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China: From Democracy Wall to the Shopping Mall, And Back

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Who would have thought that tainted pet food and toys would threaten to unravel the authoritarian export model of Chinese growth the brutal Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 was meant to secure? As a formerly purged Communist leader from a vast, poor country paralyzed by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiao Ping could well imagine how political upheaval would derail China's stable path to prosperity. It surely never entered his mind, nor that of his descendant comrades, that the fickle American consumer would one day become the agent of revolutionary change in China.

In the name of sovereignty, China's leaders may have gotten away with gagging and suppressing their own citizens while ignoring the get gloriously rich-quick corruption which has thrived in the absence of the rule of law. But, thanks to globalization, China's export reliance on the American consumer has imported their political demands into the equation. Americans won't hesitate one moment to cut the import lifeline and shift their allegiance from Chinese products that might poison their children or kill their pets.

Unlike organized labor or human rights groups, consumers don't have to mobilize to effect change; they only have to demobilize by not spending. And their bargaining agents -- WalMart, Target, Toys R. Us -- have immensely more clout than the AFL-CIO and Amnesty International ever had in fostering change in China.

Ironically, the Most Favored Nation treatment for China (and its later entry into the WTO) that labor and human rights groups so virulently opposed in the past has become a Trojan Horse. China's future is now so linked to the American consumer that it will be forced to curb corruption and strengthen regulation through the rule of law or face the certain doom of its export-led growth. No sanction is more devastating than consumer choice. Live by the market, die by the market, as the saying goes. For consumers to trust Chinese products, they must trust regulation. Regulation cannot be trusted without the rule of law which doesn't bend to bribery, fraud and quanxi (connections.)

Historically, it was the emergent bourgeoisie which demanded the protection and rights which led to the rule of law and democracy in the West. Good Marxists as they were, both Margaret Thatcher and Richard Nixon believed a growing middle class in a capitalistic China would ultimately lead to democracy, not the other way around.

Others pointed out the ultimate paradox of Deng's soft totalitarianism: In the end, privatizing people lives will ultimately deprive the authorities of their power. As more and more people come to enjoy private freedom, fewer and fewer will abide it being taken away. They will want their space protected from the arbitrary exercise of power.

Globalization, it seems, has accelerated this process by forging a kind of objective coalition of the growing Chinese middle class and the American consumer in favor of the rule of law.

China hardly needs to start from scratch to address this issue. Before he was retired (read: purged) in a power struggle with (then premier) Li Peng and (then president and Party chief) Jiang Zemin back in 1997, I sat down for a rare interview with Qiao Shi, who, at the time I met him in May of that year, was the third-ranking member of the Politburo and chairman of the National People's Congress. As China's former intelligence chief, he elicited comparisons to Yuri Andropov, the reformist ex-KGB chief who was Gorbachev's mentor.

While his competitors stressed economic growth and Party control, Qiao emphasized the need for "the rule of law and strengthening the legal system." He insisted when we met in one of those cavernous rooms in the Great Hall of the People, that "any infringement upon laws by the law enforcers, overriding of law by administrative authorities or perversion of justice for personal gain must be stopped."

For Qiao, "according to the Constitution, all power in the country belongs to the people, and the people exercise state power through the National People's Congress and local people's congresses at various levels. To ensure that the people are the real masters of the country, that state power is really in their hands, we must strengthen these institutions and give them (ital) full (unital) play."

When I asked the $64,000 question of whether the Party was above the law or the law above the Party, Qiao responded without hesitation, to the evident consternation of his handlers, that "no organization or individual has the prerogative to override the constitution or the law." Remarkably, he never even mentioned the Communist Party until I brought it up.

Perhaps today the leaders in Beijing will feel compelled to return to the spirit of Qiao's agenda in the wake of the current crisis in global consumer confidence over Chinese products. Savvy consumers are not likely to buy China's response so far of prosecuting and executing a handful of high-level officials, "killing the chicken to scare the monkey." They simply want the lead out or will take their purchases elsewhere.

Of course, a move toward the reliable rule of law is not democracy, but it is a big step on the long march in that direction.

Some years ago, the once-famous-but-now-forgotten dissident Wei Jingsheng lamented how the attention of global public opinion and that of most Chinese had shifted "from Democracy Wall [where Wei was arrested for plastering big character posters] to the shopping mall." Now, especially as the spotlight of the Olympics approaches, it seems the tables may be turning again.