Whether at home or abroad, China is silent on matters of democracy

Letter from China
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
February 7, 2008
SHANGHAI: For months, as the Beijing Olympics draw nearer, China has been refining its arguments in favor of disassociating the Games from politics.
This effort reached something of a rhetorical crescendo last week with an editorial in The People’s Daily. “Those who want to use the Olympics to discredit China, and those who think the Olympics will promote China to change in the way they hope, are doomed to be disappointed,” the column said. “Their efforts will be futile.”
In addressing its domestic audience, the Chinese government makes little effort to clarify what sort of changes the forces, which it vows to defy, are seeking. Instead, the predictable thrust of the propaganda campaign is to equate the Olympics with the pride and “face” of the Chinese people and to cast anyone who criticizes the country and its playing host to the Games as sinister enemy forces.
It is worth pausing to make clear what the criticism has been all about. Hitherto, most of the voices that have spoken of a boycott have objected to Chinese support for the government of Sudan, which has conducted a genocide-like campaign in its oil-rich western province, Darfur.
Before speaking further of Darfur or even of China, it should be noted that to some extent the Olympics have always been about politics. China, as many others before it, seeks to use the games to give a boost to its global “brand.” It’s an old story, and one that has been tried by all kinds of countries, from Nazi Germany to a rebuilt Japan.
China’s aims are clearly neither as sinister as the Nazis’ nor as mundane as Japan’s. In a word, the country seeks to announce its arrival in the first rank of nations, as a place of peace and prosperity and infrastructure – and there’s the rub.
China has made impressive strides, acquiring lots of shiny new hardware and many other trappings of a great modern power. But its see-no-evil attitude toward the problems of its Sudanese client raises troubling questions that differentiate Beijing from other recent hosts of the Olympics.
If China’s lack of attachment to human rights were simply a matter of averting one’s glance from genocide in Sudan, it would be a serious enough reason for concern. The country’s attitude toward human rights and democracy, however, has far broader implications.
Fighting has raged this week in Sudan’s western neighbor, Chad, where China has growing oil and commercial interests. Sudan is widely believed to have backed rebels who sought to overthrow President Idriss Déby of Chad. With two clients involved, one might have expected China to play a leading role in restoring peace in the region.
Instead, Beijing has stood back from the fray, allowing France to rescue its nationals in Chad and expending little discernible political capital chastising Sudan for the rebel invasion or nudging the parties toward a political settlement.
When things get messy, the attitude here is that such trouble spots are very far away and that China doesn’t like to interfere. The Chinese public, meanwhile, is assiduously kept in the dark about the nature or extent of China’s fast-growing overseas interests.
I was reminded of this as I looked for news stories on China and Chad on the Internet. My browser went blank, meaning the censors had decided this was not knowledge I should be able to find.
Sudan appears to have given backing to the rebels because Chad was preparing to play host to a European force that would have provided humanitarian relief and, inevitably, intelligence about the state of things in neighboring Darfur.
Khartoum clearly doesn’t want this, but where does Beijing stand? To be charitable, it is hard to say.
Chad itself is a mess today, not because it lacks growth, which Beijing sees as a cure for every ill, but because it lacks social justice and any democratic way of sharing the spoils of its booming oil income.
This leads to incessant warlordism, not development, with the coup d’état institutionalized as the only way of changing leaders.
As China emerges as a leading player in the resource-rich Third World, one awaits its constructive thinking on places like Chad and Sudan. Instead, one mostly hears silence.
Why is it so hard for China to move beyond the idea that economic growth and noninterference are the be-all and end-all of foreign policy? That is because they are also the last word in its domestic policy. The lack of democratic content in China’s foreign policy is closely linked to the lack of democracy in domestic politics.
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