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When China stands to reason

China's official welcome to democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi marks a possible bow to freedom's demand that people must reason together in seeking the truth rather than live in fear under a truth-denying regime.

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China's President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, June 11, 2015.

REUTERS/China Daily

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As far as we know, pollsters have yet to figure out if people today are more committed than in the past to reason together and freely seek the truth. Yet when China’s ruling Communist Party warmly welcomes a visit by a leading democracy advocate, Aung San Suu Kyi, a poll might not be needed.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her nonviolent work in challenging a dictatorship in Myanmar (also known as Burma). She is in the same league as jailed Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo, who won the Prize in 2010 for his advocacy of democracy (and was barred by China from attending the awards ceremony). Her five-day visit to Beijing, which included talks with President Xi Jinping, may represent progress toward a world in which open dialogue and the liberty of speech are more widely appreciated.

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Her visit signals a possible new willingness by China to engage all types of foreign political figures, not just those who hold state power. Given its aggression in Asian waters, China needs friends in the region. Aung San Suu Kyi is the leading opposition figure in Myanmar, which borders China. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), might win an election this November that could help cement democracy in a Southeast Asian country long ruled by military generals.

For practical reasons, China is smart to embrace this former prisoner of conscience just in case the NLD wins. “China welcomes anyone with friendly intentions and it bears no grudge for past unpleasantness,” stated an editorial in the official Xinhua publication.

But it is also opening a dialogue with someone who once described how to live under a repressive regime, as she was forced to do: “Fear is the first adversary we have to get past when we set out to battle for freedom, and often it is the one that remains until the very end.” Fear, she also stated, “is not the natural state of civilized man.”

Regimes like China’s that try to define truth for the masses are rarely open to the kind of free debate that can supplant error with truth. They must rule by fear. At best they engage in a discussion merely to win an argument. A democracy requires a willingness to reason together. In ancient Athens, Socrates referred to this mutual inquiry for truth as an “investigation in the service of the god.”

Truth is not relative nor is it possessed by a particular person. Rather it is universally available, able to be expressed by anyone. Getting to it, however, often requires an openness to reasoning with others. When an advocate of freedom such as Aung San Suu Kyi is welcomed in China for long discussions, it is a sign that reason can prevail more than in the past.