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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

In testing times, China's star rises

December 24, 2009

By Kent Ewing, Asia Times
December 24, 2009

HONG KONG - As a year fraught with economic turmoil and loaded with
politically sensitive anniversaries comes to an end, Chinese leaders can
breathe a sigh of relief and congratulate themselves for deftly
navigating the nation through perilous times.

In 2008, Beijing passed through the crucible of its Olympic challenge.
Cumulatively, this past year's challenges were equally daunting. But
with the West, particularly the United States, reeling from the worst
economic downturn since the Great Depression, the Chinese leadership
proved equal to the task, thus enhancing China's international prestige
and influence as US clout declined.

Thirty years after the US gave up its Taiwan delusion and established
diplomatic relations with Beijing, American President Barack Obama found
himself in an unusually vulnerable position during his visit to China
last month. When Obama campaigned for the presidency with an inspiring
message of hope and change, no one guessed that this would mean
deferring to Beijing on the international stage.

The dialogue between Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao was cordial
enough. But, in a marked departure from past visits by US presidents, no
one from Beijing's growing stable of imprisoned political dissidents was
released before or after Obama's three-day sojourn, and human rights and
China's undervalued currency were politely mentioned but never stressed.

That is a predictable result when the US, with an unemployment rate of
10%, finds itself in hock to Beijing for US$798.9 billion in Treasury
notes. Such a debt leaves little room for protest.

At the conclusion of Obama's trip, there was a lot of general talk of
partnership and cooperation, but the president could point to no
significant concrete achievement. Even his much-touted, American-style
town meeting in Shanghai was turned into an exercise in control by the
Chinese leadership: the students who showed up for the meeting had been
hand-picked and trained by Communist Party officials. Moreover, unlike
addresses to the Chinese people by past US presidents, Obama's attempt
at bringing American political culture to China was not broadcast
nationwide; instead, only a local Shanghai television station covered it.

Obama made good use of his time in Shanghai to talk up the benefits of
freedom of expression and a more open society, but only a relative few
of China's 1.3 billion people saw and heard him.

Ultimately, it was a cautious, circumscribed US president who visited
China last month, and he was received by a newly confident nation whose
leaders firmly established the terms of that visit.

Never had the relationship between Washington and Beijing seemed more

Economic woes
In a year that rocked the global economy and called into question the
Western - especially the American - financial model, China's leaders
seemed to make all the right moves to ride out the storm. A year ago,
with Chinese exports slumping badly as the global economy nosedived,
Beijing announced a 4 trillion yuan ($585.7 billion) stimulus package.

Officials worried that depressed exports would sabotage economic growth
targets, resulting in a big increase in unemployment and (the
leadership's greatest fear) social unrest. Chinese economists maintained
that annual gross domestic product (GDP) must grow by at least 8% to
assure social stability.

The stimulus package, along with a relaxed monetary policy, helped the
economy bounce back from its slowest growth in more than a decade, a
6.1% rise, in the first three months of this year. Growth rebounded to
7.9% in the second quarter and jumped to 8.9% in the third quarter.

At the same time, the Chinese leadership refused to budge on Western
demands to address whopping trade imbalances by allowing the yuan, which
some economists say is undervalued by as much as 40%, to appreciate.
China's trade surplus has ballooned to $300 billion, with the US
accounting for more than half of this.

China?s new assertiveness was also on display at this month?s UN
climate-change showdown in Copenhagen. Blaming rich nations such as the
US for global warming, Beijing?s chief negotiator at the conference, Xie
Zhenhua, dismissed targets for greenhouse gas emissions set by developed
countries as "empty talk" and shrugged off demands that China and other
developing nations commit to cuts in their own emissions. China is the
world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, which scientists say is the
chief culprit in global warming.

Deputy Foreign Minister He Yafei called US climate envoy, Todd Stern,
"irresponsible" and compared developed nations to rich diners at an
expensive restaurant who invite poor acquaintances in for dessert and
then charge them for the entire meal.

After two weeks of wrangling, all the conference could produce was a
weak, non-binding pledge by the US, China, India, South Africa and
Brazil to limit global warming to two degrees celsius. The agreement was
unenthusiastically "noted" by conference members and decried by poorer
nations, with the Sudanese chief negotiator for the G-77 countries,
Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, calling it "a suicide pact".

Prior to the climate summit, Beijing had made a high-profile pledge to
reduce its "carbon intensity" (carbon dioxide emissions per unit of
gross domestic product) by as much as 45%, but that will still allow
China?s emissions to more than double by 2030, according to projections
by the International Energy Agency. China?s carbon dioxide emissions
will rise from six billion tons in 2006 to13 billion tons in 2030.
That?s nearly twice as much as projected US emissions and also far above
the 2.3 billion tons for which India, China?s rapidly developing Asian
neighbor, will be responsible.

Yet there were no apologies for this in Copenhagen; instead of pledging
to stop climate change, Chinese scientists are now talking about
"adapting" to it without disrupting the country?s phenomenal economic rise.

As the new year begins and the US economy continues to sputter,
forecasts for Beijing are rosy; the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences
projects growth of 9.1% next year amid plans to encourage greater
domestic consumption and relax the infamous hukou identification system
for residency permits to make it easier for rural residents to migrate
to the more prosperous cities.

Many of those migrants will be headed for the nation's financial capital
of Shanghai, where the construction industry is booming as the city
prepares to host the world's fair, Expo 2010, May 1 to October 31. The
2010 fair is expected to draw more people than any of its predecessors,
further cementing Shanghai's reputation as a cultural and financial
center and China's place in the first tier of nations.

Of course, such showcase events cannot disguise the fact that, while
China's millionaire class is growing faster than in any other nation,
most of the population remains poor. The Chinese economy, now the
world's third largest, still faces a huge wealth gap that poses a threat
to future social stability but, considering the economic perils of the
last year, the leadership must be pleased as the curtain falls on 2009:
their plan worked.

Happy and unhappy anniversaries
Beyond the economic challenges of the past year, Beijing faced a spate
of politically sensitive anniversaries that all but guaranteed trouble.
Indeed, this was the anniversary year from hell for China's leaders, yet
they managed, albeit sometimes awkwardly, to see themselves safely through.

While it was easy enough in December of 2008 to mark 30 years of
successful capitalist economic reforms initiated by former paramount
leader Deng Xiaoping, the occasion also paved the way for China's
critics to point out, by comparison, the snail's pace of political
reform as the country began its potential anniversary nightmare year of
2009. Mao Zedong may now be a mausoleum piece, but post-Mao China
remains a one-party state, and most of what passes for politics there is
aimed at maintaining that status quo.

Communism as an ideology may be dead, but the Communist Party is alive
and well and brooking no resistance.

The 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising that led to the flight of
the Dalai Lama to India was a stark reminder of that fact. Tibet, which
has continued, sometimes violently, to resist the iron hand of Beijing's
rule, was under lockdown for the March anniversary. In March of 2008,
deadly riots had racked the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, but this year no
demonstrations were reported.

Still, although Beijing may have dodged an anniversary bullet, Tibet
remains a big problem. Along with ongoing trouble in the northwestern
Xinjiang region, home of the predominantly Muslim Uyghur people,
continued disturbances in Tibet serve to highlight the leadership's
flawed policy toward ethnic and religious minorities.

Granting independence in these autonomous regions, as extremists demand,
is out of the question, but a new approach is long overdue. Demonizing
the Dalai Lama and exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer has not made
Tibetans or Uyghurs in China any more loyal to the central government;
in fact, it has only further alienated them while also making Chinese
leaders look brutish in the eyes of the world.

Truly engaging, rather than subjugating, Tibetan and Uyghur culture is
the only way to win hearts and minds in these regions. Including
minorities in big publicity events such as the opening ceremony of the
2008 Beijing Summer Olympics was a welcome gesture, but genuine dialogue
with them is the only way to make a real difference. Otherwise, the new
year will spell more trouble in Tibet and Xinjiang for Chinese leaders.

Again, thanks to Beijing's security blanket, the 20th anniversary of the
June 4 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square also
passed in silence on the mainland, although 150,000 gathered for a
candle-light vigil in Hong Kong to honor the Tiananmen dead.

The demonstration showed that the former British colony, which returned
to Chinese rule in 1997, can still be a rebel, but the anniversary of
one of the darkest chapters of Communist Party rule in China passed with
only muted notice elsewhere.

While some Tiananmen dissidents still languish in jail and others remain
abroad lest they suffer the same fate, the world has moved on to embrace
a new China that still clings to its old authoritarian ways. Beijing's
growing economic power has bought Chinese leaders a softer line of
protest on human rights from its international partners.

The Tiananmen anniversary - indeed, the whole of last year - was a
reminder of this.

Unhappy anniversaries aside, one key day of remembrance in 2009 was
celebrated with official pomp and circumstance - the 60th anniversary of
the founding of the People's Republic of China, marked October 1 in
Beijing with a huge military display and cultural extravaganza.

The traditional Chinese calendar operates in 60-year cycles, so this was
the most important anniversary yet for Communist Party rule. It was no
surprise then that Beijing pulled out all stops to stage a spectacular

Following a 60-cannon salute, President Hu Jintao, sporting a dark Mao
suit for this occasion instead of his usual nondescript business attire,
inspected tens of thousands of assembled soldiers and militia from the
open roof of a Chinese-made Red Flag limousine.

"Greetings, comrades," the president intoned.

"Greetings, leader" came the resounding choral response.

About 200,000 soldiers and civilians gathered in Tiananmen Square for
this epochal National Day. The show, carnival-like at times, featured
Chinese astronauts, cheering schoolchildren and colorfully attired
ethnic minorities holding hands in a tableau of cultural unity.

It concluded with the inevitable pyrotechnic explosion. But it was the
military parade, led by a 1,300-member martial band, that attracted the
most attention.

For a newly arrived world power that has repeatedly stressed its
"peaceful rise," this was a good old-fashioned display of military might
reminiscent of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The Chinese armed
forces trotted out all their latest toys, from a new generation of tanks
to unmanned aerial vehicles to their most sophisticated radar and
satellite communications equipment. There was even a model of China's
newest intercontinental, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.

And that was just what was happening on the ground. Meanwhile, more than
150 fighter jets, bombers, helicopters and other aircraft filled the
skies above Tiananmen Square.

Of course, no ordinary Chinese citizen was allowed anywhere near the
square that day, but tens of millions watched the spectacle on
television. For this audience, awash in patriotism and pride, the show
of military might was undoubtedly a stunning statement of China's
ascendancy as a world power and the celebration as a whole a fitting
tribute to the significance of the occasion.

Foreign viewers of this moving monument to Cold War kitsch, however,
could be forgiven for feeling some alarm. "Peaceful" would not aptly
describe what they saw.

Democracy with Chinese characteristics
In politics, the coming year should be revealing. With the team of Hu
and Premier Wen Jiabao scheduled to step aside in 2012 for a fifth
generation of Chinese leaders, the behind-the-scenes jockeying for
power, which has already begun, should intensify. But the succession
process in China, while certainly improved since the days of Mao, still
lacks transparency, so tea-leaf readers will remain busy looking for
signs of favor and disfavor among political aspirants.

At the very top of the political food chain, Vice President Xi Jinping,
a protege of former president Jiang Zemin, is still considered the
frontrunner to replace Hu as president. Xi gained this lead position
after being appointed to the all-powerful nine-man Politburo Standing
Committee at the 17th Party Congress in 2007, after which he was
selected as vice president in 2008. In addition, he has undertaken
high-profile tours of Europe, Latin America and Asia to burnish his
foreign-policy credentials. He was also put in charge of preparations
for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Li Keqiang, Xi's chief rival for the presidency and reportedly Hu's top
choice, appeared lined-up to take Wen's job after he was appointed vice
premier. But when, at last September's plenum of the party's Central
Committee, Xi failed to secure the position of vice chairman of the
Central Military Commission (CMC) - a post he was expected to win just
as Hu had won it prior to becoming president - the tea-leaf readers
began to express doubts.

Because of the opaqueness of Communist Party politics, however, nobody
really knows whether Xi's failure to grab to CMC position is significant
or not. This one glitch aside, the vice president, son of Xi Zhongxun, a
first-generation party leader, has been on a roll for the past two years.

Some analysts even maintain that Xi's CMC disappointment is actually a
sign that the party is moving away from its old ways and developing more
sophistical mechanisms for choosing its leaders. If so, those mechanisms
are not yet clear, and tea-leaf readers and other prognosticators are
having a field day.

Although the results may be thin, there certainly has been a lot of talk
among Chinese leaders about greater transparency and checks and balances
in party affairs. The catchphrase for all this, bandied about for
several years now, is "intra-party democracy," but it is hard to know
exactly what that means.

The rhetoric that came out of the September plenum was typical. A
communique issued at the conclusion of the gathering embraced
intra-party democracy as the "lifeblood of the party" and pledged to
promote "democratic centralism" - an ambiguous concept that is still

What all this propaganda definitely does not mean, however, is
Western-style parliamentary democracy, a model of governance that has
been repeatedly and emphatically rejected by party leaders. The fate of
Liu Xiaobo is the most recent evidence of this. Liu's lawyers have
announced that the dissident - one of the authors of the Charter 08
manifesto, a petition calling for an end to one-party rule in China that
was issued last year to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the United
Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights - has been indicted for
subversion and will be tried this week. Liu has already been detained
for a year and faces the prospect of 15 more years behind bars - all for
questioning the legitimacy of the party.

Paradoxically, democracy with Chinese characteristics is intended to
guarantee the continuation of a one-party state, albeit with more voices
being heard within the party and with party members keeping their ears
attuned to the voice of the people. The big reason Chinese leaders want
to establish better checks and balances within party ranks is to reduce
corruption, which is rife at the provincial and local levels.

Public anger over corruption is on the rise, frequently breaking out in
mass protests and violence. Many of these protests have started on web
blogs and in Internet chat rooms, which are now monitored by an army of
official cyber spies in an attempt to keep the party's finger on the
pulse of the people.

In the end, if you cut through the high-sounding and sometimes
contradictory official rhetoric, at the grass-roots level intra-party
democracy means listening to a greater number of voices but also keeping
government censors and security forces at the ready in case those voices
go too far.

Within the party, while the Chinese version of democracy promises more
checks and balances to control corruption and ensure sound
decision-making, the Politburo standing committee will still call the

Xi's rise is an example of intra-party democracy at work. As his
successor, Hu clearly preferred Li - who, like him, rose through the
ranks of the Communist Party Youth League - but Xi had greater party
support and wound up in the frontrunner's position.

The party is changing and changing for the better. As rapidly as reforms
have come to the Chinese economy, however, Beijing's political system
has evolved at a snail's pace. There is no reason to expect that to be
any different in the new year. After all, the party's chief aim is the
perpetuation of the party.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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