Russia-China: Axis of Convenience

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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

China's peaceful rise turns prickly

China's peaceful rise turns prickly

Written by Charles Grant, 22 January 2010

by Charles Grant

Have western attitudes to the rise of China been based on wishful thinking? China’s increasingly tough approach to diplomacy is leading governments in the US and in Europe to rethink their policies towards China. Western leaders are starting to question some of the optimistic assumptions on which those policies have been based.

Until very recently, many western bankers, business people and politicians were broadly optimistic about the rise of China. They assumed that as China became more developed it would become more western. As it integrated into the global economy its society would open up, it would play a constructive role in multilateral institutions, and it would help western governments sort out key foreign policy challenges. China’s leaders seemed to understand that their top priority – the economic development of their country – required friendly relations with other major powers, notably the US.

There has also been a pessimistic view of China’s rise, held by people in the US defence establishment, some right-wing think-tanks and the human rights lobbies. They have argued that as China develops it is becoming more assertive, less willing to compromise with the West, less welcoming to foreign investors and more repressive politically. Like other rising powers throughout history, the pessimists have thought, China would disrupt the international system. They have pointed to China’s soaring defence budget as support for their case.

Of course, both views have been based on truth. China is not a monolithic entity. Within the leadership, many institutions and personal and ideological factions compete for power. But until recently the optimists dominated western views of China. I was an optimist when, two years ago, I wrote (with Katinka Barysch) ‘Can Europe and China shape a new world order?’ (http://www.cer.org.uk/pdf/p_837.pdf). Our report argued that China was evolving into the “responsible global stakeholder” that Robert Zoellick had urged it to become when he was US deputy secretary of state.

Over the past year the optimists have found it increasingly difficult to sustain their view. There are still examples of China being helpful – for example, it has sent ships to catch pirates in the Indian Ocean, and engaged in G20 discussions – but overall it has become a much pricklier partner.

China’s foreign policy has become more assertive. Its claims to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh have become more vociferous. It is being less helpful to the West over the Iranian nuclear problem – and has become more hostile than Russia to further sanctions on Iran. Its treatment of the EU is sometimes contemptuous – it cancelled one summit and regularly punishes countries whose leaders meet the Dalai Lama in an official setting. Western governments have suffered increasingly powerful cyber-attacks that have been traced to mainland China.

China’s political system has become more repressive. Moves to introduce greater democracy into local government and the Communist Party have faltered. Dissidents are facing a tougher time. In December Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison for organising a pro-democracy petition.

China’s economic policies have become more nationalist. Many foreign investors in China complain about exclusion from key markets and unofficial forms of discrimination. China’s manipulation of its currency downwards, driven by a mercantilist desire to boost exports and foreign currency reserves, exacerbates the problem of global economic imbalances and is fuelling protectionist sentiment in other countries.

Recent events have brought home to public opinion in the West how China is changing. At the Copenhagen climate change conference in December, China worked hard behind the scenes to scupper the kind of deal that western countries and many poor nations wanted (at one point it sent a deputy foreign minister to negotiate with Barack Obama). And this month Google has said that it may leave China because of cyber attacks on its business and increasingly stringent internet censorship.

If one talks to people in China about the troubled state of relations between China and the West, many of them are baffled. They know little of the incidents that have caused problems, which are unreported in the Chinese media. They say that most Chinese people are focused on domestic issues – such as jobs, pollution and soaring house prices – rather than foreign policy.

So the source of China’s tougher line seems to be the leadership, rather than pressure from the people. Three factors may explain why hard-liners are winning more arguments within the leadership.

• China’s economy has performed impressively during the global recession, growing by 9 per cent in 2009. Meanwhile the western economic model is viewed as discredited. China’s leaders would not be human if they did not feel a bit cocky – especially since they have been on the receiving end of patronising lectures from western leaders about the superiority of western capitalism. The emerging super-power feels it has the right to assert its own interests more forcefully.

• Yet China’s leaders feel insecure. The unrest in Tibet (in 2008) and Xinjiang (in 2009) caught them by surprise. Rapid economic growth and urbanisation are creating huge social tensions. Endemic corruption makes local party bureaucrats unpopular. The booming housing market – fuelled by the government selling land to property speculators – means that many young middle class people cannot afford to buy flats. Few Chinese people want western-style democracy, but the leaders know their legitimacy is built on thin foundations. Hence their reluctance to allow a more open society.

• The current leadership, led by Hu Jintao and Wen Xiabao, is due to hand over to the ‘fifth generation’ of leaders in 2012. There is much manoeuvring for position. The machinations within Zhongnanhai, where the top communists live and work, are impossible to decipher. But some key figures seem to be pushing a nationalist line in order to boost their support among party cadres. In China, as in most countries, nationalist policies can be popular.

American attitudes to China are palpably hardening. At some point this year the US may declare China to be a currency manipulator and then apply protectionist measures. The EU finds it very difficult to get tough with anyone. But European leaders are increasingly critical of China, at least in private. China’s leaders should not assume that European markets will remain open to them indefinitely.

China’s attitude to international relations is ultra-realist. It will take what it can get, while respecting power and facts. But China’s leaders may have miscalculated by underestimating the impact of their harder line on Washington and European capitals. How well-informed are the people in Jonghnanhai? Do they receive objective reports on how Chinese words and actions impact on western political systems? And do they care what western leaders think?

Undoubtedly, there are Chinese leaders who stand by the premise of the ‘peaceful rise’ slogan – that China’s economic development requires some modesty in international affairs and good relations with the West. When the most senior leaders see that their current approach may spur several powerful countries to work together to contain China, they may wish to modify their course. But if they maintain the hard line for a prolonged period, China’s relations with the West will become very tense. Free trade and the world economy may well suffer.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform.

Comments

Added on 25 Mar 2010 at 13:14 by Anonymous

This paper has correctly identified the 'symptoms' but I would argue that the 'diagnosis' may not be correct. The problem is that in the West, most people look at the 'China' issue through the Western lens, and subsequently interpret the 'symptoms' accordingly. China, like any other country in the world, acts in its best interest but so far has not shown ambition to be another US. It is true that in Copenhagen, China (working with other major emerging economies) was blocking a deal devised by a handful of mainly developed countries that best suit their own interests, but did not address the issues of fairness, equity, responsibility, leading by example etc adequately as demanded by developing countries. Since Copenhagen, China has issued various statements explaining their position but I have not seen much of that reported in an unbiased way in the Western media. In relation to human rights, China has successfully pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, hence protecting their social and economic rights. This aspect of human rights (which together with civil and political rights form the two main international human rights covenants) has very often been conveniently brushed aside by most developed countries to protect their economic competitiveness (farm subsidies is a good example), which is the currency of power in this globalised world. Sometimes paranoia and entrenched interests in the West are as bad as a centralised control of media in China.

Added on 03 Mar 2010 at 09:02 by Macko Usko

Bill Emmots bein replaced as the editor of the economist a few years back has led the coverage of china to be fairly sycophantic. It is pathetic to watch the economist trying to get readership by slowly becoming fox news especially on coverage of china

Added on 26 Jan 2010 at 06:46 by Anonymous

Your opinion won't be hard in China which is unfortunate, because centralized control of media can be very dangerous. What is Rupert Murdoch doing to deserve his US citizenship?

Added on 25 Jan 2010 at 23:20 by James Rogers

This is a very good and timely piece, although I would like to suggest that China’s sending of a small naval squadron into the Gulf of Aden has less to do with multilateralism (i.e. in this case, helping Europeans and Americans contain the pirate menace) and more to do with the strengthening and consolidation of its geopolitical presence in the Indian Ocean...

Added on 25 Jan 2010 at 13:10 by Denis MacShane MP

Charles Grant has written - not for the first time - a very timely and prescient essay. China has fused communist authoritarianism with capitalist development.
The old belief that market capitalism would inevitably lead to more freedom is now under question. Chinese nationalism helps shape unilateral nationalist responses with the US responding to China without reference to other democracies. The EU cannot find one voice. Japan is silent. Russia would like to have Chinese economic development and Chinese political authoritarianism as Moscow de-aligns itself from a European future.
All that is needed is a flash point - Uighurs, Taiwan, Indian frontiers, north Korea, oil fields in seas close to China - and China decides to use military force in a major way and faces a response. At that point the world starts to close markets and take other action.
As with Japan in the 1930s a cornered China that wants access to western markets but refuses the multilateral obligations of being part of an integrated global geo-eco-market-rule of law world system can be very dangerous.
Meanwhile there are 300 million Chinese over 60 without adequate incomes or social and health care cover. China is getting old and rich at the same time. But Chinese wealth is not being used to build more fairness or to bind in all Chinese. Is this sustainable indefinitely?
Do we have too many China boosters like Martin Jacques or Mark Leonard who are like those writing 'Japan as No 1' books three decades ago? We need more Bill Emmots who have sharper eyes and ears to explore what may be going awry in China.
Denis MacShane MP

Added on 22 Jan 2010 at 20:57 by Toronto Mortgage Broker

Ever time I think of China, I am reminded by an interview conducted by 60 minutes where they ask the current head of the CIA, "What keeps you up at night?" His response was not Bin Laden, it was China.

While the West is busy rebuilding itself, China will continue to become the next super power.

Now that keeps me up at night too.

CER/SWP/Brookings Daimler forum on 'World order and global issues'

CER/SWP/Brookings Daimler forum

CER/SWP/Brookings Daimler forum on 'World order and global issues'

19 November 2009

Speakers included: Carl Bildt, Ivo Daalder, Christoph Heusgen.

Location info

Stockholm

Roundtable on 'China and Europe'

Roundtable on 'China and Europe'

Roundtable on 'China and Europe'

14 October 2009

With Yang Jiemian, director of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, Mei Zhaorong, director of the Institute of World Development under the State Council Development Research Centre, and former ambassador to Germany & Ma Zhengang, president of the China Institute of International Studies and former ambassador to the UK.

Location info

London

Roundtable on 'When China rules the world'

Roundtable on 'When China rules the world'

Roundtable on 'When China rules the world'

10 July 2009

With Martin Jacques, author of 'When China rules the world', Guardian columnist and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics Asia Research Centre & Xinning Zong, senior research fellow at the United Nations University (UNU-CRIS), Bruges and Jean Monnet professor for European integration studies at Renmin University of China, Beijing.

Location info

London
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