Personal and political freedom is expanding around the globe. Freedom House, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization that tracks these developments, reports that more people enjoy civil liberties than ever before. As is to be expected, the gains are uneven. Sadly, some of the worst abuses of freedom are found in Asia, and there is little indication that repressive governments are prepared to loosen their grip.
The Freedom House survey identified 89 countries — representing nearly 3 billion people or almost half the world’s population — as free. They enjoy open political competition, respect for civil liberties, significant independence in civic life, and an independent media. Another 58 countries, home to 1.2 billion people, are “partly free,” meaning political rights and civil liberties are limited, a single party dominates politics, and (perhaps as a result) corruption is commonplace, the rule of law is weak, and ethnic and religious strife exists.
Forty-five countries are not free, their 2.3 billion inhabitants systematically denied basic civil liberties and political rights.
Since 1975, the ranks of the “free” have expanded from 40 countries to 89, while the number of “not free” countries shrank from 65 to 45. The collapse of the Soviet Union is responsible for a large portion of this shift, but the end of the Cold War also created among citizens new expectations about their own rights and their relation to the government. In the last year, the Middle East has been the biggest beneficiary of the shift. These gains are especially impressive given the terrorism, ethnic cleansing, civil wars and natural disasters that have occurred and, all too often, been used by authorities to justify repression and suspension of civil rights and liberties.
Freedom House warns, however, that the gains in recent years should not be taken for granted: There must be a sustained effort to ensure that democratic principles and policies are given the support they need to take root.
Closer to home, 16 of Asia’s 39 countries are free, 12 are partly free, and 11 are not free. Twenty-three of the 39 are electoral democracies. It is troubling to note that the Philippines was among nine countries whose status was downgraded — from “free” to “partly free” as a result of the controversy surrounding the election last year.
The worst-ranked offenders in the region are North Korea and Myanmar. The regime in Pyongyang continues harsh, repressive policies, tolerating no dissent and severely punishing those who dare defy it. It is estimated that as many as 200,000 political prisoners work as slave laborers in North Korea.
In Myanmar, the State Peace and Development Council has “only” 1,100 political prisoners, but it turned its back on democracy more than a decade ago when it lost a genuinely free election. The National League of Democracy (NLD), which won that vote, remains outlawed in all but name, and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the prodemocracy forces in her country, remains a prisoner in her own home. On Dec. 16, the United Nations Security Council took up the grim situation in Myanmar, but the ruling junta remains indifferent to international opinion.
In December, Hong Kong’s elected officials rejected a proposal for modest political reform, as opposition came from democrats who felt the measures did not go far enough. Their primary complaint was that the plan did not set a timetable for direct elections in the Special Administrative Region.
The chief obstacle to direct democracy in Hong Kong is the government in Beijing, which is not prepared to risk the election of an SAR government that might challenge China’s authority or, worse, inspire like-minded people on the mainland. While the Beijing government has demanded that political liberalization proceed at a pace suited to China’s unique circumstances, the white paper “Building of Political Democracy in China,” released Oct. 19 by the State Council, gives some baselines for political evolution in China and they are not encouraging.
According to the white paper: “China’s democracy is a people’s democracy under the leadership of the Communist Party of China. The CPC leadership is the fundamental guarantee that the Chinese people will be masters in managing the affairs of their own country. China’s democracy is a democracy with democratic centralism as the basic organizational principle and mode of operation. Democratic centralism is the fundamental principle of organization and leadership of state power in China.”
That could not be plainer. Since there will be no liberalization, no departure from the single-party leadership, China is likely to remain a source of resistance to a movement that is sweeping the world. Beijing’s rising clout means that it will provide succor for like-minded governments. Such policies are unworthy of a nation that aspires to a leading role in the region and the world.
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