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'China is a threat to democracy'

By Vaudine England
BBC News, Hong Kong

Lord Patten thinking during an interview in November 2008
Lord Patten is outspoken on world affairs

The threat looming from China is not to do with cheap exports but the "dooming of democracy", former Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten has told the BBC.

Lord Patten said China promoted the idea that one could get rich without needing democracy - and such an idea posed a threat to the West.

He said regional bodies such as Asean should be strengthened so they could do more to tackle regional problems.

Lord Patten was mobbed by fans while in Hong Kong to promote his latest book.

The book, What's Next? Surviving the Twenty-first Century, tries to assess where the challenges of the future will come from.

It discusses climate change, trafficking of people, guns and drugs and other aspects of the "dark side of globalisation".

Most provocative in Asia will be his views on Burma, China and democracy, some of which have sparked anger among Asian governments in the past.

Despite interest in his book, the territory's former governor remains a divisive figure.

Asia 'hobbled'

Looking at Asian economics and politics, Lord Patten said much needed to be done to strengthen regional infrastructure, as groups such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) were far too weak.

China is I think the first example of a country which has done astonishingly well in this international system but challenges its basic foundations
Chris Patten, diplomat author

He said he favoured Asean becoming a customs union, as a first step towards an EU-type integration, and as a challenge to the region's "protectionist instincts" and different degrees of economic development in Asean.

"And because, politically, Asean is hobbled by the membership of Burma and by its inability to address collectively the challenge of a state which abuses the human rights of its citizens so strongly," said Lord Patten.

In his book he discusses the UN doctrine of "responsibility to protect" - which could justify intervention by the international community in a state where gross abuses are taking place against the population.

But he said, "in cases like Zimbabwe, in cases like Burma, unless the neighbours are prepared to get involved, it's extremely difficult for the international community to make a difference on the ground.

"If Burma's neighbours, not only Asean but China and India, had been prepared to take a tougher line during the humanitarian crisis or when the monks were being shot, then it would have been possible for the international community to change events," said Lord Patten.

Systemic challenge

Asia poses a real challenge where the foundations of recent rapid growth in wealth and freedoms are not acknowledged, he said.

"East Asia in particular, South Asia too, has done extremely well out of a system which was largely created under American leadership, of freer markets, freer trade, leading to freer politics as well.

Wang Dan, student leader, addressed crowds at Tiananmen Square in 1989
Student leader Wang Dan demonstrated for democracy in 1989

"China is I think the first example of a country which has done astonishingly well in this international system, but challenges its basic foundations.

"And its challenge is welcomed by autocracies which are a lot less successful, for example, dictatorships in Africa," he said.

But he said he did not think the Chinese model of "authoritarian, illiberal, proto-capitalism" would win out, because it did not have the "safety valves" provided by democracies when times were tough.

Asked if China was becoming a larger player in international affairs, he noted China's contribution to peace-keeping forces around the world.

"What they're reluctant to do I think is to accept a more interventionist role for the UN and that has particularly affected one or two countries where they've been developing substantial commercial interests."

But discussing China's role in the conflict in the Sudanese region of Darfur, he said that while China had "given some cover" to Sudan's government in the UN, it would not be "remotely fair" to blame China for the conflict.

Advice for Obama

As a large economic power, China had a large interest in stability. "Failed and failing states are bad for business if you're a big economic player," he said.

Lord Patten said he hoped US President-elect Barack Obama would provide the global leadership that had been lacking.

But he offered a word of caution for Mr Obama.

"On the back of this financial crisis the last thing we want is a period of trade protectionism.

"So I hope that [Mr Obama's] first message to Asia is that that is something he is going to resist," Lord Patten said.



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