Tiny Burma (Myanmar) has just taught China, its giant neighbor and erstwhile mentor, a lesson in political maturity. It has allowed Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate held under house arrest for years, to travel to Oslo, Norway to finally receive the prize she was awarded in 1991.
Even more significantly, over the preceding months the Burmese government relaxed its repressive control over freedom of expression and political activity. It permitted free parliamentary elections which enabled Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party to win all 44 seats it contested.
It is all part of a political maturation process, skillfully nudged and nurtured by the Bush and Obama administrations, to wean the military government away from Beijing's authoritarian model.
China has long held sway in Burma because of its proximity and size, and its ability to deploy economic resources to sustain the regime's dictatorial hold on power. Most importantly, it has provided diplomatic cover for the junta on the United Nations Security Council and has lobbied on Burma's behalf at international organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
In turn, Beijing's support bought it access to Burma's natural resources and a strategic route to the Bay of Bengal. It also enabled it to hold up a model relationship for other countries in the region: play ball with China and reap the benefits of power and infrastructure investments without the annoyance of political freedom for the population.
But, after decades of U.S. and international sanctions, the Burmese regime decided over the past year to shed its pariah status and edge toward becoming a normal country in the international community.
One factor may well have been the shame the military junta brought upon itself after Cyclone Nargis struck in April 2008. With cold cruelty, it denied international aid to tens of thousands of Burmese trapped and isolated in the Irrawaddy River delta, even though U.S. Navy ships loaded with humanitarian assistance bobbed in the waters just off Burma's shore.
The international opprobrium that brought to Burma's military government may well have convinced a critical mass of officers that they were on the wrong track with their own people and with the world.
The question for China, undergoing its own leadership crisis, is whether the teacher will learn from its former protégé in repression and start delivering on some of the political reforms it promised in order to win award of the 2008 Olympics to Beijing. They are the same reforms required to comply with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights China signed in 1971.
China has its own persecuted Nobel Peace Prize winners: Liu Xiaobo, a human rights activist who languishes in a Chinese jail, and the Dalai Lama, who continues his 53-year exile from Tibet. Like Burma's Suu Kyi, they were honored precisely for their vision and courage in standing up to tyranny in their home country and calling for the rule of law and freedom of expression.
Burma is only the latest Asian nation that has traveled the path from dictatorship to democracy: South Korea and Taiwan did so decades ago in their own ways. China need not adopt any country's particular methods, though Taiwan's evolutionary progression from local to provincial to national elections over a span of 20 years offers a useful example for China to emulate.
Beijing can set the course and timing that make sense for a vastly larger population with diverse cultures. But the critical need for China's leaders is to put substance behind the reform rhetoric Premier Wen Jiabao has uttered for a decade. That means announcing the democracy goal, working out a rough implementation strategy over a reasonable period of months and years and starting down the democratic road that will lead to political normalcy.