Crisis shows imbalances are not sustainable indefinitely

Crisis shows imbalances are not sustainable indefinitely

Crisis shows imbalances are not sustainable indefinitely

Written by Simon Tilford, 27 November 2008
From Financial Times

The era of the grand treaty is over

The era of the grand treaty is over

The era of the grand treaty is over

Written by Hugo Brady, 16 June 2008
From The Guardian

The bear's Achilles heel

The bear's Achilles heel

The bear's Achilles heel

Written by Charles Grant, 15 August 2008
From The Guardian

Europe must build a strategic alliance with China

Europe must build a strategic alliance with China

Europe must build a strategic alliance with China

Written by Charles Grant, 09 June 2008
From Financial Times

Russia-China: Axis of Convenience

Russia-China: Axis of Convenience spotlight image

Russia-China: Axis of Convenience

with Bobo Lo , 20 May 2008
From Open democracy

Humanising China

Humanising China

Humanising China

Written by Bobo Lo , 05 June 2008

by Bobo Lo

An extraordinary thing happened to China the other week. Not the Sichuan earthquake, even though that was an enormous, catastrophic event. Nor even the phenomenal popular response to this tragedy. No, the most remarkable development was the recasting of the Chinese people in Western consciousness. In place of the previous image of a homogenous, often demonised, mass of humanity, there emerged a picture of the Chinese as individuals, with real feelings and vulnerabilities.

How did this happen? Certainly, human tragedy on such a vast scale invites sympathy even in the stoniest of hearts, although perhaps not in some Hollywood stars. Yet in the past the western media have assigned little importance to loss of life in the non-western world. The infamous headline ‘Boston man breaks arm, 250,000 Bangladeshis drown’ may be apocryphal, but the attitude behind it is all too common.

What makes the change in western attitudes all the more remarkable is that prior to the earthquake China was having a very bad year in PR terms. Western coverage of Beijing’s response to the Tibetan demonstrations in March was uniformly critical. The Olympic torch relay was a fiasco, in which blame shifted from violent demonstrators and inept security arrangements to Beijing’s excessive pride. More generally, China had become the scapegoat for many of the world’s ills. It was accused of hoovering up natural resources, pushing up oil prices to record levels, swamping the market with cheap (and sometimes toxic) goods, polluting the atmosphere, and supporting vicious regimes in Sudan and Zimbabwe. Even the Olympics were turning out to be a mixed blessing, with the promotion of a vibrant, technologically advanced nation being undermined by accusations over Tibet and human rights abuses.

The Sichuan earthquake changed everything. Suddenly, China became a victim rather than a perpetrator, the focus of worldwide sympathy instead of an object of fear and loathing. Four factors were critical to this transformation. The first was the Communist leadership’s almost instantaneous response to the crisis. Within hours, Premier Wen Jiabao was on a plane to the worst-hit areas. Within a day, some 100,000 soldiers had been mobilized. The government acted with an urgency lacking in other, more developed countries – most conspicuously the United States after Hurricane Katrina.

Second, the degree of transparency was unprecedented. National and foreign media were given maximum access to the earthquake region. They were also able to report on sensitive subjects, such as the shoddy building standards for schools that contributed to the particularly heavy death toll among the young. The Chinese government recognized from the outset that it had everything to gain from highlighting the scale of the tragedy and from allowing individual human stories to speak for themselves.

Third, the leadership revealed an unusual empathy with the victims. Wen Jiabao – ‘Grandfather Wen’ – not only reached the earthquake zone within hours, but once there acted in a way uncommon in Chinese leaders. He got his hands dirty, whether in helping to dig people out of the rubble or holding a saline drip for one of the injured. The subsequent declaration of three days of national mourning, during which all public and private entertainments were suspended, revealed a finely tuned sense of the national mood. The traditional divide between government and people – ‘the Emperor is far away’ – gave way to a genuine sense of common purpose.

Finally, the humanisation of China benefited from the country’s growing prominence in a globalised world. The Sichuan earthquake brought raw human emotion into our living rooms, proving that some things are truly universal. Who can forget the sight of rows of parents holding up pictures of their only children – the ultimate victims of China’s ‘one-child’ policy? Such images transcend even the starkest of ideological and political differences.

The question now is whether this new image of China can be sustained. What would it take for the Western commentariat to revert to type and indulge in further China-bashing – over Tibet, climate change, Darfur, lost industrial jobs, or democratisation? Probably not much at all. The humanisation of China is a fragile and perhaps transient phenomenon. A swathe of Chinese gold medals at the forthcoming Beijing Olympics could trigger a new wave of Sinophobia. But whatever happens a very different China has emerged, far from the one-dimensional economic machine and totalitarian state of Western imagination. This China is a complex and contradictory entity, but whose resilience in times of crisis speaks of a profound sense of national unity.

Bobo Lo is director of the Russia and China programmes at the Centre for European Reform.

Comments

Added on 08 Sep 2008 at 11:27 by Anonymous

great article
thought-provoking understanding of China

Added on 07 Jun 2008 at 03:30 by Anonymous

Bobo Lo is truly able to comprehend the sheer complexities of a China like China rather than simple stereotypes cast in most Western media.

Great article!

Added on 05 Jun 2008 at 23:42 by Anonymous

Great analisys.

Issue 46 - 2006

Issue 46 - 2006 spotlight image

Issue 46 February/March, 2006

The EU needs a bolder Balkan strategy

External author(s): Carl Bildt
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India and the EU: strategic partners?

India and the EU: strategic partners?

Written by Charles Grant, 01 February 2006

Issue 47 - 2006

Issue 47 - 2006 spotlight image

Issue 47 April/May, 2006

A new European approach to China

External author(s): Mark Leonard

How to build a better EU foreign policy

By Charles Grant. External author(s): Mark Leonard
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A new European approach to China

A new European approach to China

Written by Mark Leonard, 03 April 2006

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