Social Action:
The Freedom Democracy Brings
China and the election in Iraq


This article appeared in the March 2005 issue of Melbourne journal Social Action, and is reproduced with the gracious permission of Social Action's editor, Gerald Mercer.
The freedom democracy brings In spite of considerable physical danger from terrorists, Iraqis turned out in remarkable numbers to vote in democratic elections on Jan 30.
One comment on this event was of more than usual interest.
"Despite ceaseless insurgent activities and a smattering of imperfections in the democratic process, no one can possibly deny that the election was successful and champions the freedom that democracy brings."
The author continued, " the Middle East has never before held a democratic election involving other parties and political factions."
"This act of democracy is completely different from the ruthless oligarchy of former President Saddam Hussein's 36-year long rule."
"The election is expected to provide Iraqis with different political choices [and] is expected to reflect - to the maximum - the mainstream opinions of the masses of Iraqis and serve their fundamental interests."
"In this election, a single constituency system and the representative proportion system were adopted nationwide. This governmental mechanism is designed to bring more people into the decision making process."
"Such an earthshaking change not only matches Iraq's national condition, but also follows the historical trend of the world's political democratisation."(emphasis added)
A commentator from a neo-conservative think tank in the United States? A columnist in the Murdoch press? Neither of those actually. The writer was Ma Xiaolin, writing in the China Daily (4 February, 2005) on its world opinion page. This paper is owned and published by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The sheer hypocrisy of this should be immediately apparent. Chinese President Hu Jintao and the CCP have no intention of giving the vote to the Chinese people. In Hong Kong, which has a limited democracy, Beijing initially pledged universal suffrage, and is now delaying that to an indefinite future. In Taiwan, which China claims the right to rule, democracy is now deeply embedded, making Beijing uncomfortable.
In other words the historical trend of the world's political democratisation ends at China's borders.
China also donated US$1 million to assist the Iraqi electoral process. So why is a repressive dictatorship supporting the development of democracy in Iraq?
To some extent it suits China to appear a reasonable, co-operative participant in the international arena. For its process of industrialisation to continue successfully it needs access to world markets, especially America, and a benign international environment.
There appears to be a deeper strategic reason. China is now the world's fastest growing oil importer. It needs supplies from the Middle East, and has a direct interest in stability in that part of the world, for which it must depend on the United States.
Out of all that arises the implicit hypocrisy in the China Daily article. Democracy is good for Iraqis, but not for China's own citizens.
Chinese democracy A number of Chinese democratic organisations from around the world will meet in Sydney later this month, convened by the Federation for a Democratic China (Australian Division). They include the Alliance for a Democratic China, the Chinese Social Democratic Party, the Chinese Student's Union of Germany, and others.
The conference will study the current situation within Chinese society, in its political and economic aspects. They will also study civil society, special groups and communities, and elements of social crisis.
Participants hope to develop a common standard among the various democratic organisations in order to best present a unified approach. They would like the conference to work out some general strategies for a peaceful evolution in China, exploring the best way to achieve democracy.
The participants are full of enthusiasm, although resources are very limited. They will use the Internet creatively to allow people unable to attend the conference to express their views. We wish them well.
Iraqi election The images of over 8 million Iraqis queuing to vote in an election for a new government were very striking. They voted with joy and enthusiasm, in spite of the risk of death or injury from car bombs, mortars, suicide bombers and other terrorist actions. It was a picture of collective courage and determination. The photograph on this page of an Iraqi woman triumphantly showing her inked fingers after voting was typical.
Among the many incidents of that day two are worth reflection. One is a report of great evil. The other is a report of great bravery.
First is the story of Amar, a 19 year old boy from the Baghdad suburb of Al-Askan. Amar had Downs Syndrome. He was a happy, laughing boy with a child-like simplicity. He appears to have been kidnapped by insurgents, equipped with a bomb belt, and then sent to detonate the bomb amongst a line of Iraqis waiting to vote.
Unlike some others, he was not a volunteer for a suicide/homicide atrocity. He simply did not realise what he was being asked to do. And in any case, he was a Shiite, and would not have knowingly harmed his own people.
Amar's bomb belt was triggered before he reached the intended target. He was the only victim - no others were hurt.
His distraught parents, Ahmed and Fatima heard an explosion, and were later told that a Downs Syndrome boy was a bomber. Ultimately his remains were located. They buried their son the next day.
The second incident concerns the bravery of an Iraqi policeman, who spotted a suicide bomber approaching a line of voters. He wrestled with the bomber, drawing him away from the voters. The bomb exploded and both men were killed, but the waiting voters were saved from death or injury.
In peaceful and prosperous Australia, where voting is a normal experience, we sometimes begrudge having to turn out to vote. After years of despotism, Iraqis showed how much they valued the privilege, by turning out in large numbers. Yet the environment was thought to be so dangerous that many of the usual international observers declined to even enter the country.
One of the very positive signs was the involvement of Iraqi civil society. A network of Iraqi civic organisations came together as the Election Information Network. Around 23,000 monitors provided an Iraqi presence to safeguard the integrity of the election process.
Another positive sign is the clear determination of the victors in the election to involve Sunni Iraqis in the government, even though many Sunni's failed to vote, out of resentment, statements by religious leaders, or fear of violence.
Much of course remains to be done. The elected representatives now have to form a government, finalise the constitution, and prepare for the endorsement of the constitution by a referendum.
The successful development of democracy in Iraq will to a large extent depend on how well they carry out these tasks, and how well the security situation is managed. Obviously, many things can go wrong.
Debate will continue for years about the American-led invasion in April 2003, and the subsequent way the occupation was managed. But it is hard to overlook the striking attitude of Iraqi voters.
Astonishing changes Looking at the Arab world from a broader perspective there have been some astonishing changes in the last two years. Libya's decision to reform itself and confess its sins after many years of bad international behaviour appears to have been a direct response to the US invasion of Iraq. Democracy, however, may be a long way off.
A separate development, following the death of Yasser Arafat, has been the election of a new Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas, and the renewed possibility of peace between Israel and Palestine, beginning with the Gaza strip. The more difficult questions of Jerusalem and the West Bank remain, but things are at least moving in a positive direction. Unfortunately, hopes for peace have been dashed before.
The assassination in February of the popular former Prime Minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, was attributed to the Syrian security services. Since then there has been an upsurge of popular feeling in Lebanon, large street demonstrations, the resignation of the pro-Syrian government and a statement by Syria's President Bashir Assad that Syrian forces would withdraw to the Syrian border. That statement has been greeted with scepticism.
Some of these developments appear to have been assisted by the growth of Arab television networks, which have broadcast the news of elections in Iraq and Palestine, affecting the popular mood in other countries.
Walid Jumblatt, the long time leader of Lebanon's Druze Arabs, says that Iraq's election was the Arab equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Perhaps he is right. But the problems of Central Europe in 1989 seem small compared with the Middle East in 2005. It would be unwise to expect too much, or to claim too much. Nevertheless the favourable developments should be welcomed.

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Copyright 2005 Gerald Mercer, Social Action