Letter from China: Is ‘see no evil’ a stone in Beijing’s global path?

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
FRIDAY, JUNE 24, 2005
SHANGHAI The Chinese are coming! The Chinese are coming!
From Washington to the capitals of Europe to the doorsteps of closer neighbors in Asia, starting with Japan, but extending all the way to India, this cry grows steadily louder.
Many analysts look at China’s extraordinary trade performance and reach frightening conclusions largely through extrapolation. The same can be said of China’s impressive military buildup. Project far enough outward, and it is not difficult to imagine a China that dominates the western Pacific and begins to credibly challenge the United States in global terms.
Power is not only about means, however. It is also about uses, about ideas and about the themes upon which a country’s influence and even prestige are built up over time.
By this standard, one need not project into the distant future to take China’s measure. The events of the day provide a welter of examples that reveal a China that, whether an incipient superpower in economic or military terms or not, is sorely lacking in the enabling messages that will help it reach that status.
One can hear China’s leaders struggling to address this idea deficit now, groping for themes that will enhance the country’s appeal and, they hope, grease its rise to the top. At a major gathering of third world countries in Jakarta in April, Hu Jintao pledged that China would “always stick together with developing countries in the process of safeguarding world peace and promoting development.” The Chinese leader went on to speak of building a new, long-term “strategic partnership” between China and the countries of Asia and Africa.
Hu insisted that any such partnership should have “content,” or substance, but it is here that Beijing’s message is most wanting.
China’s rhetoric about third world solidarity has an almost antiquated ring to it, with quaint echoes of the 1960s that are questionable on at least two grounds. The country is pushing for membership in the club of advanced industrialized countries – the Group of 8 – where it will attend its first summit meeting next month in Scotland as a special invitee.
At the same time, China’s awesome performance in many basic industries, like textiles, which is achieved in part through overinvestment, comes at the expense of many of the world’s poorest countries, which simply cannot compete.
So far, the Chinese bargain offered to these countries has been all about natural resources, starting with energy. Search as one might for a broader, more uplifting theme, the essence of China’s approach was best put by the deputy foreign minister, Zhou Wenzhong, when he was asked in an interview last year how Beijing justifies its position as the biggest foreign investor in Sudanese oil in the midst of an ongoing genocide in that country. “Business is business,” Zhou shot back.
More recently, China gave red-carpet treatment to the president of neighboring Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, just days after as many as 700 unarmed demonstrators were killed by his security forces. “As to the developments in Uzbekistan in the recent past, I think it is a domestic affair,” said the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Kong Quan. “We firmly support the efforts by the authorities of Uzbekistan to strike down the three forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism.” For his part, China’s Hu praised Karimov as “an old friend of the Chinese people.”
Lately, Beijing has also been highly active in Zimbabwe, building an expensive new presidential palace for Robert Mugabe just when that increasingly tyrannical leader has been razing shanties, evicting tens of thousands of desperately poor people from their homes over suspicion of supporting the opposition. China has recently established direct air connections with Zimbabwe, and has also reportedly been supplying technology to the country’s secret police.
Questions about developments like these tend to place Chinese foreign policy experts on the defensive, taking them off message from the usual shibboleths about the country’s “peaceful rise” or “friendliness to all countries.”
A typical response is to lash out at the United States as a counterexample with no better claims to a just or ethical foreign policy. “You can find similar cases with the United States in the Middle East,” said Guo Xuetang, an international relations expert at Tongji University, in Shanghai. “What benefits did the war bring to the Iraqi people? We cannot accept this double standard.”
However inconsistent or even hypocritical it has been over the years, the United States has by contrast often invested its prestige in ideals like democracy and human rights – themes with a nearly universal appeal on which China remains silent.
Guo waved off detailed questions about the implications of China’s amoral approach to countries where genocides or massacres of political opponents are taking place, saying that “different problems have different solutions.” But in sticky instances like Sudan, Zimbabwe and Uzbekistan next door, in a region where China is worried about Muslim fundamentalism and the restlessness of its own Uighur minority, China has a one-size-fits-all answer: Beijing does not involve itself in other countries’ internal affairs.
For now, China insists it wants to be everyone’s friend, no matter how repugnant. Only time will tell whether such a see-no-evil approach when one’s own interests are involved hurts or hinders China’s rise; whether it bolsters or dilutes China’s influence on the world stage.
What is refreshing is that there are already voices that can be heard here cautioning against this current approach. Indeed, one suspects there are many intellectuals who privately question whether either China’s ends or the world’s ends are best served in this fashion, but their ideas are mostly murmured in private.
“China’s view is not a moral view, but a view based on realism; it’s one that hasn’t got much to do with human rights,” said Shen Dingli, an expert in international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai. “But it is not sustainable. If China wants to attain a bigger worldwide leadership role, this will not help it qualify. China is going to have to be more politically correct, and to add more values to its foreign policy.”
E-mail: pagetwo@iht.com

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