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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?"

Will China Implode?

August 4, 2009

Isabel Hilton
August 2, 2009

Obama and Chinese officials met this week for
high-level policy talks, and avoided exchanges on
human rights. But China expert Isabel Hilton says
minority revolts in China recently show it is an empire in crisis.

There is a story that the Chinese government
likes to tell: that China is the world’s oldest
continuous, unchanging civilization (the dates
vary, according to the exuberance of the moment,
from 2,000 to a mythical 5,000 years). This
unique history, the story continues, will
determine China’s future. In this narrative of
Chinese exceptionalism, the leadership remains
immune to demands for democracy or any
resemblance to other developed countries. The
government hopes that this story will prove
persuasive enough for the Communist Party to keep
the Mandate of Heaven and avoid challenges to its
exclusive right to rule for the foreseeable future.

The revolt of the minorities is only a symptom of a wider political malaise.

It’s a curious story for a Communist Party and
very different to the earlier myths of origin.
Where once it promoted class struggle and
revolution, today’s party invokes history and
tradition in support of its right to rule. In its
latest identification with the imperial orders of
the past, the regime is even restoring
Confucianism as the core state narrative.

It’s a long way from the Communist Party’s own
origins in the revolt in the early 20th century
against the suffocating orthodoxies of
Confucianism, blamed by the modernizers of the
day for China’s slide into stagnation. As
recently as the 1970s, Confucius was still
thought sufficiently poisonous as an inheritance
to merit a virulent campaign of criticism, along
with such imported bad hats as the Italian
filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, the late Ludwig
Van Beethoven and the children’s book Jonathan
Livingston Seagull. They made an odd quartet, but
no odder than the current spectacle of a
Communist Party that extols the virtues of
Mencius and claims to be building a “harmonious” society.

Remarkably, despite its obvious flaws, this
narrative appeals to those Western commentators
who believe that China’s rise is, in the Marxist
phrase, a historical inevitability, and who
accept Beijing’s latest version of history at face value.

Take this recent example, from the British author
Martin Jacques’ book When China Rules the World:

"China has existed roughly within its present
borders for 2,000 years and only over the last
century has it come to regard itself as a nation state."

China does not, in fact, officially define itself
as a nation state but as a multiethnic state in
which all nationalities theoretically enjoy equal
status. A more accurate description would be that
it is a recently expanded land-based empire
struggling to justify itself. Far from living
within the same borders for 2,000 years, China
today occupies a land area roughly twice the size
of Ming Dynasty China, its expansion driven by
the Manchu conquest in the 18th century. It has
an aggressive policy of colonization,
exploitation of natural resources, and
assimilation. Like all such empires before it, it
suffers from the strains of keeping the lid on
those it has colonized, who do not identify with
an imperial project from which they derive little benefit.

When China Rules the World was published some 10
months after last year’s uprising in Tibet and
six weeks before this year’s riots in Xinjiang.
By the time it had been on the bookshelves eight
weeks, the Chinese government had been obliged to
put nearly half of its territory (including
Xinjiang and the Tibetan Autonomous Region) under tight paramilitary control.

The People’s Armed Police, the shock troops of
Beijing’s attempt to impose civil order
(officially described as "harmony") are pursuing
familiar tactics in Xinjiang: mass arrests within
a troublesome demographic—ethnic minority
males—undisclosed places and conditions of
detention; trials that meet no standards of
justice and long prison sentences, often preceded by rough treatment.

It is doubtful, though, whether these measures
will be any more effective than they have been in
the past. Beijing’s diagnosis of the sickness in
its body politic is as flawed as its treatment:
If repression fails, apply more repression, a
policy response that has steadily ratcheted up
the resentment in China’s far west.

The question is, how far will these troubles
affect the majority Han population and what
impact will the blowback from the troubles have
on China’s future? In a related move, the
government recently raided the offices of the
Open Constitution Initiative in Beijing,
confiscating computers and interrogating staff.
The OCI was an important legal office,
distinguished by its members’ belief in the right
to a fair, independent, and transparent legal
process, and their willingness to defend people
whom the government wished to silence or send to
jail. Their clients included the parents of
infants affected by last year’s adulterated milk
scandal, Tibetan prisoners, Falun Gong
practitioners, and other persecuted or
disadvantaged groups. An additional 50 lawyers
who handled human-rights cases have also been disbarred.

The OCI also produced one of the only rational
responses to last year’s uprising in Tibet:
Having examined the evidence, they concluded that
the uprising had not been orchestrated by the
exiled Dalai Lama, but provoked by decades of
bungled government policy. Now they have been hit
with a massive fine for alleged tax
irregularities and their office closed. Neither
in Tibet nor in Xinjiang, it seems, do the
authorities wish to acknowledge their mistakes.

But mistakes not acknowledged tend to be
repeated, and policies that have provoked angry
responses in the past are unlikely to promote
harmony in the future. The test of China’s future
trajectory, of its ability to go from large power
to great power, is only partly about economics.
Thus far, China’s economic growth has been based
on unsustainable low-end manufacturing for the
export market and the legitimacy bestowed by
rising living standards. To manage the next phase
of development successfully, China needs to move
up the value chain, improve its governance, cut
down on the huge waste in the economy, distribute
the rewards of the effort more fairly, and inject
some justice into its politics and legal affairs.
But to do that, the Communist Party has to take
on the vested interests on which it depends for its power.

We all have an interest in China’s success, as
President Obama underlined at the opening this
week of a two-day high-level dialogue with
visiting Chinese officials. With just a nod to
the recent troubles in Xinjiang, Obama ticked off
a list of common concerns from climate change to
economic recovery. In all of them, Chinese cooperation is essential.

In a globalized world, China’s troubles are
everybody’s troubles and the U.S. has little
interest in seeing them grow. But China’s
solutions, to date, are unlikely to help. The
revolt of the minorities is only a symptom of a
wider political malaise. Even taken together,
their numbers, compared to the overwhelming
majority of Han Chinese, are small. But the
indignation and resentment that burst into view
in Xinjiang in Tibet are also visible, for a wide
variety of reasons, in the Han population. As Xu
Zhiyong, one of the founders of the OCI put it in
a withering public statement of protest at the centre’s closure:

"It’s not us causing trouble, and the tens of
thousands of mass incidents every year aren’t
caused by us." On the contrary, we strive to
bring into line the contradictions caused by
corrupt officials, we advocate absolute
nonviolence and we hope we can ameliorate some of
the endless hate and conflicts in our society...
do not let this country once more be dragged by
those in power to a place where we are dead but not buried.

Why have we been targeted with this retribution?
Because we have an awe-inspiring righteousness,
because we advocate for better politics, because
our dreams are too beautiful, because we as a
people have never given up hope, because no
matter what befalls, our hearts are always full of the sunlight of hope.

"I am a poor man, so poor that all I have left
are my beliefs. Great leaders, can I give you a
little bit of my belief? You should be needing
these beliefs and you should, like me, have the
ability to show compassion, compassion to see the
restless souls disturbed by evil spirits."

Confucius himself would have applauded.

Isabel Hilton has reported extensively from Latin
America, East and South Asia, Africa and Europe.
She has made many documentaries for the BBC, has
presented Radio 4’s flagship current affairs
program, The World Tonight and BBC Radio 3’s main
cultural program, Night Waves. She is a columnist
for The Guardian. She was editor in chief of and founded, which she founded in 2006.
She is the author of The Search for the Panchen Lama.
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