Join our Mailing List

"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Remember the China lesson

October 26, 2008

By Brahma Chellaney
Japan Times
October 23, 2008

Each visit to China is a reminder of the power of global liberalizing
influences. China has come a long way since the Tiananmen Square
massacre of prodemocracy activists nearly two decades ago. It has
opened up to the extent that it hosted this month an Asia-Europe
conference of nongovernmental organizations and scholars that focused
in several of its sessions on the global challenges of
democratization and human rights.

The old mind-set and suspicion of outsiders, of course, haven't
disappeared. After all, power rests with the same party and system
responsible for the death of tens of millions of Chinese during the
so-called Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and other
state-induced disasters and political witch hunts.

That the Communist Party continues to monopolize power despite its
past gory excesses indeed is remarkable, if not unprecedented in
modern world history. This is now the oldest autocracy in the world.
Yet, the China of today is a far cry from the Mao Zedong era or even
the Deng Xiaoping period when reforms coincided with brutal political
suppression that Tiananmen Square came to symbolize.

What this country has achieved in the last generation in terms of
economic modernization and the opening of minds is truly exceptional.

The state's continuing repressive impulse, however, is mirrored in
the tightly controlled domestic media (which, for example, was
ordered not to deviate from official accounts in reporting the recent
scandal over contaminated infant formula), the pervasive security
apparatus and the brutal crackdown of the monk-led uprising across
the vast Tibetan plateau.

Since the Tibet unrest flared in March, Beijing has allowed only a
small group of foreign journalists to visit the plateau -- that too
on a Foreign Ministry-guided tour. China also remains highly
intolerant of Han dissent, especially of any attempt to challenge the
one-party rule.

This shows that although China has moved from being a totalitarian
state to an authoritarian state, some things haven't changed since
the Mao years. Some other things have changed for the worse, such as
the whipping up of nationalism and turning it into the legitimating
credo of the communist rule.

In fact, relentless attempts to bend reality to the illusions that
the state blithely propagates risk turning China into a modern-day
Potemkin state.

Still, with the wearing away of the hukou system that tied citizens
to their place of birth, Chinese can now relocate within the country,
enjoy property rights, travel overseas, make use of the latest
communications technologies and do other things that were unthinkable
a generation ago. Indeed, the biggest change has been in the people's
thinking, reflected in a greater readiness to express oneself freely
and shape one's own destiny.

China's opening up owes a lot to the West's decision not to sustain
trade sanctions after Tiananmen Square but instead to try to
integrate Beijing with global institutions through the liberalizing
influence of foreign investment and trade.

That the choice made was wise can be seen from the baneful impact of
the opposite decision that was taken on Burma — to pursue a penal
approach centered on sanctions — in the period following the ruthless
suppression of pro-democracy Burmese protests 10 months before the
Tiananmen Square killings.

Had the Burma-type approach been applied against China
internationally, the result would not only have been a
less-prosperous and less-open China, but also a more-paranoid and
destabilizing China. Of course, the contradictory approaches were
driven by the West's commercial interests.

Yet, with a new chill setting in on relations between the West and
Russia, the lesson from the correct choice made on China is in danger
of getting lost. The rhetoric in some quarters in America and Europe
for a tougher stance against Moscow is becoming shriller.

Little thought has been given to how the West lost Russia, a
now-resurgent power that had during its period of decline in the
1990s eagerly sought to cozy up to the U.S. and Europe. Instead,
turning a blind eye to the way the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
is being expanded right up to Russia's front yard and the U.S.-led
action in engineering Kosovo's self-proclamation of independence last
February, the new focus is on how to punish Moscow for recently
intervening in Georgia and sponsoring the self-declaration of
independence by South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The foreign policy-centered first debate between Barack Obama and
John McCain stood out for the way each of the two U.S. presidential
candidates spit fire on Russia, with not a single question being
asked about an increasingly assertive China. It is as if the U.S.,
not content with setting up military bases and a missile-defense
system in Russia's periphery and seeking to encroach on Russia's
historical dependencies and protectorates, seems intent on
rediscovering Moscow as an adversary.

A self-fulfilling prophesy that ushers in a second cold war can only
damage long-term U.S. interests. Europe, whose interests are closely
tied to peace and cooperation with Moscow, is sadly split and adrift on Russia.

If today there is a push for a policy of containment, it is not
against China but against Russia. Even on the democracy issue, it is
Russia, not China, that is the target of constant hectoring.

U.S. President George W. Bush, in fact, is leaving the White House in
his father's footsteps -- with a China-friendly legacy. Nothing
illustrates this better than the way he ignored the bloody
suppression of the most-powerful Tibetan uprising against Chinese
rule since 1959 and showed up at the Beijing Olympics. It is thus
little surprise that President Hu Jintao, in a telephonic
conversation with Bush this month, praised the "good momentum" in
U.S.-China relations established during the Bush presidency.

China's rise has been aided by good fortune on multiple strategic
fronts. First, Beijing's reform process benefited from good timing,
coming as it did at the start of globalization. Second, the Soviet
Union's sudden collapse delivered an immense strategic boon,
eliminating a menacing empire and opening the way for Beijing to
rapidly increase strategic space globally. Russia's decline in the
1990s was China's gain. And third, there has been a succession of
China-friendly U.S. presidents in the past two decades — a period
that significantly has coincided with China's ascension.

Whether Obama or McCain wins next month's presidential election,
America will continue to have closer economic and political
engagement with China than with, say, India, the latest Indo-U.S.
nuclear deal notwithstanding.

Today, the American economy is inextricably linked with China. The
financial meltdown has only increased U.S. reliance on Chinese
capital inflows, thus adding to China's leverage, even if a possible
American recession hits Chinese exports. With Chinese
foreign-exchange reserves swelling by one-third in the past year to a
world record $1.906 trillion at the end of September, China is better
positioned than any other major economy to weather the current global
financial crisis.

Any U.S.-led attempt to contain Russia may mesh well with China's
ambitions but can hardly contribute to international security. If
engagement has helped create a more-open China, does it make sense to
apply different standards to Russia, with Moscow's 13-year effort to
join the World Trade Organization now in jeopardy and the
U.S.-Russian nuclear deal put on indefinite hold by Washington?

* Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the privately
funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most
recently, of "Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan."
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank