Democracy in China: Why Justice for George Floyd Matters

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On a mild summer afternoon in May 1919, thousands of students amassed in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing. Not a week before, the belligerents of World War I had convened in Paris to bring an official end to the calamitous conflict that had engulfed the globe since 1914. However, the nascent Chinese republic, left impotent and unstable by decades of European imperialism, failed to secure Chinese interests at the drafting of the Treaty of Versailles. In an act of appeasement that provoked nationalist outrage and rebuke among Chinese youth, the Allied powers granted German colonial possessions in China to imperial Japan. Rallying for principles such as science, democracy, and patriotism, student-led demonstrations across China, collectively known as the May Fourth Movement, would forever set the course of China’s political development.

Little more than a century later, these demonstrations were the subject of remarks delivered this past May by U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger. In a thought-provoking discourse, Pottinger described how leaders of the May Fourth Movement embodied the principles of democracy and human dignity. Invoking Hu Shih, a public intellectual who championed the use of vernacular language as a means to democratize Chinese public discourse, along with P.C. Chang’s contributions to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Taiwan’s current democratic status, Pottinger dismissed the “cliché that Chinese people can’t be trusted with democracy.”

Pottinger’s appeal to democracy comes at a critical juncture in U.S.-China relations. As experts reflect on U.S. policy towards China across the past five decades, consensus has emerged that the U.S. project of liberal Chinese integration has failed. A consequence of slowing economic growth and nationalist ambition, China has grown increasingly assertive abroad and authoritarian at home. Anti-competitive market practices, political repression, widespread violation of human rights, and burgeoning Chinese financial influence around the world have placed significant strain on the bilateral relationship. Consequently, scholars and politicians alike have criticized U.S. naivety for believing that China could be encouraged towards democracy, let alone be integrated into a system characterized by accountability, free trade, and respect for human rights.

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