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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Growing strength of China masks doubts about future

February 15, 2010

As Chinese around the globe celebrate the Year of
the Tiger, many fear that the newly confident
world power will try to thwart the west at every
turn. But the leadership remains anxious about
the true strength of its economy and society
Tania Branigan in Beijing
The Observer
February 14, 2010

China last night heralded the lunar new year with
the usual deafening, dazzling pyrotechnics. But
outside the country, some fear the year of the
tiger will see another kind of fireworks, as a
newly confident world power asserts itself globally.

"China is getting stronger and stronger. You can
see it from the happy faces coming to buy
firecrackers," declared stallholder Han Jing, as
she handed out rockets and other wares from her
busy booth in north Beijing. In the economic
crisis, it was not affected as badly as other
countries. Our Chinese people have confidence
that it will overtake every other country."

Grabbing a bumper packet of explosives, her
customer Zhou Liyuan agreed. "At least the
British drug smuggler [Akmal Shaikh] was
executed. In the past, there would have been more
negotiations. There are a lot of conflicts
between China and the US now, and we have a stronger point of view this time."

Recent weeks have seen disputes with the west
over everything from trade to climate change. In
Europe and the US, business ­people and officials
grumble privately of the increasing assertiveness
– arrogance, say many – of this growing power.

"I think 2009 has been a turning point," said
Professor Feng Zhongping, director of European
relations at the China Institutes of Contemporary
International Relations. "If you say China is
more confident, that would be accurate. But I
think there have been misunderstandings by the US
and ­European governments and especially the
media. I don't think China has become 'prickly'."

 From the western perspective, China has been
unwilling to shoulder the responsibilities that
go alongside greater international power: failing
to press Iran and North Korea on nuclear
proliferation or to make a serious commitment to
tackling climate change; punishing other
countries with its artificially low currency.

It has brushed aside criticism on human rights
and sought to export censorship, pressing
overseas film festivals to drop documentaries on Tibet and Xinjiang.

But some of the recent tension has been
overplayed. President Obama's predecessors also
met the Dalai Lama and China objected in each
case. The two are scheduled to meet on Thursday.
Analysts also say Beijing has exerted more pressure on North Korea of late.

 From Beijing's point of view, the west is making
unrealistic demands -- expecting it not only to
understand other countries' priorities, but also
to compromise its own interests.

"Some people's expectation of China was that,
with economic development, foreign policy and
political reform would become westernised," said
Feng. A lot of people don't think a responsible
great power just does what the US expects it to do."

Victor Gao, director of the China National
Association of International Studies, argued that
the US shopping list was increasingly long. "The
arms sales to Taiwan and the visit of the Dalai
Lama take place at a time they need help on Iran…
What are the top three issues for America? If
they put Tibet or Taiwan in there, I would be amazed," he said.

That helps to explain why China sees no point in yielding on certain issues.

"Beijing's new assertiveness is less the result
of its growing economic clout than the
realisation that [ultimately] western governments
care far less about human rights than about trade
and economics," said Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Elsewhere in the world, China's rise is met with
as much enthusiasm as fear. Neighbours may be
alarmed by its growing might, but there is
greater enthusiasm on other continents.

Professor Deborah Brautigam, whose recent book
The Dragon's Gift examines the Chinese presence
in Africa, said that, while some there see China
as "the new colonialist", others have welcomed
it. "African leaders and commentators expressing
this view are not naive about Chinese interest in
Africa. But they actually like to hear the
Chinese talk about investment opportunities
instead of aid [and] are intrigued by models such
as the resource-backed infrastructure loans," she said.

Analysts predict further tension, rather than a
spectacular confrontation, between China and the
west. Gao argues that the stakes are too high for
both sides. "The decision-makers in this town are
cautious, prudent people; not because they are
afraid of the other side, but because they know
increasing friction is bad for China, bad for the
US and bad for the world," he said.

Beijing may be increasingly confident, but it
does not yet believe its smooth ascendancy is a
given. Underneath the veneer of confidence lie
persistent anxieties about the true strength of
its economy and society, and how to handle issues
such as soaring inequality and endemic
corruption. Such domestic vulnerabilities enhance
the appeal of promoting popular nationalism, yet
also reinforce the potential dangers of international disputes.

"What many observers see [as greater
assertiveness] is in fact the product of a larger
debate and policy struggle in Beijing about where
China should be in the next 10 years and how it
should get there," argued Russell Leigh Moses, a
Beijing-based political analyst. The only real
agreement thus far is that China is not to be
pushed around, and so you get over-reaction and
elbowing and jersey-tugging from many officials here."

And at street level, while many ordinary Chinese
people celebrate their country's rise with pride,
others are deeply cynical about its prospects.
"We're a nuclear power, but are we prepared to
use military power against anyone?" complained
another of Han's fireworks buyers, who declined to give his name.

"The statistics that China provides about its
economy are all fake. A lot of graduates can't
get jobs. When ­outsiders come to Beijing it
takes seven or 10 years to get a hukou [household
­registration], yet getting a US green card might
not take them that long. I'm not sure whether
China's stronger as a country – but its citizens aren't."

If such pessimistic judg ments prove
well-founded, the Chinese political establishment
may face as much pressure from within as without,
as it attempts to consolidate superpower status in 2010.
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