Friday, 22 January 2010

The Contradictions of China

It is no surprise that China has become such a potent force in the 21st century world.  Even Napoleon characterised the country as being a sleeping giant even more in his times of the late 18th and early 19th century.  It can easily be argued that China would have assumed its role of a Power in the world far sooner if it had not had a string of poor rulers and policies which have disrupted its economy and led to starvation and millions of deaths.  China was a victim of imperialism both in the 19th century from European powers notably the British, French and Germans and in the 20th century from the Japanese conquest of much of the country 1931-45.  However, it has long had the largest army in the world and exploded its first atomic bomb in 1964 and its first hydrogen bomb in 1967.  It was a superpower alongside the USA and USSR but aside from small conflicts with the USSR which fortunately did not escalate into anything larger, its focus was generally internally, especially when the ideology and internecine fighting of the Cultural Revolution 1966-76 disrupted so much of the economy and society of China.

With the death of Mao Zedong and leaders from the era of the final phase of the revolution of 1945-50, China began to look out into the wider world and effectively became a Communist state with a capitalist economy.  Its huge resources notably of workers meant that it was destined to always be a strong player in the world an if it had not been for Mao's insanities it may have reached this position in the 1960s rather than the 1980s and 1990s.  What has not changed is the political structure which has overseen this vast economic growth.  There has been the liberalisation of things such as where people are allowed to live, necessary to allow the rural-urban migration which has brought cheap workers to the cities though periodically older regulations are enforced to clear out slums.  Anyone who has done business in China knows that influence with leading local members of the Chinese Communist Party is vital for achieving anything.  This political power over economic activity unsurprisingly, as in so many other states, has led to corruption.  Again periodically the corrupt are purged (often facing the death penalty) in some propaganda seeking attempt to reassert the supposed values of Communism but this does nothing to reverse how corruption is an integral part of the economic boom of China.  Of course, there is a lot of ingenuity and hard work done in China, most of which was choked off in the past, so it is unsurprising that the economy prospers.

Despite all the economic shifts in China it remains a totalitarian state that Mao would still recognise.  The suppression of the Tianamen Square protests in 1989, continued occupation of Tibet, suppression of the Falun Gong religion and of Uighur nationalists are all characteristic of a country unwilling to tolerate any political shift especially from ethnic and religious minorities.  People forget that China has 56 ethnic minorities which are highly over-represented in terms of absolute poverty, i.e. earning less than equivalent to US$1 per day.  Thus, while people become multi-millionaires in Shanghai, in Xinjiang province they are as poor as in Third World countries.  Despite the strength of its military and its vast economy, which is now the second strongest in the world, China continues to pretend somehow that it is a poor, defenceless countries bullied by the old Western imperial states.

This dichotomy between China's real strength and how it expects to be treated in the world has come out on a number of occasions recently. In the 1960s, despite being a Communist superpower, China tried to present itself as being in the 'non-aligned' group of nations.  However, it was as happy to spread its ideology, a rural-focused brand of Communism to developing countries, feeling it was more appropriate than the heavy industry focused Soviet Communism.  Similarly these days China still portrays itself as a victim of imperialism, though the last imperial forces left in 1945 and even if you count the British and Portuguese leaving Hong Kong and Macao as late as 1997 they have all gone now.  Chinese people become indignant if you suggest that actually China is behaving like a (neo-)imperial power.  They characterise their investment especially in African states like Zimbabwe and Sudan as being utterly different from the neo-imperialism through investment that the USA, Britain, France and the USSR adopted in the 1970s, when in fact it is no different.  Chinese staff supervise Zimbabwean workers on Chinese projects in the country.  The Chinese steps to secure raw materials across the world even in developed countries does not differ from the efforts of the UK, France and the USA to secure natural resource supplies.  However, always, China says that it is different and is still a victim of imperialism when in fact it is now an imperialist power itself.  Do not even mention the Spratly Islands where the imperialism is even more old fashioned.

China is a totalitarian state.  People seem to keep forgetting that so it is worthwhile emphasising.  It has possibly over 1.6 million prisoners, second only to the USA, with 2.3 million, which has about a quarter as many people.  The difference for China is that the 'crimes' of many of these people are political and they are being 're-educated'.  Bizarrely unlike the US system that seems to think people cannot be changed, the Chinese prison system believes that they can, though to the bulk of us the methodology would appear like brainwashing and certainly involves torture which the USA has only comparatively recently adopted as a method and then only for its political prisoners.  The US population should be utterly ashamed that, as a supposedly liberal democracy, they can be bracketed with a totalitarian regime in this respect.  Anyway, China has censorship, it always had.  With the expansion of the internet promoted in a large part by the rapid economic growth the country has experienced in the past three decades, this censorship has had to expand to the internet.  Singapore has struggled to maintain its censorship system when dealing with the internet.  China with its vast resources has been more successful using a combination of electronic means such as the police officers that appear on screen when you access certain websites, to arresting blogging dissidents, to compelling Google to ban the searching of certain phrases.  Now, in its hacking into Google accounts of dissidents and the launching of a sophisticated cyber attack the Chinese authorities have even angered Google which is now holding back on introducing a new generation of mobile phones to the country.  The Chinese have found that there are sometimes limits even to the powerful renminbi (the Chinese currency often still called the yuan).  The Chinese have not said 'well, we are a totalitarian dictatorship, so we censor' again they have whined that they are victims of imperialism.  They complain that there is an imbalanced 'global information order' again in favour of the West which is trying to impose its culture on China.  In fact China is giving heart to those who want to censor internet activity (of course, leading this is the USA with its desire for a war on terror in all facets) and the UK which has long monitored all email traffic.  China whines that it is being bullied, when in fact we are suffering as a result of the dictatorial, suppressive measures it is pressing on the world.

At the recent Copenhagen climate change conference, powerful China was again portraying itself as the weak country in need of support from the supposedly rich West (even though China's economy is now more powerful than all Western states bar the USA).  It was seeking financial support for steps to ameliorate the impact of climate change, despite China having US$2.272 trillion in foreign currency reserves in September 2009.  This tactic help divert attention from China's appalling record on industrial damage to the environment which has caused poverty and disrupted the lives of millions of its citizens and no doubt contributes heavily to global climate change.  The fact that the government ceased traffic flow during the Beijing Olympics because the air pollution was so severe, indicates the impact of China's booming industrial and transport sectors that have barely been affected by the global recession.  China should be one of the industrialised states looking to reduce its pollution but instead it whines that it is only a developing country which needs support to do this.  The amount of money the USA owes China is sufficient for China to effectively buy the whole US economy and close down every factory and stop every vehicle there, that is not a country which needs help reducing its pollution impact on the world, it is one that needs to be leading the way.

China is immensely strong in so many ways, but it seems constantly to pretend that it is the victim and rebuff any claims that it should comply with international standards on the basis this is bullying by other states.  I have not even mentioned its unwillingness to comply with copyright law.  There is unsurprisingly, given the nature of the regime, an immense arrogance from China that it can behave with impunity in the global context and that its stated values, i.e. censorship, freedom to exploit people and the environment, imprisonment on issues of conscience, continued occupation of a foreign country, should not even be challenged by the world community.  Of course, many powerful states engage in these kinds of policies, but perhaps the irritation with China is that it somehow pretends that it is the best society and that any criticism is based on myths and motivated by a desire to imperially suppress China.  It attacks other states for in fact things it is doing itself.  I guess this is one reason why we find taking official China's statements so hard.  They are both hypocritical and seek to conceal atrocities that we all know are going on beneath an incredibly pathetic line that China is weak and a victim of bullies.  All of us who support freedom of thought, contact, communication, conscience, must keep challenging China (as well as the USA, UK and other states that are doing wrong) and one first step is for the Chinese state to actually admit it is a bully, not a victim.

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