Copyright The New Republic
> In recent weeks, anyone paying attention to the news has been swamped
> with articles about shoddily made, unregulated goods produced in China.
> Responding to the avalanche of stories, many governments have vowed to
> crack down harder on Chinese goods, and the White House has stepped up
> dialogue with China about how the improve product safety. (The Bush
> White House, to be fair, is partly responsible, as it has consistently
> gutted the Food and Drug Administration and now has to come up with new
> guidelines to strengthen import regulation.) China itself, which now
> dominates many food export markets, has sought to reassure the world,
> promising to strengthen its own national regulations.
> But the food scandals point to a much broader question about China:
> Despite becoming more transparent in recent years, Beijing’s first
> instinct, when presented with crises, is to slam the door. And as long
> as it does so, it will never truly enjoy the world’s confidence.
> China’s opaque political and economic systems are hardly new–for
> decades Sinologists have scrutinized each new generation of Chinese
> leaders, wondering how they fight it out within the Communist Party to
> choose a new boss like current leader Hu Jintao. But today China is far
> more interlinked with the world, and its problems cause global problems.
> When Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome hit China four years ago,
> stonewalling by officials in Beijing may have allowed it to spread
> across Asia and to other continents. When China responded slowly to more
> recent outbreaks of avian flu and foot-and-mouth disease, it increased
> the risk of the disease spreading into Southeast Asia. When Beijing
> released little information about a series of recent mass deaths of pigs
> in southern China, it terrified its neighbors.
> Even when China takes steps applauded by the world, other nations have
> trouble determining why it did so. For years, non-governmental
> organizations like Global Witness criticized China for abetting the
> illegal timber trade in northern Burma, home to valuable virgin forests.
> Over the past year, Chinese officials apparently cracked down, reducing
> the amount of timber imported from Burma and apparently helping to
> repatriate some Chinese migrants from Burma back to southwestern China.
> What caused this change? I asked many Burma experts. Few had a ready
> An authoritarian political system necessarily must be less transparent
> than a democracy. Yet in many ways China’s system is even more opaque
> than other authoritarian regimes, like Taiwan or South Korea in the
> 1970s and 1980s. Because China simply is so much bigger than those
> countries, it contains provincial governments often able to act without
> the consent of Beijing. As a result, initiatives like progressive
> environmental planning by the central government, which has focused on
> renewable energy, fall on deaf ears in many provinces. So, too, any
> national attempts to clean up China’s food and drug regulations may
> falter in provinces, where officials are focused on growth above all
> Because China also is so much bigger and more powerful than those
> countries, it can defy foreign pressure to become more transparent. If
> international financial institutions, unsatisfied with how China
> cooperates on aid projects, pull out of the People’s Republic, Beijing
> would hardly be in a dire situation–it has the vast cash reserves to
> what it likes. By comparison, the World Bank was able to pressure the
> authoritarian but impoverished regime of Chad, which desperately needed
> a new oil project, to agree to use some of the proceeds for social
> welfare. What’s more, the Chinese media, forced to be more financially
> self-sustaining than in the ’80s, tends (like much of the world’s media)
> to focus on scandals. Sometimes, this scandal-mongering has a positive
> effect, since it may expose massive corruption or environmental
> destruction. But the Chinese media rarely stays focused, over a long
> period of time, on improving government transparency, and journalists
> who push too hard still face the strong arm of the law.
> In recent years, China has made enormous gains in global stature. As I
> often write, its diplomatic corps, staffed by younger and more
> sophisticated diplomats, has begun to engage with media, think-tanks,
> and diplomats in other nations. Its booming economy, and its willingness
> to take the lead on trade talks, has won it friends in many parts of
> Asia. It has surpassed the United States in popularity in several
> studies of global opinion. But it has not yet convinced many nations of
> what China will be like as a great power. Though it now publishes white
> papers on its defense industry, its neighbors–and the United
> States–still worry about its military ambitions. Though it assures
> other countries it will build a viable food and drug regulator, many
> nations doubt it can police its exports. When Beijing’s first instinct,
> in crises, is to share what it knows, that fear will dissolve.
> HYPERLINK “http://www.tnr.com/showBio.mhtml?pid=65&sa=1″Joshua
> Kurlantzick is a special correspondent for The New Republic.