JOANNE MYERS: This morning we are very pleased to welcome back Ian Buruma to discuss his latest book, Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing.The book will be available for you to purchase at the end of the program.
For over fifty years, communist rule in the People's Republic of China has been so turbulent that even its staunchest supporters must have looked forward to a less tumultuous future. However, the shaping of the future of China is not an easy task. Whether change will come from pressure from within or from the influence of dissidents living outside of China's borders is a question that is difficult to answer.
For the past five years, Ian Buruma has traveled throughout the world in an attempt to define the voices competing to mold China's future and to unmask the rebels making headlines in their pursuit of a more liberated China. He has interviewed numerous exiles of the Chinese diaspora, from Singapore to Taiwan, from Hong Kong back to the People's Republic of China, compiling the stories of the brave men and women who have struggled valiantly to defy the Communist Party and who dare to stand up to the Party's powerful rulers. Their tales tell us what it means to them to be Chinese and what, in their view, the struggle for China's future is all about.
Mr. Buruma studied Chinese in The Netherlands. He has written of his many years in Asia in such books as God's Dust, Behind the Mask, and The Missionary and the Libertine. His last book, Anglomania, which was discussed here, addressed the issue of England's place in Europe. His articles have appeared in The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Magazine, as well as in many other publications.
The New York Timeshas said that, "For years, Ian Buruma has been writing some of the most trenchant and sophisticated commentary around on the cultural-political worlds known as Asia."
IAN BURUMA:I am sorry to be holding forth so early in the morning on a topic like this, but I guess you're used to that. I am not.
It also seems slightly perverse to be talking in America these days about the problems of China, which now seems an oasis of peace and calm in a world that's exploding around it. But to assume that everything is okay in China as a loyal ally in the anti-terrorism coalition may be a form of wishful thinking.
The word that is very often bandied about about China by commentators, diplomats, and businessmen is "stability." This is really the modern word for a more traditional term used by Chinese when it comes to politics and governing China, which is "harmony."
The common idea is that it's important to preserve the stability or harmony of China by maintaining the status quo as long as possible, by having a more or less authoritarian party of technocrats rather than ideologues to keep things under control, but that a democratic alternative in China would be dangerous because it would destabilize society: People wouldn't know how to handle it; the transition would be highly volatile and there might be mayhem in the streets.
There may be two reasons for this view of China, one traditional, one much more modern. The modern one I could sum up in an anecdote which came to me this summer when I went to Beijing en route for Moscow. As a way of preparing myself for this first trip to Moscow, I was pointed in the direction of an academic in Cambridge who was a specialist in Chinese economics but who also knew and had views on the Soviet Union.
I met him in London and was surprised to hear this man, who looked, dressed and spoke like an old leftist, which I think he was, say, "It's absolutely imperative that the Chinese Communist Party keep absolute control, and anything else would completely wreck the country." If it were up to him, he said, he would throw every dissident and Falun Gong believer in jail; these people were going to wreck the country in the same way that those democrats in Russia had wrecked Russia. The word "chubais" (phonetic) brought foam to his mouth, and he was absolutely adamant that the Party had to be in control of China.
We parted on slightly frosty terms when it became clear that we didn't really agree on these things. I asked him when he had last been to China, and said through gritted teeth, "Last month," and that he actually went once a month, which surprised me even more, since Cambridge academics — Cambridge, England, that is — don't get paid the kind of salary that allows them to go to China once a month.
And so, rather mischievously, I looked him up on the Internet and, lo and behold, apart from his academic credentials, he came up as an advisor to the People's Council of the National Committee of the People's Republic of China andthe Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, Georgia.
This is a symbiosis that didn't exist in the case of the Soviet Union. The country is ruled by a Leninist party, largely without the Marxist ideology, which very few Chinese, even in the Party, believe in anymore, but the country is nominally under the control of the Communist Party, where a great deal of money is to be made. This is informing our relations to China, and it is in some ways informing people's opinions about China.
The other reason for our obsession with stability and harmony in China is a more traditional one, which has existed in China since imperial days, that the government was in charge not just of secular political institutions but of a cosmic order; that its duties were spiritual, moral, religious, as well as political.
There had not been a separation of church and state in the way that took place in Europe. The emperors were the mediators between heaven and earth, and the Mandarins, the scholar officials, were those who articulated, defined, and disseminated the official orthodoxy, which was that China had to be unified, that there was such a thing as a unified China in which harmony reigned, preserved by the government. Any challengers to the orthodoxy were seen as people who would not only bring disharmony but also attack Chinese civilization itself. In modern terms, those who attack or challenge the right of the Communist Party to rule are almost invariably branded as anti-Chinese, as though they are not just political dissidents but somehow opposed to the official idea of China, and Chinese culture itself.
This idea of harmony is one of the great barriers between the status quo in China and a transition to freer institutions. It plagues the dissidents themselves as much as it does the governments that they challenge. Many dissidents in China - in Mainland China and in exile- see themselves as people who have to save the country. They stand for an alternative model in which not just political institutions but also people's way of thinking and ethics and morals have to be transformed to produce a new cosmic order in China.
The Communists did this, too, with the creation of the New Man and the Communist Morality and Ethics, but was much more than a purely political project.
In order to really challenge myself or test these myths of one China, one Chinese civilization whose culture had produced particular political institutions and whose people thought in a particular way because they are Chinese, I chose not just to write about the People's Republic of China but to include Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, as well as the exiles.
I did this to show that people who come from a similar cultural and linguistic tradition, given different historical circumstances, can go in completely different political directions. In a way, I did it as a challenge to cultural determinism, the idea that a particular culture has to produce a particular set of political institutions; the idea that the Chinese, not having had a history of democracy, therefore are unlikely to be able to handle it.
The example of Taiwan, if nothing else, has shown the fallacy of that way of thinking, and I know that people then argue that, Yes, but Taiwan is very small, and so you can do it there, but it's impossible in such a large and diverse country as China. My one-word rebuttal is India, which is even more diverse and complicated than China, but has a functioning democratic system, flawed though it is.
The question that I was trying to answer by spending time traveling to Taiwan, particularly during elections, was really what allowed the Taiwanese to succeed in the transition to a democracy.
One of the reasons for their success is related to this cosmic, all-encompassing moral idea of politics. Taiwanese dissidents never felt that they had to save China because most them from the fifties through the eighties were the so-called native Taiwanese, the people whose ancestors came to Taiwan 300 years ago. Their project was to break the monopoly of power of the so-called Mainlanders, under Chiang Kai-shek in the late 1940s with the KMT, the Guomindang (Kuomingtang or KMT). And the Guomindang were the ones who presented themselves as the guardians of Chinese civilization.
Quite deliberately and overtly, the National Museum in Taipei is a symbol of this. The treasures of Chinese civilization are or were kept in Taipei to legitimize the right of the KMT to rule. Their goal was to claim that they stood for China, that they would reconquer the Mainland one day, and that they were the guardians of the Chinese tradition. Those who opposed them were not interested in saving that tradition and were Taiwanese nationalists.
And so they were relieved, or liberated from that old burden of Chinese dissidents having to save China. They could concentrate on more practical things, even though Taiwanese nationalism can also be romantic, idealistic, provincial and often tiresome. But the immediate goals were political less than cultural, which is why they succeeded in the end.
It also made them more open to ideas from the West and from the United States, in particular, but also from the Japanese colonial past, without feeling that they were somehow betraying their Chinese heritage or being anti-Chinese.
One of the interesting things in talking to the older dissidents — those who were active in the sixties and seventies in Taiwan and who still speak fluent Japanese from their Japanese colonial education — was to discover how they saw the Japanese past through ugly rose-tinted spectacles. They would often tell you, unprompted, how much better things had been under the Japanese, and Japanophilia in Asia is a rare thing. The Mainland Chinese, the Mainlanders, or even sometimes "those Chinese," they would say, when they were speaking in Japanese, were uncouth and spat in the streets and had no culture, no idea of democracy, no sense of order; whereas the Japanese, in contrast, brought order, and fair play, and rule of law, and were civilized. Things were harsh, but at least the Japanese brought all those wonderful, modern things.
This was a way to oppose the Mainlanders more than to give an accurate picture of what the colonial past had been like, which was not rosy. I went to see a friend in Taipei who was a Hong Kong Chinese. He was a former comedy movie star in Hong Kong who played a part in 1989 in helping the students on the square in Tiananmen and later using his show-biz gangster connections, which in Hong Kong are very close, to enable a lot of the student leaders to escape from China.
His name is John Chung. One day in his office in Taipei, where he now lives, and has a cable television company, I asked him about this business of the so-called native Taiwanese and their attitudes to the Mainlanders and whether they were really so different. And he said that they were absolutely the same as the Mainlanders. They spat in the streets, they had no sense of order, they were uncouth, they had no culture. But the Hong Kong Chinese he said, were very different, with a sense of fair play and the rule of law.
And I said, "Well, why is that?" knowing exactly what he was going to say. He said, "Well, because we were under the British." And it shows a curious lack of self-confidence amongst many members of the Chinese elite - and this really goes all the way through the Chinese-speaking world - a kind of injured pride, and a sense that Chinese civilization, being so ancient and rich, somehow should produce the greatest country on Earth. Because it has not, there is a great sense of humiliation which can flip expressions of cultural superiority very quickly into a kind of cultural self-loathing. A surprising number of Chinese dissidents, especially abroad, have become Christians, thinking that only once all Chinese are converted to the Christian faith can they have democratic institutions. Underlying that idea is the same old notion that politics is not just the question of institutions but the question of moral transformations.
In Taiwan and Hong Kong, to a large extent people, Democrats, were liberated from this. Their project in Hong Kong, too, was to limit the power of the authorities, which, after all, is the real basis for democratic rule, and, in the case of Hong Kong, to protect the rights and the rule of law - which were, after all, the products of colonialism - against the power of the Chinese state.
Unfortunately, this is now being undermined in Hong Kong, not necessarily by the government in Beijing, but by the old colonial elite of mostly businessmen, who managed Hong Kong under British colonial period rule, and are now managing it under Chinese rule but doing so in a more autocratic manner than before, and claiming cultural reasons for doing so.
Governor Tung Chee-hwa, not a great connoisseur of Chinese culture, is claiming Chinese values, Confucianism, Asian values even, taking a cue from Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore) to try to make governance in Hong Kong more autocratic. To some extent he is beginning to get away with it, although there is heartening resistance to it in Hong Kong, certainly when it comes to things like freedom of the press. Nonetheless, it is not a good tendency.
I would like to come back to where I began before inviting you to ask questions. Is it really true that one-party rule guarantees stability any more than a more democratic alternative would? I would argue that it would not, and it is because of this question of legitimacy, that under Mao in the worst days, there was still a horrible orthodoxy, but an orthodoxy which could be claimed to give the communist government of China, a kind of legitimacy. It was a set of morals, the creation of the new man, but enough people believed in it that the government had some kind of legitimacy.
This more or less disappeared in the 1980s with the open-door policy, when communist dogma really lost its force to persuade, and what legitimacy was left was pretty much smashed in 1989 once the government turned its tanks on its own people.
What is left after 1989 of government legitimacy, one-party-rule legitimacy? Apart from the promised guarantee of order and stability, it's the idea that everybody is going to get more prosperous. This is a very vulnerable kind of stability because not everybody even now is getting more prosperous, and in times of economic crisis, many people may even be getting considerably poorer. This is likely to produce more and more social unrest, even and particularly, perhaps, after China has joined the WTO, which is going to cause great tensions in the country, with the poorer elements feeling the brunt.
The problem is that without the elite pushing for democratic reforms, if it's left up to the poor, rural people, and unemployed workers, any kind of discontent and protest is more likely to produce violence and precisely the kind of disorder that the elites fear. Since they are doing quite well at the moment, the elites are disinclined to rock the boat or give leadership in any kind of reformism.
And what is left to the government to legitimize itself once you have social unrest is the very thing that has been used by governments who try to keep control of undemocratic societies with unrest elsewhere and in history, which is an aggressive nationalism, which you can already see evidence of in China, and particularly during the U.S. plane incident or the bombing of Belgrade.
It is a nationalism based on past grievances, on the sense of humiliation beginning with the opium wars. The world doesn't want us to have our place in the sun. It's a nationalism very akin to the kind of nationalism of Wilhelmine Germany, whose ideas indeed have been taken over in East Asia, not just in China but also in Japan in the 19th century. They are rather poisonous ideas and, if directed to the outside world, indeed, very dangerous. I am not suggesting that China is going to unleash World War III tomorrow or any time soon - indeed, I don't think China will do anything very rash until 2008, for obvious reasons, which is the one positive thing to be said for the Olympic games - but eventually it could lead to miscalculations towards Taiwan, which would cause all kinds of problems in its wake.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION:If you could have an election on whether they want democracy in China now, how do you think it would come out, and what groups would support it and what groups would resist it?
IAN BURUMA:In the unlikely event that there were to be a referendum of that sort, we would perhaps be surprised. The majority of the people would want it, and those who might not would not be the poor. It would be precisely those of the elite who feel that their interests are better safeguarded by having a strong, authoritarian control, which rather contradicts another received opinion in many quarters in the West that a middle class automatically produces more liberal institutions. It doesn't automatically do so. A middle class can be very conservative if it feels that its own interests are better protected with strong central control.
QUESTION:First, I've spent a lot of time on Taiwan and written about Taiwan, so I look forward to reading your book. What do you see as the impact of the recent election?
IAN BURUMA:I can't imagine that the policy towards the Mainland would change significantly, because I don't think there is much room for maneuver there. Chen Shuibian has played it pretty deftly, and the best they could hope for is to keep the status quo without doing anything very provocative. So I don't think it would change in that respect.
It has given more added legitimacy to the fledgling democracy that they have, and it is very heartening that even in times of economic crisis, which the KMT has done its best to blame on the DPP, the DPP still won that many votes.
QUESTION: To return to this whole question of religion, separation of church and state, how would you categorize religious dissent? Is it political, or is it religious? I have been reading The New York Timesto get a grip on these things.
IAN BURUMA:It depends on the dissenter, of course. There are those whose principles are essentially political, and actually, Wei Jingsheng, a much-maligned figure, in my view, is one of them. He is a stubborn, difficult, uncompromising, a wild character, and he is easy to caricaturize as a sort of buffoon who has no legitimacy at all. But he has stuck to one very firm political principle, which is that nothing will change as long as people don't have the right to vote and express their opinions in public freely. I would put him and others in the purely political camp.
But there are also those - I mentioned the evangelical Christians - who believe and preach that all Chinese must convert to Christianity before they can have a political transformation. There are others who believe that Chinese culture has to change; those who argue that the Chinese people have to become more educated. If the argument is that the Chinese are still backward and have to be educated to be able to handle democracy, then why is it that only the least educated, most rural people have the right to elect anybody?
So it is a mixed bag, and many but not all dissidents do have that cultural-religious attitude to politics.
QUESTION:Chinese unity is relatively new, and has often been achieved at gunpoint. Some have speculated that with the possible changes in China with entry into WTO, there may be a new fragmentation of China into various segments in the country with their own traditions. Can you speculate on that?
IAN BURUMA:Yes, I think that already the local and regional party bosses have quite a lot of autonomy from the central government, and it is not always a good thing.
I am not an expert on Tibet -- I've been there -- but I am told that things are often harsher in Tibet than they need be because the local chiefs, party bosses, are more authoritarian than even the central government would like them to be, but they are not really firmly under central control. So that tendency is already there.
It depends on how it happens. Ideally, the solution for China in the end is a federation which might include Taiwan, with a federal government but which would allow for strong autonomous regional governments. But whether this will happen peacefully or come as a result of fragmentation of a more chaotic sort, we don't know.
QUESTION:Could you tell us to what extent the elites are predominated by the Han people, and also, in the new concern about Muslim fundamentalists and conversations between Beijing and Washington, what is the role of Muslim dissidents?
IAN BURUMA:The elites and the majority of the Chinese people are largely Han. Again, I am not an expert on the Uigur problem. Both in Tibet and in the Muslim areas, the strategy is a very colonial one, although unlike the former European and American colonies, where the colonizing power was always a very small minority, and held power in its colonies partly by force, but partly by intimidating people enough to make them feel that the colonial power was somehow natural.
Tibet, in the western, at least in the urban areas of the Muslim west of China, is being flooded by Han Chinese, and the majority population of many of their cities already is Han Chinese. So the Muslims are being gradually reduced to being a purely rural people, which will make it very difficult for them to pose a real challenge to authority. I think that they're a bigger worry to the central government than the Tibetans, partly because they have allies outside China and can be armed by people across the border, which is not the case with the Tibetans.
As the result of 9/11 and the coalition, it is very clear what China is trying to get out of this, which is that it will use this as a way to be able to crack down on its dissidents, whether they are Muslims or Falun Gong or anybody else, and claim legitimacy for it, that it is, their war against terror. And while we have this coalition, Western governments will be less inclined to make a fuss about that than they might have before.
QUESTION:You mentioned that the only people who can elect some of their own officials are in the agrarian communities. Are there any sort of grass-roots movements starting in those areas for democracy?
Earlier this year, analysts were predicting that reform will come to a head in 2003 with the National Congress and when Jiang Zemin will choose his successor. Do you really think that there will be any sort of reform in 2003, or will there simply be more economic reform where Coca-Cola will be allowed in, for example?
IAN BURUMA:As far as grass-roots movements are concerned, no, there is no evidence of that, because the problem in China is that the government has been very clever and successful strategically, or tactically, in dealing with potential challenges, and let go of those areas in Chinese life which do not pose a direct threat to the government. In other words, individuals are much freer than they were before. They can go to discos, choose the kinds of jobs they would like, and even speak their mind in private. People will tell you anything in private or even in public. I've heard people in restaurants denounce the Communist Party with loud voices, and nothing will happen.
But as soon as you do anything, whether it is religious, cultural, or political on an organized basis to set up civil society, they crack down.
And so you have these village elections, which were instituted to make one-party rule more efficient, because if you allow people in remote areas to vote for their own local bosses, who are then answerable to the central government, you have a much smoother pipeline from the center to the periphery. But if it were to lead to any attempt to form parties or movements, they would come down on it very hard.
Yes, we can expect more economic reform, but I don't think Jiang Zemin's successor will be any more inclined to have serious political reform than we've seen so far.
QUESTION:Do you have any idea who would succeed Jiang Zemin? I know that a few names are being proposed, but what is your assessment?
IAN BURUMA:The name most often mentioned is Hu Jintao and he's not a democrat. He was a very harsh governor of Tibet.
What is emerging now is that the communist revolution was led by peasant revolutionaries, hard men, fighters, some of them romantic figures. The sort of people who are now leaders are rather like company CEOs or the sort of people that liberal democrats in Japan are producing, party hacks who are very good at doing background deals, who are schmoozers, don't make enemies, keep their noses clean, and are often rather mediocre men, but shrewd party machine operators. We are not going to see revolutionaries, for sure, or romantic leaders, and these hacks are unlikely to produce any significant change.
QUESTION:One item troubles me, and that is the sociological. People speak of China as if it's a harmonious, using the term, entity, and I solicit your comments, in that China itself never really followed a central theme. Confucianism is a philosophy, and it only applied to the upper strata. In the lower strata, it made no difference; they went ahead, farmed, and followed the wishes of the local governor who responded, not always in every case, to the emperor, and you had the fragmentation there. But only later did the term of nationalism start to appear after these Manchus which came into China.
I see a demarcation between rural and urban. The economics in the rural area has always been quiet, tacit, if you will. Therefore, in starting anything, you have to look at the history and all of the aspects dealing with who were the communists, who were they for the masses that joined, who tried to get away from the oppressiveness of Chiang Kai-shek, all of the ideas that were fostered during the first revolution in 1911.
IAN BURUMA:Yes, but of course, like everywhere else, the urban population is growing enormously. But China is still predominantly rural, but it is changing fast, and the ethics and politics, are led largely by the urban elite, whose importance is growing.
What will happen, what is happening in China, is what has happened elsewhere. And again, Japan is quite a good parallel, since it is culturally reasonably close. Of course, Confucianism was something of the educated class, and just as in Japan, Samurai ethics, including the right to commit suicide, were only there for the Samurai in the Tokugawa period.
But what resulted in the Meiji when the urban population grew and you developed a middle class, who took on modern, mostly European, and mostly the wrong European ideas, in my view, when nationalism became the main factor to create a new, modern state identity, was a debased form of the Samurai values that then spread beyond the old Samurai class, and everybody started to adopt a version of Samurai ethics, including forms of Confucianism.
That may be true of China too, that they've adopted or they're beginning to adopt a kind of nationalism. In China, it started during the same period as in Japan, developed somewhat differently, but they've also taken on the wrong European ideas. The kind of nationalism based on culture, blood and soil, rather German ideas, are being spread first by the urban elite but will become more general as time goes on and the countryside empties and the cities grow larger.
QUESTION:You may have just answered the question I was going to ask, but why should we give democracy a try in China if the risks involved are a democratic China being potentially like a democratic India?
China is currently absorbing a very high proportion of the world's foreign-grade investment. That is our money which we're investing and which would be at risk in a chaotic China. It is all very well in the comfort of New York to contemplate an East Asia deeply affected by war in China, but Southeast Asia, which will be fundamentally affected by China, is very uncomfortable for my country.
Why should we settle with a regime that has worked out well living with a world that has now achieved its position in WTO, that increasingly is prepared to talk to us about arms control and disarmament that we should use in a rational way? Why tear that down?
IAN BURUMA:Everything you've just said could have been said about the Shah of Iran, too.
QUESTION:Well, I was invested in Iran.
IAN BURUMA:Because in the long run more democratic institutions would guarantee a more stable and orderly China, whereas the lack of them will probably produce the opposite result. If you take away legitimate political means by which people can resolve their conflicts of interests and discontents, all that is left in the end is mob violence. And maybe the Chinese government will be able to put out all those bush fires constantly by using force, but that's not a very pretty picture either.
And if history is any guide, we just look at modern history, and many countries, including Japan, have had a choice: Either you base your idea of statehood and national identity on the sense of citizenship based on rights, or you base it on the more German model, which is more idealistic on culture, language and race, and have a strong authoritarian control that uses this idea of cultural and racial cohesion as a way to keep society together.
Modern history has shown that the latter course is the least likely to produce peace and harmony.
QUESTION:In digression from your main point, but since we've talked about culture so much, I would be interested in your observations about the argument growing in popularity of the role of culture in economic development. People like Samuel Huntington and David Landis are talking about how there is something inherent in Confucianism that helps promote economic development in China and the rest of East Asia. What do you think about that?
IAN BURUMA:It's pretty spurious. It goes back to Weber and Protestantism being more conducive to capitalism than Catholicism. Weber, of course, argued that Confucianism was the reason that East Asia was held back economically. And then suddenly in the 1980s we were told that actually it was Confucianism that produced the economic miracles of China and South Korea.
But by the same token, you could say it's Confucianism that has produced North Korea. Countries take off economically for reasons other than cultural traditions.
It may be true that when the institutions are such that they will enable economic growth and unleash people's energies in the right directions, that then it helps to have some code of ethics that makes people behave tolerably well at the same time. But then it doesn't really matter whether it's Confucianism or Protestantism or Catholicism or Judaism or even Islam.
I don't think there is anything inherent in any of these traditions. It's more that you need both, you need some kind of code of behavior, more or less traditional, and you need a set of institutions that allow an economy to develop.
QUESTION:Why do you think these Chinese in exile living day today would talk about democracy and human rights when we see already that democracy is anarchical? Do you think any of the intellectuals will think about this?
IAN BURUMA:I wonder if what you say is true. Yes, there is a great deal of anarchy in the world, but on the whole, it's not in the democracies. The democracies are relatively peaceful compared to countries where there is a very weak state, if any at all. But to say that democracies produce anarchy, is a strange case to make.
QUESTION:Do you think that democracy exists anywhere today or any time a thousand years ago?
IAN BURUMA:If you see democracy as a kind of Utopian ideal of absolute freedom, no, then it doesn't exist anywhere. But if you see it as a set of institutions which allow people to resolve conflicts more or less peacefully, then yes, it does exist in many countries, and in more countries than ever before; and it is precisely in those countries that there is a relative order and stability. I would argue that the problem of Muslim fundamentalism is a result of the failure to set up secular states, but not the failure of democracy. It started with the failure of state socialism in the Middle East, and then that was replaced by military strong men, and the people who opposed that have turned to religion for lack of anything else. But it is not produced by democracy.
QUESTION:Is there a policy response that our government or Western governments should develop to address this emerging dramatic nationalism?
IAN BURUMA:Very difficult to do. Our leverage in China is limited, and one of the ironies of modern history is that those countries in East Asia which have been most successful in diffusing that kind of nationalism and making a transition to more open societies are precisely those much-maligned U.S. client states of the 1960s and 1970s.
One of the reasons this was possible in the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea was because the United States had the clout to tell the generals, after they had been pushed to concede elections, to actually follow through and not pull back. The United States is in no position, let alone the EU, to influence China in this way.
Chinese politics are a problem for the Chinese themselves to work out. The best we can do is push them more on human rights issues, but we can't tell them what kind of political institutions to have. We can encourage those who would be most inclined to have liberal solutions and not dismiss them as either irrelevant or dangerous troublemakers or deluded westernized dreamers.