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China: Socialist, Democratic, Harmonious by 2050?

“I have never heard a Chinese leader declare that his country would be fully democratic by 2050,” said Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister, on Monday evening as he toasted Xi Jinping. “I have never heard a Chinese leader commit so explicitly to a rule-based international order founded on the principle that we should all treat others as we would be treated ourselves.” And Abbott said this: “I thank you, Mr. President, for this historic, historic statement, which I hope will echo right around the world.”

What prompted the effusive compliment? Earlier in the day, Xi had addressed the Australian Parliament, and he did make sweeping statements. “We have set two goals for China’s future development,” the Chinese leader said. “The first is to double the 2010 GDP and per-capita income of urban and rural residents and build a society of initial prosperity in all respects by 2020. The second is to turn China into a modern socialist country that is prosperous, democratic, culturally advanced, and harmonious by the middle of the century.”

Xi did use the word “democratic” and he talked about “the middle of the century,” but it is unlikely the Mao-spouting autocrat had a recent change of outlook. After all, during his tenure as China’s supremo he has intensified a prolonged attack on civil society begun by predecessor Hu Jintao.

Moreover, Xi has made it clear he believes China can progress only under the firm tutelage of the Communist Party, which he heads as general secretary. Most China watchers even think he has reversed the multi-decade trend toward weaker central leadership, a trend beginning with the historic transition from Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, to economic reformer Deng Xiaoping. If anything, the return to something resembling one-man rule under Xi has to be considered a move away from what most of the world considers “democracy.”

In these circumstances, it is clear Xi made no commitment to democratize by 2050, or for that matter, any date. Unfortunately, in Xi’s speech there was “nothing new” about China’s political system, as Jean-Pierre Cabestan of Hong Kong Baptist University noted in comments to London’s Guardian. “I’m afraid Abbott has been a bit too optimistic.”

It appears most observers, like the oft-quoted Cabestan, believe Abbott was taken in by Xi’s verbiage. There is, however, one other possibility, that the Australian leader was creating a marker by which the actions of his Chinese counterpart would be measured. Foreign presidents and prime ministers have, by employing this tactic, often tried to goad the Chinese political establishment to move in better directions.

Yet whatever is the truth—whether Abbott assigned too much significance to the words he heard or was being diplomatic for good ends—the prime minister missed an opportunity. Ronald Reagan did not praise Mikhail Gorbachev at first; he called the USSR what it was, an “evil empire.” He did not plead with the Soviet boss. Reagan demanded he “tear down this wall.”

“Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: We win, they lose,” Reagan said. And the world, as a result of the determination evident in those words, won soon after. Xi Jinping, for all his apparent strength, is insecure. We can see that from the Communist Party’s coercion at home and hostility abroad.

We need clear-thinking, plain-speaking leaders who will challenge those who seek dominion over others, even if—especially if—they are considered to own this century.

Mr. Xi, open your gates, tear down your walls.

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