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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

How China sees the world

March 23, 2009

The Economist (UK)
March 19, 2009

IT IS an ill wind that blows no one any good. For
many in China even the buffeting by the gale that
has hit the global economy has a bracing message.
The rise of China over the past three decades has
been astonishing. But it has lacked the one
feature it needed fully to satisfy the
ultranationalist fringe: an accompanying decline
of the West. Now capitalism is in a funk in its
heartlands. Europe and Japan, embroiled in the
deepest post-war recession, are barely worth
consideration as rivals. America, the superpower,
has passed its peak. Although in public China’s
leaders eschew triumphalism, there is a sense in
Beijing that the reassertion of the Middle
Kingdom’s global ascendancy is at hand (see article).

China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, no longer
sticks to the script that China is a humble
player in world affairs that wants to focus on
its own economic development. He talks of China
as a “great power” and worries about America’s
profligate spending endangering his $1 trillion
nest egg there. Incautious remarks by the new
American treasury secretary about China
manipulating its currency were dismissed as
ridiculous; a duly penitent Hillary Clinton was
welcomed in Beijing, but as an equal. This month
saw an apparent attempt to engineer a low-level
naval confrontation with an American spy ship in
the South China Sea. Yet at least the Americans
get noticed. Europe, that speck on the horizon,
is ignored: an EU summit was cancelled and France
is still blacklisted because Nicolas Sarkozy dared to meet the Dalai Lama.

Already a big idea has spread far beyond China:
that geopolitics is now a bipolar affair, with
America and China the only two that matter. Thus
in London next month the real business will not
be the G20 meeting but the “G2” summit between
Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao. This not
only worries the Europeans, who, having got rid
of George Bush’s unipolar politics, have no wish
to see it replaced by a Pacific duopoly, and the
Japanese, who have long been paranoid about their
rivals in Asia. It also seems to be having an
effect in Washington, where Congress’s
fascination with America’s nearest rival risks acquiring a protectionist edge.

Reds under the bed

Before panic spreads, it is worth noting that
China’s new assertiveness reflects weakness as
well as strength. This remains a poor country
facing, in Mr Wen’s words, its most difficult
year of the new century. The latest wild guess at
how many jobs have already been lost—20m—hints at
the scale of the problem. The World Bank has cut
its forecast for China’s growth this year to
6.5%. That is robust compared with almost
anywhere else, but to many Chinese, used to
double-digit rates, it will feel like a
recession. Already there are tens of thousands of
protests each year: from those robbed of their
land for development; from laid-off workers; from
those suffering the side-effects of environmental
despoliation. Even if China magically achieves
its official 8% target, the grievances will worsen.

Far from oozing self-confidence, China is
witnessing a fierce debate both about its
economic system and the sort of great power it
wants to be—and it is a debate the government
does not like. This year the regime curtailed
even the perfunctory annual meeting of its
parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC),
preferring to confine discussion to back-rooms
and obscure internet forums. Liberals calling for
greater openness are being dealt with in the
time-honoured repressive fashion. But China’s
leaders also face rumblings of discontent from
leftist nationalists, who see the downturn as a
chance to halt market-oriented reforms at home,
and for China to assert itself more stridently
abroad. An angry China can veer into xenophobia,
but not all the nationalist left’s causes are so
dangerous: one is for the better public services
and social-safety net the country sorely needs.

So China is in a more precarious situation than
many Westerners think. The world is not bipolar
and may never become so. The EU, for all its
faults, is the world’s biggest economy. India’s
population will overtake China’s. But that does
not obscure the fact that China’s relative power
is plainly growing—and both the West and China itself need to adjust to this.

For Mr Obama, this means pulling off a difficult
balancing act. In the longer term, if he has not
managed to seduce China (and for that matter
India and Brazil) more firmly into the liberal
multilateral system by the time he leaves office,
then historians may judge him a failure. In the
short term he needs to hold China to its promises
and to scold it for its lapses: Mrs Clinton
should have taken it to task over Tibet and human
rights when she was there. The Bush
administration made much of the idea of welcoming
China as a “responsible stakeholder” in the
international system. The G20 is a chance to give
China a bigger stake in global decision-making
than was available in the small clubs of the G7
and G8. But it is also a chance for China to show
it can exercise its new influence responsibly.

The bill for the great Chinese takeaway

China’s record as a citizen of the world is
strikingly threadbare. On a host of issues from
Iran to Sudan, it has used its main geopolitical
asset, its permanent seat on the United Nations
Security Council, to obstruct progress, hiding
behind the excuse that it does not want to
intervene in other countries’ affairs. That,
sadly, will take time to change. But on the more
immediate issue at hand, the world economy, there is room for action.

Over the past quarter-century no country has
gained more from globalisation than China.
Hundreds of millions of its people have been
dragged out of subsistence into the middle class.
China has been a grumpy taker in this process. It
helped derail the latest round of world trade
talks. The G20 meeting offers it a chance to show
a change of heart. In particular, it is being
asked to bolster the IMF’s resources so that the
fund can rescue crisis-hit countries in places
like eastern Europe. Some in Beijing would prefer
to ignore the IMF, since it might help
ex-communist countries that have developed “an
anti-China mentality”. Rising above such
cavilling and paying up would be a small step in
itself. But it would be a sign that the Middle
Kingdom has understood what it is to be a great power.
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