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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

The politics of repression in China

February 21, 2010

What are they afraid of?
The economy is booming and politics stable. Yet China’s leaders seem edgy
The Economist
February 18, 2010

"THE forces pulling China toward integration and
openness are more powerful today than ever
before," said President Bill Clinton in 1999.
China then, though battered by the Asian
financial crisis, was busy dismantling
state-owned enterprises and pushing for admission
to the World Trade Organisation. Today, however, those forces look much weaker.

A spate of recent events, from the heavy jail
sentences passed on human-rights activists to an
undiplomatic obduracy at the climate-change
negotiations in Copenhagen last December, invite
questions about the thinking of China’s leaders.
Has their view of the outside world and dissent
at home changed? Or were the forces detected by
Mr Clinton and so many others after all not
pulling so hard in the direction they were expecting?

The early years of what China calls its "reform
and opening" after 1978 were marked by cycles of
liberalisation and repression. The turning-points
were usually marked by political crisis: dissent
on the streets, leadership struggles, or both.
Now, however, the only big protest movements are
repressed ones among ethnic minorities in Tibet
and Xinjiang. China’s big cities are hardly
roiled by political turmoil. By the time Liu
Xiaobo, an academic, was sentenced to 11 years in
prison in December, dissident debate surrounding
the reform manifesto he had issued a year earlier
had long subsided. Yet it was the heaviest-known
penalty imposed on any activist for “inciting
subversion” since such a crime was written into law in 1997.

China has so far survived the global economic
downturn with hardly any of the agitation many
once feared it might cause among unemployed
workers or jobless university graduates. The
economy grew at a very robust-sounding 8.7% last
year and is predicted by many to be on course for similar growth in 2010.

Sweeping changes are due in the senior leadership
in 2012 and 2013, including the replacement of
President Hu Jintao and of the prime minister,
Wen Jiabao. But if a struggle is brewing, signs
of it are hard to spot. An unusually high-profile
campaign against organised crime by the party
chief of Chongqing municipality, Bo Xilai, has
raised eyebrows. Some speculate that it is part
of a bid by Mr Bo, who is a Politburo member, to
whip up popular support for his promotion to the
Politburo’s all-powerful Standing Committee in
2012. An online poll by an official website chose
Mr Bo as the "most inspiring voice" of 2009.

But Andrew Nathan of Columbia University in New
York does not see this as a challenge to the
expected shoo-in for Xi Jinping, the
vice-president, as China’s next leader, despite
Mr Xi’s failure last year to garner the leading
military post analysts thought would form part of
his grooming. Li Keqiang, a deputy prime
minister, still looks set to take over from Mr Wen in 2013.

Against this backdrop of political stability and
economic growth, the most credible interpretation
of the government’s recent hard line is that the
forces pushing its leaders towards greater
liberalisation at home and sympathetic engagement
with the West are weaker than had been hoped. Nor
is there any sign that the next generation of
leaders see their mission differently. As Russell
Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst,
puts it: “The argument in policy-making circles
where reform is concerned is ‘how much more
authoritarian should we be?’ not ‘how do we
embark on Western-style democracy?’"

Tough though the recent sentences of activists
have been, they are hardly out of keeping with
the leadership’s approach to dissent in recent
years. This has involved giving a bit of leeway
to freethinking individuals, but occasionally
punishing those seen as straying too far. Since
late last year two activists have been jailed in
an apparent attempt to deter people from
organising the parents of children killed in
shoddily built schools during an earthquake in
Sichuan province in 2008. But another critic of
the government’s handling of the parents’
grievances, Ai Weiwei, remains free in Beijing and just as outspoken.

The coming months are unlikely to see much
change. Despite boasting of their country’s
resilience in the face of the global economic
crisis, China’s leaders still appear jittery. Mr
Wen has forecast that 2010 will see “even greater
complexity in the domestic and international
situation”. China’s security chief, Zhou
Yongkang, in a speech published this week said
the task of maintaining social stability “was still extremely onerous”.

Some Chinese economists worry out loud that
China’s massive stimulus-spending might have
bought the country only a temporary reprieve.
Bubbles, they fret, are forming in property
markets, inflationary pressure is building up and
reforms needed to promote sustained growth
(including measures to promote urbanisation) are
not being carried out fast enough. Occasionally,
even the government’s worst nightmare is mooted
as a possibility: stagflation. A combination of
fast-rising prices and low growth might indeed be
enough to send protesters on to the streets.

Abroad, Chinese leaders are struggling to cope
with what they feel to be an accelerated shift in
the global balance of power, in China’s favour.
This has resulted in what Mr Moses describes as
behaviour ranging from “strutting to outright
stumbling”. They reacted with oratorical fury in
January, when America announced a $6.4 billion
arms deal with Taiwan. But while pandering to
popular nationalism at home, they remain aware of
China’s limitations. This week China allowed an
American aircraft-carrier to pay a port call to
Hong Kong, just a day before President Obama was
due to defy grim warnings and meet the Dalai Lama in Washington.

Chinese leaders can be confident that the plight
of dissidents and the ever-louder grumbles of
foreign businessmen over the barriers they face
in China will not keep the world away. From May
China will be visited by a series of foreign
leaders going to the World Expo in Shanghai.
Among the first will be France’s president,
Nicolas Sarkozy, much reviled by Chinese
nationalists for his stance on Tibet. China sees
the Expo, like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as a
chance to flaunt its strength. But, as Mr Clinton
noted of China in 1999, "a tight grip is actually a sign of a weak hand."
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