view that China will not become the next Egypt. But the Egyptians do have a lesson to teach China. Most scholars insist that gradual transformation is the right track for China¡¯s domestic political reform. Graveled with corruption and deepening discrepancy between rich and the poor, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has developed various initiatives to encourage township elections and promote inner-party democracy since 1980s. Some suggest that China should follow the Singaporean Democracy model–democracy with a single, transparent ruling party. However, others argue that ¡°Inner-Party democracy is not true democracy¡±. We should also keep in mind that if people wallow in epicurean pleasures, which the booming economic would most likely guarantee, they may be more likely to tolerate autocracy and limited liberty. As some argue, the reason behind Egyptian riot lies not in the government¡¯s inability to promote democracy but rather in its inability to provide a decent life to its people. It might be true that Mr. Suleiman claims the people from Egyptian do not have the culture of democracy, and Chinese leaders frequently utter the same claim. However, the culture factor should never become an excuse for politicians to dodge reform that could lead towards a more liberal, democratic and just society.