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Chinese leader: Greening China takes democracy

Trying to understand what goes on inside the heads of the Chinese is a major passtime in the Western corridors of power these days. One questions, perhaps, looms above all other: Will democracy eventually find her place in the land in the middle? After all, dealing with non-democracies is ever so much more unpredictable, and thus uncomfortable.

As it happens, the globally recognized Chinese Law Professor Wang Canfa does not hesitate to speak of the need for democratic reform in his home country when he travels the world. On the contrary, he draws a simple and obvious line between democratic shortfall and environmental disaster. One example, taken from his talk at McGill University on June 2nd: If local Chinese leaders are measured on their performance in terms of economic growth only, they have absolutely no interest in listening to the complaints of suffering farmers, whom they again is in no way answerable to. Wang Canfa is trying to change damaging mechanism by facilitating the actual enforcement of the extensive environmental legislation that already exists in China. This is done through his organisation CLAPV, the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims. Through collective lawsuits he is forcing the authorities to take the voice of regular people into account.

Why are we surprised, why is this a story worth passing on? Because many of us that are foreign to China would not expect the Chinese government to tolerate such talk - and definitely not such direct action. Listening to Wang Canfa, however, it turns out that China wants democracy. Only as long as it is a democarcy that does not hinder economic growth. Making this priority very concrete, Mr. Canfa gave the example that obtrusive tactics, such as sit-ins and demonstrations are not tolerated. Pursuing justice through court is, however, and when the many obstacles are overcome, no-one is principally against the working of a democratic court system. China wants democracy, but says no thanks to the tactics of social movements.

But where is this democracy to come from, one might ask, after having listened to Mr. Canfa's grim diagnosis of current policy making practises. On June 3rd in Montréal, people with Chinese roots or interests met to commemorate the victims of the massacre at Tiananmen Square that took place in Beijing exactly 20 years earlier, on June 3rd and 4th. First, the beautiful documentary Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square was shown, featuring amazing artwork and the dramatic lifestory of the artist himself. Then, in the following discussion round, an invited Taiwanese participant moved that China seems to lack a stable civil society that keeps the state in check. In her opinion, this civil society could grow out of either organizing the farmer culture in rural areas or, not least, the blogging culture on the Net. She shares the latter idea with democracy activist in-exile, Wang Dan, who claims there is "(an)other China...based on the Internet".

The efforts of Wang Canfa is touching on both the rural China and modern IT, as different as they may seem. Using organizational shortcuts, such as modern communication networks, his CLAPV provides environmental lawyers to assist rural populations in protecting their milieu against aggressive, centralized, state-controlled development all over China. Here, the trade-offs between democratic ideals and economic growth becomes as clear as in the sharp morning sunlight on Tiananmen. We cannot always have both, at least not when economic growth is measured with short term sensibility only. Currently, the governing Chinese Communist Party gives primacy to GDP growth. Wang Canfa wants to throw sustainability into the calculation. To do this, he convincingly shows, one needs real democracy and a civil society.