Tuesday 28 March 2006


7 MARCH 2006

Condoleezza Rice’s current visit to Australia comes at a time when the United States is reassessing the global implications of China’s rise. The reassessment is long overdue as it is in Australia.

John Howard has lulled much of Australia into a political coma with strong economic performance and the promise of a relaxed and comfortable time. The Chinese government has seduced its own people and the world into a similar uncritical state with staggering economic development and a promise that (nearly) everyone can have a share. Few want to look hard at the implications.

Australians may be feeling relaxed and comfortable but some agitation might be in order. China’s rise should be one source. 

China’s achievements during the past twenty years have been staggering. Beneath the incredible economic performance are amazing human achievements. The Chinese have engineered the greatest poverty alleviation programme in history. The redirection of policy led by Deng Xiaoping following the death of Mao has transformed hundreds of millions of lives from dire squalor.

The Chinese aren’t just richer either. They’re undoubtedly more free as well. Free to have a shot at cashing in on the country’s economic bonanza, free to enjoy a restricted internet, free to enjoy international travel, free to enjoy increasing but still limited opportunities for expressing political views. Chinese people have dramatically more control over their lives today than they did twenty years ago.

All in all it’s a very positive story of progress - albeit from a horrible base. Life for the Chinese through the 50s, 60s and 70s was truly dire (in fact it was pretty awful for most Chinese during the hundred years that preceded Communism as well). It remains pretty bleak for hundreds of millions of rural poor.

The rub is that until now, we’ve been viewing China as a nation on its own development mission with upside for our own economy but with little possible downside - notwithstanding occasional verbal skirmishes with the Taiwanese.

That’s we’re we’ve been wrong.

China’s continuing rise in the coming twenty years will be a fraught and complex affair. Some of the signals of where we are headed are already visible.

China’s impact is now moving beyond economics. China’s economic power is starting to naturally manifest politically.

The first territory for the battle has been in the all important internet and technology sectors. Some of the world’s major technology companies, Google, Microsoft, Cisco and Yahoo have all seriously compromised their products in order to ensure no offence is caused to the Chinese government. Microsoft and Cisco sell products to the Chinese that support “the Great Firewall of China”. Most appallingly though, in 2005, Yahoo volunteered private email correspondence to the Chinese government that resulted in the imprisonment of three Chinese dissidents (see www.booyahoo.blogspot.com).

If China is able to exercise significant influence in the corporate world now, what lies ahead? Especially as the barriers between technology and media companies collapse? Will a China two or three times more powerful economically than it currently is be shaping the way we live in the West as well? It seems likely. Will it seek to use its power to influence the way media in the West behaves? It seems likely also.

It’s not just companies bowing to the wishes of China. Governments are proving highly accommodating as well. In Australia, we had the outrageous situation in 2005 where Chinese government officials were given access to Chinese asylum seekers. Would this have happened before China became the underwriter for our minerals boom? Have the advancements in China’s human rights situation been sufficient to justify such access?

China is making its mark on the international political landscape as well. China has long taken a “see no evil” view of international affairs. It is happy to trade with and actively support pariah states like Burma and Sudan. Many of the world’s most repressive states would prefer to have investments from a “no questions asked” Chinese government than frequently more complicated investments from western companies that are sometimes at least, subjected to media, government or popular scrutiny.

In our region the Burma case is the most striking. Any western efforts to isolate the shocking Burmese junta are undermined by China’s economic and political courtship. Perhaps the most sound argument in favour of greater western business engagement in Burma is that it can counteract the Chinese activity. A boycott that does not include the Chinese is not a boycott at all.

And then there is China and Japan. China’s relationship with Taiwan is a source of tension and global concern. Recently, increasingly fractious interaction between Beijing and Tokyo presents a further regional challenge that shows no sign of receding.

China’s aggressive efforts to secure necessary energy and other resources to fuel its expansion will also present increasing challenges in the years ahead.

China’s emergence in the coming decades as a massive power seems all but assured. The character of that massive power depends on what happens domestically in China. There are two probable scenarios.

China will either commit to a more ambitious domestic political reform agenda - there is some evidence of momentum in this direction - or it will continue to pursue economic ends without any real political relaxation.

We should be hoping for the former.

Spare a thought for China’s leaders. I do not envy them. Post Tiananmen Square, both liberals and hardliners must squabble daily on the best course forward. The sudden promulgation of a democratic state seems unlikely in the extreme - and may even be foolhardy. So even those who wish to achieve a democratic end, must ponder a complex process of steps to create proper foundations. Western democracies did not suddenly present. Nor will successful democracy suddenly present in China.

One expects a more liberal and democratic China to be a less belligerent international player. Of course recent history shows that big democracies (aka USA, UK and Australia) are still very capable of belligerent foreign policy.

The absence of credible state advocates of freedom and human rights in the era of Bush and Howard has given succour to the hardliners in China’s ranks and tyrants the world over. You can just imagine the sniggering about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the Iraq War, extraordinary rendition, the abandonment of habeas corpus, mandatory detention of child asylum seekers - (should I continue?) when US or Australian officials deliver their homilies to the Chinese on human rights.

The obsession with the war on terror, the counterproductivity and incompetence of so much of its execution, and the accompanying abandonment of hard fought and time honoured liberal democratic values, will be the legacy of the Bush - Howard era. It has distracted us all from the most important foreign policy challenge we face - the challenge of China. We need those abandoned values more than ever at this time.

I am far from a total pessimist about China. China’s development could play out many ways - some good, some bad. I am also very conscious that the challenges that face the Chinese government any day of the week are massive - corruption, environmental disaster, rural poor, crumbling health system, domestic calls for liberalisation - and that there are many highly capable and committed people working in the Chinese government to achieve good governance, a more liberal domestic political climate, prosperity and a positive role in international affairs.

The Chinese will shape their future largely themselves. A West diminished by a disgraced and weakened superpower makes it less likely China’s continuing rise will be as we might wish.

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